CHRONICLE: Old sayings bring back memories of grandparents
History Hound Richard MacLeod recalls expressions and words that our ancestors around the world brought with them that influenced our language
Here’s a fun topic that should bring back memories of our parents and grandparents: let’s look at their quaint ways of speaking, their unique phrases and idioms.
Canada is a country of immigrants, and our words and expressions reflect that fact. Newmarket’s earliest ancestors came from England, France and, after the American Revolutionary War, the United States. My parents on my mother’s side were Quakers from Pennsylvania and British immigrants, my father from Scotland.
They brought with them, in addition to their political and religious beliefs, a way of speaking that quickly became known today as Canadian English. Each immigrant brought a language which must have had an influence on the meaning of the words and expressions pronounced locally and which were often different from those expressed elsewhere in the English-speaking world.
Many of our words and expressions have been adapted from the French, Italian or German language over the years, brought by those seeking new life for themselves. If you listen to our American neighbors, you will most certainly notice that there are many variations in the words and word meanings that are part of their version of the English vocabulary.
Quite often we have adopted an entirely different word to describe a common article in use, one that reflected the way our ancestors spoke. We use the word bucket instead of bucket. We go down to the stream to fish, not to the stream. My grandmother made johnny cakes which I often called cornbread, much to her annoyance.
My grandmother called a darning needle a dragonfly, which invariably produced a quizzical look on my face. The word kerosene was rarely used in our house, it was always fuel oil. My grandfather said he was going to take a very small piece when he had a snack.
Many words are interchangeable, words like gutters for gutters. I was often invited to sit on the porch rather than on the veranda. One of the biggest divisions in our household was the use of the word frying pan for skillet. My mother and father had learned different words for this simple device and so it was up to me to figure out that they were the same utensil.
My dad, being of Scottish descent, used the word ‘pudding’ for anything even remotely resembling a pudding, hence ‘Jello’ was pudding to him. My grandmother used to ask me if I wanted “a candy” which could refer to anything containing sugar.
It is interesting to see how, as a child, one learns to adapt and instinctively learn the terms (or the variety of terms) necessary to communicate. When we get older, it seems so much harder to do so, hence the experiences of the new Canadian in learning the nuances of our language must be extremely confusing.
Another language variant that comes to mind when thinking back to how our grandparents and parents spoke are the various expressions they brought with them to this country that were quickly absorbed into our local dialect. Many of these expressions are still used today. How many of them did your ancestors use and do you still use them today?
These expressions were common in our household:
- It costs you nothing to take a look (my grandfather’s favorite – nothing wrong with window shopping)
- God helps those who help themselves (don’t complain, take care)
- Don’t ask me questions and I won’t tell you any lies (you really don’t want to know!)
- Don’t bite more than you can chew (moderation is key)
- It costs you nothing to say thank you (a favorite of my Mom)
- He/she must have got up on the wrong side of the bed (the person is grumpy)
- You can read it like a book (they are easy to understand)
- He/she blows hot and cold (they are changeable or inconstant)
- You can’t get blood out of a stone (impossible task, it’s cheap)
- It’s as simple as the nose on your face (it’s obvious)
- You made your bed, now lie in it (there are consequences)
- Slip downtown or downtown (one quick trip)
- It takes a lot of elbow grease (hard work)
- The cheapest is usually the most expensive in the long run (there are no real bargains)
- One good trick deserves another (karma or pay it forward)
- He is wet behind his ears (he is innocent or inexperienced)
- Do as I say, not as I do (a real family favorite)
- If you want something done right, do it yourself (actually very true)
- He has too many irons in the fire (he has scattered his efforts too much)
- Strike while the iron is hot (do it now, seize the opportunity)
- All that glitters is not gold (first impressions are often wrong)
- Clothes make the man (first impressions)
- Cold hands, warm heart (appearances can be deceiving)
- Make a mountain out of a molehill (exaggeration)
- There are many fish in the sea (there is always another one)
- You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink (some things are out of your control)
- It takes two to tangle (disagreement requires a partner)
- Make your hay while the sun is shining (seize the chance)
- Size of one, half a dozen of the other (it really doesn’t matter)
- Go to bed early, get up early (never understood this one but I think they meant be prepared)
- Never too old to learn (my grandfather used to say this when advising my mother)
- Where there is a will, there is a way (always an answer to every problem)
- If the shoe fits, wear it (it is as it appears)
- set someone on fire (empower someone, interrogate)
- Pull the wool over his eyes (fool him)
- It goes in one ear and out the other (not important, no listening)
- Short end of the stick (placed at a disadvantage)
- Knows as well as the man on the moon (he has no knowledge)
- Flat like a pancake (now it’s flat)
- Salted away (invested, hidden)
- Work like a dog (the idea that dogs work hard and are determined)
- Looks like a drowned (disheveled) rat
- Bleed like a stuffed pig (I guess pigs bleed a lot!)
