Who Are You Calling an Idiom? Part 2. The Back-Story of Three Misunderstood Expressions People Use Every Day

April 18, 2021

Marlin taught me a new word the other day: Malapropism. I know that most of you already use this term in your daily conversation, but I looked at him, with my eyes wide, having absolutely no idea what it meant. We were talking about my recent blog: Who Are You Calling an Idiom? Fun and Interesting Facts About 7 Commonly Used Idioms and the fact that some idioms are actually misused in such a way as to make them have the exact opposite meaning of their original intent. That, my friends, who, like me are not English majors, is a malapropism. Wikipedia defines it as: the mistaken use of an incorrect word (or phrase) in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance. So today we are talking about three such malaprops – expressions that we use one way now, but whose meaning is humorously opposite.

Photo by Flow Clark on Unsplash

1. Jack of All Trades

This first malapropism – Jack of All Trades – is pretty funny when you stop to think about it. The term “Jack” goes way back to the late 1300’s and was used to mean “ordinary guy.” A lot of these ordinary guys didn’t make a lot of money at their chosen professions so they dabbled in other jobs to support their families – a farmer would paint, a mason would farm. So these “Jacks” were, indeed, of all trades. Jack of All Trades, the way we use it today, is often a compliment, meaning that someone is good at a lot of things, but the history of this idiom begs to differ. The actual expression, originated as “Jack of All Trades, Master of None,” so it was actually used in reference to a person who dabbled in many skills, rather than gaining expertise by focusing on one and therefore wasn’t very good at any of them – like the Jacks of the 1300’s. Robert Greene, in 1592 famously refers to William Shakespeare as a “Jack of all trades,” so if you are called one, you are in good company I suppose. The next time you think about using this one though, I’m sure this new understanding will give you pause.

What Harry, Hermoine and Ron Went Through Together Makes Them Closer Than Family

2. Blood Is Thicker Than Water

There is some controversy around the original and true meaning of this idiom. Today, people use this expression to mean that relatives should be held in higher regard than mere friends. However, the original phrase is a bit longer and scholars feel it has different meaning. Many believe that the idiom is actually: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”. Albert Jack and Richard Pustelniak, both “claim that the original meaning of the expression was that the ties between people who have made a blood covenant (or have shed blood together in battle) were stronger than ties formed by “the water of the womb.” They feel that the original wording supports the idea that bonds of friendship and love, are much stronger than the “accident” of having been born into the same family. You know what they say: you can’t pick your family?

Photo by Ethan Sees from Pexels

3. Curiosity Killed The Cat

My daughter, Charlotte, hates this idiom because she feels that it’s a dig at her natural curiosity – something she has in abundance. Curiosity Killed the Cat has a meaning that being too curios can be dangerous. More modern versions of the etymology, however, say that the original expression was actually “Curiosity Killed the Cat but Satisfaction Brought it Back.” Curiosity might, indeed, be dangerous, but the satisfaction of learning far outweighs it. Charlotte likes this one. I do too.

A Final Thought:

So, I write these explanations to you, even though I’m not a Jack of All Trades; over the years I have become a master of a few. My Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat because the knowledge I have gained has helped me to understand the etymology of these malapropisms. And with you, my friends, the bonds of this learning covenant that we are going through together are strong – some would say that the Blood of the Covenant is Thicker Than Water. Have a great day!

No Comments

    Leave a Reply