The modernity of the Middle Ages

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[Prefatory note:  The material for this post was sent to me by a usually trustworthy source.  Moreover, it comes from a blog that sounds and looks as though it should have done its homework and know its stuff, and the blog drew their material from Madeleine Pelner Cosman’s  Medieval Wordbook that has been in circulation since 1996, with enthusiastic reviews (avg. 4.5) on Amazon.   Cosman (1937-2006) had a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Columbia University (1964) and a J.D. from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (1995) at Yeshiva University.  She was a professor in the Department of English at City College of New York for nearly three decades (1964-1993), lectured on medieval daily life at the Metropolitan Museum of New York for years, and was active in medical, judicial, and other fields across the United States. I must confess that, as I prepared the post, I felt qualms over the quality of some of the entries.  I should have followed my instincts and investigated further, and apologize for having failed to do so.  Mea culpa — straight from the Middle Ages (Confiteor [1100]).]

You'd be surprised by how many of our most common, comfortable expressions come from the medieval period.  Here are twelve collected by Madeleine Pelner Cosman as part of her book on words and phrases from the medieval period that you are likely to be quite familiar with.

12 Expressions that we got from the Middle Ages,, May 21, 2024

Crocodile tears

To display insincere sadness. A few ancient and medieval writers believed that crocodiles would cry while eating their victims. The story was spread in England by the 14th-century travel writer John Mandeville. He explains that “these serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping; and when they eat they move the over jaw, and not the nether jaw, and they have no tongue.”

Bring home the bacon

To earn a living or achieve success. This expression dates back to 1104 when a nobleman and his wife dressed themselves as peasants and asked the local Prior for a blessing for not arguing after a year of being married. In response, the Prior gave them a side of bacon. Afterwards, the nobleman gave land to the monastery on the condition they gave couples who accomplished the same deed with the same reward.

Knock on wood

If you have good luck and want to keep it. Cosman sees this expression deriving from pre-Christian times, when people performed rites “to inspire spirits dwelling in wood or trees, such as the maypole, or to awaken them after winter slumber, as with the divinities affecting agriculture and human life.”

Hocus pocus

Doing a trick, usually said by a magician. This actually derives from words spoken in Latin during a Mass: when a priest lifted up the eucharist to his parishioners, he would say “Hoc est corpus domini,” which means “This is the body of the Lord.”

Lick into shape

To bring into satisfactory condition or appearance. In medieval bestiaries, you would find an unusual description of bears and how they give birth to their young. Here is how one 13th-century bestiary describes it:

The bear gets its Latin name ‘ursus’ because it shapes its cubs with its mouth, from the Latin word ‘orsus’. For they are said to give birth to shapeless lumps of flesh, which the mother licks into shape. The bear’s tongue forms the young which it brings forth.

On the carpet

It now means to call upon someone doing bad things. However, its origins in French (‘sur le tapis’) is that it was customary to put a carpet on a banquet table, which was often the centre of conversation.

Buckled down to work

To focus on your job. It comes from medieval warriors having to make sure their armour was buckled and safely on before going out to battle.

Out-Herod Herod

To exceed in violence or extravagance, inspired by the Biblical character. Even before it was used by Shakespeare in Hamlet, the expression could be found in medieval mystery plays.

A long spoon

To keep a safe distance from danger. Cosman notes that in medieval lore, “the best kitchen or banquet implement for supping with the Devil was a very long-handled spoon.”

Goose is cooked

When someone is in trouble. This expression has two origin stories. In one of them, it is ascribed to the Christian reformer Jan Hus when he was burned at the stake in 1415. In the other version, the 16th-century King of Sweden, Eric XIV used the phrase when he burned down a town that he was besieging after they had mocked him by putting out a goose along the walls.

Crow’s feet

A reference to the fine lines that appear around your eyes as you age. The English writer Geoffrey Chaucer is credited with first using the expression. In his work Troilus and Criseyde we find the line “you may live long and proud till crow’s feet grow under your eyes.”

Food for worms

To be dead and buried. One can see this expression in the Ancrene Wisse, a thirteenth-century monastic text. In the Middle English, it states “Ne schalt tu beon wurmes fode?”

Some of our colleagues are constantly quibbling over whether it is suitable / permissible ever to refer to our research as focused on the Middle Ages or medieval period, instead of keeping our nose to the grindstone (an apt saying from the late medieval period).


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. John Baker said,

    May 27, 2024 @ 11:47 pm

    Dave Wilton has questioned the scholarship of this list, see

  2. C Baker said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 1:51 am

    More than a few of those seem suspiciously pat.

  3. Gerard said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 2:22 am

    I’m surprised Language Log would post something with so many obvious Just So Stories in it….

  4. Rob Grayson said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 2:48 am

    Several of these failed to get past my bullsh*t detector.

  5. Peter Taylor said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 4:47 am

    It now means to call upon someone doing bad things.

    is interesting, because it appears to be sense 6 of call upon in the OED (intransitive. To call into question the integrity or validity of; to challenge, accuse), which the compilers believe to have been used in print only between 1746 and 1791 and to be currently obsolete.

  6. Nat J said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 5:02 am

    Is the suggestion for “Goose is cooked” supposed to be that originally the expression was “Jan Hus is cooked”, which then morphed over time? The story is too good for me to entertain any of the skepticism raised in the comments.
    Btw, out of this list, I’m only unfamiliar with “On the carpet”. Is it more common in certain regions

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 6:03 am

    I am grateful to the commenters for voicing their reservations. See the prefatory note above.

