Sayings We've Been Getting Wrong All Along

Written by Rachael Cheeseman

Photograph by   Jason Leung

Photograph by Jason Leung

Anyone who knows me will know that I love to pepper my conversation with idioms and clichés. It’s not a deliberate choice. If anything it makes me sound rather like an old southern grandmother imparting old wives tales, but they seem to slip into my speech patterns nonetheless and you know what? I own it.

So, you can imagine my distress when I discovered that some of these quaint little sayings don’t actually mean what I thought they meant. In fact, some of them mean the exact opposite. Language is fluid. It develops and grows and takes on new meanings and that’s one of the things that’s brilliant about it. However, this fluidity means that some of those phrases and sayings we use so often, once upon a time, were very different indeed.

Here are just a few examples of sayings we’ve been getting wrong the whole time.

Blood’s thicker than water

An oldie but a goodie. If you’re anything like me then you’ve most often heard this one sandwiched into the middle of a good old fashioned guilt trip. It will usually come somewhere between the “friends come and go but family is forever” and the “Do you want to see your mother cry? Is that what you want?” portions of the lecture. I think we all must have heard this at some point in our lives and the meaning is perfectly plain: blood relatives come first. Family takes priority. We should all display Godfather-like ruthless commitment to family (okay, maybe that’s taking it a tad too far, but you get the point).

Except it doesn’t mean that at all because that isn’t the full saying. In its entirety the phrase is meant to be “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”. Originally this was supposed to refer to brothers in arms; implying that those who had spilled blood in battle together had a stronger bond than fraternal brothers.

This saying’s origins can be traced back as far as 1180 in German texts although the invention of the phrase is credited to Sir Walter Scott in 1815.

Over the years the saying has been abbreviated and the original meaning lost in process. And isn’t that just such a shame? At its heart the original saying is so much more beautiful and poignant than the one we have been left with today. The idea that the relationships we forge through hardship are comparable to becoming family is meaningful in a way the modern use of this saying will never be.


Rome wasn’t built in a day

You know how it is, you’re trying to go about your busy life doing busy things and being generally important when some pedantic fuss pot stops you dead in your tracks because he needs to spend an inordinate amount of time being a perfectionist about some silly task that really doesn’t require that sort of attention to detail. And, if you dare point this out to them, they’re quick to snap at you: “Rome wasn’t built in a day you know?” The implication? Big undertakings take a lot of time, getting things just right requires time and effort and you should damn well respect that.

Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not.

Alright, this is a tricky one because there are many different versions of this saying floating around out there. It appeared originally in 1895 in Adolf Tobler’s work "Proverbe au Vilain" and originally stated “Rome wasn’t built in a day, or so the peasant says” which is a great retort to the imaginary pedantic fuss pot we encountered earlier (can’t you just picture how much he’d hate being called a peasant?). However, since its appropriation into the English language several other versions of this saying have developed, my personal favourite being “Rome wasn’t built in a day but it burned in one” Nothing like a touch of bleak realism to take the wind out of anyone’s sails. After all, it’s nice to be nice but it’s fun to be a nuisance.


A rolling stone gathers no moss

I love The Rolling Stones, who doesn’t? The music is great, the showmanship is exceptional, even the name perfectly sums up their whole ethos. Always be moving, seeking new experiences, don’t let yourself get tied down in one place... right? Right? Wrong. That is most definitely not what this saying is meant to be about. The weird thing about this saying is that it only means what we take it to mean if we work off the assumption that moss on a stone is a bad thing. Who decided that? What did they have against moss?

This saying dates back. Way way back. The origins are attributed to Quintillian, a Roman Rhetorician (a person whose words are intended to impress or persuade - what a great job) who stated that “A plant often removed cannot thrive”. Which puts a whole new spin on things, or technically an old spin on things, I guess. Either way, the phrase is originally intended to mean that by moving around all the time you’ll never experience anything truly fulfilling. Whoa. Truth bomb. That one blew my mind a little bit. Imagine all these hippies with their laissez faire attitude, going wherever their fancy takes them thinking that they’re experiencing the best life has to offer, after all a rolling stone gathers no moss… but no, what they’re actually doing is frittering away their chances to put down roots and forge meaningful ties to other people and learn how to grow within themselves. According to this saying anyway. There’s probably a hundred other sayings out there that do encourage constant movement and experience-seeking; this just isn’t one of them.   


Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps

Look at you, having a hard time of it, getting knocked on your arse and looking for help and support. What kind of namby pamby foolishness? You need to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Sound familiar? For me it brings to mind strict, militant grandfathers railing at how easy the most recent generation has it. In their day a man had to make his own luck, pick himself up when he got knocked down and no one ever handed them a damn thing. Yep, sure, we believe you (trust me, just roll your eyes and walk away, it’s for the best). However what these people fail to realise is that this saying started off its life meaning something quite different.

Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is of course an impossible task. It physically cannot be done and that's what this phrase used to mean. If someone claimed to have gotten themselves out of tight spot entirely on their own, when everyone knew that most certainly wasn't the case, people might laughingly say "oh yes, he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps" and everyone would understand the ridiculousness of the situation.

This saying is thought to have it's origins in the wild tales of Baron Munchausen (a man so famous for spinning lies we named Munchausen’s disorder after him). The story goes that Baron Munchausen's horse unknowingly carried him into a mire one day; they began to sink and were firmly stuck. The Baron credited himself with getting them free by pulling on his own hair. A ludicrous claim, much like the idea of anyone being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

So there you have it. A small sample of some infamous sayings we have been misusing our whole lives. However, just because they didn't originally mean what we take them to mean now doesn't mean we are using them wrong. As I said at the start, language is fluid, that's the most beautiful thing about it. It evolves as we do and changes to reflect our history and our society. The way we misuse these sayings today has become the correct meaning, and several hundred years from now they will probably mean something entirely different again but it is wonderful to be able to look back and trace the journey.

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