My ‘frog in my throat’ and other expressions


In the past little while, I've been suffering from a bit of a 'frog in my throat' and when I mentioned this on air, my seven-year-old son saw it and asked me later, “Did you really Daddy?”. Ahhhh sweet! Although, as we're going to France later this year for a short break, I thought I’d better tell him that people don’t really put frogs in their mouths! 

It did set me thinking, where do all these expressions come from? Well, I did a bit of research and it’s quite amazing. 'Frog in the throat' is an easy one that stems from the Middle Ages when drinking water wasn’t too good. There was a belief that if you drunk water from a pond, it could have frogspawn in it and a frog would hatch out in your tummy and try to escape via your mouth! Eat garlic at the same time and you could save the expense of the French restaurant!

But there are some other belters! Getting 'the wrong end of the stick' stems from Roman times and from when they sat side by side in the communal toilets. For personal hygiene, they used a short staff with a sponge on the end and people were very careful not to get the wrong end of it! The Romans, eh? Roads, concrete, viaducts and a primitive version of Andrex!

Another one I loved was 'warts and all’. We all know what it means, but did you know it stems from Oliver Cromwell’s time? In the mid 17th century, painters, a bit like celebrity photographers now, would soften the features and imperfections of their subjects to make them appear happier (400-hundred-year-old air brushing). But when Cromwell commissioned the artist Sir Peter Levy to paint his portrait, he's reputed to have said:

”I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like I am and not flatter me at all. Remark all these roughness, pimples, warts and everything as you see me. Otherwise I will never pay you a farthing for it”. 

The result…’ol warty lips can be seen by all.

My last one might appeal to those of you who fancy the gee gees. The expression 'to win hands down' comes from the races. When a jockey is winning comfortably, he can canter over the line without using his whip so he can place both hands on the reins and win 'hands down'.

If you have any others I'd love to hear them, or if you're puzzled about any let me know and I can’t guarantee I’ll know but I’ll have a go!

Simon X

P.S. If you're reading this at night… sleep tight! Ooh, I must look that one up!


  1. Marg August 21, 2009 at 12:02 am -  Reply

    I found that this refered to the days when bed frames were laced with rope, pre springs and mattresses, the tighter the ropes were bound the better the bed, so it was a wish that the ropes stayed tight on the bed. I love finding the meaning of old sayings.My father used to say I had a magpie brain,full of usless information i.e. did you know that sailors on the old sailing ships always tried to have a gold earring, they would kill to keep it because that was to pay for their burial,hope you get lots of interesting examples Simon as you are so faithful to the blogs,I love reading them, thankyou for your varied subjects,

  2. Kitty Dwyer August 23, 2009 at 6:16 pm -  Reply

    Hiya Simon
    I’m fascinated by things like this – I used to be an English and Creative Writing teacher and am now retraining and taking another degree in History. I’m so interested in the way our language developed and love all these little stories.
    The phrase ‘On tenterhooks’ as in when you’re nervous about something has a few explanations, but most likely originates from the Coast of the North of England – it relates to fishing – when the fish were caught they were first placed on a frame called a tenter which had hooks in it, the fish were put on to these before being placed into the ovens to be smoked hence being ‘on tenterhooks’. Some people also think it comes from working in the Cotton Mills in Lancashire – and working as Cotton Frame Tenters – both are equally likely to be true.
    We have a saying in Lancashire when we don’t think something is going to work, or be successful ‘That’ll be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater…’ and this relates to Victorian times when bath time used to be once a week for the whole family. The tin bath would be placed on the hearth in front of the fire and filled with warm water. First to get in would be Father (as he was the one who’d most likely been down the pit or in the mill all week and would be filthiest) then mother and so on and so on until everyone had been bathed. Last to go in would be the smallest child or baby. By that time the water would be so filthy that the child would more or less ‘disappear’ into it, it was rather darkly joked at that it would end up being absent mindedly thrown away with the water at the end of bath time by mother. A rather macabre one that, but it is a phrase which is still used here.
    I’m sure there are lots of others I can think of – if I can remember them I’ll post them! Fascinating topic though 🙂
    From your resident History nerd
    Kitty, in (you guessed it) Bolton, Lancashire 😉 xx

  3. Kitty August 24, 2009 at 10:14 am -  Reply

    Hi – it’s nerdy Kitty again
    I just remembered another one, you may already know it – but here goes anyway:
    When convicted criminals were being taken to be executed at Tyburn hundreds of years ago, they were taken from their prisons by horse and cart, members of the public would line the streets to see both the journey and the execution. Along the way though, the horse and cart were frequently stopped by Alehouse owners who wanted to give the convicted criminals their last drink, usually ale or small beer.
    This caused disruption, and very often the man driving the cart containing the criminals had to get off and tell the Ale sellers off. He would tell them not to offer criminals a drink as they were ‘on the wagon’ and that’s where, when we say we’re giving up drinking alcohol, the phrase ‘on the wagon’ comes from.
    Similarly, the phrase ‘falling off the wagon’ relating to saying you’re giving up drinking, then failing – comes from the same time when criminals on their way to be hanged did manage to get a sneaky alcoholic drink given to them and got a little merry, and they…well, lost their balance and fell off the wagon…:)
    I’ve just realised most of my tales are quite dark aren’t they? Oh dear!
    With best wishes to you (again!)
    Kitty, Bolton

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