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Sayings and their origins may surprise
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Forsyth County News

Perhaps not surprisingly, I have always been a lover of words and language.

I love learning about the origins of the words and phrases so many of us use on a daily basis without giving much thought to how they came to be.

Here are some I recently learned about.

• Gild the lily. I remember my dad using this phrase when talking about a particularly rich meal.

“Let’s gild the lily and have lobster tails with our steak,” he would say.

I never thought of the history of the phrase, which apparently dates back to 1595 when William Shakespeare used part of the phrase in King John, referring to the King’s overdone, “ornamentation” of his own second coronation.

Though it wasn’t exactly “Gild the lily,” that is how it ended up being worded. Crafters know that when they “gild” something, it is covered with a thin layer of gold.

• White elephant. Many of us think of Christmas celebrations for which everybody brings a wrapped gift and participants play the white elephant game. The gift may be funny, but not necessarily useful to whoever gets it.

Some may be surprised to learn that white elephants once roamed Thailand and were considered sacred. The giant elephants also reportedly had some negative connotations.

If someone offended or angered the Siamese king, he might give that person a white elephant.

Sounds like a nice thing to do, but the elephants were tremendously expensive to house and feed, often driving the recipient to financial peril. Talk about being passive aggressive.

• Crocodile tears. I love this one. When we say someone is crying crocodile tears, we mean the person is crying superficial tears. We don’t believe them.

The origin of this phrase comes from Medieval times when people believed that crocodiles shed tears while they ate.

The myth reportedly came from a popular 14th century book about a knight whose travels led him all over and he saw the crocodiles crying while eating.

• Read the riot act. Maybe the current generation doesn’t use this phrase with its children, but those of my generation and older well remember our parents telling us they were going to read us the riot act.

In 18th century England, this wasn’t just a phrase — it was a real act.

The British government came up with this act to control any sort of “mob” activity, which they considered to be 12 or more people protesting some injustice or other matter.

The act reportedly gave the authorities the right to read the act to the crowd, after which it had one hour to disperse. If the crowd failed to do so, the people involved could be arrested and jailed.

• Paint the town red. We all probably think of a bachelor or bachelorette party, or just college age kids partying hard on a night on the town.

Well, in 1837, a party-type man, the Marquis of Waterford in a town in England reportedly took his friends out for a serious night on the town.

The group ended up drinking too much and not only committed vandalism, but ended up painting some doors and a swan statue red. The phrase stuck.

• Diehard. A common phrase most of us think describes someone who may be stubborn or stuck in his/her ways.

I was surprised to learn the phrase dates to the 1700s, when certain men would struggle harder than others as they were being executed by hanging. They, apparently, were diehards.

• Back seat driver. Confession: I am a big one. I try not to be, but I can’t help it.

Paul asks if I think he would be driving around in some faraway field in a circle if it weren’t for me.

This phrase became popular in the early 20th century when “motoring” was becoming more popular.

The descriptions I read really made that back seat driver sound like a horrible person. I don’t think I am that bad.

And for those who have lived through teenage drivers, I don’t know how anybody couldn’t be back seat driver during that time.

The next time we use a phrase that has been around forever, we should do a little research. The origins may surprise us.


Adlen Robinson is author of “Home Matters: The Guide to Organizing Your Life and Home.” E-mail her at