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 ‘V’:
Veni, vidi, vici: Here’s a Latin phrase which pops up all over the place, in speeches, coats of arms, on T-shirts, tattoos, in song lyrics and the titles of several musical works, from classical to pop. Its translation is ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ and it is widely attributed to the great Roman general and senator Julius Caesar. According to the Greek historian Appian of Alexandria (who died around 165AD), Caesar used the phrase in a letter to the Roman Senate after securing victory in a short war against Pharnaces II of Pontus, around 47BC. Another Greek historian, Plutarch (who died around 120AD) also attributes the phrase to Caesar in his biography “Life of Caesar”, but says he used it in a letter to a friend in Rome. Since this was all around 2,000 years ago, it is impossible to know if Caesar ever really used the phrase, but it has certainly been quoted – and parodied – a great deal since. Examples of popular parodies include ‘Veni, vidi, velcro’ (I came, I saw, I stuck around), ‘Veni, vidi, vacuum’ (I came, I saw, I cleaned up), ‘Veni, vidi, Visa’ (I came, I saw, I shopped) and ‘Veni, vidi, Volvo’ (‘I came, I saw, I left in a Swedish car’).
Veg out: When you want to completely relax with nothing at all to tax your brain or body, then you want to ‘veg out’. For example: “I don’t want to do anything or go anywhere tonight, I just want to veg out in front of the TV.” This is a relatively new phrase dating from the late 1980s and popularised when Julia Roberts’ character used it in the hit 1990 film “Pretty Woman”. It could have come from the similar but earlier American phrase ‘couch potato’, used to describe someone who slumps mindlessly on a sofa while life goes on around them. Both phrases derive from the complete lack of mental capacity of vegetables. In the past, people in a coma or rendered ‘brain-dead’ by an accident or illness have been described, unkindly, as ‘vegetables’ or ‘being in a vegetative state’, which also links to the notion of ‘vegging out’.
Vent your spleen: If you have pent up anger or a strong opinion fighting to get out, there may come a time when you need to ‘vent your spleen’ – to let fly your feelings whatever the consequences. The spleen is an organ in your abdomen which does a number of jobs including filtering and purifying blood and defending the body against infection. But back in medieval times it was widely believed that the spleen was the source of ‘the humors’ – bodily fluids which determined your emotional state. In particular, an excess of yellow bile would make you angry, aggressive or bad-tempered. To ‘vent your spleen’ was to let out all these strong emotions, especially anger or dissatisfaction with something or someone around you. In many ways it was thought a good thing, as people sometimes died from “an excess of humors”!
Variety is the spice of life: Here’s a well-worn phrase, meaning that changing your dull or monotonous routine can pep up your existence. Just as adding some spice to bland and tasteless food will give it flavour, adding variety to your daily ritual will make it more palatable and enjoyable. This expression is an old one, coming from English poet William Cowper’s 1785 work “The Task”, in which he wrote “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all flavors”. You might be hard-pressed to find the exact phrase in the poem, as it ran to six books and took at least two years to write! A deeply religious man, Cowper also wrote many hymns, one of which is the origin of another well-known phrase: “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform…”.
Vengeance is a dish best served cold: If you want to exact your revenge on someone, don’t act impulsively, in the heat of the moment. Far better and more satisfying to take your time, plot your revenge in cold blood while letting your victim sweat, then serve it up when least expected! That’s the spine chilling meaning of this phrase, which also appears as “revenge is a dish best served cold”. It’s hard to know exactly where the phrase originates, but a version of it (“Revenge is a dish that must be eaten cold”) appears in English literature from the mid-1800s, attributed to a French diplomat, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigold, who was known for his cunning and scheming. Many people link the phrase with the Sicilian mafia, probably because it appears in Mario Puzo’s seminal 1969 novel “The Godfather”. It also has a place in “Star Trek” folklore, where it is claimed to be an old Klingon proverb!