What Is The Origin Of (244)?…

Pay through the nose

We all like a bargain. There is nothing worse than when you have handed over your hard-earned cash to buy the object of your desires, you find that you could have got it cheaper elsewhere. If you find that you have paid a considerable amount more, you might consider you have paid through the nose. We use this phrase to convey the sense of paying excessively for something or to be charged exorbitantly but where does it come from?

Probably where it doesn’t come from, contrary to popular opinion, is the novel approach to tax collecting adopted by the Danes in Ireland in the 9th century. Anyone who refused to meet their demands met with a gruesome punishment, their nose was slit. Whether this actually happened or not is one thing, the other is that there is an unexplained gap of around eight centuries before the phrase made its appearance in print and, in any case, you might have expected a reference to the slitting of the nose.

Our old friend, the anonymous B E Gent, defined the term for us in his invaluable A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew from 1699, as to pay “excessively, or with Extortion”. That it was in common parlance, not just amongst the lower orders characterised by the canting crew, can be seen from this reference in the anti-Papist tract, The rehearsal transpos’d, of politician, Andrew Marvell, published in 1672; “The Fanatiks had bought it all up,, and made them pay for it most unconscionably, and through the Nose”.

There is an even earlier usage to be found in the translation of Giovanni Torriano’s A common place of Italian proverbs and proverbial phrases digested in alphabetical order from 1666. There he noted, “oft-times Rich men engrossing commodities, will make one pay through the nose, whereas they might sell the cheaper”. Nothing ever changes, not least the meaning of our phrase.

There were some earlier variants which featured the phrase through the nose. To bore someone through the nose was to deceive them. In Cervantes’ last novel, The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda, translated into English in 1619, a couple of princes, dressed as poor pilgrims, are bargaining with a painter. The governor of Rome becomes suspicious of the trade and intervenes. The result – “the painter was bored through the nose, seeing his hopes vanished, the chains in another man’s hands than his own, and his portrait in the justice’s hands”.

The Brits have always been suspicious of foreigners and their ways. In 1642 the historian, James Howell, made his particular contribution to the nation’s xenophobia by writing Instructions for Forreine Travel. It is full of advice and cautionary tales for the traveller. In warning against overpaying, Howell sagely remarks, “I have known divers Dutch Gentlemen grossly guld by this cheat, and som English bor’d also through the nose this way, by paying excessive prices for them”.

The playwright, John Fletcher, used a variant in his play, The Night Walker or the Little Thief, published posthumously in 1640; “But I’ll take my order she shall ne’er recover to bore my nose”. He was taken by nose because in his comedy, The Woman’s Prize, from around 1611, he gives one of his characters the lines, “but when I have done all this, and think it duty/ Is’t requisite another bore my nostrils?/ Riddle me that!” A parody of a church service, A Lenten Letany, by John Cleveland, published, perhaps sensibly, posthumously in 1662 contains another variant; “that it may please thee to suppose/ our actions are as good as those/ that gull the People through the Nose”.

It is quite clear that in the seventeenth century the use of the phrase through the nose in a variety of forms was indicative of someone being tricked or cheated. Paying through the nose fits that formula to a tee. There is no need to think it has a reference to the tax collecting methods of Danes whose activities if known at the time were form a distant past. It is more likely to owe its origin to the custom of attaching nose rings to large domestic beasts by which to lead them around and divert them from doing what they would have preferred to have done.

What Is The Origin Of (226)?…


There’s one thing being careful with your money but being excessively parsimonious for the sake of it is another. We have all met them and when we become exasperated with their meanness, we call them a skinflint.

The term has a long pedigree and probably originates from the argot of thieves, developed to prevent or at least frustrate those who wanted to listen into their conversations. It is defined, helpfully for us, in that wonderful testament to the secret expressions of England’s demi-monde, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, compiled by the almost anonymous B.E in 1699, although he did own up to being a gentleman. Skin-flint, he wrote, is “a griping, sharping, close-fisted Fellow.

