Medieval Words And Phrases

There are many phrases and practices that we use in modern times that have their roots and origins in the Medieval Ages. Many of them are so popular that we take them for granted without realizing where they stemmed from or how they originated. The following examples explain a few of the most common.


"CAUGHT YOU RED-HANDED" - This phrase comes from the 12th Century practice of dipping a thief's hand in berry-dye. The dye would soak into the skin and stain the hand for several weeks and as such, serve as an act of public humiliation of being convicted. All who saw the 'red-handed' person knew he was a thief and a criminal.

"GET OFF YOUR HIGH HORSE!" - This phrase is commonly used toward someone who is acting pompous, arrogant or lofty. The phrase comes from the 13th Century. During that time Nobles were given a taller breed of horse to ride to signify their status and authority. Often commoners would tell each other to "Get off their high horses" when one was acting more authoritative than he had a right to.

"DON'T KILL THE MESSENGER" - A phrase used commonly when a person of lower station must deliver bad news to a boss or authority figure. It first originated in the 13th Century when Diplomatic Messengers were dispatched to rival houses and kingdoms to deliver unfavorable news. Often the recipient of the bad news would express his or her rage by slaying or imprisoning the Messenger. Finally, laws were enacted to protect Messengers from such events.

"BOUNCER" - This popular term for a bar or tavern doorman also stems from the 13th Century. When entering a tavern it was customary to pay a small fee (usually one brass or copper coin) to ensure against damages and to ensure that the customer did not sneak away without paying his fare. As there was a wide variety of foreign coinage, a man would stand post at the door and literally bounce the coins he was given off of a wet piece of wood. If the coins 'bounced' it was a test that they were genuinely copper or brass and not counterfeits made of lead. Thus the term of "Bouncer" survived into modern times.

"FREELANCE" - This term usually refers to a modern photographer or journalist. Generally it is a specialist who pursues a profession without long-term commitments to any one employer. The term was first used under the reign of William of Normandy when he promised to reward every "free lance" (meaning weapon carrier) that joined his conquest of England with lands, title and money.

"DAMN IT" - Though this phrase is commonly used as a disparaging term, it has its origins in and around 722 AD. The Anglo-Saxon term for Viking was "Damut" (derived from Danish/Dane/Damon and Danute). When Viking longboats were sited it was a common cry of warning for the sentries to shout "Damut" at the top of their lungs.

"CORPSE" - Commonly used word meaning cadaver or dead body in modern times. However it stemmed from the 1400s when the Black Plague was rampant across Europe. The bodies were piled in a building called a "Corpselium" where they were treated and burned to prevent the spread of further infection.

"XEROX" - Though thought to be a modern word applied to the famous brand of copy machines, Xerox was an Anglo-Saxon scribe who copied Norman and Saxon history by hand into the languages of English, German, French and Latin. His extensive work of copying documents led to his name being honored by the company that designed the famous machine.

"GIVE SOMEONE THE COLD SHOULDER" - In The Middle Ages, lords and nobles were often faced with the common problem of getting rid of unwanted or obnoxious guests at feasts and gatherings. There is no evidence of when this practice actually started, but an unwanted guest was served a cold shoulder of meat; the toughest and most undesireable portion of a roast. Receiving this token symbol often resulted in giving the guest enough of a hint that he or she over-stayed their welcome.

"THROW DOWN THE GAUNTLET" - Used widely today as a term of motivation, throwing down a gauntlet (the armored piece that protected the hands of a knight) was symbolic of challenging a contendor to a duel. Records indicate that the first "thrown down gauntlet" took place in 1462 when Sir William de Haverford literally threw his gauntlets and other pieces of armor on his lord's dining table in protest of unpaid wages. Though he didn't intend for it to initiate combat, his lord, Geoffrey Clare, drew his weapon and in the ensuing battle, Clare was slain. Once news spread of de Haverford's revolutionary victory, "Throwing Down The Gauntlet" became a symbolic gesture for an open duel. (Contributed by Tim Leonard)

"RUN THE GAUNTLET" - Often a phrase we use to indicate enduring difficult or challenging events. A gauntlet was indeed a piece of protective armor but during tournaments and festivals there was also an event called "The Gauntlet". It consisted of a pathway through a series of obstacles and perilous occurrences that the runner would attempt to overcome. The first event called 'The Gauntlet' appeared at a tournament in Somersville, England in 1237.

"WEAR YOUR HEART ON YOUR SLEEVE" - This phrase is commonly used to express one who is openly showing love for someone, or toward one whom is trying to impress a person of the opposite gender. Records indicate that it in fact originated during 1255 when knights would wear the symbol of their family crest or heraldry on their sleeves when they went into battle. The symbol was an insignia of the love and devotion that encouraged the knight to defend his family's honor. Later, in 1303 A.D. it became popular for knights to wear the crest in tournaments and symbols were eventually adapted to denote a lover, accomplishment or rank. (Contributed by Tim Leonard)

"BAKER'S DOZEN" - Sometimes we refer to '13' as being a "Baker's Dozen". In Medieval times, bakers would often attempt to save materials and ingredients by cheating the consumer. Instead of wrapping the purchased dozen, bakers would often only sell 10 or less of an item. Once the customer realized the indescretion, it was too late to prove the baker had cheated them. The problem became so bad that eventually laws were passed with strict punishments being enforced on bakers who cheated their customers. The penalties were so harsh that instead of the standard '12' in a dozen, bakers began inserting a 13th loaf or cake to ensure they were within the law.

We hope to be adding more to this section soon. If you know of a phrase we have not included here, visit the Circle Of Mystics and add it to our list! Thank you.