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Where did that come from?

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:16 UK time, Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Have you ever wondered where some of the words, phrases or sayings that we now use actually originated?

For example, many of us often light bonfires in our gardens. But where did the word come from? In the Middle Ages it was quite normal to dig up people's bones after 30 or 40 years in order to make room in the churchyard. Initially, the bones were put in a charnel house and when this became full they were burned on a "bonefire." The word has, over the years, been shortened to bonfire.

Ordinary Welsh people were never able to taste delicacies such as rabbit
Several of our common phrases or sayings have a Welsh origin. Welsh rabbit - or Welsh rarebit as it is known when served in posh restaurants - is, of course, melted cheese on toast, the cheese sometimes being mixed with eggs, milk and ale.

The dish dates from the sixteenth century when only rich landowners could afford to eat deer or birds from the Welsh game preserves. Many ordinary Welsh people were never able to taste delicacies such as rabbit in their entire lives. But they could afford cheese on toasted bread and jokingly referred to it as their Welsh rabbit. The term stuck.

Those same huge estates also gave us the saying "to eat humble pie." The rich squires and landowners ate the flesh of the deer they had hunted and disdainfully threw away the innards, the 'umbles as they were known, the liver, kidneys and so on. The poor took those 'umbles, baked them into a pie and so "ate 'umble pie." Over the centuries the letter h has been added to the word and it has come to mean admitting inferiority.

The phrase "spooning" dates from sixteenth century Wales when men courting young girls would have to sit under the watchful eye of the family. While sitting there, undoubtedly bored and fed up, they would carve a wooden spoon, complete with intricate patterns, which would be presented to the girl on the wedding day. Thus the Welsh Love Spoon and the term "spooning" came into existence.

One symbol, not a phrase but a gesture, that was always thought to originate with the Welsh has little credibility - which is sad, as it remains a good story. Welsh archers, particularly those from Monmouth, were considered to be the best in the world. The French, with whom the Hundred Years War was being fought, feared their accuracy. To keep captured prisoners was both time consuming and expensive as they had to be guarded and fed.

So when the French captured a Welsh archer they simply cut off the first two fingers of the hand that drew the bowstring and then sent the mutilated archer back to the English forces where such wounded men would be useless.

After the Battle of Agincourt, runs the story, the Welsh archers simply stood on a mound and waved their two fingers at the French prisoners in a gesture of defiance and, of course, as a warning. Unfortunately, the story has little substance.

Although the gesture, the V sign, has been identified on the Macclesfield Psalter of 1330 and, according to some writers from the time, even though Henry V referred to the French practice of cutting off the fingers of soldiers in his pre-battle speech before Agincourt, there is no evidence that such mutilation was ever carried out. Nor does anyone record the Welsh archers waving their two fingers in the air as a gesture of defiance.

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  • Comment number 1.

    South Pembrokeshire has a nice line in distinctive local words and phrases, several dating back to the time when Henry I, having set up a garrison in Pembroke to repel the Welsh, circled the south of the county with castles and peopled this newly-won region with asylum seekers who had been forced out of the Low Countries by severe floods. The region's Flemish inhabitants left a real linguistic mark and to this day Pembrokehire's "down-belowers", will refer to a tangled piece of string or somesuch as "caffled " or "caffled up", a word derived from their weaving Flemish forbears. Likewise the popular Flemish word "drang", meaning a small alleyway.

  • Comment number 2.

    I corrected Roy Noble on the archers "two fingers" legend when I was interviewed on his programme in March (though I don't recall how it came into a conversation which was mainly about Japan). It would be nice if it were true, but I have never seen or read any evidence to back it up.


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