Happy Halloween: Three everyday idioms and their terrifying origins

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Bless you!
In English, we say ‘Bless You!’ after someone sneezes. It seems like a nice thought to bless someone with good health when they are coming down with something, doesn’t it? Indeed, the response to sneezing in other languages often translates to ‘Health’, such as ‘Gesundheit!’ in German, or ‘Salute!’ in Italian.

One suggested origin of the phrase ‘Bless You!’, though, comes from an old belief that the soul could be ejected from someone’s body when they sneezed, leaving the body unprotected from the devil and other evil spirits. Another theory suggests that sneezing may have been thought of as the body’s attempt to expel an evil spirit. The words ‘God bless you!’ were considered to be a shield against such evils, used to protect the person sneezing and those nearby.

Rule of Thumb
This idiom is used to describe an informal rule or procedure that has been honed through experience. While the phrase most likely originates from the practice of using body parts to map out general measurements (a ‘foot’, for example, or ‘hands’ to measure horse height), the other myth of origin that circulates around this idiom is much darker. Many people like to speculate that the phrase comes from an old law which stated that a husband was allowed to beat his wife with a stick, providing that the stick was no thicker than his own thumb. According to British etymologist Michael Quinion, in his book Port Out Starboard Home, this ‘idea has been traced back to a pronouncement supposed to have been made in 1782 by a British judge, St Francis Buller; this led to a fiercely satirical cartoon by James Gillray in which Buller was caricatured as 'Judge Thumb’.

Saved by the Bell
I don’t know about you, but when someone uses the phrase ‘saved by the bell’, I, being the nineties kid that I am, always think of these guys. The phrase is now used to describe the feeling of being saved from doing something you don’t want to do or from getting into trouble by a last minute intervention of some kind. Indeed, Zack Morris, the main character of the children’s sitcom Saved By The Bell, is known for trying to get out of trouble. In the case of the TV show, the title refers to both the figurative meaning of the phrase and literal school bell which so often gives Zack an excuse to flee from tricky situations.

One origin story, however, speculates that this phrase originates from a common fear of being buried alive and the tradition of attaching bells to the coffins before burial. If the person being buried later found themselves awake and in a coffin under the ground, they could ring the bell to signal to the world that they needed rescuing! George Washington was even said to have made the following request on his deathbed: "Have me decently buried, but do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead.".

Avani Shah

31 Oct 2013
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