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  • Siân Dallas

Don't Let the Cat Out of the Bag...


Don't let the cat out of the bag... People would think they'd bought a piglet, and when they got home and 'let the cat out of the bag', they would discover they'd been tricked!

When did you last ‘let the cat out of the bag’ or ‘spill the beans’? Or perhaps you’ve told someone that they are ‘barking up the wrong tree’, because you’ve actually had it ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’. We use idioms in our everyday speech, and many of them tell a story worth knowing, enriching our language and our minds.


Now that Google is always only a split-second away, we don’t need to ‘know’ facts or origins in the same way. It’s all too easy to reach for a phone when you can’t remember any of the previous films that actor was in (no, Jonah Hauer-King from BBC series 'World on Fire' was not in 'The Riot Club') or also recently in my case, you’re disputing the evocative opening line to The Go-Between. For the record, it is, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ If you haven’t, then read it. But what if all this easy-to-access knowledge is depriving our brains of one of their favourite activities: recalling knowledge and making connections?


We all know the high we get from knowing the answer to a quiz or trivia question, or suddenly discovering a connection which we’d not previously realised. By relying increasingly on computers to do our memory work, we’re losing out by not having those rich resources in our own minds, waiting to be discovered and prompted.

A new resource of fascinating information I’ve increasingly stumbled across in my research for our series of History workshops, is that of idioms and their original meanings, so I thought I’d share a few of my favourites:


Calling ‘shotgun’ when you want to lay claim to something obviously comes from people claiming the front seat in the car, but the phrase ‘shotgun’ itself originates from when in the American Wild West the person not driving would sit up front with a gun, in order to defend the party from any ambushes or robbers. ‘Minding your Ps & Qs’ is another one that’s always interested me, and one of the more popular theories behind this is that bartenders used to keep a tab of how much their customers were drinking by jotting down ‘P’ for Pint or ‘Q’ for Quart, ready to present them with a bill at the end of the night.


Admiral Nelson is apparently responsible for our use of the phrase, ‘to turn a blind eye’. During the Battle of Copenhagen of 1801, Nelson pretended not to see a signal to retreat from his fellow Admiral, Admiral Parker, because he was convinced that they would be better off pushing forward. Nelson is said to have held his telescope to his ‘blind eye’ and made a comment to a fellow officer about reserving the right to use his blind eye every now and then.


There are so many more that I could go on about, but my point is that next time you hear someone use these phrases, you’ll want to tell them where it comes from, thus providing them with a touch of colour to an otherwise fairly baffling phrase, and I bet that they too will ultimately pass the story on to others. Knowledge is power, but acquiring knowledge is addictive, and it’s good for us too. So next time you take out your phone to kill five minutes, think about perhaps using it to learn something new or research something that’s previously interested you – you’ll find yourself pursuing path after path as the world around you becomes more and more interesting.

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