Monday, August 20, 2007

How phrases originated

There are many well-known expressions in English language. One of them, son of a gun, means a rogue or scamp and it is used mostly in America: "You are really naughty, you old son of a gun."

Do you know how the expression ‘son of a gun' originated? Well, it is commonly an expression of surprise, based in maritime folklore in the 19th century.

This is because at this time of war, when wives accompanied their husbands to sea, births often took place on one of the tables between the two guns on the lower deck, with only some canvas draped across to provide some privacy.

Research ascribes the first appearance of the expression in 1708. William Henry Smyth's Sailor's Word Book (1865) coins the term, defining it as an epithet applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea. One admiral declared that he was thus cradled under the breast of a gun carriage.

Another expression ‘Red Herring' means any diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue. This expression is attributed to British fugitives in the1800s. It is said that they would rub a herring across their trail, thereby diverting the bloodhounds that were hot in pursuit.

In the 1920s, American investment bankers started calling preliminary prospectuses ‘red herrings' ––– this was really a kind of warning to investors indicating them that all the paperwork was not complete so that the prospectus could be misleading.

Another attribution to this expression says that the herring which is a type of fish turns red when it is cured. Apart from changing its colour, the fish gets a distinctive smell. The fish thus cured was tied to a string and dragged through the woods to teach hunting dogs to follow a trail. Of course much later red herrings may also have been used to confuse the hounds in order to prolong a fox hunt.

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