The Root Of The Matter

By Randy Gaddo

Every day, we use phrases that we take for granted because we’ve always used them and our parents and grandparents and all our friends have used them without thinking about where they came from.

The origin of everyday phrases has always intrigued me and as I’ve listened to sound bites of the various speakers at the Republican National Convention I’ve heard many of them used, so I thought I’d take a few of those and break them down, just for kicks.  Maybe this will trigger some Week-Ender readers to offer their own favorite phrases. 

Turn a blind eye: This means to ignore or not take action on something that is clearly actionable and right in front of you.  This saying actually has roots in a real person, Admiral Horatio Nelson, a British Naval officer, who had one blind eye.  During one battle with Danish ships when his higher commander was signaling him from another ship to break off the attack with the Danish, and Nelson didn’t agree, he put his telescope up to his blind eye and said, “I don’t see the signal.”  He continued the attack and won.  Another phrase comes to mind that fits this situation: asking forgiveness rather than permission.

Caught red-handed: This means getting caught doing something wrong.  This phrase has a bloody beginning, literally.  Back in old England, there was a law that punished anybody for butchering an animal that wasn’t theirs.  The proof for conviction had to be if the person was caught with blood of the animal on their hands; not sure how they proved it was blood from a specific animal.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater:  The origin of this one is not for the faint of heart, so if you get squeamish you might want to skip this one.  The meaning is that you not get rid of valuable things in the midst of discarding unwanted stuff; like when you’re cleaning out the sock drawer and realize that you’ve thrown out your only pair of good socks with the ones that won’t stay on anymore because they’re all stretched out.  Anyway, in the early 1500s, it is said that people bathed very little—only once a year by some accounts. 

So when families did their annual bath, they’d all use the same water without changing it—maybe there was a shortage of water, who knows.  So first the adult men would bathe, then women and the children and babies were last.  By that time, the water was pretty disgusting and dirty so mothers had to take extra care that their babies weren’t literally thrown out with the bath water; don’t know about you, but it makes me appreciate that daily shower.

Give a cold shoulder:  This means intentionally ignoring or shunning somebody.  This originated in medieval England, when a host wanted to subtly tell his or her guest it was time to go.  The custom was for the host to give the guest a cold slice of meat when they felt it was time for the party to be over.  Have you ever had one of those guests who stays long after everyone else has left and even after you clean up and put on your pajamas, they still don’t take the hint?  Maybe this custom should be brought back as a definitive way to say, “You can go now.” 

White elephant:  This refers to a gaudy or out-of-place item in a room that is so ugly it attracts immediate attention, and not necessarily the good kind.  This originates in Thailand, where rare white elephants were at one time considered sacred—maybe they still are.  Legend has it that if the king was angered by an underling or a rival, he would present them with a white elephant.  While this gesture might seem like a reward, the elephants were expensive to feed and keep and doing so would bankrupt the recipient.  I can find no proof this actually happened, but it has come to be known as any burdensome possession.

Read the riot act:  This means forcefully announcing a set of rules.  This also started in merry old England where the Riot Act was an actual document that would be loudly proclaimed to angry mobs.  According to some reports, this gave the government legal right to consider groups of 12 or more people a threat to law and order so they could detain them if they didn’t disperse.

Paint the town red:  This means a wild night on the town.  This actually has a negative connotation beyond just an innocent party night.  It reportedly goes back to the Marquis of Waterford, who was 17th-century party animal who once led a group of friends on a wild night of drinking in merry old England—seems like lots of these phrases originated there.  In their gleeful bender, they actually vandalized buildings and literally painted public structures and homes with red paint.  If you don’t believe that interpretation, there’s another theory that the phrase derived from the American West brothels, referring to men treating their whole town as a red-light district.  By and large, I’d go with the first one.

By and large:  This leads me to the last phrase.  Like so many everyday sayings, this one has nautical origins.  It means “for the most part” or “all things considered.”  In 16th-century sailing ships, “large” meant the ship was sailing with the wind to her back—a good thing.  Conversely, “by” meant the ship was sailing into the wind—not necessarily a good thing.  So “by and large” meant that sailors had to travel in all directions depending on the whims of the wind.

So, by and large, I don’t want to get caught red handed throwing the baby out with the bathwater and have somebody read me the riot act or have readers give me the cold shoulder, so I’ll turn a blind eye to the many other phrases I have accumulated.  I certainly don’t want to become the while elephant in the room so I’ll stop here and who knows, if I get a good response maybe I’ll go out later and paint the town red.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala. Reach him at (678) 350-8642 or email