  8. Michael Vnuk said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 7:58 am

    'Hus' is Czech for 'goose'. I only know this because my father is preparing his memoirs and he had to mind geese as a young boy growing up in a small village in Slovakia in the 1930s. The memoirs have been translated to English, but he has some Slovak words in it, one being 'hus' for 'goose'. Slovak is similar to Czech. I understand that 'hus' has a vowel sound like PUSH, and then you can see more clearly that 'hus' and 'goose' are related.
    I still don't buy the Jan Hus origin story for 'goose is cooked'.

  9. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 8:16 am

    Language Log/:

    Coining witty phrases that often make their way into the general lexicon;

    Providing a "safe space" for professional linguists and amateurs to explore freely how we communicate with our fellow humans; and

    Debunking false etymology.

    Probably the most useful thing on the Internet (maybe in a three-way tie with Westlaw and Lexis).

  10. Scott P. said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 9:58 am

    The bacon custom is discussed a bit on Citation Needed:

  11. Sean said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 10:55 am

    I have a blog post scheduled which talks about the alchemy of trust and money. A big part of publishing works by burning trust in exchange for money (eg. publishing guest posts or summaries of books that you have not verified on your ad-funded web magazine, or using your reputation as an expert to tell people that the other party are false and wicked).

  12. Sean said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 11:06 am

    Also, my university library can't afford the OED Online, so telling somone who runs a web magazine to just use it is a big ask! Maybe they have a more affordable personal rate. As long as current scholarship is paywalled while out-of-date books are free, slips will happen.

    And the original blog post does allude to the pagan Romans who tell the myth of crocodile tears.

  13. Rodger C said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 11:33 am

    When I hear "called on the carpet," I've always pictured the offender being summoned into an office with a carpet in front of the boss's desk.

  14. Kate Bunting said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 1:10 pm

    The 'bacon' story is based on the Dunmow Flitch Wikipedia says that the 'disguising as peasants' story comes from Harrison Ainsworth!

  15. David Marjanović said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 2:39 pm

    When someone is in trouble. This expression has two origin stories. In one of them, it is ascribed to the Christian reformer Jan Hus when he was burned at the stake in 1415. In the other version, the 16th-century King of Sweden, Eric XIV used the phrase when he burned down a town that he was besieging after they had mocked him by putting out a goose along the walls.

    If either of these were the case, you'd expect this idiom to occur somewhere outside the English language, particularly in German… where it doesn't occur to the best of my knowledge.

  16. Avi Rappoport said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 4:45 pm

    Medievalists are not etymologists and should not pretend to be! Even if the authors and editors don't have access to the OED, is free (with ads) and mostly draws on the OED.

  17. Sean said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 8:29 pm

    Avi, the author of the book has a PhD in English but was writing in the 1990s so it would have been a bit harder to check some things than today. I have sympathy for both the editors of the web magazine who have to get posts out on a wide range of topics, and the blogger who wants more fact checking.

  18. George said,

    May 29, 2024 @ 6:19 am

    I had always understood that 'hocus pocus' was a post-Reformation thing, mocking the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Old, sure, but not medieval.

  19. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    May 30, 2024 @ 8:30 am

    Well, if we call 500 -1500 "mediaval", then the Lollards (fl. 14th C.) might well have poked a Latin jibe or two at their Catholic countrymen, no?

  20. Rodger C said,

    May 30, 2024 @ 11:38 am

    My grandmother would do conjuring tricks and say "Hocus pocus dominocus!"

  21. Philip Anderson said,

    May 30, 2024 @ 3:19 pm

    The bacon story is usually associated with the Dunmow flitch, but while that custom was certainly medieval (in some form), the origin story is a story, and the association with the “bring home the bacon” phrase is really unlikely, since that phrase isn’t attested nearly so early (1906, unless you know better):

    Perhaps “out-Herod Herod” is found in medieval mystery plays, but the OED doesn’t confirm that:

    Hocus pocus may have come from the mass as speculated early, but it doesn’t sound like Middle English:

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    May 31, 2024 @ 4:54 am

    The OED also supports an earliest-attested date of 1906 for "bring home the bacon", fellow-Philip —

  23. George said,

    May 31, 2024 @ 4:59 am

    @ Benjamin E. Orsatti

    Fair point.

  24. ktschwarz said,

    June 2, 2024 @ 6:26 am

    "The OED is expensive, it's not fair to expect a (purportedly serious and factual) magazine to use it" — Oh, give me a break. The first several commenters didn't need the latest OED to smell a rat. These are not secrets available only behind a paywall, and they're not brand-new discoveries. There are quite a few free websites that offer *evidence-based* word and phrase histories: besides Etymonline, there's e.g. Dave Wilton's Wordorigins, linked in a comment above, and Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, e.g. on goose is cooked and other phrases in the post. Google Books and ngrams don't cost anything, either; you can look for yourself and see that "bring home the bacon" explodes out of nowhere right after 1906 (as mentioned in comments above), and if you check the blips where Google has it before 1906, they all turn out to be misdated.

    "It was harder in the 1990s" — give me another break. I remember the 1990s, and there were books on phrase origins published before 1996. Cosman could have asked reference librarians at CCNY or Columbia to help her check phrase origins in the OED and other references, if she'd cared. And why does a web magazine "have to" pump posts out without any quality control? They don't have a daily "hole" to fill as a print newspaper did, and I'll bet they could get plenty of content from actually competent writers.

    Can we just stop making excuses for this? Please?

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