Glimpse of Yesteryear
By Jacquie Foote
It is always interesting to me to find out how far back many of our idioms go.
Take armed to the teeth. Now theres a saying quite familiar to the early settlers here in Geauga. This idiom had its start with the pirates way back in the 1600s and is believed to have actually originated in Port Royal Jamaica. Having only single shot black powder guns and cutlasses, pirates had to carry as many of these weapons at the same time as possible to keep up the fight. For maximum arms capability, they carried their knives in their teeth because the guns were too heavy.
So, when one was armed to the teeth, one was carrying as many weapons as possible.
Another Maritime idiom is a clean bill of health. This widely used saying has its origins in the “Bill of Health,” a document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure. With modern medicine not yet even a dream, preventing exposure to diseases was not only the first line of defense, it was often the only one. The saying came into common use, meaning to be found healthy or without a flaw.
An idiomatic sentence even older than armed to the teeth reached the status of proverb back in the second half of the 16th century, but its origins are in Aesop’s Fables, written in the sixth century B.C. “The Milkmaid and the Pail” is a fable about a young girl on her way home, carrying her pail of milk on top of her head. The story goes that she was daydreaming about what she would do with the milk, starting with making cream and butter to sell. Then, she could buy eggs with that money, and the eggs would hatch into chickens. They would lay more eggs, and the process would continue, growing more and more profitable. Later on, she could sell some of the birds and buy herself a dress, drawing the attention of the young men in the town. When they took notice, her plan was to ignore their advances with a toss of her curls. In the midst of this daydream, she did toss her curls, sending the pail of milk spilling. The moral of the fable is: Such are the disappointments of those who count their chickens before they are hatched.
These days, we, like the early Geaugans, shorten it to Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They’re Hatched, meaning, of course, don’t be overconfident and assume success before you know the outcome of a venture.
For information on the events at the Geauga County Historical Society’s Burton Century Village Museum, call 440-834-1492 or visit www.geaugahistorical.org.
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