On Bank Holidays most employees, apart from those in the service sector, are given the day off. Today these are officially known as ‘public holidays’, but the original expression is still in general use across the world.
It all started at the Bank of England in the 19th century. Until 1830, the world’s premier bank was officially closed for more than 40 days in every 12 months. But during that year the number was dropped to 18 and only four years later reduced again to just four.
Since then there have been some slight adjustments but for many years now we appear to have settled upon eight.
They are: New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, May Day, the August bank holiday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
For students of finer detail, I have looked into the origin of the name we give Boxing Day. The day following Christmas Day was formerly known as St Stephen’s Day. For centuries it was customary for religious folk to leave a box in church, during the Christmas Mass, which was packed full of gifts and money.
The contents, known as ‘the dole of the Christmas box’ or ‘the box money’, would then be distributed by priests to the needy on the following day (St Stephen’s Day), which subsequently became known as ‘the box day’.
It was also customary for young apprentices and boys to carry a box around on St Stephens’s Day to their masters’ clients in order to receive small gratuities. These ‘Christmas tips’ would be placed in the box and shared among all the apprentices.
Prior to this, the custom was known as ‘Handsel Day’ (from the Old English word handselen, meaning quite literally ‘to deliver into the hand’). Handsel Day was the first Monday of each year when small Christmas gifts were placed in boxes for the apprentices.
This is also the origin of the Christmas Boxes which employers the world over still distribute to staff and customers every year.
Some other interesting phrase history
Burning the Candle at Both Ends is often used to describe people exhausting themselves by getting up early for work and then playing (or working) hard, late into the night. (At least I am guilty of only one of those.)
In bygone days, before electricity could keep us illuminated all night long, clerks and tradesmen working after dark would often secure their candles in the middle (horizontally) and then light them at both ends.
This would give them enough light to work by, but not for very long, so they would have to work harder and faster in these conditions. This gave rise to the expression that we still use today.
If we carry out a task in a Half-Assed fashion then we are not concentrating fully or putting much thought or effort into it. The original expression was ‘half adze’ and had been used for centuries prior to the slight variation in pronunciation.
An adze was, and still is, an axe-like tool with a curved blade that was used by carpenters to shape wood. The story goes that if you were wealthy and could afford to pay for fine furniture, you would buy pieces that had been finished completely, including the back and other unseen areas, such as inside drawers.
However, if you were buying economically, you were likely to find all the unseen areas, such as those placed next to a wall, were unfinished and plain. These cheaper jobs were known as ‘half adze’ work.
A similar expression in regular is Half Baked. If an idea has not been thought through completely, it might be likened to bread that has not been sufficiently baked through and needs to be finished off.
To avoid association with the undesirable term, bakers now produce ‘part-baked’ bread, instead of the original ‘half-baked’, meaning customers can go home and finish it off themselves.
I Wouldn’t Touch It with a Barge Pole is an expression we use when we want to keep something, or even a person, as far from us as possible, certainly further than arm’s length. But the ‘barge pole’ is a relatively new addition to the idiom.
To quote from a poem included in Wit Restored (1658): ‘Without a payre of tongs no man will touch her.’ Tongs are the tool used to put logs on to a fire or pick up dirty objects and were a common household item during the 17th century. Charles Dickens popularized that phrase in Hard Times (1854): ‘I was so ragged and dirty you wouldn’t have touched me with a pair of tongs.’
It was at the turn of the 19th/20th century that the idiom changed. Popular with public schoolboys at the time was the phrase Barging In (see next entry). The same schoolboys, in an adaptation of the phrase found in Dickens, used ‘barge pole’ as the more derogatory term – barge poles (the long, sturdy wooden poles used for steering canal barges) being somewhat longer than tongs.
Barging In on something or someone is to intrude upon or abruptly interrupt a situation. Not quite naval in origin, the phrase does have a watery derivation. Since the development from the 17th century onwards of the English waterways, which prior to the railway network linked most major towns and cities, the boats used on them have been flat-bottomed barges.
Due to the cumbersome handling of these vessels, collisions were commonplace and by the late 1800s schoolboys used the term ‘bargein/into’ for bumping into or ‘hustling’ somebody. By the turn of the century, the phrase had become widespread, having acquired its current meaning of to interrupt without invitation or to hassle somebody.
It’s All Grist to the Mill is an expression we use for anything that might be able to turn us a profit. For example, a farmer might make a healthy sum out of selling a certain crop. But there may be more to be made by also selling leftover leaves and vegetable stalks to the pig farmer next door, and even more to be had by selling his horse manure to the local fruit farmer.
