Six Innocent Phrases and Their Morally Suspect Origins

Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer, and Public Enemy. A contemporary woodcut showing the 1649 beheading of Charles I. The Warder Collection.

Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer, and Public Enemy. A contemporary woodcut showing the 1649 beheading of Charles I. The Warder Collection.

From “by hook or by crook” to “going Dutch,” here are six charming expressions that have morally dubious origins.

Go Dutch
Moral crime: Xenophobia
Every nation likes to have a rival, a bogeyman country to scare the kids with and justify whatever self-interested foreign policy they may have happened upon. And the Brits are no exception. Over the years we’ve been fairly withering about the French, the Spanish, the Germans, the Russians, the Japanese and anyone of any nationality that has decided to make their home in our cities.

So, what’s the one thing that has resounded down the years from a series of 17th century economic rows between Britain and Holland? The popularity of the phrase go Dutch – splitting the bill because neither side is willing to pay all of it – because, according to the assumed wisdom of the day, the Dutch are all tight-fisted.

Saved by the bell
Moral crime: Burying people alive
A lot of people assume “saved by the bell” is a boxing term. It probably is a boxing term. It makes the most sense as a boxing term, referring to someone who is losing a bout being allowed time to recover when the bell goes at the end of a round.

However, there’s another theory, which dates from a time before the Marquis of Queensbury. In the 18th century, it was fairly common for graveyards to exhume older coffins, so the site could be reused. And the rumor goes that some of the coffins that came up — as many as one in 25 — would be found to contain scratch marks on the inside of the lid. A horrific discovery.

So, some bright spark came up with the idea of burying the dead with a length of string attached to their wrist, which would then pass up to the surface and be attached to a bell. Thus anyone who was merely asleep could be saved by the bell.

By Hook or By Crook
Moral crime: Feudalism
This apparently dates back to days when all forests and woodland were considered the property of the crown. If you were a commoner without permission, you could be arrested for going into the woods to gather firewood. But if you were one of the poor people of the parish, you were granted access in order to pick up fallen boughs, or knock off dead branches. But they could not take any sharp cutting tools with them, all wood had to be harvested using either a hook (to pull dead saplings out of the ground) or a crook (to knock branches off trees).

How this was changed to mean “getting things done by any means necessary” is another matter.

As Mad As A Hatter
Moral crime: Industrial pollution
This one’s easy: hat-makers used mercurous nitrate when making felt hats, and one of the side effects of inhaling the fumes can be tremors, which would create a culture of eccentricity around milliners.  

Although there are also examples of hatters with some fairly extreme personal habits, including Robert Crab, who shocked 17th century society by giving all of his worldly goods to the poor and living on dock leaves and grass.

Steal My Thunder
Moral crime: Copyright theft
John Dennis was an actor-manager-playwright in the 18th century, and in 1709 he invented a device to make thunderous noises happen during stage productions. He did this because he’d written a play in which there was a great storm. However, it was not a popular play, and his company had to move on when ticket sales dwindled.

The next company to use the theater were performing Macbeth, which also has a big storm. When John went to see their production, he was appalled to discover they were using his machine, and began shouting: “That is my thunder by God, the villains will play my thunder but not my play!”

Charlie’s Dead
Moral crime: Regicide
Not a massively common expression, and with good reason. You’d subtly whisper Charlie’s dead to a woman if her petticoat was showing below the hem of her skirt, which is less of a thing than perhaps it used to be. However, the origin of the phrase, if true, is among the most gruesome ways to come up with an expression designed to prevent female embarrassment it’s possible to imagine.

Somehow, female royalists after the English Civil War thought it would be a fitting tribute to their fallen king — Charles I had just been beheaded — to dip their petticoats in his blood. Somehow this was a widespread enough practice to generate its own slang.

Conclusion: History is sometimes a very strange place.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine