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Mediaeval Times: The Origins of Five Expressions from the Middle Ages

Viewed 1236 times30-3-2020 05:53 PM

The Middle Ages, often referred to as the mediaeval period, is one of many historically notable periods. It began after the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. and spanned to the Renaissance period in the fourteenth century. This era is marked by a very wealthy and powerful Catholic Church, the Magna Carta, and the Crusades. Along with these elements came a number of unique expressions, some of which we still use today.

To rack one's brain
Peter racked his brain about which college he wanted to attend.The rack was a mediaeval torture device used to extract confessions from its victims. The unfortunate body would be rope-tied to the rack by each of his limbs and a crank would pull and stretch these limbs, causing extreme pain which was supposed to end with the criminal's confession. However, sometimes rack operators cranked too far, thus tearing the victim's limb(s) from his body. Based on this device, "to rack" evolved to mean "to cause pain" and was used to express when someone or something was under a great deal of stress. "To rack your brain" means that you are straining yourself mentally.

Bouncer
The bouncer was checking driver's licenses to make sure no one underage snuck into the bar.During mediaeval times, some bars and taverns employed a man to stand at the door to collect a small fee—usually a brass or copper coin—from entering patrons. This fee was insurance against any damages that might occur or the possibility of customers sneaking out before paying. To make sure the currency was authentic, the man threw the coin onto a piece of wet wood. If the coin bounced, then the guards knew it was truly brass or copper. "Bouncers" became the title of these men.

Being caught red-handed
The robber was caught red-handed running out of the bank with a bag of money.Red-handed refers to having physically red hands from blood stains. Around the 1400s in Scotland, poaching was a crime punishable by law; however, a poacher had to be caught in the actual process for him to receive the effects of the law. Obviously, killing and skinning and animal would leave the poacher with red hands, and this was considered the proof required to punish the perpetrator. Today, the phrase means "to be caught in the act."

Baker's dozen
John bought a baker's dozen of rolls for the picnic.The origins of this phrase actually came after the practice associated with it. Back in mediaeval times, bakers might have sold their goods by quantity, but the prices of baked goods were regulated by weight. Since a weight shortage was not as noticeable to customers, many bakers adopted the habit of giving less product for the same cost to save money and ingredients. However, with England's trade laws becoming more strict, bakers were nervous they would not meet the weight requirements; thus, they began giving customers an extra baked good to ensure compliance with the laws. A few hundred years later, John Cooke is credited with creating a phrase to define this practice in a line from his work, "Tu Quoque": "Mine's a baker's dozen. Master Bubble, tell your money." In the modern era, we have come to know a baker's dozen as thirteen or fourteen in number.

Getting off scot free
Due to a glitch in the legal system, the burglar got off scot free.Scot, a British term, came from the Scandinavian word skat, which refers to taxes or payment often used to fund relief programs. Home and land owners in this time had to pay a scot proportionate to the size and value of their properties. The people who did not pay their taxes purposely or were not required to due to the low value of their lots were said to get off "scot free." Over the years, "scot free" evolved to mean "evading paying one's taxes," and eventually came to mean "to escape punishment for a crime." This latter definition is more commonly how we use the expression today.

Much of the English language has deep roots in other cultures; some of it has changed over the course of many when I write my essay, many years while some of it has remained the same. Regardless of the situation, you can be sure to find many interesting facts about the words and expressions we use today.

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