We all know that London has an ancient dark side. We try daily to forget our morbid ancestors, instead focusing on the modern, the clean and the new, the light and the innovative. But what if I told you that our sinister past is actually anything but historic? Instead, we keep it alive, feeding it by repeating it regularly in the things that we say every day. Here are some of our favourite light hearted and humorous sayings and phrases, viewed from their deadly serious origins.

‘Pulling My Leg’

Often used in a jovial manner, this common saying actually has much more sinister beginnings. In 18th and 19th century London a network of criminal thugs worked in two’s to rob the wealthy elite. It is believed that one of the pair would either grab or trip the unsuspecting victim by their leg and pull them to the floor, where they would be unceremoniously relieved of their valuables. A more disturbing theory is that in the days before the gallows had a trapdoor, the relatives of those sentenced to hang would rush forward and pull on their loved one’s legs, thus quickening their death and ending their suffering. Either way, the next time you use this phrase, you may pause to shudder afterwards.

‘For the High Jump’

Meaning to face a difficult obstacle, or being in big trouble, this phrase could have origins as mundane as steeple chasing, where the highest jump is the most fearsome to approach. A darker, but popular, belief is that this saying actually started in 19th century London, where there were 220 crimes which were punishable by death. The phrase cruelly meant that someone had been sentenced to death by hanging, the ‘high jump’ referring to the gallows. Rather ridiculously, one such ‘hangable’ crime was ‘being in the company of gypsies for one month’, whilst others included pickpocketing and poaching.

‘Gone to Pot’

There are differing opinions throughout history on where this saying actually originated. Some theories are simply that leftovers like bones and gristle were left in the pot for days after cooking to flavour the next stew, as meat was hard to come by. However, perhaps the most favoured birth of this saying comes from London, where under the reign of King Henry VIII, execution by boiling to death was a common form of punishment.

‘Rule of Thumb’

Purportedly originating from the London Judge, Sir Francis Buller. In 1872 he is rumoured to have made a ruling that a man could legally chastise his wife using a stick no thicker than his own thumb. There is no solid historical evidence to back this up, although ‘moderate chastisement’ of a wife by her husband was certainly legal in England for many years. It is maybe more likely that this rule came from the habit of using a thumb to measure distances and perspective, used by artists and craftsmen alike throughout the centuries. Whatever the truth, I imagine that men with small hands and thin fingers would have been lucky with the ladies in the 1800’s.

‘Bite the Bullet’

London’s Francis Grose wrote a book entitled ‘A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’ in 1796, in which it was stated that soldiers had an unwritten rule of remaining silent during surgery on the battlefields. It was a point of honour among men to resist from crying out, instead choosing to ‘chew a bullet’. Images throughout history depict war surgeons treating injured soldiers in the field, many with an item gripped between their jaws. It is thought that the soft lead of the bullet would have been ideal to protect the teeth. In the hindsight of modern science, however, lead may not have been the best thing to shove in your mouth.

‘To Fork Out/Up’

Another phrase that has its origins in the shady criminal underworld of 17th century London, this term comes from the acts of pickpockets. ‘To fork’ meant to use the forefinger and middle finger to pull money from someone’s purse or pocket. In Nathan Bailey’s ‘Etymological English Dictionary’ of 1737, he describes the action as

thrusting the fingers, strait, stiff, open and very quick into the pocket, and so closing them, hook what can be held between them’

Therefore, to ‘fork out’ became used to mean to pay for something, often whether you wanted to or not!

‘Put up your Dukes’

Related closely to ‘forking out’, the term of putting up one’s dukes comes from cockney rhyming slang. The term ‘Duke of York’ referred to ‘Fork’, which leads us to ‘fingers/hands’. Therefore ‘put up your dukes’ came to mean raise your fists. Now often used as a joke, this saying has origins in London’s 18th and 19th century boxing matches. It was no joke back then, when boxing was more of a bare-knuckle fight to the last man standing, involving grievous injures and often death.

‘Hair of the Dog’

Rabies appeared in London in 1752 and orders were given to shoot dogs on sight in the city. It was thought, at the time, that you may be cured by burning some hair from the dog that bit you, before applying it to the wound. This idea may stem from the eminent London doctor, Dr Robert James, who penned ‘A treatise on canine madness’ in 1760. In it he states that

‘The hair of the dog that gave the wound is advised as an application to the part injured.’

Rabies in wild animals has been wiped out in England since the early 1900s. Thankfully, the sale of ‘hairy poultices’ and the practice of shooting dogs on sight, has also rapidly declined.

It is with these gruesome tales in mind that I leave you to go about your modern London life. If what you’ve read has made you pause to think about the fascinating history of the wonderful, colourful metropolis that is London, then I am pleased. For without these tales of horror and despair to act as our harbinger of doom, we may not have developed into the inclusive, accepting, welcoming and unquestioning city that we are today.