Your Body Is a Metaphor

8 words and phrases inspired by parts of the body

Definition - a word, phrase, or sentence difficult to articulate because of a succession of similar consonantal sounds (as in "twin-screw steel cruiser")

Have you ever found yourself unable to sleep, counting sheep and pondering the question ‘what kind of tongue-twisters did they use in the days of yore’? No? Good for you! And now you'll never have to. The tongue twister has been around for over 150 years; although it was first used to describe single words (or names) that were hard to pronounce it did not take long for people to come up with sentences which were intentionally problematic. A Tennessee newspaper article from 1872 titled Normal School Exercises in Articulation gave a number of examples of what it called “tongue-twisters”:

”Robert Rowley rolled a round roll round: a round roll Robert Rowley rolled round. Where rolled the round roll Robert Rowley rolled round?”’

”Theophilus Thistle, the successful thistle-sifter, in sifting a sieveful of thistles, thurst three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb.”

”Thou wreath’d’st and muzzl’d’st the far-fetch’d ox, and imprisoned him in the volcanic Mexican mountain of Pop-o-cat-apet-l in Co-to-pax-i.”
Nashville Union and American (Nashville, TN), 15 Mar. 1872


Definition - shabbily dressed.

The humble elbow serves as the basis for a number of well known idioms. One might give someone the elbow (“tell someone to go away”), rub elbows with a person (“meet and talk with someone in a friendly way”), or bend an elbow (“drink intoxicating liquor”). Less well know these days, but no less charming, is out at the elbows, which may refer to either being poorly dressed or being impecunious.

…thou wouldst bee out at Elbowes, and out at heeles too, but that thou layest about thee with a Bill for this….
— Thomas Dekker, Satiro-Mastix, 1602


Definition - used to say that someone does not care or does not have a strong opinion about something

As with many other idiomatic phrases which relate to body parts and originated in 19th century America, the issue of where the skin came from in no skin off someone’s X was a thorny one. Initial uses varied by region, and included cranium, elbow, hide, shins, and various other places from where you would rather not lose any skin. By the 1890s people began to use nose in this setting, and soon this version became the most common one to encounter.

In conclusion permit me to say that although I was the stump candidate for Justice of the Peace, and was defeated (on account of misplaced slips) by a much smaller majority than any of the so called republican nominees, there is no skin off my cranium, and I am not smarting from the soreness of defeat.
The Avalanche (Grayling, MI), 15 Apr. 1886

If the Omaha Republican doesn’t like Manawa, who cares. It’s no skin off its knees, anyway.
Daily Nonpareil (Council Bluffs, IA), 23 Jul. 1886

”Et ain’t no skin off’n my shins,” he said, slowly, “but I wisht yo’d not foller him. He’ll shore bushwhack yo’”
The San Francisco Chronicle, 8 Dec. 1895

It’s no skin off my elbow. Go soak your head!
The Shiner Gazette, (Shiner, TX), 10 Jun. 1903

It’s no skin off our nose. When our ovation comes off Senator Dubois will have an opportunity to occupy the same utter oblivion that we are at present struggling with.
The Idaho Register (Idaho Falls, ID), 24 Jul. 1891


Definition - a word difficult to pronounce

The jawbreaker has multiple meanings; it can be a word that is difficult to say, or it may refer to a hard, usually round candy, of the sort that one might give to a small child before a long car ride, in order that they might not talk so much. The ‘hard to say’ sense is the older of the two, dating to the early 19th century (the candy, also known as a gobstopper, came to be so called several decades later).

Secondly—I am not deeply enough read in ancient authors, Puffendorf, Burliamqui, Bosonquet, Plato, and lord Byron, so as to bring quotations to prove my solecisms, or make use of jawbreakers, of which I might be ognorant myself, and of course they would be unintelligible to my audience; and I do not think I should have influence enough among the members of the house to borrow a speech ready made.
Natchez Gazette (Natchez, MS), 27 Jul. 1822


Definition - an overly inquisitive person

Rubberneck and rubbernecker have been used interchangeably for most of the part hundred-odd years. In addition to its use to refer to an extremely curious sort, rubberneck may also describe a common tourist, or sightseer. When rubbernecker is encountered today it typically is in reference to a motorist who has slowed their driving in order to view an accident.

Here are some peculiar expressions in use among the inmates of the jail. ‘A snitch,’ for instance, is one who carries tales either to a guard or another prisoner. A ‘rubber neck’ is one who shows an interest in all new comers, and who elevates his head and strains his neck to listen to what is being said.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, MO), 15 Mar. 1891


Definition - indirect, devious; especially: sarcastic

Backhanded unsurprisingly had a literal sense (“using or consisting of backhand or a backhand”) well before it had a figurative one. Our earliest evidence of the adjective comes currently from an early 18th century translation of Don Quixote.

And that he should become as Bright
A Champion as that Valiant Knight,
Who at one fierce Back-handed blow,
Did so much Rage and Vigour show,
That with his flaming Sword he cut
Two Gyants down from Head to Foot.
— Miguel de Cervantes (trans. by Edward Ward), The Life and Notable Adventures of that Renown’d Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, 1711

It did not take long, however, for backhanded to pick up figurative uses. We have been referring to false praise as backhanded compliments since at least the beginning of the 19th century.

In commenting on these resolutions my colleague certainly used very complaisant language towards the legislature of that state; but it seemed to me that he gave them a back-handed compliment when he said they passed these resolutions without a fair hearing.
Debates in the Congress of the United States, 1802


Definition -money for bribing or tipping

We have been using grease as a verb to refer to the payment of bribes and other kinds of questionable money for a very long time (since the beginning of the 16th century). This has gone through various iterations, including greasing the fist, hand, and various other parts of the body. Palm-greasing, designating the action of bribery, or of offering some other kind of financial inducement, dates to the beginning of the 19th century. Palm grease, the word for the actual bribe or tip money, is the latecomer to the game, seeing use from the end of the 19th century.

Any one could get a concession who had “unlimited command of palm-grease. It was perferctly useless to attempt to get one without that. The number of palms one would find outstretched for greasing in a day’s march through, say, the marble halls of La Plata, was as countless as the show of hands in a vast crowd.”
London Quarterly Review, Apr. 1892


Definition - to do something that is meant to harm someone else but that also harms the person who does it

When one examines the historical record for evidence of how this phrase was used over the centuries, two things quickly become clear: the wording has changed over the years, and the literature of the English-speaking people is depressingly rife with literal references to cutting noses off of faces. Many of these nose-cutting episodes were presumably done for spite, but the people doing the cutting were likely not interested in spiting themselves.

The figure of speech comes up at the end of the 18th century, and early use favors revenge rather than spite. Before the 18th century came to an end the words spiting one’s face were in use. Some of the similar phrases, such as “pluck out your eye to make your neighbor a blinkard” have failed to retain much currency in our language.

He cut off his nose to be revenged of his face; said of one who, to be revenged on his neighbor, has materially injured himself.
— Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1788

It was oftern been observed, that a provoked man will sometimes whip off his nose to be revenged on his face.
—(Anon.), Elizabeth Percy, 1792

It was almost literally biting off the nose to be revenged on the face.
— William Cobbett, The Works of Peter Porcupine, 1795

Believe me, take good care of the mould of your doublet, and do not pull off your nose to spite your face, or pluck out your eye to make your neighbor a blinkard.
— M. Degbacobub (trans. by R. C.), Princess Coquedouf and Prince Bonbon, 1796