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The bigger the wig, the bigger the man! Author delves into the origins of well-known English expressions

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The bigger the wig, the bigger the man! Author delves into the origins of well-known English expressions – including ‘bigwig’ and ‘the boot is on the other foot’

  • Caroline Taggart has written a book on the origin of well-known English expressions
  • Copy editor turned author is sure ‘piggyback’ had nothing to do with pigs
  • ‘bigwig’ was a powerful person who wore large wigs in the 17th and 18th centuries










HUMBLE PIE AND COLD TURKEY

by Caroline Taggart (Michael O’Mara £9.99, 192 pp)

How many books have I read about the English language? It feels like hundreds, but there’s always room for one more on the shelf.

Caroline Taggart worked for many years as a text editor at the publishing house, softening authors’ wild phraseology, undivided infinitives, and untangled participles. Now she becomes an author herself with this wonderful booklet about the origin of well-known English expressions.

Caroline Taggart has written a book on the origins of well-known English expressions – including ‘bigwig’. Pictured: Elton John

For example, did you know that the place under the eaves of a building, where rainwater might drip, came to be known as the eavesdropper and later the eavesdropper? It was also a good place to stand if you wanted to hear what was being said inside.

The origin of some words makes perfect sense. A ‘bigwig’ was a powerful or important person who would have worn a large powdered wig in the 17th and 18th centuries. ‘The boot is on the other foot’ dates back to the 18th century, when shoemakers still made the same boots for both feet. If one was uncomfortable, you could try it on the other foot to see if it fit better.

HUMBLE PIE AND COLD TURKEY by Caroline Taggart (Michael O¿Mara £9.99, 192 pp)

HUMBLE PIE AND COLD TURKEY by Caroline Taggart (Michael O’Mara £9.99, 192 pp)

Some etymologies remain a mystery. Knowing that your onions may or may not come from an English lexicographer named Charles Onions, or a philanthropist named SG Onions. Nobody knows. Others are ancient – ‘the salt of the earth’ was first used in the Bible, while ‘rubbing salt in the wound’, for example, only dates back to the 1940s. Taggart says she doesn’t know where ‘piggyback’ comes from, but all she knows for sure is that it has nothing to do with pigs. Earlier forms of the same expression were ‘pick pack’ and ‘pick back’.

Words tend to mutate beyond their original form in spelling, pronunciation and/or meaning. If they didn’t, books like this wouldn’t exist and my shelf would be completely empty.

It was an anonymous 16th-century pamphleteer who coined the phrase “he wouldn’t boo to a goose,” apparently under the mistaken impression that geese are shy, reclusive birds, not winged freaks.

There’s so much simple goodness here: stories, facts, and the occasional admission of ignorance, which feels like a cold shower after a sauna. It deserves to fill many a stocking this Christmas.

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