English Idioms are mostly Anglicised cum Rationalised (Scottish) Gaelic
Steve Moxon, Sheffield, England. firstname.lastname@example.org
March 18, 2021
A Creative Commons copyright applies: anyone may use this material on condition of attributing authorship to Steve Moxon (Steven P Moxon)
Astonishingly, many, indeed the majority, if not the great majority of English idioms / expressions / sayings / well-known phrases turn out to be Anglicised-cum-rationalised Scottish Gaelic through a process of folk etymology: in the transition from Gaelic-speaking to English-speaking, people came to forget the literal meaning of a phrase but retained the phrase in both its gut-level or meta meaning as well as it’s sound, and sought to fit both sound and meaning into English, mangling both in the process, producing often wonderfully bastardised results. Most of these have outlandish tall story putative origins that would have been laughed off had there been any available etymology. Well now there is.
This is a brand new discovery, through my own, independent research. To my knowledge there is no precedent even of a single instance of a putative Gaelic origin of any English idiom. A list of well-known English idioms, each with its putative Gaelic original, is below. This is not exhaustive: the work is in progress, and there are some idioms that are very modern, of course, and others that are literary — direct translations from classical or Biblical sources — although some of these have been rendered in Gaelic subsequently to go through folk etymology.
Derivations are from using old (Scottish) Gaelic dictionaries — notably the 1825-published A Gaelic Dictionary in Two Parts — which contain whole common phrases as well as lexicons closer to the language as it would have been when the Anglicisation / rationalisation took place; and on-line translation facilities — which of course are contemporary, so produce more of an approximation, nonetheless capturing the general meaning — together with checking pronunciation either by using on-line pronunciation facilities and/or Gaelic pronunciation or etymological dictionaries.
Meanings may be related rather than a direct correspondence — tangential even — as might be expected in what is folk etymology in action, as it were. Rationalisation is in context, so a word in Gaelic taken to be another in English might well never have been the case had the word been standalone and not in the context of its phrase. Similarity in sound would be too far removed. A further complication is that the rendering of the Gaelic itself likely would be modified in any English-speaking context, predisposing the different ‘take’ on it in English. Also note that the whole original phrase may be rendered only in part into English — merely that portion which may be especially memorable and lends itself to rendering in English both sound- and meaning-wise; and this may itself be only part of the English phrase to which, thereby, it has become assimiliated.
Note that the earliest recorded date of an idiom — whether particularly recent or old — in no way reveals an origin, as such things were rarely the subject of recording prior to our modern formal interest in them. In times when little of anything was recorded, something alluding to ordinary people’s vernacular usage was never likely to be. Many old idioms that have hung on more especially in remoter areas could remain unrecorded even into the 1950s — that is, recorded in a way that was accessible to academic researchers; of course, these dates will be being put back as more and more obscure information sources are digitised.
The combination of the similar sounds together with apposite meanings in whole-phrase context provides compelling evidence of a hidden Gaelic core to English; that is, that English is in large part a veneer on Gaelic. This complements the previous findings of a Gaelic core to vernacular English (the key language in maintaining conversation, and key vocabulary), the Gaelic derivation of English place-names, and the etymology of names of our major mythological figures (Robin Hood, King Arthur, St George) and their associations.
The upshot is that it is becoming had to avoid the need for a revolution in the etymology of English, as long ago proposed but ignored simply because of a refusal to even begin to look at Gaelic lexicons in attempting derivation.
I’ll begin with some key expressions more familiar to northerners, but most are highly familiar throughout England, and Britain as a whole; and in no particular order. These will be added to as, no doubt, even more are deciphered, as it were.
(IT’S) BLACK O’ER OUR BILL’S/WILL’S MOTHER’S (bad weather is on the way)
beagan dubh suas air a h-uile mullacha, ‘a bit black up on all the tops’.
Taken to be (or something like) ‘becoming dark o’er our will’s mother’s’. (Will is the original rendering, but Bill is the same name of course)
(I) GO TO OUR HOUSE (sardonic expression of exaggerated surprise)
gu tur air ais, ‘completely backwards!’
