Sometimes writing can be the ‘bane of my life’ as I struggle with motivation, procrastination and any other barriers that life throws at me. Recently, whilst procrastinating, er I mean, ‘researching,’ I came across the origins of a well know phrase which shocked me so much that I felt the need to write something about it.
We all probably use a turn of phrase, colloquial saying or some other weird idiomatic expression at least once per day but where do such expressions originate and what do they actually mean? Has the original meaning of these sayings changed over time? If we look at the example in my opening line we often think of ‘bane’ as being some kind of trouble, affliction or ruin but the saying isn’t used as frequently as it used to be. The first recorded use of the word goes back to the Old English Chronicles (circa 1000) in which bane actually meant ‘murderer’ and literally means ‘that which causes death’, such as with a deadly poison. It is commonly used in combination, as in the names of poisonous plants such as Ratsbane (rat poison/arsenic), Henbane and Wolfsbane.
Even simple well-known phrases such as ‘OK’ (Okay) may have a distant relationship with murder. This phrase has evolved from many (often disputed) suggested derivations and one of those originates from the First World War, whereby nightly reports from the frontline filed on a good day would report that there were no fatalities or ‘0 Killed’ or simply abbreviated to zero K and written as ‘0K.’ Although this proposed etymology is disputed.
For those of you who like the occasional flutter, gamble or bet you have probably heard of the phrase ‘third time lucky,’ which seems to suggest that you should not quit after two failed attempts at something. It is quite often spoken aloud as a verbal good luck charm just before trying that fateful third attempt, but where did this phrase originate and how could it relate to death? Well there is a belief, in English Law, that a judicial court would set any person who managed to survive three failed attempts at being hung free.
This belief could well relate to John Henry George Lee (born 1864) who later became known notoriously as John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee. Lee, who was born in Devon, England and served in the Royal Navy, was a thief who was convicted of the brutal murder of his employer Emma Keyse at Babbacombe Bay near Torquay in 1885.
Emma was killed with a knife on 15th November 1884. Lee was the only male at the house at the time of the murder and had a previous criminal record and, not to mention, an unexplained cut on his arm, so Lee was arrested. Despite the weak circumstantial evidence against him and his desperate pleas of not guilty Lee was sentenced to death by hanging. Continue reading