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

‘Pulling My Leg’

Often used in a jovial manner, this common sayingactually has much more sinister beginnings.

In 18th and 19thcentury London a network of criminal thugs worked in two’s to rob the wealthy elite. It isbelieved that one of the pair would either grab or trip the unsuspecting victimby their leg and pull them to the floor, where they would be unceremoniouslyrelieved of their valuables. A more disturbing theory is that in the daysbefore the gallows had a trapdoor, the relatives of those sentenced to hangwould rush forward and pull on their loved one’s legs, thus quickening theirdeath and ending their suffering.

Either way, the next time you use thisphrase, you may pause to shudder afterwards.

‘For the High Jump’

Meaning to face a difficult obstacle, or being in bigtrouble, this phrase could have origins as mundane as steeple chasing, wherethe 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 punishableby death. The phrase cruelly meant that someone had been sentenced to death byhanging, the ‘high jump’ referring to the gallows.

Rather ridiculously, one such‘hangable’ crime was ‘being in the company of gypsies for one month’, whilstothers included pickpocketing and poaching.

‘Gone to Pot’

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

‘Rule of Thumb’

Purportedly originating from the London Judge, SirFrancis Buller. In 1872 he is rumoured to have made a ruling that a man couldlegally chastise his wife using a stick no thicker than his own thumb. There isno 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 rulecame from the habit of using a thumb to measure distances and perspective, usedby artists and craftsmen alike throughout the centuries.

Whatever the truth, I imagine that men with small hands andthin 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 ofremaining silent during surgery on the battlefields. It was a point of honour among men to resist from crying out, insteadchoosing to ‘chew a bullet’. Images throughout history depict war surgeonstreating injured soldiers in the field, many with an item gripped between theirjaws.

It is thought that the soft lead of the bullet would have been ideal toprotect the teeth. In the hindsight of modern science, however, lead may nothave been the best thing to shove in your mouth.

‘To Fork Out/Up’

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

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

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

‘Put up your Dukes’

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

‘Hair of the Dog’

Rabies appeared in London in 1752 and orders were given to shootdogs on sight in the city.

It was thought, at the time, that you may be curedby 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. Init he states that

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

Rabies in wild animals has been wipedout in England since the early 1900s. Thankfully, thesale of ‘hairy poultices’ and the practice of shooting dogs on sight, has alsorapidly declined.

It is with these gruesome tales in mindthat I leave you to go about your modern London life.

If what you’ve read has made youpause to think about the fascinating history of the wonderful, colourfulmetropolis that is London, then I am pleased. For without these tales of horror anddespair to act as our harbinger of doom, we may not have developed into theinclusive, accepting, welcoming and unquestioning city that we are today.  

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