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Today we’re returning to our series looking at curious English phrases and expressions – things we might say and understand the meaning of, without really knowing where they come from.

Our language is peppered with odd idioms like these. Sometimes their origin is straightforward and obvious, but other times it could be more obscure or simply lost in the mists of time. Today we look at phrases beginning with the letter ‘N’:

Nail you colours to the mast: This is what you do if you want to defiantly display your opinion or allegiance, which is unlikely to change whatever happens. Like many British phrases, its origin is found in our rich naval history. In 17th century sea battles, ships would fly their flags, known as ‘colours’, from the highest mast and they would only be lowered, or ‘struck’, as a mark of surrender. However, the best way to disable an enemy ship was to bring down its masts with cannon fire, so sometimes the colours would come down with a shattered mainmast. If this happened but the ship’s captain was determined to fight on, he would have the colours hoisted on whatever remained of the ship’s rigging, to defiantly show he was still in the battle. The idea of nailing your colours to the mast originated in 1797, when able seaman Jack Crawford climbed what was left of the mast of his damaged ship, the Venerable, and nailed its colours back in place. Since the Venerable was the flagship of the small British fleet fighting a larger Dutch force, Crawford’s brave act inspired the other ships’ crews to fight on to eventual victory, ending Dutch dominance at sea. Crawford received a hero’s welcome in his home town of Sunderland, where a statue of him still stands.

Never the twain shall meet: This phrase refers to two things that are so fundamentally different or opposed, that they could never unite as one. ‘Twain’ is just an archaic word for ‘two’, derived from the old English word ‘twegen’. The first use of the phrase in literature is found in Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 work “Barrack-room Ballads”, in which he laments the massive cultural divide between the ruling British forces and the native inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Kipling, coining a phrase which has since evolved a broader application.

No rest for the wicked: These days we tend to use this phrase in a light-hearted way, meaning we have to carry on with a job of work even though we might be tired or would rather be doing something else. For example; “There’s no rest for the wicked,” laughed John, picking up his shovel as his pals headed for the pub without him. The original and much more literal meaning is that people who are wicked during their lifetime on Earth will be tormented for eternity in Hell, with no prospect of respite. It was originally expressed as “no peace for the wicked” and, not surprisingly, comes from the Bible, found in Isaiah chapter 57 verse 21.

Nosy parker: If someone is annoyingly inquisitive and prone to prying in other people’s business, we might well call them a ‘nosy parker’, but why? There was a Matthew Parker who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 to 1575 and who had a well-deserved reputation for wanting to know everything about his clerics’ qualifications and activities. He ordered several unpopular inquiries to gain the information he wanted, but there is no evidence for him ever being called ‘nosy Parker’. In any case, back then ‘nosy’ simply meant someone with a big nose and the phrase doesn’t seem to have originated until centuries after the Archbishop’s death. A ‘parker’ was originally someone who looked after parks, not the type with swings and slides, but large areas owned by the landed gentry, used for hunting and other outdoor pursuits. Since these secluded areas were also used by courting couples, a ‘nosy parker’ might be one who spied on them, but again there’s no evidence for this. Or for a link to Parker, Lady Penelope’s Roman-nosed butler in 1960s TV series “Thunderbirds”. Frustratingly, there is no clear answer to this one.

Namby pamby: Anything or anyone who is weak and ineffectual is described as ‘namby pamby’, but where does that come from? The answer is English playwright and poet Ambrose Philips, who in 1741 was appointed tutor to King George I’s grandchildren. He blatantly used his role to advance his position in society by writing and publishing sickly-sweet sycophantic and sentimental poems about the children of the aristocracy, often using nursery-style prose. Not surprisingly, this earned derision from his rival poets, who nicknamed him ‘Namby Pamby’ (a nursery-style play on his first name) after Philips published the exceptionally toadying poem “To the Honourable Miss Carteret” in 1725. The derogatory nickname caught on and was soon used to describe the ineffectual style of writing associated with Philips, and later anything that was weak and insipid.

Ne’er cast a clout till May is out: This is more of a proverb, dating from at least the early 1700s and meaning don’t discard an item of clothing before the end of May. In modern times, when people own more clothes, it can also mean don’t switch to your summer wardrobe until June is here. A ‘clout’ is simply an old word for a piece of clothing, perhaps your warm winter coat. Even though the odd May day might be deceptively warm and sunny, it could be a mistake to ‘cast a clout’ as the British spring can soon turn wintry again. The word ‘May’ might not refer directly to the month, but to the blossom of the hawthorn tree, also called ‘may’. It usually flowers in late April to early May, so the ‘till May is out’ might mean until the hawthorn is in bloom.

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