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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 ‘U’:

Unkindest cut of all: If everyone around you is criticising something you’ve said or done, the criticism which cuts deepest and hurts most is the one from your closest friend or ally; this is the unkindest cut of all. The phrase, like so many in the English language, seems to have been originated, or at least popularised, by William Shakespeare. It is found in his play of 1601, “Julius Caesar”, in a monologue delivered by Antony describing the events when Caesar was stabbed to death by a traitorous crowd of Roman senators. Since Brutus was Caesar’s dear and trusted friend, it was the thrust of his dagger which was, as Shakespeare wrote, “the most unkindest cut of all”. Though his grammar would horrify today’s English teachers and outrage your computer’s grammar check software, it was common at the time. Incidentally, the same monologue begins with another well-worn phrase: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now”.

Upper crust: Someone who is an aristocrat or from the higher echelons of society is of the ‘upper crust’. The most frequently heard explanation of this phrase claims that as far back as the 1500s the unburnt upper part of a loaf of bread was served to the gentry while the lower part, likely to be dry and burnt black on the floor of a medieval oven, went to the servants. While it sounds believable, there is virtually no evidence for this being the case. The phrase only begins to appear in print from the early 1800s, when it was used to describe either the Earth’s surface or the highest part of someone’s body – their head or hat. Thus the upper crust were simply the higher-ups in society. While this explanation is not as romantic or (forgive the pun) ‘floury’ as the bread one, there is far more evidence for it.

Use your loaf!: Here we go with the bread again, this time in a phrase meaning use your brains or common sense. It seems to originate from around the 1920s and was popular in the armed forces, so much so that it was formally defined in a 1943 book of “Service Slang” as follows: “Use your loaf is the injunction often heard when someone is particularly slow in following orders. But this phrase, in its finer meanings, says: 'Use your common sense. Interpret orders according to the situation as you find it, and don't follow the book of words too literally’.” Thankfully the origin of this phrase is much more straightforward, as it is simply a good example of Cockney rhyming slang: Use your loaf of bread = use your head.

Under the thumb: If you are completely under someone’s control you are said to be under their thumb, the phrase often used to refer to a henpecked husband ‘under the thumb’ of a domineering wife. This is another phrase to which various fanciful origins have been ascribed with little or no evidence. One is that defeated gladiators in the coliseum had their fate determined by which way the Emperor turned his thumb; if it was ‘thumbs up’ he was spared, but a downturned thumb ordered the victor to finish him off. Another is that a falconer controlled his bird of prey by trapping the strips of leather attached to its leg under his thumb, prevented it from flying off. In truth, the phrase always referred quite simply to someone so powerful, such as a king or lord, that they could, metaphorically at least, control their subjects or servants by the pressure of a single thumb. After commoners won the right to vote, the term “thumbing” arose, referring to the practise of masters or employers compelling their servants through intimidation to vote in a particular way.

Up to snuff: When something is up to the required standard, it is said to be ‘up for snuff’, but why? One claim is that snuff (finely powdered tobacco to be inhaled up the nose) was the first substance to be officially regulated for quality when it became fashionable among the 17th century aristocracy. Since the well-to-do wouldn’t want to sniff any old rubbish up their nostrils, their snuff had to be officially inspected and declared up to the required standard, or simply ‘up to snuff’. Sadly, this is all nonsense! In fact, the phrase originally meant to be sharp, alert and in the know, and it came from the stimulating effect that inhaling snuff had on the senses. So someone who was mentally at his best was ‘up to snuff’. It was only later, from around the turn of the 20th century, that the phrase was applied more widely to mean anything that was of a high standard.

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