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The British Newspaper Archive

British Newspaper Archive

Read about historical events at the time they were happening. Perhaps you'll discover your ancestor in their local newspaper?

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Sinister history of popular sayings revealed in old newspapers

Published on 12 Aug 2013 09:18 : 2 comments : 17748 views

The origins of some of the every-day phrases we use are more sinister than you would imagine, according to the family history website Genes Reunited. Researchers have shed some light on the dark history behind some of the nation’s favourite sayings, proving that their origins are rooted in the lives of our ancestors.


Who would have thought that ‘paying through the nose’ actually refers to the punishment introduced by Vikings, which involved slitting the nose from tip to eyebrow of anyone that refused to pay tax. Or, that pulling someone’s leg actually originates from a time when London was rife with ‘grab and run’ thieves who attacked their victims by pulling them to the ground by their leg. 


Applying a ‘rule of thumb’ would normally suggest a practical approach to problem solving so it’s a little 

surprising that it refers to a violent solution for marital disputes. According to the Glasgow Herald in 1886, this phrase can be accredited to a judge named Sir Francis Buller who ruled that ‘a man was entitled to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no thicker than his thumb’


Rhoda Breakell, Head of Genes Reunited, said: “The English language is peppered with unusual sayings and we wanted to look back through old newspapers, now fully-searchable online, to discover where they came from and what they really mean. It’s fascinating just how different our modern interpretations are to the origins of these phrases. 


“It goes to show how the lives of our ancestors have influenced our day-to-day lives, in ways we do not even realise. We hope people will be encouraged to dabble in their own fascinating searches and discover personal nuggets of family history.”


 Other coined phrases include, ‘gone to pot’ and ‘meeting a deadline’ both with sinister meanings. ‘Gone to pot’ is a reminder of the days when boiling to death was a recognised legal punishment whilst ‘meeting a deadline’ refers to the literal line that was drawn in American Civil War times to keep inmates from escaping. Any prisoner who dared cross the line would be met with a bullet in the head.


Flick through Genes Reunited's online newspaper collection from yesteryear, search the 515 million  records, 780 million names and community boards to connect with family past and present. Why not see if you can find a long lost family member, unearth   family secrets, discover who you get your looks from, or build your family tree. Visit


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by Genes on 12 Aug 2013 09:27 : Report Abuse
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by Norman on 27 Aug 2013 13:20 : Report Abuse
As an Archer , rule of thumb was the rough method of testing a bow span. We also got such phrases as Point Blanc(k), when by point of aim it dead centre. Having two strings to your bow.