Medieval And Early Modern Phrases We Still Use Today, And Where They Came From

Have you ever wondered why you should take something with a pinch or salt and why this may raise a hue and cry if you don't?

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

A medieval manuscript lays open on display.

Many of the idioms we use today have old roots that date back to the medieval period. 

Image credit: Virag Nobile/

Languages are fun, and the English language is particularly entertaining. It is not only jam-packed with words and phrases that originate from other languages, but also contains words and idioms, or sayings, that are just downright bizarre. That sentence actually contains two examples: “Jam-packed”, a phrase introduced into common use during the early 20th century, and “downright”, a Middle English word from "dounright", meaning “right down, perpendicularly”, as in "down" plus "right". 

We use so many similar words and phrases without always understanding their etymology, so here are some fun leftovers from the days of yesteryear that have kept ye olde English alive. 


Full tilt

We may use this phrase today to emphasize doing something at full speed or to the maximum degree. The phrase actually comes from an old synonym for jousting, when two knights charged at one another on horseback with long poles used to knock their opponent out of the saddle. "Tealt" or "tylte", as it was spelt in Old English, meant to totter or to unsteady something. So, it made sense that tilting was an early name for jousting – the word is famously remembered in reference to Don Quixote “tilting at windmills”, a phrase itself that became synonymous with fighting imaginary enemies. 

"Full tilt" therefore referred to the point where the horses were charging at high speed towards one another. The word "tilt" first appears in use in the early 1500s and "full tilt" appears latter in the early 1600s.

The apple of one’s eye

In early medieval England, one’s pupil – the aperture at the center of the eye – was erroneously thought to be a solid, spherical object that resembled an apple. The idea is actually recorded in the Bible and is mentioned throughout the Old Testament in relation to God’s love. Given the pupil’s important role in our vision, it was this part that was most precious. The "apple of the eye" was therefore used as a term of endearment to refer to a much-loved person or thing.

Take with a grain of salt

Technically this one is a little more recent than the medieval period, but it is still worth mentioning. Today, we may say "take with a pinch of salt" when we are cautioning someone about the supposed validity of a particular statement or claim. Originally, people in antiquity believed that adding a small amounts of salt to food would make it easier to swallow, but the phrase as implying caution has been linked to Pliny the Elder who described a recipe for a panacea against poison. In his Naturalis Historia, written in 77 CE, Pliny described adding “a grain of salt” to a specific mixture as a “proof against all poisons”. 


The modern use of the phrase first appears in the 17th century and was likely introduced by scholars reading ancient texts. Later, in the 20th century, the word “grain” was often substituted for “pinch”, which is most often used today. 

To curry favor

We may try to ingratiate ourselves to someone through particularly obsequious behavior, which would mean we are “currying favor”. The phrase comes from the Middle English words “curry favel”, which meant to “rub down or groom a chestnut horse”. It is thought to originate with a popular French romance from the 14th century, Le Roman de Favuel, where a horse that represents hypocrisy and deceit is gently combed down to gain its trust. Due to the story’s popularity, the phrase started to be used in reference to people who used flattery to "curry favel". It then changed to "curry favor" in the 16th century. 

To throw down the gauntlet

Today we may “throw down the gauntlet” to challenge or confront someone. The phrase itself comes from the age of chivalry and literally described the act of one knight issuing a formal challenge against another to defend their honor. The word gauntlet, from the French “gantelet”, refers to the armored gloves worn by medieval knights. Once the challenge had been issued, the opponent was expected to “pick up the gauntlet” to accept it. 

Over the centuries, heavy gauntlets became less fashionable, and so any glove became a symbol for this act. Throwing down one’s glove was still a way to challenge an individual to a dual in Europe and the US as late as the 18th century. 

A red-letter day

During the 15th century, feast days and saint’s days were marked in red on the old ecclesiastical calendars. This was to make them distinct from any other events that were marked in black. 

To sink or swim

Today we may say this in reference to either failing or succeeding by one’s efforts, but this phrase may have more sinister roots. 

In the medieval period, the water ordeal was used to judge whether a person was innocent or guilty. This involved casting a suspect into water to see if they would float or sink. If they floated, so the belief went, the person was guilty as they had clearly rejected the purity of the baptismal water through their sins. If they sunk, however, they were innocent. Unfortunately, the outcome of this particular trial was often bleak no matter what. 

Hue and cry

In the medieval period, if you saw a crime then you were obliged to shout and draw attention to it. This was called raising a “hue” and “cry”. The word "hue" comes from the Old French for "huer" – meaning to shout. The phrase enters the English language around the 12th century and refers to efforts to warn a community about trouble or a crime to get their aid. 

By hook or by crook

This phrase it is often used to describe someone who is determined to achieve a goal, regardless of the obstacles they may encounter and through whatever means they can muster. 

The phrase first appears in the 14th century but it is unclear exactly where it comes from. One popular theory suggests that it refers to the medieval practice of using a "hook" or a "crook" to collect firewood from the forest. 

A nest egg

Today we may use this phrase to describe money we have set aside for future use, but in the 14th century it was being used to describe a practice among peasant farmers. At the time, farmers would leave a single egg in their hen’s nests. The idea was that this one egg would help encourage the birds to continue laying their eggs in the same place. 


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  • language,

  • medieval,

  • linguistics,

  • Etymology