(I) GO TO THE FOOT OF OUR STAIRS (alternative sardonic expression of exaggerated surprise)
gu tur fiadhaich air a stiùireadh, ‘completely wild guessing’.
(PUT) WOOD IN’T OYL (close the door)
h-uiread ‘s a dh’ olas: a distinctive and rationalisable portion of the expression, na h-uiread ‘s a dh’ olas neach air aon tarruing, ‘draught (of cold air)’.
KEEP T’BAND IN T’NICK (to keep things running smoothly)
ge buan an t-slighe, ‘though tedious be the way’, from buan, ‘lasting, durable; long, tedious; hardy, tough’.
RUN UP A SHUTTER AND PUMP THUNDER (quip to bored, restless children)
roinnidh an neo-chionntach an t’airgead, ‘the innocent shall divide the silver’.
A Biblical phrase (from Job), interpreted in the sense of the righteous getting their just deserts that they then share with each other.
The word pump appears to be an insertion due to its association with thunder through the old idiom to hell and pump thunder, so that what otherwise would be complete nonsense at least makes internal sense.
BRASS MONKEY (WEATHER)
bras bhuinne, ‘stormy sea, torrent, strong current, whirlpool’.
Earliest references were to ‘hot enough to melt the nose h’off a brass monkey’, as well as ‘freezing the tail of a brass monkey’, so rather than cold weather the term is in respect of adverse weather more generally. The context, given the rationalisation in terms of naval kit, evidently is the sea.
(GOT T’) MONK ON / MONKEY ON THE SHOULDER (in a bad mood or sulking)
muiniceach, ‘stiff-necked, obstinate’ + shealbhú, ‘possessed’, with an appropriate conjunctive.
CHIP ON THE SHOULDER
chippy-nutie a shealbhú, ‘possessed by a mischievous spirit’.
From nuathaigh, ‘heaven’ and c(h)apam, ‘renounce, disown’, so chippy-nutie is ‘heaven renounced’. It’s the name in Scotland of a goblin, sprite or mischievous spirit, with shealbhú, ‘possessed’.
A co- or alternative root is c(h)iap, ‘vex, torment’, ciapall, ‘vexation, strife, contention, quarrelling, quarrelsome’; ciapallach, ‘vexatious, tormenting, contentious’; ciapallaiche, ‘a vexatious or troublesome fellow, a quarrelsome fellow’.
(DON’T LET THE) CAT OUT OF THE BAG
caithidh an t-amadan, ‘the fool will squander’.
From caith, ‘spend, waste, squander, pass, consume, exhaust, wear’.
(SEE) A MAN ABOUT A DOG (an excuse to leave meant to be seen as untrue)
a-mhàin gun a bhith a ’dol gu, ‘only not going to’ or ‘just not going to’.
AT THE DROP OF A HAT
air a dhèanamh sa bhad, ‘done immediately’ (dèan e sa bhad, ‘do it immediately’; sa bhad, ‘immediately’).
CALL IT A DAY
an càladh ait, ‘the joyful shore’.
From càladh càladh, ‘harbour’. The sense is of a safe haven at the end of the day. an càladh aigh annsadh, ‘the joyous wished for harbour’.
(IT WAS) TOUCH & GO
(tha) teagamh ann gum, ‘(there is) a doubt that …’
From teagmhach, ‘doubtful’.
TWO SHAKES OF A (DEAD) LAMB’S TAIL
an toiseach gu deireadh an t-saoghail, ‘from beginning to end is a long long time’.
The phrase an toiseach an t-saoghail, ‘a long time ago’, literally ‘from the beginning of the world’, is the first part of Gaelic saying that in its complete meaning is ‘a long long time ago, long long ago’. The phrase thoiseach gu deireadh, ‘from beginning to end’, appears here to be combined, to make an expression with the literal meaning ‘from the beginning to the end of the world’, meaning or in the sense of ‘a very long time indeed’.
BY THE SKIN OF YOUR TEETH
bha e teann ach theich me,’ it was tight but I escaped / did escape’; rinn mi teicheadh, ‘I made my escape’.
DON’T LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH
na toir gufarghoill mealltu, ‘do not be deceived’.
