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Familiar Phrases as You Have Never Known Them

Have you ever wondered how expressions that we often use originated? Many of them date back to medieval times. The phrase ''upper crust,'' for instance, came to us by way of the pantler, a noble servant in charge of the bread at a medieval feast. The pantler's job included horizontally slicing the upper crust from a round, well-seasoned loaf of bread to present to the most distinguished guest. The act demonstrated that the recipient was the ''upper crust,'' an expression we still use when referring to society's elite.

''Bring home the bacon'' derived from a game considered to be old even in the 14th century. From among the guests at a Lammas festival, several sets of two - a man to play the husband and a woman to play the wife - were chosen as participants in a mock trial. Twelve other guests composed the jury, and the banquet master presided as judge. Asking comical, ridiculous questions beginning with ''What if...,'' the judge described a domestic catastrophe. The couple's answers, then, were to turn the adversity into humorous opportunity. The jury decided which two responded with the most wit, and those two ''brought home the bacon,'' each winner's prize being half a pig.

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''To eat humble pie'' now means that we've given in or withdrawn to a humbler position, but in medieval times it had nothing to do with being humble. Rich and poor alike served ''humble'' pie as a Christmas dish; ''umble'' simply meaning tripe. Considered a delicacy, tripe was available not only to noblemen but to paupers as well, which led people to associate humble pie with the poor and lowly.

''To pay on the nail'' also emerged from the Middle Ages. Medieval markets were important places to both town and country folk for the buying and selling of wares. It was agreed that accounts should be settled at counters in the presence of witnesses. The counters were short pillars known as ''nails.'' Payments placed on ''nails'' allowed everyone to see if money and change were correct. ''To pay on the nail'' is yet used when requesting payment.

When we arrive somewhere only just in time or we're saved from some predicament at the critical moment, the phrase ''in the nick of time'' comes to mind. Nick is a form of notch. The phrase arose from the old practice of marking time and transactions by scoring on a stick known as a tally.

''In a pickle,'' meaning in an awkward or embarrassing situation, is an expression we got from the Dutch. Their version in de pekel zitten (sitting in the pickle), with ''pickle'' being the brine used to preserve meats and vegetables, would no doubt be a most uncomfortable feeling.

Other foreign expressions we've adopted include ''kowtow,'' which came from the Chinese word k'o-t'ou, the kneeling and touching of ground with the forehead before a superior. ''A go-go'' was borrowed from the French. The British contributed ''it's not cricket'' - something that's contrary to fair play. To the villagers of Chichester goes the credit for being the first to say ''It's not cricket'' when they were prosecuted for playing the game on a Sunday in 1622.

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