From time to time, I like to investigate the origins of common phrases. Very often, they come from technologies and practices long obsolete and unfamiliar. We continue to use them, although we have little understanding of what they really mean.
When I looked through a list of common phrases for this post, the ones that stuck out to me all evoke uncomfortable, unpleasant images. Two of them describe actual cruelty.
As I write, the coronavirus has shut down nearly everything throughout much of the world. I wasn’t thinking of it as I looked for phrases, but it occurs to me that they seem to describe a lot of what the whole world is going through right now.
If you are reading this post fairly soon after publication, you know the sense of torture the virus has caused. If you are discovering it a few years from now, you can surely remember.
Put the screws to someone origin
Sometimes it takes the form “turn the screws on someone.” In whatever form, evokes the image of the thumbscrew. In medieval times, this instrument of torture was especially useful for extracting confessions. It inflicted extraordinary pain without killing the victim.
Typically, three vertical rods protruded from a fixed horizontal bar. A second, loose bar fit into them. The torturer would place the victim’s finger between the two bars and tighten it. The illustration above shows a screw on the middle rod. Another picture I could have chosen shows two screws on the outer rod. In either case, the torturer turned it enough to crush the finger.
Sometimes instead of inflicting pain on the supposed criminal, the torturer would make him or her watch while he put the screws to a loved one.
Nowadays, the phrase simply means anything that forces someone to do something against his will.
Build a fire under someone origin
When people had to heat their homes and cook by burning wood or coal in a fireplace, chimneys got caked with soot. If they didn’t get cleaned, toxic fumes would eventually fill the house. So professional chimney sweeps started operating in the 16th century.
In the 17th century, England started charging a hearth tax. The more chimneys a home had, the higher the tax. So builders began to connect new fireplaces to existing chimneys with flues. That complicated the task of cleaning them.
So chimney sweeps started using small boys as young as 5 years old to climb up into the chimneys to do the work. The boys were usually orphans or children of destitute parents who couldn’t afford to feed them. Some of them got trapped in the chimney and died. Most of them became deformed. Few lived to middle age.
If a boy started up the chimney and hesitated, the chimney master would light a fire in the fireplace. The boy had no choice but to move forward.
Even metaphorically, lighting a fire under someone is cruel. I came across a post on management that suggested instead of lighting a fire under someone, light a fire in him. Inspiration outperforms coercion.
On tenterhooks origin
It’s not “on tenderhooks,” by the way. Sometimes when a word or phrase is long obsolete, people will substitute a more familiar word. This phrase is even older than the first two, but it doesn’t originate in cruelty. It has to do with making wool fabric.
Sheep are incredibly dirty creatures. Making wool requires shearing the fleece, making it into yarn, and weaving it into cloth. Nowadays, I suppose, the fleece is cleaned before anyone starts spinning it. But not before the Industrial Revolution. Or at least, whatever prewashing they did didn’t get the fleece completely clean.
Once the woven, the cloth still contained a lot of dirt and oil. A fulling mill cleaned it and had to dry it carefully. So it stretched out the wet cloth on a frame called a tenter. That word comes from Latin tentus, the past participle of tendere, to stretch. Each side of the frame had metal hooks to attach the cloth to it. Tenterhooks.
The word “tenter” dates back to the 14th century. The phrase “on tenters” denoted great anxiety from about the same time. Tobias Smollett first used “on tenterhooks” in 1748 in his novel Roderick Random. At that time, “tenter fields” still dotted the landscape. We still use his version of the phrase long after the last tenter stretched a piece of fabric.
Touch and go origin
English Anglican bishop Hugh Latimer preached some sermons to the young king Edward VI in 1549. He opened the first saying, “As the text does rise, I will touch and go a little in every place, until I come into much.” (I have modernized the spelling.) In other words, he gave the 11-year-old king a summary of all the points he intended to elaborate later.
After Edward’s early death, queen Mary I had Latimer burned at the stake. The Protestants considered him a martyr, and his sermons have been published and republished beginning at least as early as 1596.
The phrase “touch and go” took on a more harrowing meaning at the beginning of the 19th century. If coaches passing each other on a narrow road could get their wheels entangled and ruin both coaches. Sometimes, however, the wheels only touched. It was an anxious moment, but each coach could keep going. “Touch and go,” therefore, has come to mean a disaster narrowly averted.
Been through the wringer origin
A wringer squeezes water out of laundered clothes. Early washing machines had no spin cycle. And, of course, the wringer predates the washing machine.
I remember helping my grandmother with her laundry. Her machine had one tub for washing, then she’d run the clothes through two rollers to wring most of the water out. The other tub had the rinse water. When that was finished, she put the clothes through the wringer again before hanging them out to dry.
Imagine yourself as those clothes being forced between those rollers. Stressful.
Hung out to dry origin
Hanging laundry out to dry logically follows putting it through the wringer. Except that this phrase actually has nothing to do with laundry.
Before refrigeration, people would hang their slaughtered animals on a tree for the blood to drain out of it. Dried meat keeps longer. So the phrase refers to abandoning someone in trouble, or perhaps even causing trouble for them by making them take the blame when things go wrong.
Common phrases don’t always practice “social distancing.” Sometimes, more than one fits nicely in the same sentence. This dratted virus has put the screws to us and hung us out to dry!