Getting to the root of the matter

Posted by on October 14, 2010

Do you ever wonder where words and phrases come from? For example, in the UK, we might describe a machine or device as ‘a bit Heath Robinson’ if it seems over-the-top or bizarrely designed, given the intended purpose, but why does that particular characteristic make it ‘Heath Robinson’? Well, Heath Robinson was a British artist who drew pictures of imaginary, very complicated machines, so when we say something is ‘Heath Robinson’, we’re basically saying it looks unrealistic and unnecessarily complex.

English is littered with these sorts of words and phrases – it’s part of what makes the language so colourful – and many of them are explained in the Macmillan Dictionary Word Stories – see twilight zone or QED, for example. And, of course, there are the idioms that make up so much of the language too. To show someone the ropes, for instance, means to teach them how to do something, and dates back to new sailors being taught what to do aboard ship, since rope skills are crucial to being able to raise and lower sails, secure the ship and so on.

This is one of the areas in which English is constantly changing; to keep up with our dynamic society – particularly given our ever-growing appetite for technology – the language must also grow and develop, adding new words and phrases all the time.

One of my personal favourites is to give someone a heads up, as in to give them advance warning. Heads up as an exclamation (eg if there’s something falling towards you) comes from the idea of ‘look out!’ (more common in US usage). To give a heads up could come from the same idea – warning someone to pay attention to the situation – but there’s also the heads-up display now used in planes, to provide data right in front of the pilot’s eyes, and I tend to think that give a heads up relates to the idea of making sure someone has all the information, right in front of them.

We’re always looking to make the Macmillan Dictionary even more useful and relevant to users. So as well as the Open Dictionary, in which we invite you to submit new and interesting words to our pages, we’d also like to hear from you on the words and phrases whose history (etymology) you’d like to see explored in more detail, plus the explanations you’ve come across for the words we use.

If you’ve always wondered why we say what we do, fill in the Comment box below. We’ll do a regular round-up of responses on the blog, and update the Dictionary as well.

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Comments (8)
  • I’ve got one – where does the phrase ‘skeleton crew’ come from. I know it means a really reduced workforce, but why?

    Thanks

    Posted by HulaGirl on 18th October, 2010
  • What about ‘mind your Ps and Qs’? I’ve never understood that one.

    Posted by Dylan on 18th October, 2010
  • In the US, we don’t say ‘Heath Robinson’, it’s ‘Rube Goldberg’ instead.

    Posted by Dani on 19th October, 2010
  • Dani – re. Rube Goldberg: you can find him/it in the American edition of MED:
    http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/american/Rube-Goldberg
    (in the dictionary, go to Options and selecet American version)

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 19th October, 2010
  • I love all these phrases!! They do make the language so much colorful, and send your mind into an imagery trip.
    How about this one: “pay through the nose”???? Where does it come from?

    Posted by Anne Snyder on 30th October, 2010
  • I love all these phrases!! They do make the language so much more colorful, and send your mind into an imagery trip.
    How about this one: “pay through the nose”???? Where does it come from?

    Posted by Anne Snyder on 30th October, 2010
  • I know that one!

    It’s from Denmark and it’s about people not paying their taxes – if they didn’t pay, they had their noses split open (yuk!), so they literally ‘paid through the nose’!

    Posted by Underdog32 on 1st November, 2010
  • I found it really interesting. I loved studying the origin of words at the university. There’s something I would like to know. One of my colleges told me that the word “knight” has a Vicking origin, as well as those words beginning by . My doubt is if that is true or not.

    Thank you very much for your help and for your interesting notes!!!

    Posted by ale on 1st November, 2010
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