the origins of a few particularly curious English expressions I

The English language is a delightful yet flighty mistress. Many have attempted to tame her, most notably my nigga Willie, or Shakespeare as he is more commonly known. More have tried to make an honest woman out of her with limited success. And yet she still stands, defiant, challenging, untamed, and breathtaking. Her history is long and boring. It boggles the mind just how much she has borrowed from other languages, and just how much she has evolved. Attempting an accurate history would not only require spending more time on the internet than is healthy, but it would also put us all to sleep. So, instead, I am going to construct an alternate history for some of the expressions I find interesting. And then I can lie to my friends and tell them that English is a bit of an ice queen, but I lifted her skirts and gazed at the wonders within.

Wouldn’t hurt a fly’:

This particular expression came into usage sometime in the early nineties. Its origin, while a bit hazy, can be traced back to a cottage in a small village in London. Phil Erickson sat at his desk, his nose buried in the manuscript he was working on. The manuscript he had lied to his publisher was ready. And then out of the blue, came an evil buzzing that cut sharply into his concentration. Looking around, Phil noticed a small fly perched on the handle of his tea cup. He might have imagined it, but the fly gave him a most insolent stare indeed. “Shoo,” Phil said, waving his hand to dislodge the fly. But it just sat there, looking up at him. Resolving to ignore it, Phil went back to his manuscript. But the bloody fly buzzed up and began the traditional fertility dance of its people. On Phil’s nose.

Being the gentleman he was, Phil had no intention of harming the poor creature. So he gave his own head a good shake, muttering apologetically all the while, and he managed to shake it off onto the table. Here, the fly then proceeded to bend over and shake its fruits at Phil. Or so it seemed. This was very rude, Phil thought. He tried blowing, pleading, reasoning and flapping his arms in circular motions. When everything failed he tried threats. But the fly merely laughed in his face and continued to buzz across the manuscript with increasing glee. Eventually, Phil broke down and cried, until his sobs woke his wife, who stumbled into the room with groggy eyes. Of course, by the time Phil explained his predicament-between sobs- the errant fly had already flown back to its people.

Thus the expression was born: with Phil’s wife bellowing “What kind of man cannot squash a bloody fly?!” and his meek response, “The best kind”.

‘Bored to death’:

This expression is more recent than most people realize. In a non-descript house in the non-descript capital of a non-descript country, a couple sat on opposite ends of a couch. At the beginning of the evening, the wife had called in a week’s worth of favors to get the husband to sit with her as she caught up on ‘some light TV’. Which, the husband realized too late, meant binge watching an entire season of something called ‘Devious househelps” or some nonsense. But by the time the warning bells went off, he was already well into the first hour of the last night of his life. You see, the husband suffered from an undiagnosed case of the sleeping sickness, which had not been encountered before in aforementioned non-descript country. So he slumped deeper and deeper into the couch. Occasionally, the wife would yell something to the tune of “OMG, she did not just do that; swirrie, can you believe that bitch?!” and he would shake his head sadly. “No, babe, I can’t.”

This went on for an eternity. The husband planned fifteen different escape strategies but dared not use any of them. So he slipped further and further into a semi-comatose state. His boredom was so dire he could not lift a finger to break that stupid television. He did not feel it happen; one minute he was there, the next he was wallowing in nothingness.

Hours later, the wife phoned an ambulance with panic in her voice. Her husband was not breathing, she reported. The intern who had received him scrawled ‘bored to death’ under cause of death, purely on a whim. The rest, alas, is further history.

‘Give my best to’:

The origin of this expression is has been disputed for quite some time. There have been strong claims by the Bukusu superclan of Shamakhokho that they were in fact the first to use this expression, and cultural allegiances aside, I am inclined to believe them.

After a visit by her nephews, Senje Martha was so overwhelmed with gratitude for the work they had helped her do that she decided to make a gesture of her own. As the boys waited by the door, she went back into her farm and opened the kitchen shed. It took some effort, and some sporadic spurts of speed and agility, but eventually she cornered the rooster. It was her prize rooster. She had been feeding it very deliberately since it hatched, in readiness for an upcoming funeral. It was 15 kilograms of pure muscle. But now she tucked it into the crook of her armpit and marched back to the boys.

“Give this to your mother,” she announced. “It’s my best rooster.” This would later become a part of the Luhya custom; giving a chicken-or, in short- one’s best to friends and relatives to show gratitude or by way of greeting. “Give my best to…” Patent pending, people.

English? You fascinate me ma’am.


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