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 ‘P’:
Pleased as Punch: Someone who is as ‘pleased as Punch’ is very pleased, usually with themselves. The phrase derives from the traditional puppet character Mr Punch, star of Punch and Judy shows for hundreds of years. Originating in 16th century Italy as ‘Punchinello’, Mr Punch is actually quite a despicable character, best known for regularly beating his wife Judy with a “slap-stick” and for killing off other characters. Even so, the grotesque character is always delighted with his evil deeds and very self-satisfied, squawking his catchphrase “That’s the way to do it!”. More modern Punch and Judy shows, still popular at fairs and seaside resorts, have toned down his antics and ensured he usually gets his comeuppance, but it’s still easy to see how the phrase “pleased as Punch” originated. It is found in literature from about 1800, along with the similar ‘proud as Punch’, both of which were used by Charles Dickens.
Point-blank: An attack launched at ‘point-blank range’ is one at very close quarters and unlikely to miss. This phrase dates way back to the Middle Ages, when archery and artillery targets were usually white, making them easy to see. So the ‘blank’ part of the phrase comes from the French word ‘blanc’, which means white. If we then assume that ‘point blank’ means close to the target, where does the ‘point’ come from? These days we think of point black as being immediately next to, even touching, such as the muzzle of a gun held to someone’s head. But the original meaning could have indicated a much greater range, as long as the ‘point’ of the archer’s arrow was in a direct line of sight with the ‘blanc’ target. A skilled archer would be expected to hit a target which he could easily line up with the point of his arrow.
Packed to the gunwales: Anything that is ‘packed to the gunwales’ is full to the brim, with no spare space left over. Like many English phrases, this one had a seafaring origin. The ‘gunwales’ (pronounced gunnels) were the outer walls of a ship, the ones from which its guns protruded – literally its ‘gun walls’. An even more specific definition of gunwales is the upper edges of a ship’s sides, were they meet the underside of the open deck. So a ship that was ‘packed to the gunwales’ was fully loaded with cargo and unable to have any more squeezed in. Like many nautical phrases, it later seeped into general use and from around the mid-20th century was being used to describe anything that was extremely full, from a packing case to a public house.
Paint the town red: If you are embarking on an exuberant and often alcohol-fuelled night out, you might be about the ‘pain the town red’, but where does the phrase come from? As with many phrases, there are competing theories, some relating to the spilling of blood, but let’s focus on one of the stronger contenders, dating from 1837. It involves the Marquis of Waterford, officially Henry de la Poer Beresford, but better known as “the Mad Marquis”. He was renowned foir his (often drunken) exploits, including brawling, stealing, smashing windows, overturning traders’ carts, fighting duels and being “invited to leave” Oxford University. On one occasion he took a disliking to a local parson, so painted the hooves of his horse with aniseed then released his foxhounds in pursuit of the man. On one riotous night out in Melton Mowbray, the Marquis and his hooligan friends literally painted the town red, daubing red paint on the town’s toll-bar and several other buildings, much to the consternation of the locals.
Pass the buck: If you ‘pass the buck’ you pass on responsibility to someone else, particularly if you want to avoid being blamed if something goes wrong. Although originating in America, the ‘buck’ in this phrase isn’t the slang term for a dollar, but may well be why a dollar is a ‘buck’. The phrase comes from poker, a form of gambling renowned for cheating in the 19th century. To limit opportunities for cheating, players took turns to deal the cards at the beginning of each game. The player next in line to deal was given a marker, often a knife as this was a readily available object which most men carried. Because their handles were made of buck’s horn, they were known as buck knives, or just a buck for short. So when the dealer’s turn was done, he ‘passed the buck’ to the next man responsible for dealing. Later on, silver dollars were used as markers, which is probably why a dollar became a ‘buck’. Anyone keen to show they took full responsibility for their actions might also use the phrase “the buck stops here” – a phrase popularised by US President Harry S. Truman, who had it on a sign on his desk in the Oval Office.