SKELETON IN THE CLOSET

 

Definition: A shameful secret, one that could ruin an individual’s reputation.

Example: Every family has a skeleton in the closet. The Jones’ was that Grandpa had been arrested for streaking at the age of 79.

Origin:

‘Skeleton in the closet’ is a common American idiom, although it has become more common in the UK in recent years. Previously, it was  expressed as ‘skeleton in the cupboard’ there. Why? Closet was a short form of ‘water closet’ in the UK. A water closet is a toilet and a toilet probably isn’t an ideal place to hide a skeleton. As the use of ‘water closet’ dies out in UK English, so the use of ‘skeleton in the closet’ increases.

Have we bored you yet?

The first printed use of the phrase was in 1816, but who inspired the image of skeletal corpses hanging in bedroom cabinets is unclear.

Unsurprisingly, there are suggestions to fill the void.

Theory the first:

‘Skeleton in the closet’ arose from the UK practise of body snatching. Prior to 1832 and the Anatomy Act, there was a distinct shortage of corpses for medical schools to teach anatomy and dissection. The only permissible specimens were those of executed criminals, and there were simply not enough to go around. A lucrative black market trade sprang up around this shortage. Freshly buried corpses mysteriously vanished across the country, finding their way to medical schools.

The most notorious case was that of Burke and Hare who couldn’t wait for people to die naturally, and took to murdering their victims and selling their corpses immediately. Iddy supposes it saved a lot of hard labour. After all, digging up bodies is a lot of work.

Thus, ‘skeleton in the closet’ springs from the fact that the doctors involved had to keep their illicit dissection subjects hidden away, perhaps in closets. Sounds possible. But there is no direct evidence to support it. Maybe it’s just another of those gloriously grisly stories that seems to spring up whenever nobody knows the true origin of a phrase.

Theory the second

This tale relates to a true life skeleton in a closet , though it is far from hidden away. Jeremy Bentham was a prominent British philosopher and reformist of the 18th and 19th centuries. Upon his death, he had made preparations to have his body preserved. And so it was. His skeleton and mummified head were posed in a cabinet and dressed in his clothes. He’s still on display at University College London.

Sounds great, but alas, his preservation came after the first usages of the phrase.

Iddy doesn’t care where that skeleton came from. He just wants it out of his closet.

STORM IN A TEACUP or TEMPEST IN A TEAPOT

Definition: Something minor or trivial that is blown out of all proportion.

Example: The debate at the Christmas dinner table over which side of the plate to put the dessert spoon soon developed into a storm in a teacup, with Grandma hitting Uncle Bob squarely between the eyes with her own spoon.

Origin:

Storm in a teacup is the UK version of the phrase, Tempest in a teapot, the American.

Why there is so much inclement weather in drinking vessels is a bit unclear. However, what is apparent, is that same weather is not restricted just to teacups and teapots.

In 1678, there is record of a storm in a cream bowl. In 1830, there is a storm in a wash-hand basin. It is not until 1825 that the American rendition of tempest in a teapot is reported in a Scottish publication, and another 13 years until the UK version of storm in a teacup appears, also from Scotland.

There are variations on the theme in other languages. The Roman poet, Cicero, refers to ‘stirring up billows in a ladle’ back in 52 BC. The Dutch, to this day, experience a storm in a glass of water. The Hungarians have the most unhygienic storm; a tempest in a potty.

Iddy’s relieved that he didn’t need to check that one out.

YELLOW-BELLY

Definition: A coward

Example: Maurice proved to be a yellow-belly when the mouse appeared and he ran from the room screaming.

Origin:

Yellow-belly, in its current meaning, is a wholly American introduction to the English language.

The term did exist previously in UK English, but with a totally different meaning. It was an insulting term for the poor folk that lived in the marshy Fens of Lincolnshire. It is not clear why. Some say it may have been due to the general waxen complexion of those people. After all, living in a swamp is not the healthiest of places. Others think it may have been a deeper insult, comparing the peoples’ bellies to the bellies of eels, a staple food at the time.

