Wordy Wednesday – “High time”

Here’s another Wordy Wednesday about time. I can’t really pinpoint why I enjoy discussing the subject. The entire thing confounds and confuses, what with its many concepts regarding relativity, linearity, chronology etc… And yet I’m still drawn to it. Right then, High Time – synonymous with ‘about time’. It is a phrase that refers to the best or latest time for something to happen. It can also mean that something is overdue and should be done right away. Grammatically speaking, the phrase is often paired with a subjunctive verb in the past tense. While it refers to the past, it is really mentioning the present moment the speaker is talking in.

The phrase is found in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, III. ii (1590s):

There’s none but witches do inhabit here;
And therefore ’tis high time that I were hence.
She that doth call me husband, even my soul
Doth for a wife abhor. But her fair sister,
Possess’d with such a gentle sovereign grace,
Of such enchanting presence and discourse,
Hath almost made me traitor to myself:
But, lest myself be guilty to self-wrong,
I’ll stop mine ears against the mermaid’s song.

The phrase’s exact definition varies with the context it is placed in. In The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus of Syracuse speaks of his desire to leave Ephesus, a place filled with ‘witches’ and other women who claim him and Dromio as their husbands. Antipholous could’ve just said “tis time that I were hence”, but “tis high time that I were hence” has a greater sense of immediacy to it.

As in the case above, ‘high time’ is often used to voice a strong opinion. It is a marvellous way to complain about something or someone, with just the right amount of subtleness. Take for example, the ever-pressing suburban annoyance of lawn mowing… ‘It’s high time you mowed the lawn. The grass won’t cut itself’.

Literary uses of the phrase can be found in a variety of sources, such as Tolkien: “It was now past mid-day, and they felt it was high time for lunch” (The Fellowship of the Ring), and Dickens: “…very few words were spoken; and everybody seemd to eat his utmost in self-defence, as if a famine were expected to set in before breakfast time to-morrow morning, and it had become high time to assert the first law of nature” (Martin Chuzzlewit).

And with that, it’s high time I ended this blog entry.

See you on Friday!
– Vineeta


Wordy Wednesday – “Like the dickens”

Hello all and welcome to another Wordy Wednesday!

Did you ever wonder why the phrase “like the dickens” – as in “I stubbed my toe – it hurts like the dickens” – seems to have nothing to do with Charles Dickens?

Well, this is because the phrase pre-dates Charles Dickens and his work – in fact, it is found in the work of another writer, William Shakespeare.

When people say “it hurts like the dickens” they mean  “it hurts like the devil” (i.e. A lot).  This comes from the origin of the word “dickens” as euphemism for the word “devil”in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare uses “dickens” in this context in the Merry Wives of Windsor with the line:

“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of”

Wordy Wednesday – “Dead as a doornail”

Today let’s talk about the phrase “dead as a doornail.” Have you ever heard this expression before? My sources tell me that it’s a very old phrase; it was found in a piece of writing from the 14th century!

Shakespeare used the phrase in his play Henry VI Part II, from 1592. The full usage:

Brave thee! ay, by the best blood that ever was
broached, and beard thee too. Look on me well: I
have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and
thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead
as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.

How dead does this look?

Here the character Jack Cade, the leader of a rebellion against the king, is speaking. This is a simile: a comparison using “like” or “as.” In this example the character is comparing doornails and whoever he is speaking to. Doornails used to be hammered into doors in a way that would make them unusable for anything else. They were hammered in and then the other side was bent with the hammer so that they could not be taken out easily. Not only could you not use them in a new door, you probably couldn’t take them out of the original door either. I guess that makes them pretty dead, right?

Dickens also famously used this phrase in the beginning of A Christmas Carol. He goes on for a full page about whether or not a certain character is dead, and whether or not a doornail itself can even be called dead.

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

He makes a good point about coffin-nails! And then, of course, this character in A Christmas Carol comes back as a ghost, so he’s not so dead after all. This is a good example of irony, which is saying or writing the opposite of what you mean or intend.

In Shakespeare’s play, Cade is threatening several other characters with death. Even though he’s had no meat for five days and must be close to death himself, he’s still threatening to kill the others and not only that, to make them as dead as doornails. Pretty extreme!