Gufarghoill means ‘false testimony’.
BOB’S YER UNCLE
bhuanaich iad cliù, ‘they won renown’ or ‘obtained the praise’ (as stiffly put, back in 1825).
LOCK, STOCK & BARREL
liosta a ’toirt a-steach a h-uile càil, ‘list including everything’.
SLEEP LIKE A BABY
scíth a ligean beagán, ‘relax a bit’.
(FIT AS A) BUTCHER’S DOG
buaidh-ghaireachdaich, ‘a continued shout of triumph / voice of victory’.
Closely related is boidh-each, ‘fit (in the sense of capable)’ — newer dictionaries have it as ‘beautiful, pretty, fair, cute’ — and buaidheach, ‘having virtues, victorious, effective’. The suffix –daich adds ‘continued’.
BREAK A LEG and BLACK CAT, BREAD & BUTTER (several ‘good luck’ idioms)
beannachd leat, ‘good luck’.
BURNING THE CANDLE AT BOTH ENDS
glè bheag no gun chadal ann a bhith (?), ‘little or no sleep in being (tired)’. [The last word is likely a grammatical variant of eudaich, ‘tire’.]
From codal, cadal, ‘sleep’.
(IT’S) ALL MY EYE AND BETTY MARTIN (once highly popular, used to respond to what is considered a lot of nonsense (north of the Midlands it’s Peggy rather than Betty).
adh mor ort (pronounced awn-more-oert), ‘(good) luck to you!’; baothair, ‘simpleton, foolish fellow’; plus amaideachd, ‘nonsense’ or ‘folly’, that are known to go together, having been recorded as the hybrid baothaireachd, ‘nonsense’.
DEAD AS A DOORNAIL
chaidh thu fa dhorchadh, ‘thou hast gone to darkness’.
DRESSED UP TO THE NINES
deishmhigham, ‘to dress’.
PULLING YOUR LEG
puicean + leig, ‘permitting a veiling of the eyes’.
Leig means ‘let fall; overturn; lay; place; lower, diminish’, from Old Irish lig, ‘permit’; and puicean, ein, means ‘a veil or cover over the eyes; blind-man’s buff’.
PULLING THE WOOL OVER SOMEONE’S EYES
puicean + uaill, ‘veiling of the eyes from dignity’.
Rendering someone — or facilitating someone to self-inflict becoming — undignified without them being aware of it. Making fun of someone at their expense.
Again, puicean is ‘permitting a veiling of the eyes’; here with uaill, ‘pride, conceit, dignity’.
CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE
cha ghabh e dìon, ‘he won’t admit protects’ or ‘it cannot be defended’.
Dìon,means ‘shelter, protect, guard, cover’.
(MAD) AS A HATTER
air a chuthach, ‘mad’; tha e air ghlan chuthach, ‘he is stark mad’.
DON’T TRY TO TEACH YOUR GRANDMA TO SUCK EGGS
na feuch ris na tha fios againn mu thràth a theagasg, ‘don’t try to teach what already we know’
GO TO HELL IN A HANDCART / HANDBASKET / HANDBAG
gus do shàbhaladh fhèin atharraich do bheatha, ‘to save yourself change your life’.
(IN A) PICKLE
peireagal, ‘danger; urgent necessity’.
LED UP(/DOWN) THE GARDEN (PATH)
Le d’ ghairdean deas, ‘with thy right hand’.
The right hand is supposedly the helpful hand, so the meaning here is in terms of being led somewhere under false pretences, as indeed is the meaning of the Anglicised-cum-rationalised phrase.
gaird, gairdean, ‘an arm; a hand’; gairdeanach, ‘strong-armed; large-armed; long-armed; brachial’.
(A SIGHT) FOR SORE EYES
fear-saoraidh, ‘a saviour’.
The meaning in the English take is tangential but clearly related to the meaning in the original Gaelic, especially when you consider a likely co-root of the original Gaelic in sgiamhach, ‘beautiful, elegant, handsome’, and/or sgiamhaich, ‘beautify’; which meaning would continue to be felt at ‘gut’ level by the now English speaker, even if the literal meaning was no longer known.
