The family and I have been traveling in the UK this past month as we take our older son to university in Aberdeen, Scotland. It's been a whirlwind of fascinating history, visiting incredible places, and learning lots of new things. For me, it was also being able to return to a city I love for the first time since I was a college student: London, as well as an entire country that feels like home: Scotland. Now that kid #1 has moved into his dorm and his classes are about to start, and kid #2 and spouse have returned to the States, I am off on my own adventure: a month-long writing retreat in the Scottish countryside so I can finish up the novel. I'm going to be posting a lot more frequently over the next few weeks, but I wanted to start off with some of the things we learned about familiar sayings and where they originated, something I find fascinating.
Our tour guide at Lancaster Castle in Lancaster revealed where several common sayings come from as well as one very surprising fact that I reveal at the end of this post. While the castle was once part of the holdings of the Lancaster family (of the War of the Roses fame), it has served as a prison for much of its life. Though the prison was closed a couple of years ago, it still serves as a civil court. It has a rich history as a debtors' prison and was the site of the second largest witchcraft trial in British history (anyone want to guess what the largest witchcraft trial was? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? - if you said Salem, MA, you are correct. At the time of the Salem witch trials, Massachusetts was still part of Britain).
Anyway, our tour guide revealed that several common sayings come from the way in which executions were handled in the past. Most people were hanged. At Lancaster, most of them were hanged by what's known as the "short drop" method, which involves the condemned standing on an object with the noose around their neck. The object was then kicked out from under them and, if they were lucky, the drop snapped their neck (in the "long drop" method of hanging, a trap door opens underneath them. It's much more likely to snap a person's neck than the short drop), but sometimes, that didn't happen and the person was left to alive and slowly strangled to death. In this case, the condemned's family would come up on the scaffolding and pull on his legs to hasten death.
So our first common saying was "pull the other one" (which is a British saying) or "pulling someone's leg" (which is American). Pulling someone's leg was actually a merciful way to make sure they died quickly rather than slowly and painfully. In addition, 'kicking the bucket' comes from the bucket or chair on which the condemned stood that was then kicked out from under them.
Sometimes, the hangman's rope broke during a hanging. They reused ropes and sometimes they just wore out. If that happened, they tried again to hang the person with a new rope. You might think that if the rope broke a second time, they would give up, but no, the rope had to break a third time (because of the Trinity) before it was seen as an act of God and the condemned was let go. Hence the saying, 'third time's the charm.'
The third saying comes from a much happier place: Glamis Castle in Scotland. Despite the name, Glamis (pronounced 'Glams') has nothing to do with Macbeth except that maybe Shakespeare took the name because the Earl of Strathmore was one of his financial backers. Glamis was the childhood home of the Queen Mum, however, and the estate has been in her family for the past 600 years.
The tour led us through some of the oldest parts of the castle as well as the formal dining room (still in regular use by the family to entertain Prime Ministers and other dignitaries), private apartments that were used by King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth. when they visited with their daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.
In the bedroom where the King stayed, we were shown a tall standing chest of drawers (and, forgive me, the name of it escapes me). There were seven drawers, one for each day of the week. The chest was used by servants to lay out their lord's clothing for the week. The top drawer was for Sunday, which was always a person's best clothing, hence the reason we call something that is really, really good "top drawer" or, more usually these days, "top shelf."
That's about it for the derivation of common sayings, but I'm going to nip back to our tour of Lancaster Castle to tell you about something that surprised the heck out of my entire family: why, when a person is sworn in as a witness in a trial, they are asked to raise their right hand and swear to tell the truth. It used to be that criminals were branded on the meaty part of their right hand just below the thumb. Raising your right hand is a measure of whether you can be trusted or not. It has nothing to do with swearing on the Bible and everything to do with this ancient practice of branding criminals so everyone could judge for themselves the reliability of what they were about to say.
So that ends my history lesson for today. Tomorrow, it's back to work on the novel