I love words and their origins and particularly slang and idiomatic expressions. Not unsurprisingly, the human body is fertile ground for the logophile with a penchant for the vernacular. In this very occasional series I will be turning the spotlight on some of the more unusual words used to describe parts of the human anatomy, starting with your limbs and their appendages.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the word daddles was used to signify the hand. Quite why, we don’t know, although the verb dadder was used in the period to describe the act of walking unsteadily or to stagger. Daddle may have come to be used to signify the shaky or unsteady grasp of someone who was dadding.
For those of a nautical bent the hands were known as grabbers, perhaps as a consequence of the dog-eat-dog lifestyle of the matelot. By extension grabbing or grabbling irons were your fingers. The army, not wishing to ape the language of their sea-faring confreres, used military ranks to describe their digits. The corporal was your thumb while your four fingers were called privates.
Inevitably, there is some inherent racism in some of the slang. A Welsh comb was used in the 18th century in certain metropolitan circles to describe the thumb and four fingers, the theory being that is all the indigent Welshman could afford to tame their unruly barnet.
In Tudor times when religious observance was more acute than it is today, many couldn’t help notice that we had as many digits on our hands as there were commandments. Not surprisingly, therefore, your two thumbs and eight fingers became known as the ten commandments. The Bard himself, William Shakespeare, uses the idiom in Henry VI, Part 2, “Could I come near your beauty with my nails, I could set my ten commandments on your face”. I had always wondered what that had meant.
Turning to your feet, these were known in certain circles during the 19th century as dew-beaters. When you walked, particularly in the early morning, your feet would get wet as a consequence fo disturbing the dew that had formed overnight on the grass. By extension the term dew-beater was also used to describe someone who got up with the lark.
The 18th century slang to describe the long bony legs of a man was cat-sticks or trap-sticks. The phrase owes its origin to a game called tip-cat in which the contestants using a long tapering stick – the cat stick – would hit a short wooden bar into the air and as far as they could – remember there was no TV in those days!
Your underpinnings were also your legs. Those familiar with the building trade will not need reminding that the underpinnings of a building are what hold the whole edifice up. Likewise, the upright stance of Homo sapiens reliant upon the legs – simple!
And finally, your prayer bones were your knees, so-called because when you were praying you were doing so on your knees.
Until next time..