Popular idioms explained

Published 10th May 2013
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Why are we ‘over the moon’ when we’re really happy?
The idiomatic phrase ‘Over the moon’ is a very old expression that dates right back to the seventeenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of this idiom is from 1718 and an extract from a play in which a character exclaims: ‘I shall jump over the Moon for Joy!’.
It was probably already a common expression when the nursery rhyme of around 1765 was first recorded: ‘High diddle, diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle, The Cow jumped over the Moon.’ (The ‘High’ was later altered to ‘Hey’.)

Why do we ‘bury the hatchet’?
This idiom, meaning to end an argument or conflict, refers back to a Native American custom in the seventeenth century whereby a hatchet would be buried in the ground to signal the declaration of peace between warring groups.

Why do we talk about ‘stealing someone’s thunder’?
This idiom, defined as using another person’s ideas for one’s own advantage, has a literal story behind it! In this case, the eighteenth-century actor and playwright Colley Cibber, in his Lives of the Poets, recounted the exact events that spawned the idea of ‘stealing thunder’. Alexander Pope also mentioned them in his poem ‘The Dunciad’. The story they tell involves a man called John Dennis, an actor manager of the early part of the eighteenth century who had invented a machine that reproduced for the stage the sound of thunder. Dennis used his invention for the first time in his own play, Appius and Virginia, in 1709. By all accounts Mr Dennis’s writing skills did not match his creative ones, and his play closed after a short run, to be replaced by a production of Macbeth performed by another company.
Dennis himself went along to the opening night and was outraged to hear his thunder machine being used. The story goes that he stood up and shouted, ‘Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.’
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of a figurative use of the phrase is as late as 1900. It is likely, though, that it was used in conversation and particularly within theatrical circles long before then.

Where does the expression ‘playing to the gallery’ come from?
Galilee, the northern region of ancient Palestine where Jesus is said to have lived and travelled, is probably the ultimate source of gallery, which entered English from the Italian word galleria, a church porch. The word was probably an alteration of ‘galilee’, which was used as the name for a chapel or porch at the church entrance. The idea behind this idiom was probably that the porch was at the end of the church furthest away from the altar, just as Galilee, an outlying portion of the Holy Land, was far from Jerusalem. From the mid-seventeenth century, the highest seating in a theatre was called the gallery, and this was where the cheapest seats—and the least refined members of the audience were found. Hence, to play to the gallery, an expression dating from the late nineteenth century, is to act in a showy or exaggerated way to appeal to popular taste.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry?, by Susie Dent.

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