I was discussing recently the idea of innate intelligence. As in, what separates us from each other in terms of intellectual ability. I am intrigued by the question of whether there is even a way to truly rank people in regards to intelligence, especially when it often appears that there are so many types of intelligence. As Einstein once said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” So imagine my dismay when the person I was discussing this with asked me if I had heard about the ‘super IQ’ test invented by Ronald K. Hoeflin. I, of course, had not, and was perplexed how this was supposed to answer my initial enquiry. My friend then said he knew one of the questions, and so proudly asked me, “Teeth is to Hen, as Nest is to … what?”
I stared at him, baffled. Cuckoo? On account of them not making nests (I was supposing). I was, of course, guessing wrong. “Mare,” he said, matter of factly, before turning to walk away. A mare’s nest, it turns out, was a term common in literature from around 1650 to 1850, and so only those who were well read would be able to know and recognise this. Both ‘hens teeth’ and ‘mare’s nest’ have similar meanings; something is extremely rare (rare as hen’s teeth), or an illusory discovery (a mare’s nest). Essentially, something so rare as to be non-existent. My friend had merely perpetuated an archaic approach to intellectual appreciation, and fallen into the age old trap of undermining another with the use of a tricky, niche intelligence question designed to alienate and promote hierarchy. That said, I wish I’d known the answer… So, proof idioms could save your life? Not quite, but proof they can be very interesting, and could also help you gain a mega IQ score of 180+ without needing to study? Perhaps.
We have already explored the history of some idioms in a previous post, but here we expand on this information with a few more for your reading pleasure, courtesy of recommendations from bloggers such as Quilt Musings. Dark Horse The word ‘dark’ found a lot of use in Victorian England to describe anything mysterious or unknown, hence it became a popular term used to discuss any outside horse who was able to surprise the order and win a race from around the 1830’s onwards. Interestingly, this idiom translates almost exactly into many languages, from Finnish (musta hevonen) to Chinese (黑馬). Still… horses are not to be trusted, dark or not.
Raining Cats and Dogs
This is one of those expressions that people often wish had a literal origin, but alas it does not. The real truth behind this saying is much darker than merely the cute idea of furry rain. England in the 1700s was, to put it bluntly, pretty disgusting. Many houses didn’t have toilets, and you would normally throw your faeces straight out of the window and into the street. After time, as you can imagine, the streets became a place for all kinds of rubbish, and many people would dump many different things into the streets along with the faecal matter. This included the dead bodies of animals! Now, we are all aware that England is a drizzly land of rain. It is often named as the place where rain was invented (citation needed) and this rain would often lead to storms and minor floods. In such floods, it would not be uncommon to see the corpses of pets and animals floating in the street. The earliest reference of this can be seen in the poem ‘A description of a city shower’ by Jonathan Swift, first published in Tatler magazine in 1710, where he refers to dead animal bodies floating in the streets, along with other gross things. Urgh!
To see it in it’s current form, we have to look a little later to a book by Jonathan Swift titled A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation. It was released in 1738 and contains the line: “I know sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.” See the quote and a picture of the man for yourself here at izquotes.com
Turn a Blind Eye
For this particular idiom, we must journey back to the battle of Copenhagen in 1801; a navy tussle between British forces and a combined opposition of Norwegian/Danish ships. Admiral Hiratio Nelson was leading an attack with a fleet commanded by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Now, it was common at that point in history for ships to communicate between each other using semaphore and flags. During the heat of battle smoke and general fighting could distract and disrupt messages, and it was not unheard of for some to be misunderstood completely. Nelson, it should be noted, was a man who already contained a rather rebellious disregard for orders when they contravened his innate desire for success at all costs. The ambiguity of flag signals only seemed to play into his already heightened sense of disregard for key orders at key moments. Nelson = Badass.
As Nelson was leading a charge again Danish broadsides, his position started to look a little weaker from the distance. Parker, fearing that Nelson was only charging in further to battle to save face and not be seen as a coward, offered Nelson an ‘out’ by signalling the order for retreat. Nelson had previously lost the sight in one eye during a campaign in Cadiz in Spain before, after shrapnel sent sand and stone at his face. Upon noticing the flag command coming from Admiral Parker, Nelson turned to his flag captain (Foley) and said: “Foley, you know that I have lost an eye, and have a right to be blind sometimes.” He then raised the telescope to his blind eye and said, “I really do not see the signal”. Find the quote here. And so a hero and a rather apt idiom was born.
The story of words and how they have come to find use is fascinating, and I hope you enjoyed it too. As always, comments are valued and appreciated. Is there an idiom you really wish had made it in this time? Let me know below.
Special thanks to phrases.org.uk for the wonderful information
Another special thanks to Habbick, James Barker, koko-tewan, papaija2008, stockimages, Tina Phillips and vectorolie @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.
© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015