“Let them eat cake!” my 10-year-old son proclaimed recently at dinner.
“Marie Antoinette never said that,” his sister, 16, replied.
The boy, who had heard the quote in the movie “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” asked her to explain.
“It’s a myth,” she said. “Everyone attributes the quote to Marie Antoinette, but she never said it.”
Turns out the person who coined the saying first used it while the future queen was still a child. (There’s no clear answer as to why the saying was attributed to Marie Antoinette, but you can read more about it at History.com.)
It’s one of those sayings we occasionally hear but don’t necessarily know the origin. (And when you start to research, you realize how many sayings we have!) Sayings are a fun way to learn some history and open up a discussion about words and meaning. The links in the “More Sayings” section have loads of phrases and their meanings/origins. Here are a few to help you start a discussion that can expand language skills and foster creative thinking.
Bite the bullet.
To endure something unpleasant.
“If I can’t use public transportation to get to my job, I guess I’ll bite the bullet and buy a car.” The term is thought to have been first used in the 17th century. When surgery was necessary in the midst of war or when medication supplies were low, patients were instructed to bite a bullet during surgery. The thought was that biting on the bullet would distract the patient from the pain and keep him from screaming loudly.
Read the riot act.
An admonishment for someone who has misbehaved.
“Alice read her son the riot act when he threw his sister’s doll across the room.” The phrase is likely derived from the Riot Act enacted in 1715 by Great Britain’s Parliament. The law allowed the government to act against rabble-rousers who were perceived to be a threat to the peace. (The act targeted groups of more than 12 people.) When a group was unruly, a public official would read a portion of the Riot Act aloud and instruct the rowdy folks to disband and go home. Anyone who remained an hour after the reading could be arrested or forcibly removed from the space. The law remained in effect until 1973. (Read more here)
Butter someone up.
To offer profuse praise to another, typically given with an ulterior motive in mind.
“My daughter is trying to butter me up so I will take her shopping.” There are two schools of thought on this phrase. One is related to the consistency of butter, which spreads easily and smoothly on a piece of bread. When you “butter someone up,” your words flow smoothly onto a person (and hence make them want to do what you desire). The second idea is that the phrase comes from ancient India, when people would seek favors from the gods by throwing balls of ghee (clarified butter) at statues. Ghee was made from cows, which are considered sacred in India.
To have a restful sleep.
“Goodnight, sleep tight…” We prefer to leave off the part about bedbugs, so as not to instill nightmares in our children. There are various theories about where “sleep tight” came from. One is that in olden times, ropes were used to support a mattress. Pulling the ropes tight would provide firmer support. The word “tight” was also used to mean “soundly” or “properly” in the 18th century, so it really could just be a reference to what it says: sleep well.
Spilled the beans.
Give away a secret.
“Tom spilled the beans about his wife’s surprise party.” Some sources say the phrase comes from ancient Greece, when beans were used to tally votes. Each person would place a white bean for a “yes” vote, a black bean for a “no” vote in a jar. If someone inadvertently knocked over the container, they would “spill the beans” and the voting results would be revealed prematurely. It’s an interesting story, but not necessarily the true origin of the saying. Other sources say the phrase was first used in 1902, when a St. Louis Republic reporter used it to mean “to cause an upset” in horse racing.
And, from our new friends at the American Pie Council (see Five things to read about in March), comes: “As easy as pie.” According to the APC: Americans in the 1890s used the word “pie” as slang to refer to something that was easy, and saying “easy as pie” was a natural move.
Families sometimes create their own phrases and sayings. What saying does your family use? Share it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smithsonian Magazine offers Spilling the beans on the origins of food idioms
History.com lists 10 Common Sayings with Historical Origins
Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with Capital Region BOCES since 2011. She is mom to two daughters, 18 and 16, and a son, 10, all of whom think it’s easy as pie to butter her up for their individual ulterior motives.
Copyright ©2015 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission