Ever wonder why we use the expression “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”? Thought about why there’s a “B” in the word “doubt”? Come on in and read the answers to those and a couple other questions.
This expression goes back as far as the 4th or 5th century, when horses were all-important. Checking the teeth on a horse to see its age would have been something like checking the kilometers on a car in modern times. So if somebody gives you a horse and you check its teeth, you’re calling the value of the gift into question.
Older animals – including humans – can suffer from receding gums, which makes the teeth appear longer. That’s why as you get older you’re getting “long in the tooth”.
The English language didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, y’know. Most of our words come from other words from the past, transformed out of Latin, or French or German, and so on. The Latin word “dubitare” is the root of our modern word “doubt”. First it was used in French as “doute”, but later scribes that knew Latin stuck that silent “B” back in there when they were writing English. It doesn’t really do anything but connect the modern word to its origin.
Uncle Sam wants YOU for the U.S. army! You’ve probably seen the old war posters, with the image of Uncle Sam. He’s the personification of the United States itself, but he had a much more humble origin. The original incarnation of this fellow was named Brother Jonathan, and looked something like Uncle Sam. He was the personification of New England in the 17th century.
Later, during the War of 1812, a meat packer from New York State named Samuel Wilson inspired “Uncle Sam”. Samuel Wilson sent rations to the army during the war, and was required to stamp his initials and the origin of the food on his shipments. A soldier joked that the “U.S.” stamped on his shipments stood for Uncle Sam, and the name stuck.
The modern image of Uncle Sam that we know and love was created in 1916 as an homage to a British war poster of Lord Kitchener.
“Hitting the hay” is another of those expressions that we’re still using even though it no longer makes practical sense. At one time, hitting the hay was meant literally. Bedding wasn’t always what it is today, as pillows and mattresses stuffed with hay were common. Sailors in particular were responsible for supplying their own bedding, which was usually just a canvas sack with hay inside. That’s also where we get the phrase “hitting the sack”.