Pull Your Finger Out (Phrase Origins)

The phrase these days is associated with encouraging someone to get a move on, or hurry up and complete a task more quickly than they are presently doing. Like so many English phrases it has a military or naval origin. Loaded cannons would have gunpowder poured into a small ignition hole, which was then held in place with a wooden plug.

But in times of battle, when speed was of the essence, the powder would be pushed in and then held in place by a gun crew-member using his finger. Impatient artillerymen, anxious to fire their cannons at the advancing enemy, would shout at his crewmate to ‘pull his finger out’ so that the gun could be fired. It has not been recorded how many digits were lost on the battlefields.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Part One

Albert Jack books available for download here

Facing The Music (Phrase Origins)

To Face The Music has two possible origins. The first is that nervous (often terrified) actors and actresses, on an opening night, would have to go out on stage at the start of their performance and quite literally ‘face the music’ (as the orchestra pit sat directly in front of the stage with the musician facing the actors). In this case ‘facing the music’ meant the actor actually went out and performed, rather than losing their nerve and bottling it.

The second and less likely origin, suggests that a dishonourable military discharge would always result in the disgraced serviceman being marched off barracks to the sound of drummers playing (drummed out), in which case he too had ‘faced the music’.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Part One

Albert Jack books available for download here

Dressed Up to the Nines (Phrase Origins)

To be Dressed Up to the Nines means to be wearing our finest suit or evening gown. Some suggestions for the origin of this phrase lead us to tailoring and the belief that it takes nine yards of material to make the perfect three-piece suit. But that seemed a little bit weak to me, so I looked further and found most sources insist it began as ‘dressed up to the eyes’, which has been corrupted over the years. Still not convinced, I decided to work backwards and look for all the possible uses of the word ‘nine’, discovering a little gem in the process.

In the precious metals industry, the finest gold and silver are never classified as 100 per cent pure, but as 99.99 per cent; hence the finest metals are known as ‘the nines’ throughout the trade. It is my belief that ‘being dressed up in your nines’ means to be wearing your finest jewellery. Further evidence to support this theory lies in the archive of the Royal Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regimental Museum in Salisbury. Queen Victoria’s favourite regiment was the Wiltshire (Duke of Edinburgh’s) 99th Foot.

Stationed at Aldershot, they were always chosen to guard the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, consequently becoming known as ‘the Queen’s Pets’. The officers’ dress code included an unusual amount of gold lace on their uniforms; hence they were regarded as being ‘dressed up in their nines’ for royal duty.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Part One

Albert Jack books available for download here

A Die-hard Supporter (Phrase Origins)

A Diehard Supporter is resilient, fierce and will show complete loyalty in any circumstances. The original group of ‘diehards’ were the British 57th Foot Regiment, in the Duke of Wellington’s army, who fought bravely against the French during the Battle of Albuhera. On the 16 May 1811, their commanding officer, Colonel Inglis, had his horse shot dead from beneath him and he himself lay badly injured on the ridge that was a key position for Wellington’s army. At that time, the English were outnumbered by French troops and under heavy attack.

But even so, Inglis refused all attempts to carry him to the rear and instead lay shouting encouragement to his men: ‘Die Hard the 57th, Die Hard.’ I am not sure if that sort of motivational speaking would encourage me much, but it worked at the time and the battle was eventually won – albeit with heavy casualties as only one of the twenty-four officers survived, along with one-hundred and sixty-eight out of the original five-hundred and eighty-four infantrymen. From that day onwards, the regiment, which became the ‘West Middlesex Regiment’, were known throughout Wellington’s army as the ‘diehards’. It is not recorded what the French army called the diehards after the event, but we can have fun guessing.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Part One

Albert Jack books available for download here

A Dead Ringer (Phrase Origins)

A Dead Ringer – is a well-known phrase for somebody who looks just like another. In medieval Britain the medical profession was not quite as refined as it is now, and often anybody found not to be breathing was regarded as dead, when they may have been simply unconscious. (And this was also before comas were fully understood). It was not uncommon for bodies to be later exhumed and corpses found with their fingers worn to the bone, an obvious indication somebody had returned to life and tried to claw their way out of a coffin. So horrific was this image that the English gentry began mistrusting medical opinions and buried their loved ones with string attached to their wrists, connected to a bell above the grave. Those employed to sit overnight and listen out for the bells were known to be working the Graveyard Shift.

Anybody who returned to life and found themselves prematurely buried could attract attention by ringing the bell and it has been recorded this actually worked. Many ‘bodies’ were exhumed after bells were rung and some people carried on with their normal lives. But when spotted in the street startled acquaintances would cry to each other ‘That looks just like ‘Jack Jones’ – I thought he was dead’ to which they would receive the reply, ‘Yes, he must be a dead ringer’. And that, believe it or not, is true.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Part One

Albert Jack books available for download here

Cock and Bull Stories (Phrase Origins)

A Cock and Bull story is likely to untrue and without any real facts supporting it. Imaginative claims that are made without any supporting evidence are usually dismissed as such and some suggest it originates from old fables in which animals speak to each other. There is, however, a much more reliable source for this phrase. Stoney Stratford is a Buckinghamshire town located almost directly halfway between London & Birmingham and Oxford & Cambridge respectively. During the great coaching era of the late 18th and early 19th century the town was an important and vibrant stop over point for travellers, tradesmen and mail coaches.

The two main coaching inns in town were called The Cock and The Bull and both became known throughout the country as the center of all news travelling either on foot or by horse. Both Inns, competing for national acclaim, established a rivalry over which could produce the most exciting and scurrilous travellers tales to be passed onto to the major cities and as a result many unbelievable stories were dismissed as Cock and Bull tales. The Cock and The Bull Hotels still stand today at the center of Stoney Stratford and I have a few stories from both of them that are hard to believe.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Part One

Albert Jack books available for download here

Three Sheets to the Wind (Phrase History)

When you find a person Three Sheets to the Wind they are roaring drunk and capable of very little. There are two suggested origins for this phrase, the first is that a windmill with only three sails (sheets) would rotate badly and wobble like a drunk. But the second is far more likely, especially as, like so many of our favourite phrases, it has a nautical origin.

The sails of a tall ship were controlled by rope (the rigging) and these ropes were called ‘sheets’. Two sheets controlled each sail and the story is that if one of the sheets wasn’t properly handled, then the other three (of the two sails) would be ‘to the wind’ and the boat would veer from side to side without being fully under control, much like a drunk trying to navigate his, or her, way home.


More Idiom History in Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here