I was working on a book recently and stopped myself when I realized I used an idiom which, on the face of it, I thought nothing about; I’ve heard it used for a long time and it’s worked its way into common usage, but in reality, it makes very little sense. So, in a mission of procrastination and Wikipedia link clicking, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of etymology, creating waves of “ooh” and “really?” on the way.
This is what I came up with:
“Under the Thumb” and “Wrapped around your Little Finger”
Both of these terms, surprisingly enough, come from the famous medieval pastime of falconry. I always imaged that wrapped around your little finger was self-explanatory, that it was referring to complete control over having someone neatly wound around a small and insignificant part of your body, but it actually refers to the process to make sure the bird stayed on the glove; wrapping string around its feet and then winding the string around your little finger to give you complete control of the falcon.
If you’ve ever held a mischievous or uncooperative parrot/bird, you’ll recognize under the thumb as the method of placing your thumb over its claws once it’s in your hand, ensuring that it doesn’t fly away.
Typically used to refer to someone as a lost cause, this saying allegedly comes from the Great War when soldiers who lost their arms and legs had to be carried around in baskets. Incredibly depressing, but there’s a lot of mystery surrounding this saying so there’s a good chance it isn’t true.
“Getting up on the Wrong Side of the Bed” and “Wrong End of the Stick”
These two come from the Romans. Getting up on the wrong side of the bed stems from their belief that it was bad luck to get out of bed on the left side; if you did, you were if in for one hell of a day.
Wrong end of the stick is a little more disgusting. As a substitute for toilet paper, the Romans used a sponge or a piece of cloth on the end of the stick. This often sat in a bowl of salted water before and after use, and was passed around when needed. If you weren’t paying attention when someone handed you the stick, there was a good chance you could grab the wrong end. I’ll leave the mental imagery with you.
“Mum’s the Word”
It seems that mum, meaning mother, has nothing to do with this saying. The mum here comes from an Old English saying which, simply put, means silence.
“Let the Cat out of the Bag”
This is another one that dates back to medieval times, this time in the fares and marketplaces where livestock was sold. Pigs were expensive and cats were cheap so after customers chose their pig to take home, an unscrupulous seller could bag it for them and switch it with a pre-bagged cat. If the buyer opened the bag there and then, they could expose the con by letting the cat out of the bag. If they left it until they got home, it was probably too late to do anything.
Now, back to writing:)