The idea is simple enough and takes the form of an exaggerated image of parsimony. Someone is so tight that he would even try to remove the used layer of a flint stone so that he could use it anew. The use of skinning a flint as a metaphor was certainly in currency in the 17th century and not just among the lower orders of society. A Welsh clergyman, David Lloyd, wrote a satirical poem about the exploits of Captain John Smith – we met him last week when we were trying to get a word in edgeways – in 1631; “this were but petty hardship. Jones was one/ would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done.

Flints were used as a means of getting a spark to fire the gunpowder in an old rifle. After a number of firings, the flint would wear out. The majority of riflemen would simply replace the flint but some in a display of parsimony under duress would simply get out their knife and sharpen their flint once more. This practice has led at least one etymologist to surmise that it is the origin of our term. I suspect, though, it is merely a prosaic example of the behaviour of a skinflint rather than the origin of the term, not least because its usage in relation to this practice cannot be attested or dated.

The French had a wonderful, and slightly earlier, phrase for describing an act of meanness, tondre sur un oeuf, which became slightly abbreviated to tondre un oeuf. The, presumably, metaphorical practice of shaving an egg was brought to the attention of the English by Randle Cotgrave in his 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues. There he gave one of the definitions of the phrase as “to make a commoditie of any thing, how bare souer it be.” Perhaps the English just replaced an egg with a flint.

The concept of what to most people would seem a futile exercise as a metaphor for meanness took hold and generated a few, even more picturesque variants. The English author, John Davis, wrote about his adventures in the United States at the turn of the 19th century in Travels of four years and a half in the United States of America, published in 1803. He clearly wasn’t impressed, particularly when he encountered a mean lot in New Jersey; “you New Jersey Men are close shavers; I believe you would skin a louse.

A variant was to skin a flea which cropped up in William Faux’s Memorable days in America, published in 1823; “Coals are few and our captain stingy, being one of those Yankees (says our first mate) who, in the Southern States, are said to skin a flea for the sake of its hide or tallow.” This phrase cropped up again in The Weekly Courier and Journal of Natchez in Mississippi in August 1840; “is mean enough to steal chickens from a hospital or skin a flea for its tallow.

Alas, these phrases seem to have dropped out of use but they have encouraged me, at least, to be more imaginative in the terms I use to describe the next skinflint I encounter.

What Is The Origin Of (181)?…


Here we have another term with a long history, one in which the sense that it conveys has changed over time, but today it is a phrase languishing in some obscurity. When it is used nowadays it generally refers to a woman whose husband has gone away or who is divorced. Even from the time it first appeared, in the 16th century, the one constant in its meaning was that the woman’s husband was not dead.

The first recorded usage of the term was in a religious treatise penned by Sir Thomas More in 1529. There he wrote “for then had wyuys ben in his time lytel better than grasse wydowes be now.” Even if you didn’t know the precise meaning, from the context you could deduce that it was a rather pejorative term. Grass widows were not respectable women, either a discarded mistress, an unmarried woman or a single woman who had cohabited with one or more men.

It is thought that the grass referred to temporary or impromptu bedding which may have been the lot of a mistress who was involved in a furtive assignation with her beau. There was an equivalent term in German, strohwitwe, and around the turn of the 15th century, in Chemnitz, brides who were married whilst expecting a child were known as straw brides, strobrute. By 1580 to give a woman a grass gown was to roll her playfully on the grass and presumably have their wicked way with her.

According to the town records of Stoke-by-Nayland in Suffolk from 1582, “Marie the daughter of Elizabeth London graswidow” was buried. Elizabeth was an unmarried mother and this usage was helpfully confirmed in the anonymous B.E’s A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew from 1699 where a Grass-widow is defined as “one that pretends to have been Married, but never was, but has Children.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to Maria Fitzherbert, George IV’s bit on the side, as a “grass widow” while the Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases in a characteristically blunt northern way as “a female of easy virtue, a prostitute.