- Proud as a peacock (vanity)
- As thick as the hair on a dog’s back (meant to indicate thickness or plenty)
These are just some of the expressions I heard growing up. I’m sure you can easily add to this list. Most of these expressions refer to their ordinary life, to things they knew personally. Our current expressions are based on the same theory. Facebook, Twitter and Google have become verbs in our vocabulary. Unique expressions based on agriculture or specific occupations are still prevalent today.
After all, what is a good expression? He must immediately connect to something that is universally known and accepted. This is communication, the acceptance of commonly accepted terms to relate a thought, a feeling or an object. We may not easily understand many of these expressions above, but our ancestors certainly would have. The language is fluid, it changes over time and reflects the generation using it and quite often fixes you in a period of history as you speak.
Our ancestors came to this country from all over the world and many words that were part of their language/culture were incorporated into our language.
Here are some words that we have expropriated:
- Ad hoc (Latin) For the specific purpose, case, or situation at hand
- Affaire d’amour (French) A love story
- Aide-de-camp (French) Military officer acting as secretary and confidential assistant to the superior general or flag rank
- Alma mater (Latin) The school, college or university one attended
- Anno Domini (AD) (Latin) In a specific year of the Christian era
- Bona fide (Latin) Made or performed in good faith; sincere
- Boulevard (French) A wide street in the city. Often wooded and landscaped
- Bourgeoisie (French) The middle class
- French gastronomy). A characteristic way or style of preparing food
- De facto (Latin) In reality or in fact
- En route (French) On or along the way
- Et cetera (Latin) And other unspecified things of the same class; And so on
- Fait accompli (French) An act or fact accomplished, presumably irreversible
- Gourmet (French) A connoisseur of food and drink
- Free (Latin) No charge
- Impasse (English) A road or passage with no way out or a situation so difficult that no progress can be made, a dead end or an impasse.
- In absentia (Latin) While or although not present; without.
- In memoriam (Latin) In memory of; as a memorial to
- laissez-faire (French) Non-interference in the affairs of others or economic doctrine that opposes government regulation or interference in commerce beyond the minimum necessary for a free enterprise system to function according to its own economic laws.
- Nom de plume (French) Nom de plume; alias used by a writer instead of the original name.
- Persona grata (Latin) Fully acceptable or welcome, especially in a foreign government
- Post-mortem (Latin) Of or related to a medical examination of a corpse.
- Pro bono (Latin) Done without compensation for the public good.
- Summary (English. A brief account of his professional or work experience and qualification
- Status quo (Latin) The existing condition or state of affairs
- Verbatim (Latin); using exactly the same words; word for word match
- Versus (Latin) Against
- Via (Latin) By way of
- Vice versa (Latin) With the order or meaning reversed; Conversely
- Vis-à-vis (French) Face to face; with the opposite of ; compared to; in connection with
These examples come mostly from Latin or French, but variations of these words appear in many other languages and have been firmly incorporated into our vocabulary. We are not only a global community of people and cultures, but also of linguistics.
I hope you enjoyed this very quick look at the expressions and words that our ancestors brought to this country; expressions and words that many of us remember well from our youth. What’s cool is that they are still used today.
For the sake of brevity, I’ve only provided a few of the many examples out there, so why not share some of your favorites in the comments section. I must say that researching all these examples produced a feeling of nostalgia deep within me and I still hear my family using them, taking me back to my childhood.
Sources: Foreign words used in Canadian English website; Some early memories of Elman Campbell; 10 Canadian Phrases Confusing Internet Newcomers
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for over 40 years. He writes a weekly feature on our town’s history in partnership with NewmarketToday, organizes heritage talks and local interest walking tours, and conducts local oral history talks.