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Old sayings and their origins

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Paint the town red, laughing stock, pull the wool over my eyes, mad hatter, baker's dozen, we've all used them from time to time, but what are their origins?

This blog is part one of a new series & I will reveal the origins of some of our much used everyday sayings & old phrases.


Baker's Dozen old saying. Basket of fresh bread

Meaning: thirteen (In context: I like the new bakery as they always give me a baker's dozen)

In 1266 a new law was introduced by king Henry III (r.1216-1272) regulating the price of bread based on the price of wheat. Baker's were notorious for selling underweight loaves of bread. To break this new law could result in a fine, putting in the stocks (more on that later) or a flogging, so as a way avoiding these harsh punishments the baker would give an extra loaf of bread for each dozen sold.


Paint the town red old saying, tin of red Paint & brush

Meaning: to go out and celebrate or to get drunk ('After passing my exams I'm going to paint the town red tonight'!)

A victorian gatehouse and gate
An example of a tollhouse & gate.

Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford & his friends travelled to Melton Mowbray, reaching the Thorpe End Tollgate in the early hours of Thursday 6 April 1837. During the previous day at Croxton races, the group of friends had consumed heavy amounts of alcohol. The tollkeeper requested that they paid before he opened the gate for them.

portrait painting of Henry Beresford 3rd Maquess of Waterford
Marquess of Waterford

Nearby some repairs were underway, & the group seized pots of red paint & brushes, attacking the tollkeeper and painting him, & a constable arriving on the scene suffered the same fate. Next they nailed up the door of the tollhouse & painted it red before heading into town with their stolen equipment. Moving into the Beast Market (now Sherrard Street), Market Place & into Burton Street, they painted doors red as they passed, pulling on door knockers & kicking over flower pots.

Red door with Lion head door knocker

On reaching the Red Lion, they ripped the sign down & slung it into the canal. The Old Swan Inn was their next conquest, the Marquess was lifted onto one of his friends' shoulders, so he could paint the carved swan inn sign red. The porch of The Old Swan Inn fell down in 1988, & traces of red paint were found on the back of the carved swan! They were not finished yet, & after vandalising the Post Office & the Leicestershire banking company, they attempted to turn over a caravan in which a man was fast asleep. A policeman arrived on the scene & was beaten up & painted red. In time more police arrived in greater numbers & seized Edward Reynard, who was placed in Bridewell prison. His comrades promptly came to his aid, by breaking three locks & beating up two constables, while threatening them with murder if they did not release their friend.

The next day there was uproar, the Marquess eventually sobered up & paid everybody for the damage to their properties. The group were brought to trial before the Derby Assize Court in July 1838. The verdict was not guilty of rioting, but they faced a huge fine of £100, a quite considerable sum in 1838.

red paint and brush
The phrase 'Paint the Town Red' then entered the English language


Pull the wool over my eyes old saying, 17th century man wearing powdered wig

Meaning: To trick someone or deceive ('I was told I'd have to pay £100, but he 'pulled the wool over my eyes' & I ended up paying £120)

The saying 'pull the wool over my eyes', goes back to the 17th century when people wore elaborate wigs. The wigs had a thick woolly appearance. A man would be judged by the size of his... wig, the bigger it was the richer the man was said to be. The downside to wearing a large wig, was that it gave criminals an idea of possible wealth. A large wig was easier to pull down & a tactic used by petty criminals who would creep up behind their intended victim, pull his wig down over his eyes & rob him of his valuables.

For more on 17th century wigs visit our Did You Know? blog

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Meaning: to be an object of ridicule & humiliation (She makes so many mistakes that she's becoming a laughing stock)

medieval village stocks
An example of set of stocks

Laughing Stock originates from medieval England. Stocks were restraining devices (see image), that were used as a form of corporal punishment & public humiliation. They were usually used on petty criminals as a substitute for jail time. Almost all villages had a set of stocks set up in their public square.The stocks were two sliding boards with holes in them , secured on a wooden frame. The feet were placed into these holes making it virtually impossible to escape the punishment. The locals would laugh at & humiliate the guilty party, & in some cases throw rotten vegetables at them or even worse but we won't go into that!

