Here’s the second instalment in our look at common expressions and idioms that include names of countries or cities. Unsurprisingly, many idioms include place names. That seems quite natural, though, in view of the importance of territories and homelands across the ages.
Although the origins of these terms or phrases differ from one source to another, we give each a meaning and alleged origin.
It’s all Greek to me – Not understanding or having no knowledge on a topic
Origin: Latin expression Graecum est, non legitur or Graecum est, non potest legi, meaning: It is Greek; it cannot be read. This saying entered modern English by the 17th century, when used by Elizabethans Thomas Dekker (c. 1572-1632) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in their plays.
Example: In Shakespeare’s Julius Casear Act 1, Scene 2: “(…) those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads. But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”
Spartan (adj.) – Showing or characterized by austerity or a lack of comfort or luxury
Origin: This word with this meaning was first used in the mid-17th century. The people of Sparta were traditionally considered to be indifferent to comfort or luxury.
Example: “The mountainous country, ill-suited for agricultural purposes, was well adapted for these hardy warriors, whose training was Spartan in its simplicity and severity.”
When in Rome, do as the Romans do – The suggestion that visitors should abide by the customs of the place they are visiting
Origin: The first time this idea was mentioned seems to have been around 390 AD, in St Augustine’s letters. The expression in English appeared by the Middle Ages.
Example: In Interesting Letters of Pope Clement XIV (Ganganelli), 1777: “The siesta, or afternoon nap of Italy, my most dear and reverend Father, would not have alarmed you so much, if you had recollected, that when we’re at Rome, we should do as the Romans do – cum Romanus eris.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day – A complicated task should not be rushed
Origin: The French proverb dates from the late 1100s, but it was not used in English until around 1545.
Example: “Give me more time. Rome wasn’t built in a day!”
All roads lead to Rome – A goal or conclusion can be reached in many different ways
Origin: The Roman Empire had an excellent road system, with roads radiating out from Rome. The expression in English was already used in the 1300s.
Example: In Geoffrey Chaucer’s A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391): “Right as diverse pathes leden the folk the righte wey to Rome.”
Roman candle – A firework that produces a shower of sparks punctuated by balls of colourful fire
Origin: One of the first appearances of this term was traced to 1784 in “London Magazine, or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer”. The name most likely came from the firework having been originated in Italy.
Example: In “London Magazine”: “The manner of its bursting greatly resembled that of a fire-work, known by the name of a Roman candle abroad.”
Caesar salad – A salad of romaine lettuce, croutons, garlic and anchovies, served with a dressing made of olive oil, raw egg yolk, lemon juice and Parmesan cheese
Origin: The most popular theory states that an Italian-American called Caesar Cardini invented the salad in 1924 in his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. He mixed the ingredients together from the little he still had on hand in the kitchen after a busy day. The salad was well received and was eventually named after him. Julia Child, the famous American chef, mentioned eating the salad in Cardini’s restaurant in her book, From Julia Child’s Kitchen.
Body English – (In sports) the twist of a player’s body as if to help a ball already hit, rolled or kicked to travel in a particular direction; body language, or movements that indicate someone’s attitude or feelings
Origin: The term appeared around the 1900s, in such sports as bowling and ice hockey, to describe bodily motions made to try to influence the path of a propelled object in the desired direction. It was based on an earlier definition of the word “English” used as a verb, “to impart English to (a ball)”.
Example: “Mary’s body English showed how tired she was.”
London broil – In North America, a grilled steak cut across the grain in thin slices
Origin: This beef dish, popular in the US, is entirely unknown in London and did not originate there. One common theory in the food world is that the fancy name of London broil was invented in an attempt to make cheap meat more enticing.
Carry coals to Newcastle – To do something superfluous or to supply something to a place where it’s abundant and therefore not needed
Origin: Although not used much today, this expression goes back to the mid-16th century when Newcastle, a city in northern England, was an important exporter of coal.
Example: “Running the sprinkler while it’s raining, that’s carrying coals to Newcastle.”