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Posts Tagged ‘phrase origin’

Hello,

I was editing this morning and one scene included a jolly roger flag. I already knew this pirate flag wasn’t linked to an actual pirate called Roger (although King Roger II of Sicily tries to claim it), but it seemed like a good time to delve deeper.

Unfortunately the origins of this catchy flag name are confused at best. Experts disagree on when it entered English with dates ranging from the 11th to the 18th century. Stealing on the high-seas is an old tradition so I’d lean towards the earlier dates.

The best explanation I can find for its origin comes from British naval history. In 1694 the British Admiralty commanded English privateers (state-approved pirates) to fly a plain red flag to identify themselves. This makes sense as otherwise they might be mistaken for mere thieves (heaven forbid!) or the Royal Navy itself. Thereafter the term “red jacking” came to mean piracy.

However a plain red flag already had a meaning well-known to sailors – danger. In particular, the red flag signaled an explosive cargo or illness aboard. The red flag meaning “this ship’s captain will not give quarter” became known as La Jolie Rouge (the pretty red in French) but the confusion was there.

Privateers went for a plain black flag instead. If you were attacked by a ship flying such a flag you knew to give up or face death. Over time the privateer captains embellished their flags, to be more fearsome I imagine. Each pirate captain ended up with a unique version of the jolly roger.

It probably helped that in English slang Roger was alternative name for the devil.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and avoid those pesky pirates,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

The recent outcry about workplace harassment reminded me of the interesting history of the phrase “making a pass at somebody”. While the two things should be entirely different, of course, it’s undeniable that there’s now concern that making the first move romantically could cause trouble if either party is reading the signals wrong and this has been true with this phrase from the very beginning.

There are two possible sources for this phrase, both of them more military than romantic.

To make a pass in swordplay is to make a lunge or thrust and it’s used with this meaning in “Hamlet” in 1604.

This very likely entered military parlance from the high seas during the Age of Sail where making a pass wasn’t between two combatants but between warships according to “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald. The ships would make a side by side pass of each other to enable the captains to assess their gun-power. This would sometimes involve firing at the same time because the guns were primarily mounted in the sides of the ships. To fire a broadside, the ships had to be roughly parallel.

This nautical origin for the phrase isn’t listed in any of the dictionaries I checked but does seem reasonable. Sailors could easily have brought the term ashore to their notorious romantic lives when the mutual “checking out” was a precursor to a dalliance if acceptable to both parties.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and nautical wordfooling,

Grace

p.s. I’ve made it to 27,000 words in NaNoWriMo. If you’re trying it this year I hope your story is flowing well.

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Hello,

Today’s word is an expression – “pulling the wool over their eyes” which means to deceive someone. I came across it in “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald, a fun little word book if you’re in the mood for such things.

In 17th and 18th century England the gentry cropped their own hair and wore elaborate powdered wigs made of wool instead. The habit spread to North America around the same period. This meant that during a duel your opponent might pull your wool wig down over your eyes, thus giving themselves an advantage.

The first known use of the phrase was in a 1839 American publication which suggests the wigs may have been those worn by lawyers and judges in courtrooms at that date. Thus a clever, or lucky, lawyer might pull the wool over the eyes of the presiding judge.

I prefer the dueling explanation because it’s more dramatic.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and don’t let anybody pull the wool over your eyes,

Grace (a.k.a. @Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve just finished participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. Despite changing projects twice this month, I managed to win and made a strong start on two writing projects – book editing, and a first draft. It’s a great way to keep your writing on track during the holiday/vacation season.

 

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