The Interesting History Behind 3 Common Phrases

This past month has been an absolute blur with activities for birthdays galore. From flying home to see my grandpa, parents and friends in California, to heading into London and Cambridge for a couple plays, our weeks and days have been filled… yet I’m struggling with finding something to write to you about. I’ll cover the most recent musical in another West End review and I’ll probably write about the Agatha Christie play we saw on my birthday, but I took exactly zero photos that day… so it won’t be visually exciting.

As I sat here this week racking my brain trying to think of something to share with you all, I remembered that over the course of a few historical tours this winter, I learned the origin of some common phrases we use.

“Put a sock in it!”

Meaning: Be quiet.

Example: “Ay, I can hear you over the tv! Put a sock in it!”

Story told: at Dover Castle’s WWII Christmas event.

Stock photo by 250432 from Pixabay 

During the 1940s there were no bluetooth speakers or iPhones. No Alexas or Google Home speakers to play your Spotify playlist. But they did have recorded music. It just had to be played on vinyl records. The record players at the time however, didn’t have a volume knob and could only play at one volume… loud. So in order to quiet the record player, one would quite literally, put a sock in the speaker area. Thus the phrase was born.

“Shit-faced”

Meaning: Extremely drunk.

Example: “Oh man…we went out to the bar last night and I got absolutely shit-faced.”

Story told: during a ghost tour in Edinburgh.

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay 

Hundreds of years ago, before the advent of indoor plumbing and toilets, people had to use a chamber pot in their homes. These pots were all emptied at a certain time of day…into the streets. This meant the hilly streets of Edinburgh were rife with foul smelling urine and feces. Needless to say, walking in the city was a precarious measure. Now we all know that walking around the cobblestoned streets of Edinburgh can be challenging and walking around when drunk is also a difficult task. But imagine walking the muck lined streets of medieval Edinburgh while intoxicated. Now there is a difficult task if there ever was one. More than once it seems, people would fall while drunk, face first into the mucky street and come up with a face full of poo… and thus the term “shit-faced” is born.

“Ear-Marked”

Meaning: Designated or labeled

Example: “She earmarked the chapters she needed to study again.”

Story told: during a ghost tour in Edinburgh.

At the center of the city of Edinburgh stands the Mercat cross. Now the center of the Royal Mile and a tourist photo opportunity, it used to serve as a location where criminals were punished. Oftentimes they were executed on the spot but sometimes it was something less deadly. When a person was convicted of thievery, their ear was nailed to the door of the Mercat Cross and they were left there overnight. Now some thieves didn’t want to stand nailed to the door and were willing to risk the pain and permanent disfigurement of pulling themselves off the door and ripping open their ear lobe. Of course, earlobes don’t grow back together naturally and while it would likely heal, you’d be left with a noticeable ear disfigurement that would tell other you were “ear-marked” as a thief.


I also had “Upper Crust” and “Jack of all Trades” on my list to tell you about, which were both told during my tour of Mary King’s Close, but my notes were not thorough and I don’t remember all the details. In an effort yo remember these stories, I did some further research and I learned that the Upper Crust story I was told (while well circulated) isn’t, in fact, true. So I don’t want to perpetuate a known falsity, even if it’s an interesting story. And as for “Jack of all Trades”… I can’t for the life of me remember the dull story they told on the tour. I did a little research though and it does seem that Jack was a generic Medieval term for any person who did a certain line of work. So that’s where the term comes from… but I can’t tell you in a fun story. (Sorry!)

What are some other well known sayings that you know the origin of? Please share in the comments! As a student of journalism and a lover of wiring, I find the history of words and phrases absolutely fascinating.

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