Another tale comes from the ancient Gaelic sport of ‘hurling’, a combination of football, hockey. rugby, and just about everything else in-between. In the late 1500s, the team from Wexford played Cornwall with yellow cloths tied about their waists. They came to be known as the Yellowbellies. To this day, the Wexford side is still named that, and have traded the cloths for yellow jerseys. There are no indications that the players were anything but perfect gentlemen. No reports of cowardice here!

For that, we must cross the Atlantic. And to some good old fashioned racism. It seems that the phrase came into usage in the mid-1800s  during the Mexican-American War, to describe Mexican soldiers. It is as unclear why the colour yellow was chosen. Whatever the reason, it was unlikely to be a good one. Perhaps a reference to skin colour. Perhaps, like the eels in Lincolnshire, a reference to the bellies of snakes and lizards.

It was Hollywood Westerns that really cemented the term, and its meaning of cowardice. Hardly a movie passed without the calling out of a ‘yellow-bellied varmint‘.

Iddy’s not sure if yellow suits him.

CHIP ON HIS SHOULDER

chip on his shoulder

Definition: An angry outlook fostered by a grievance, grudge, or low self-esteem.

Example: “Don’t mind him,” Lois told her secretary. “John’s got a chip on his shoulder since I beat him in the hot dog eating competition.”

 Origin:

First of all, chips aren’t sexist. They can sit on her shoulder as easily as his.

Secondly, the chip referred to is a wood chip, not one made of deep fried potato, nor the kind Iddy models here, a silicon chip.

As for the chip’s origin, there appear to be two possibilities:

  1. In the 1700s, dockyard workers in England had job benefits other workers did not. They were allowed to take scrap wood from the construction and repair of ships home, for construction or firewood. Specifically, the Navy Council declared in 1739 that they could remove as much as they could carry upon their shoulder (subject to inspection by their superiors, of course). Later, that allowance was reduced to as much as they could carry under one arm. This became a grievance among the dockers. So, it appears we have all the elements needed to form our idiom. Chips. Shoulders. Grievances. One little hitch though. There is close to 200 years between this episode and the arrival of our phrase around 1930.
  2. It is more likely it is derived from  manly shenanigans in the US during the 1800s. There was a custom of placing a small piece of wood (or chip) upon your shoulder and daring others to knock it off, followed by more serious fighting involving fists, kicks, and broken teeth. Sounds very entertaining. Remember. These fellows didn’t have 94 episodes of Sex and the City to entertain them.

Iddy had a very difficult time illustrating this idiom. Mainly because he really doesn’t have shoulders….

GREEN THUMB

Definition: Skilled at gardening/growing plants

Example: Simone definitely possessed a green thumb. Her sunflowers were so large, she was going to need a chainsaw to cut them down.

Origin:

Gardeners were originally described  as having ‘green fingers‘ in the UK in the 1930s. In the US, the phrase surfaced as ‘green thumb‘ a decade later, where it has remained the sole term. Meanwhile, back in the UK, ‘green thumb‘ appeared alongside its original incarnation, and both are used today.

Its no great stretch of the imagination to make the connection between green fingers or thumbs and somebody who works in a garden. It is said to specifically relate to the handling of clay pots, where the green algae that builds up along their rim stains the handler’s hands.

A widely disputed origin claims it relates to King Edward I. Apparently he loved green peas. Kitchen staff were put into competition to find who could shell the most peas, the best sheller receiving a prize. All the participants were rewarded with green stained thumbs for their efforts.

Iddy doesn’t think this sounds plausible. If hundreds of hours of watching TV has taught him one thing, it is that Kings don’t love green peas. They love beheadings and getting rid of their wives. In fact, a King likes nothing more than an activity that combines both of those.

Iddy also had a bit of difficulty illustrating this idiom. After all, he already has a green thumb. If you want to be really picky about his interpretation, he’s actually illustrating a ‘greener thumb.’