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Today we’re returning to our occasional 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 ‘H’:

Hauled over the coals: If we haul someone over the coals we express anger at them in no uncertain terms because they have done wrong or failed in their duty. This is an expression with a grisly and all-too-literal origin. Back in the Middle Ages, religion was a serious business and the church wielded great power in all aspects of daily life. Anyone who refused to conform to the established religion of the day was branded a heretic, and this religious heresy had dire consequences. Several methods were used to determine whether someone accused of heresy was guilty. One was to drag them, usually naked, over a bed of burning coals. If they survived they were innocent. So being hauled over the coals today might not be pleasant, but it’s not as bad as it once was!

Happy as Larry: If you’re really happy you might just be as happy as Larry, but who is this Larry? It seems this phrase originated in Australia or New Zealand in the 19th century and some say it relates to Australian boxer Larry Foley (1847-1917). Lucky Larry never lost a fight and retired a wealthy and contented man in the 1870s, when the phrase is first seen in print. However, it could also relate to the Australian and New Zealand slang word of “larrikin”, meaning a ruffian or hooligan, but usually good-tempered and boisterous rather than malicious. The word came from Cornish dialect and referred to anyone fond of “larking” about, a good few of whom found themselves transported to the penal colonies when their ‘larrikin’ got out of hand. How they stayed happy is another question!

Hanky panky: Here’s a phrase with two slightly different meanings, or possibly one that evolved over time. When first used in the 1840s it referred to underhand dealings, trickery or cheating, but by the middle of the 20th century it was also used to refer to sexual shenanigans. The phrase might have started as mock Latin, similar to ‘Hocus Pocus’, used by conjurers to distract an audience from their slight-of-hand. In 1841, “Punch” magazine used the phrase in: “Only a little hanky-panky, my lud. The people likes it; they loves to be cheated before their faces. One, two, three—presto—begone.” By the 1960s, young men courting a girl had come to expect a stern warning from her father not to “get up to any hanky panky!”

Half Cocked: To be half cocked is to be less than fully prepared, while to ‘go off at half cock’ is to speak or act prematurely. This phrase comes from the action of ‘cocking’ a gun, usually a flintlock musket, in the 17th century. The hammer (the bit that falls to strike a spark when the trigger is pulled) was often very ornate and resembled a cock chicken. Pulling the hammer all the way back was ‘cocking’ the gun, making it ready to fire. But it could also be pulled half-way back and locked into position to allow access to the priming pan. This was a safe position because if the hammer fell from its half-cock position the force was not enough to make a spark. So it follows that you wouldn’t want to go into battle with a gun that was only half-cocked, because when you pulled the trigger it would most likely fail to fire.

Halcyon days: These are calm, carefree, happy days; ones we usually look back on with nostalgia and longing, often recalling the ‘halcyon days’ of our youth through rose-tinted glasses. The halcyon was a legendary bird in Greek mythology which had the power to control the weather and calm the surface of the sea, on which she built her floating nest. The halcyon days were those days of tranquil calm while she incubated and hatched her eggs. In later centuries the mythical halcyon became associated with the kingfisher and in the northern hemisphere the halcyon days were a period of calm weather, usually a week before and after the winter solstice on December 21st.

Hat trick: If you achieve three successes or wins in a row it might be referred to as scoring a ‘hat trick’, especially in sport. For example, a striker who scores three goals during a football match has achieved a hat trick. There are competing explanations for the origin of this phrase, but the most likely comes from the game of cricket. If a bowler bowled out three batsmen (or had them caught out) with three successive deliveries, his feat of skill would be recognised and rewarded the presentation of a cap or hat. And so the bowler’s considerable talent had accomplished the trick of earning him a hat – a hat trick.

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