So many common expressions in everyday English spring from long-forgotten origins, often lending an almost surreal quality to our language.
We paused, for example, to consider the phrase a different kettle of fish, and agreed that neither of us knew where it came from. Was it kettle as in ‘container of boiling water’? Or was it perhaps a dialect word meaning ‘kind or type’?
As it turns out, the origin we thought was probably suspect was the correct one in this instance. A kettle was a container in which to boil water and the fish were salmon caught in the river and thrown into the kettle to cook. We tend to think of a kettle as the one which is enclosed and has a whistle on the spout. In his dictionary of 1755 Dr Johnson helpfully pointed out: In the kitchen the name of pot is given to the boiler that grows narrower towards the top, and of kettle to that which grows wider.
But a century later it seems the situation was reversed.
What we didn’t know was the historical background. Apparently a favourite pastime on the banks of the Tweed River in the early 1700s was to have a picnic in which salmon were caught and cooked on the spot in a kettle. The picnic itself came to be called a kettle and people went kettling for their entertainment. Later ‘a kettle of fish’ came to be used figuratively for a muddle or difficult situation, usually with a qualifying adjective used ironically as in a fine kettle of fish, a pretty kettle of fish.
It is not uncommon for phrases to spring up as allusions to well-known books (and now film and TV shows) where people enjoy sharing the reference. Unfortunately as such shared references go out of fashion, the phrase is left high and dry. We still talk about things growing like Topsy but I would be prepared to swear that no one is conscious any more that it is a reference to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Miss Ophelia is quizzing the young black girl, Topsy:
‘Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?’
The child looked bewildered, but grinned as usual.
‘Do you know who made you?’
‘Nobody, as I knows on,’said the child, with a short laugh.
The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added,
‘I spect I grow'd. Don't think nobody never made me.’
The book made a huge impression in America but also in Britain, the author doing a literary tour there in 1853. As a result the phrase grow like Topsy appears in British English almost a century before it crossed into American English.
Another thing that makes life difficult is when a word in a phrase becomes obsolete, thus making the whole phrase still meaningful but beyond the analysis of the user. The language community abhors being stuck with an obsolete word, so the solution is usually to change it to a familiar word, even if that makes nonsense of the phrase.
For example, a wigwam for a goose’s bridle is a nonsense expression used when the speaker doesn’t know what a particular thing is, or doesn’t want to say what it is.
The word in this phrase that has become obsolete is whimwham, a British dialect word meaning ‘a trinket or decoration’. So a whimwham for a goose’s bridle is ridiculous because, while a decorated bridle might sit well on a horse, it is not going to work for a goose. The phrase was whimsical and, initially, intelligible. Once we lost track of the meaning of whimwham, the joke was gone and the solution for the obsolete word was to replace whimwham with wigwam. This makes no sense at all but we are happier because wigwam is a familiar word.
Idioms are particularly susceptible to the passage of time. They may stick with us but their origins are lost in the shadows of history.