In “Tommy’s Brother” in Ain’t No Such Animal, the boy was caught ‘redhanded’ while field dressing a deer he had poached. Upon reading that, I wondered if my idiomatic understanding of the word had a literal basis equivalent to ‘bloody handed’. Upon checking the OED, indeed, it originally was literal. In all of my 58 years, that understanding had never occurred to me.
Is the literal meaning of ‘redhanded’ new to you? Are there other words/phrases you understood idiomatically for years only to later find out their literal basis?
It sounds like a play of words, a pun that takes the exact words of the idiom. Â If you literally catch someone with his hand in the cookies jar, Â or with his pants down, then you might state that exact idiom, except not as an idiom but a pun, one that plays off the idiom. Â To me ‘red hand’ is always invoking of murder, so much so I never wonder about its root.
Emmett said: Is the literal meaning of ‘redhanded’ new to you? Are there other words/phrases you understood idiomatically for years only to later find out their literal basis?
I never really thought about the origin of “redhanded,” and I’ve used that expression often. Makes total sense to me, now that you point it out.
And yes, there is one idiom I’ve used that has an origin only recently learned. “Beat around the bush” to me always meant “not getting to the point.” Turns out the original meaning was in the sense of “preliminary actions not expected to have immediate affect.” That’s pretty close to its modern meaning, but according to this source it was first used to describe the act of trying to flush game from cover. Fascinating how these idioms evolve.
Sometimes an expression can go back from metaphoric to literal in the blink of an eye, and you just have to watch for it. Like the time I came to work and found someone painting the glass doors to the break-room brown (apparently the first step in making the clear glass frosted). It was all I could do to resist telling the guy in the coveralls “Go, and never darken my door again!”
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