I suppose even the stocks were a preferred punishment to the more sadistic 'pillory', where the head & hands were placed through holes, forcing to culprit to stand up for the duration of his/her punishment.

Daniel Defoe in the pillory, 1862 line engraving by James Charles Armytage after Eyre Crowe
Daniel Defoe in the pillory, 1862 line engraving by James Charles Armytage after Eyre Crowe



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Hanged, drawn & quartered, a form of medieval execution

Meaning: a form of torture resulting in death (If I'm late for work again, I'll be hung, drawn & quartered, a rather silly saying when you know what is actually means, but say it we do)

After the Treason Act 1351 was put in place, possibly the cruelest punishment imaginable, any man convicted for high treason would be 'hung, drawn, & quartered'. The punishment was actually recorded  a century earlier during the reign of king Henry III (r.1216-1272).

King Edward III of England, Plantagenet king of England between 1327 & 1377)
King Edward III (r.1327-1377), under whose rule the Treason Act 1351 was enacted

Now for the gory part, the convicted traitor would be tied to a wooden panel, & 'drawn' to the place of execution.

As illustrated in Matthew Paris's Chronica Majora, William de Marisco is drawn to his execution behind a horse.
As illustrated in Matthew Paris's Chronica Majora, William de Marisco is drawn to his execution behind a horse.

Next he would be hanged until 'nearly dead', emasculated (deprived of his male role or identity, in other words his manly bits were chopped off), then disembowelled  (cut open & the internal organs removed), all while still alive, then came the beheading & quartered (cut into four pieces).

Engraving of the execution of Sir Thomas Armstrong in 1684
Quartered - The execution of Sir Thomas Armstrong in 1684

These remains would then be taken to various parts of the country & displayed to the general public as a warning of committing treason, London Bridge proved a popular place, especially heads on sticks!

The spiked heads of executed criminals once adorned the gatehouse of the medieval London Bridge.
The spiked heads of executed criminals once adorned the gatehouse of the medieval London Bridge.

If you're wondering what happened to women, well 'for reasons of public decency', women convicted of high treason, were instead burned at the stake.

William Wallace, a Scottish knight who became one of the main leaders during the 1st War of Scottish Independence, was hanged, drawn & quartered in 1354. In 1606 Guy Fawkes was convicted of committing high treason & sentenced to the same fate for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1606, but he managed to break his neck after he jumped from the gallows.

A 1606 etching by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscher, depicting Fawkes's execution
A 1606 etching by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscher, depicting Fawkes's execution

Committing high treason was seen as an attack on the English monarchy's authority, & was considered a deplorable act, demanding the most extreme form of punishment possible. During a long period of 19th-century legal reform the sentence of hanging, drawing, & quartering was changed to drawing, hanging until dead, & posthumous beheading & quartering, before being abolished thankfully in England in 1870.


Mad as a hatter, old saying, Johnny depp character, alice in wonderland

Meaning: Someone crazy or completely mad (He's as mad as a hatter!)

There is actually an illness called 'Mad hatter’s disease', a form of mercury poisoning that affects the brain & nervous system. People can develop mercury poisoning by inhaling mercury vapours.

Mad Hatter - Alice in Wonderland

It is characterized by emotional, mental, & behavioral changes, among other symptoms.

But why do we say “mad as a hatter.”?

In medieval Europe, mercury was frequently used in medicine & manufacturing. Later, hatmakers commonly cured felt using a form of mercury called mercurous nitrate. As the hatmakers inhaled mercury vapors over time, many experienced neurological symptoms of mercury poisoning. By 1837, “mad as a hatter” was a common saying. Almost 30 years later, Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland, which contained the now-famous Mad Hatter character.

Did you know? Hatmakers continued to use mercury until the United States.

Mad hatter - Alice in Wonderland


Thank you for reading

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