Whenever I discuss the world of language, apart from the quick ‘cheap laugh’ of an amusing definition, it is always the quest for the origin of a word or phrase that is sought. Derivation is fascinating as it shows the enduring power of legends and myths that cut across all cultures. In this respect English is no different and is open to some wonderful interpretations. Here are some of my favourite requests being answered in full.
On a shoestring
Many projects have to be done ‘on a shoestring’, or ‘within a shoestring budget’. This translates to meaning with very little money. The phrase, which came into being through comparing the thinness of a shoelace with the smallness of an amount of money, is of comparatively recent origin. The sandal was the earliest form of footwear worn by man, fastened by thongs that were sometimes brought up to, and bound around, the ankle. Greek boots however were often fastened with criss-cross lacing. The boot or shoelace, as we know it, did not come into wide use until the first half of the 19th century when the factory system of manufacture and machinery made it possible to turn out a pair of boots or shoes within minutes, instead of the whole day: the time needed for when the work was done by hand.
In the limelight
This describes anyone who is in the full glare of publicity and public interest. Limelight, which is also known eponymously as Drummond light, is an intense white light obtained by heating a cylinder of lime in an oxy-hydrogen flame. It was used originally in a lighthouse to assist shipping off the Kentish coast. Subsequently, it was developed to obtain special lighting effects in the theatre, mainly by directing its powerful beam onto one actor at a time to highlight their performance, just as spotlights are used today.
Above the salt
In the houses of important people, and the well-to-do, it was the custom to place the salt in its large silver container in the middle of the long dinner table. Guests of honour were seated between the container and the head of the table, with those of less importance below it. Hence the expression ‘to sit above (or below) the salt’. Salt has, since biblical times, been interpreted as the emblem of eternity and immortal life as a result of its ability to preserve things from decay. It has also been used as a protection against the forces of evil. Even today, to spill salt is considered highly unlucky. Tradition has it that it must not be cleared up until a little has been thrown three times over the left shoulder with the right hand. If this is done, misfortune will then be averted.
To bury the hatchet
This means to forget old scores or ‘let bygones be bygones’. It comes from the American Indian custom of burying their hatchets, scalp knives and war clubs when making peace, to show that hostilities were at an end. This is similar to the custom of shaking hands with the right hand when settling disputes or quarrels. The use of the right hand, previously the sword hand, proved that no weapons were being carried or, if a sword was worn on some ceremonial or traditional occasion, it was interpreted that there was no intention of using it, and that both parties wished to be friends.
Best foot forward
According to ancient superstition, any journey or new undertaking should be started with the right foot (ie ‘the best foot forward’). If the left foot is used, then the consequences are likely to be unfortunate. The left-hand side and the left foot were considered unlucky, and this also applied to dressing. If the Romans (whose word for left was sinister) made the mistake of putting on their left sandal first, they believed it would lead to bad luck. Augustus Caesar once made this attribution to the mutiny of his soldiers. The right foot should also be applied to the act of entering a house or church. Muslims also hold dear to this belief by crossing the threshold with their right foot.