Linguistic Time Travel: 5 Phrases From the Past We Still Use

An Intriguing Journey Through Linguistic History

Words are not just a set of letters arranged in a particular order. They carry the weight of history, culture, and the evolution of human thought. In our everyday conversations, we use phrases that have survived the test of time, having been passed down through generations. These phrases have become so ingrained in our language that we often overlook their historical origins. Linguistic time travel involves delving into the roots of these phrases and understanding the depth of their meanings. Let's embark on a fascinating journey through time and explore five such phrases from the past that we still use today.

Spick and Span

'Spick and span' is a phrase we often use to describe something that is spotlessly clean or fresh. The phrase finds its origins in the 15th-century Middle Dutch expression, "spiksplinter nieuw", which translates to 'as new as a spike'. Over time, the phrase morphed into 'spick and span new' in Old English, meaning 'as new as a spike and a chip of wood'. Eventually, the 'new' was dropped, and the phrase was simplified to 'spick and span', preserving the notion of cleanliness and newness.

Mad as a Hatter

This phrase is often used to describe someone who is completely insane. Its roots can be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries when mercury was used in the manufacturing of felt hats. Prolonged exposure to mercury caused hat makers to develop a range of physical and mental ailments, including tremors, mood swings, and hallucinations, leading to the phrase 'mad as a hatter'. The phrase was popularised by Lewis Carroll's character, the Mad Hatter, in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'.

Break the Ice

To 'break the ice' means to initiate conversation or ease a tense situation. This phrase dates back to the 16th century when ships known as 'icebreakers' would be sent ahead to clear the way through icy waters, allowing other ships to follow. Metaphorically, the phrase was then used to describe any effort made to overcome social awkwardness and initiate conversation.

Turn a Blind Eye

When we 'turn a blind eye' to something, we deliberately ignore it. This phrase is believed to have originated from a maritime legend about British Admiral Horatio Nelson. During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Nelson allegedly disregarded a signal from his superior to discontinue the attack. He held his telescope to his blind eye and claimed he did not see the signal, hence the phrase 'turn a blind eye'.

The Whole Nine Yards

'The whole nine yards' is a phrase commonly used to mean 'everything possible' or 'the whole lot'. Several theories surround the origin of this phrase, but one of the most popular links it to World War II. Fighter pilots were equipped with nine yards of ammunition. When a pilot used all his ammunition on one target, he was said to have given 'the whole nine yards'.

These phrases are historical fragments, encapsulating past events, cultures, and ways of life. They are linguistic heirlooms, passed down through generations, adding richness to our language. So, the next time you use one of these phrases, remember that you're not merely speaking words, but you're also echoing the voices of the past. Linguistic time travel is a fascinating journey into our history, illuminating the power of language to transcend time.