But by the mid 19th century grass widow was being used in another context, to denote a wife whose husband was absent. Ellen Clacy in her A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia, published in 1853, noted that the menfolk’s obsession with pursuing gold nuggets resulted in many deserted wives; “the wives thus left in town to deplore their husbands’ infatuation are termed grass-widows.” In the British Raj women were often left to their own devices while their hubbies administered India. As John Lang noted in his Wanderings in India, published in 1859, “grass widows in the hills are always writing to their husbands.” Conversely, the arrival of their wives to India engendered great excitement amongst their husbands who had been keeping the Empire going as Lady Dufferin noted in 1889 in her Viceregal Life in India; “expectant husbands come out to meet the grass widows who have travelled with us.” There is no hint of impropriety or condemnation in these usages.

However, there is clearly a hint of disapproval in Hobson-Jobson, an Anglo-Indian dictionary compiled by Henry Yule and Arthur Burnell and published in 1886. There a grass widow is a term used to describe wives stationed up in the hills during the summer whilst their husbands sweated it out in the lowlands and, the lexicographers note, it is used “with a shade of malignancy.” The inference is made but not substantiated. Perhaps it notes a transition between the earlier and later usages.

And then there is grace widow. This is a relatively later term, defined in Edward Moor’s Suffolk Words and Phrases of 1823 where it is defined as “a woman who had a child for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed.” The rather puritanical lexicographer notes in a rider “it ought rather to be grace-less,” rather missing the point of its development over the centuries.

What Is The Origin Of (148)?…

Cucumber time

Every now and again I come across a phrase which is now redundant, at least in English, but which is so evocative that it deserves to make a comeback. A case in point is this week’s phrase, cucumber time, which was used to denote that flat time of the year when nothing much happens. These days we call it the silly season when newspapers are full of stories like man bites dog or nothing much happened today or what the Americans call a slow news season. But why cucumbers?

It first made its appearance in print in the ever useful A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, published in 1700. In its august pages cucumber time is defined as “taylers holiday when they have leave to play and cucumbers are in season.” We can deduce that it was already in use in the 17th century, at least among the lower sorts whose colourful language would make its way into a lexicon. A reference in Notes and Queries from 1853 shone some further light on the phrase; “this term…the working tailors of England use to denote that which their masters call the flat season.

Further explanation of the term was provided by the Pall Mall Gazette of 1867 which noted that “Tailors could not be expected to earn much money in cucumber season.” The reason cited for the downturn in the tailors’ earning power was that “when the cucumbers are in, the gentry are out of town.” With the toffs out enjoying a summer retreat in the country, there was no one around to order a new set of togs. The tailors were idle.

What is particularly interesting is that the phrase cucumber time or season (and in some cases the pickled version of a cucumber, the gherkin) appears in a number of European languages, all meaning the flat part of the year. In Dutch we have komkommertijd, in German sauregurkenzeit ,in Norwegian  agurktid  in Czech Okurková sezóna and in Polish  Sezon ogórkowy to name just a few. Perhaps, tellingly, there is a similar phrase in Hebrew, Onat Ha’melafefonim. Given the dominance that Jews had in the clothing trade and their diaspora, often enforced, throughout Europe, is it fanciful to suppose that the Hebrew phrase is the source of the phrase?

Tailors became known as cucumbers, giving further credence to the widespread adoption of our phrase and its association with the peaks and troughs of their workload. An illustration by Thomas Rowlandson, published in 1823, entitled Hot Goose, Cabbages and Cucumbers, makes the point. In the vernacular of tailoring, cabbage was a term used to describe the off cuts of cloth from an order. As they had already been paid for, the tailor could use them to make other garments – an added bonus. Cabbage also became a term for tailors and/or money and gave rise to a playful maxim that “tailors are Vegetarians, because they live on ‘cucumber’ when without work, and on ‘cabbage’ when in full employ.” In case you were wondering, the goose referred to in Rowlandson’s picture is an iron.

It was around the 1860s and down to an unnamed writer for the Saturday Review that the term silly season was born, to describe, ostensibly, that time of the year when Parliament and the courts were in recess and when newspapers had little or nothing with which to fill up their pages. It is a shame that that phrase stuck. It is high time we restored cucumber time to its rightful place in our language or am I just being silly?