All these little extra profits in any industry are known as ‘grist to the mill’. ‘Grist’ is in fact the name given by the millers to the actual quantity of grain that can be put through the mill at any one time. In this literal sense, ‘all grist to the mill’ means everything will be ground, sawdust and all, with no leftovers and therefore maximum profit.
Any great work of art can be acknowledged as a Masterpiece. The expression is not restricted just to the visual arts either and can be traced to the Netherlands, to around 1580.
Originally a craftsman, artist, writer or musician would mark the end of their training period and apprenticeship by producing a work reflecting their new status as ‘master of the guild’.
This one piece of work was called the ‘master piece’ and the phrase has been applied to exceptional creations ever since.
Being Fired. Prior to the invention of toolboxes, all English crafts- and tradesmen carried their tools around in a sack. Hence to be Given the Sack (in the sense of the sack being ‘given back’ to you) meant being discharged from employment, the worker either carrying his tools home or on to his next job.
However, miners who were caught stealing coal, copper or tin (depending on the mine) would have their tools confiscated and burnt at the pit head in front of the other shift workers, a punishment that became known as ‘firing the tools’ or ‘being fired’.
This obviously meant the banished offender would be unable to find other work and repeat his ‘crime’ elsewhere. Other trades soon adopted the practice and the phrase ‘being fired’ quickly established itself as part of the English language.
In a military context, the expression for being fired is ‘discharged from duty’ or ‘dishonourable discharge’ . Either way, you are out on your ear (to coin a phrase).
The Graveyard Shift is the time a person works when the workplace is at its quietest. Usually this is overnight, although it can be at other times of minimum activity, such as in restaurants and bars on a Monday lunchtime.
The phrase was used widely during the Second World War when it was applied to the nightshift workers in the munitions factories. Since then, the phrase has been applied to other trades and professions.
Journalists and news broadcasters have a ‘graveyard shift’, for example, which is often simply manning the phones overnight should any big news story break. The original graveyard shift was the job of the overnight guards in the quiet cemeteries who were on the look-out for grave robbers or even a Dead Ringer (see entry and Skeleton in the Cupboard).
Not to Care/Give a Tinker’s Dam is used to express complete and abject disinterest in a subject, believing it to be worthless. This has nothing to do with the word ‘damn’ or ‘damnation’, as is sometimes believed.
A tinker is a type of traveller or gypsy who used to roam the countryside in his caravan looking for casual work, often repairing old pots, pans and kettles in exchange for food and clothing. The tinker would plug a hole in a pan by surrounding it with a wall of clay, although he sometimes used bread for the purpose, and this was known as a ‘dam’.
Hot solder was then poured in and allowed to set, plugging the gap. Once this had gone hard, the tinker’s dam would be broken off and thrown away as it was now useless, which is how the phrase became applied throughout the countryside to anything of absolutely no value or interest whatsoever.
To Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel means to add your effort to a joint task, as you will benefit in the long term. This is an expression first recorded in 1692 and calls to mind the horse-drawn carriage. Before the invention of Tarmac (see entry), it was a common for a carriage to become stuck in the mud.
When this happened, the driver would ask his passengers to help shift the carriage by disembarking and ‘putting their shoulder to the wheel’.
Royalty, nobility, gentry or otherwise, they would all have to lend a hand as there was no chance of the driver shifting it on his own.
A Navvy is a manual worker or labourer employed on a casual basis for a fixed period of time, often moving around the country, as building projects were completed and new ones began.
During the Industrial Revolution, teams of manual labourers were employed throughout England to build the canal waterways, followed by the railway system. The canals were known as ‘navigation networks’ at the time and all the men employed to dig them termed ‘navigators’.
The word was soon abbreviated to ‘navvy’ and applied to anybody providing labour on the networks, whether water or rail.
To be all at Sixes and Sevens means to be in a state of disorder, unable to complete a task effectively. This is one of those wonderful old phrases still very much in use today but whose origin goes back a long way, none of us having any idea why it became so popular.
The story is that in 1327 two of the great livery companies, the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors, each received their charter within a few days of the other. But an argument immediately broke out as to which of the two firms was to be placed at number six in the order of companies going on processions in the City of London, and which would be the seventh.
The matter was resolved when it was suggested each company should share the coveted number six position by swapping places every year. This went on until 1484 when the masters of both firms submitted the matter to the then Mayor of London, Sir Robert Billesden, for his judgement.
Rather than getting bogged down in all the rights and wrongs of the affair, Billesden decided a simple solution would be for the masters and wardens of both companies to entertain each other to dinner once a year, as well as continuing to alternate their places on the processions. How typically English.
More interesting history in Money for Old Rope