BETWEEN YOU & ME & THE BED-POST
bidh e a ’fuireach anns an leabaidh pòsaidh, ‘it stays in the marriage bed’.
This makes full sense as a nice expression about husband-and-wife confidentiality, with the bed being the only witness.
AS THICK AS … TWO SHORT PLANKS / MINCE … ETC
a ’tuigsinn dad, ‘understanding nothing’.
From thuig, ‘understand’, and perhaps also t(h)aic, ‘dependence’.
(IT’S RAINING) CATS & DOGS
sgap and doirt are both terms for a shower of rain.
fàth iongantais, ‘a cause of wonder’.
raiteachail, ‘boastful; apt to prate; arrogant’; raiteachas (Irish raidteachas), ‘lie, boastful speech, idle speech, desultory, unmeaning language; an idle surmise’.
BLOW YOUR OWN TRUMPET
beul nach canadh ach stuaim, ‘a mouth that would not utter but modest words’.
BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE
beachdachadh, ‘a considering, viewing, meditating, watching; consideration, meditation’.
(CAN’T …. TO) SAVE YOUR LIFE
saobanachadh, ‘a swinging, as on a rope’.
An essence of the meaning has been retained in the rationalisation, as ‘swinging from a rope’ is a direct description of death by hanging.
A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME
A construction from biodanach, ‘tattling, prating; a tattler, tale-bearer’, and liuthair, ‘deliver, give up’.
Biodanach also means ‘a bickering, eternally scolding, complaining female’.
The bird as an intermediary protecting the identity of the informant is an ancient notion, and very much applies to gossip, as it could not occur without the displacement of responsibility from any individual communicator on the understanding that it is a collective phenomenon. In effect, the author of the tale told is biodh, ‘the world’.
(A) PIECE OF CAKE
piseagach, ‘superstitious; like a wizard; like a kitten’.
Piseagaiche is ‘a sorcerer; a wizard; a superstitious person’; piseach is ‘good luck; prosperity; fate; blessing; increase or produce; issue’.
(WITH) FLYING COLOURS
fleaghachas, ‘feasting, banqueting, carousing, revelry’.
TO SEE EYE TO EYE
(TO KEEP AN) EYE ON THE BALL
(UP TO MI) EYEBALLS / EYES / EARS (in something)
eobhrat, eobhrait, ‘a head-dress; a cap; a coif’.
(HIT THE) NAIL ON THE HEAD
neuladaireachd, pronounced nyéll-ad-åėr-achg, ‘astrology, astronomy, meteorology’; ‘seeing in the sky the progress of death’; also, ‘a sneaking and gazing about’.
Neuladair (Irish neuladoir), ‘an astrologer; a meteorologist’.
KICK THE BUCKET
caochladh na beatha, ‘the change of life’, that is, ‘death’.
The etymological connections here are caochla, caochladh, aidh (Irish caochladh), ‘a change, an alteration; death; dying; passing away’; caochladh na beatha (‘s na bliadhna), ‘the changes of life (and of time)’.
(WHEN) PIGS FLY
piseag, eig, (Irish piseog), ‘sorcery, witchcraft; superstitious ceremony’, pl piseagan.
Piseagach, ‘superstitious; like a wizard; like a kitten’; piseagaiche, ‘a sorcerer; a wizard; a superstitious person’.
(THE) WHOLE NINE YARDS
uaill-mhiannach, (Irish uaillmhianach), ‘ambitious; fond of rank or distinction’.
BITE THE BULLET
beannachd is buaidh leat, ‘blessing and success go with you’.
UP TO SCRATCH
uspairneach, ‘emulous; causing emulation; striving, struggling’.
BREAK THE ICE
braoisgeanacmd, ‘the habit of grinning’.
ceart-bhreitheach, ‘just in judging’.
LET ONE’S HAIR DOWN
bithidh luath-ghliir ann, ‘there shall be a shouting’.
bùireanach, ‘roaring, bellowing, noisy’.
EAT HUMBLE PIE
eas-urramach, ‘disrespectful, dishonourable, disgraceful; contemptuous; causing dishonour or disrespect’ — multiple grammatical alternatives.