Are you pulling my leg? The surprisingly sinister history of some of Britain's most commonly used phrases


Researchers trawled old newspapers to explore history behind sayings

‘Gone to pot’ refers to once legal punishment of boiling a criminal to death

‘Rule of thumb’ originates from a violent means of solving marital disputes

‘Rule of thumb’: This apparently innocent phrase actually refers to a 19th Century ruling which said a man was entitled to beat his wife with a stick – provided it was no thicker than his thumb

If you were to learn the true origin of the phrase ‘gone to pot’, you might suspect somebody was ‘pulling your leg’.

New research has revealed the surprisingly sinister history behind some of Britain’s most commonly used phrases.

‘Gone to pot’ dates back to a time when boiling a criminal to death was a legal punishment, while ‘pulling someone’s leg’ came into use at a time when London was rife with thieves who tackled their victims by pulling them to the ground by their leg.

The saying ‘meeting a deadline’ refers to a line drawn by soldiers during the American Civil War to deter inmates from trying to escape – those attempting to cross it would be shot in the head.

Researchers at family history website Genes Reunited trawled through old local newspapers to explore the true origins of the common sayings.

Today, applying a ‘rule of thumb’ suggests a practical approach to problem solving, but it originally referred to a violent method of settling marital disputes.

A judge, Sir Francis Buller, ruled ‘a man was entitled to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no thicker than his thumb’, the Glasgow Herald stated in 1886.

Researchers combed through the Herald (1901), Evening Post (1904), Western Daily Press (1949), Glasgow Herald (1886) and North Devon Journal (1896).

Experts discovered ‘paying through the nose’ was a Viking punishment of slitting the nose from tip to eyebrow of anyone who refused to pay tax.

Rhoda Breakell, Head of Genes Reunited, said: ‘The English language is peppered with unusual sayings.

‘We wanted to look back through old newspapers, now fully-searchable online, to discover where they came from and what they really mean.

‘It’s fascinating just how different our modern interpretations are to the origins of these phrases.

‘It goes to show how the lives of our ancestors have influenced our day-to-day lives in ways we do not even realise.

‘We hope people will be encouraged to dabble in their own fascinating searches and discover personal nuggets of family history.’

Genes Reunited’s online newspaper collection includes 515 million records.


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