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You can sleep tight after we spill the beans; IT might be time for Newcastle United and Sunderland fans to 'bite the bullet' and accept their teams are in a relegation scrap this season. The thought is painful, as is the origin of the phrase, as MIKE KELLY discovered as he sought out the root of another 15 well-known phrases.

1. Bite the bullet: accepting something difficult or unpleasant Dating from a time before anaesthetics, when impromptu battlefield operations saw soldiers given something to chomp down on as surgeons did their work. A bullet, then being somewhat malleable as they were paper or cloth cartridges and not likely to break the patient's teeth, was used an attempt to distract them from the pain.

2. Blood is thicker than water: family comes first A confusing one as it is, apparently, from a Bible verse that has had its meaning turned on its head. It comes from: "The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb" which actually means that blood shed in battle bonds soldiers more strongly than to family. Although we commonly use it to suggest the strength of family ties, it doesn't refer to family at all. (FYI blood is actually thicker than water - about four times thicker).

4. Butter someone up: to flatter someone One of my favourites, it apparently stems from an ancient Indian custom which involved throwing balls of clarified butter at statues of the gods to 3.

Break the ice: to start a project or a friendship A fairly straightforward one this. Stems from the time when port cities that thrived on trade suffered during the winter when the water froze so special 'icebreaking boats' still used in some parts of the world today, were dispatched to sort the problem out.

seek their favour and forgiveness.

5. Cat got your tongue?: at a loss for words.

Two possibilities, both a bit gruesome. The first refers to the cat-o'-nine-tails, a whip used by the English Navy for flogging, which caused such pain if left the victims speechless. Option two refers to the practice of cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and feeding them to cats.

6. Caught red-handed: caught doing something wrong If someone butchered an animal that didn't belong to him, he had to be caught with the animal's blood on his hands to be convicted. Being caught with freshly-cut meat did not make the person guilty.

7. Eat humble pie: to make a humiliating apology During the Middle Ages, the lord of a manor would hold a feast after hunting. He would receive the finest cut of meat at the feast, but the plebs would get a pie filled with the entrails and innards, known as "umbles." So, receiving "umble pie" was considered bad as it revealed your lower status.

8. Give the cold shoulder: ignoring someone or telling them they're not welcome Another one that has changed in meaning over time. We're back at medieval feasts where the host would let his guests know it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton, or pork which was a friendly gesture.

9. Go cold turkey: to quit something abruptly, usually some sort of drug People believed that during withdrawal, the skin of drug addicts became translucent, hard to the touch, and covered with goose bumps - like the skin of a plucked turkey.

10. Kick the bucket: to die Dates back to around the 16th century when the wooden frame used to hang animals up by their feet for slaughter was called a bucket. When they struggled or indeed suffered a spasm they would kick the bucket.

11. Let your hair down: to relax A couple for this one. First up, women in the 17th century normally pinned their hair up and only let it down for brushing or washing. The term used for this at the time was dishevelling. Anyone who is unkempt might now be described as dishevelled but back then it just meant hair which was unpinned. The second is to do with nobles in Paris who risked condemnation from their peers if they appeared in public without an elaborate hairdo. So of course it was a relaxing ritual for these aristocrats to come home at the end of a long day and let their hair down.

12. Pleased as punch: to be very happy Fairly straightforward, based on the 17th century Punch and Judy puppet show. In performance, the horrible Punch character is depicted as self-satisfied and delighted with his evil deeds, squawking "That's the way to do it!" whenever he dispatches another victim, being as pleased as punch with himself.

13. More than you can shake a stick at: having more of something than you need Farmers controlled their sheep by shaking their staffs to indicate where the animals should go. When farmers had more sheep than they could control, it was said they had "more than you can shake a stick at."

14. Sleep tight -sleep well During Shakespeare's time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. In order to make the bed firmer, you had to pull the ropes to tighten the mattress.

15. Spill the beans: to reveal a secret In Ancient Greece, beans were used to vote for candidates entering various organisations. One container for each candidate was set out before the group members, who would place a white bean in the container if they approved of the candidate and a black bean if they did not. Sometimes a clumsy voter would accidentally knock over the jar, revealing all of the beans and allowing everyone to see the otherwise confidential votes.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 8, 2016
Words:892
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