What does ‘Kick the Bucket’ mean? – Idioms explained
From the Author of the Internationally Bestselling Books – Red Herrings & White Elephants, What Caesar did for My Salad, Shaggy Dogs, Pop Goes the Weasel, They Laughed at Galileo:
The Things That Your Teachers Didn’t Know, or Didn’t Want You to Know.
When you find a person Three Sheets to the Wind they are roaring drunk and capable of very little. There are two suggested origins for this phrase, the first is that a windmill with only three sails (sheets) would rotate badly and wobble like a drunk.
But the second is far more likely, especially as, like so many of our favourite phrases, it has a nautical origin. The sails of a tall ship were controlled by rope (the rigging) and these ropes were called ‘sheets.’
Two sheets controlled each sail and the story is that if one of the sheets wasn’t properly handled, then the other three (of the two sails) would be ‘to the wind’ and the boat would veer from side to side without being fully under control, much like a drunk trying to navigate his way home.
Sour Grapes is a phrase we use to describe someone who is sulking or jealous of not having something others have.
This stems from a simple and popular 6th century fable of Aesop’s called ‘The Fox and The Grapes,’ in which the fox spends a long time trying to reach a bunch of grapes high on the vine, but eventually fails.
The fox then comforts himself by explaining he didn’t really want them after all, as they look sour.
When someone Steals Your Thunder they are taking credit for something that another person should properly be credited for.
Regularly used by 1900, especially by jealous politicians claiming their brilliant and original ideas had been stolen by another.
Originally the expression was used by the playwright & critic John Dennis in the early 1700’s who discovered the sound of thunder could be reproduced to great effect backstage at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, by bending large tin sheets.
At a time when sound effects were virtually unheard of his idea considerably added to the drama of an evening out and did not go unnoticed. His play, on the other hand, did go unnoticed and was replaced by Macbeth in a matter of weeks.
Shortly afterwards the embittered Dennis saw a performance of Macbeth and was furious to hear his thunder being reproduced without his permission.
Writing a review the following day Dennis raged ‘See what rascals they are. They will not run my play and yet they steal my thunder.’
Isn’t it comforting to see that a complete lack of moral standard is also an old English tradition.
Swing The Lead.
These days it is a metaphor used to describe somebody who is avoiding work by giving the appearance of toiling, but not actually doing anything.
It is a nautical phrase with its origins in naval history. Aboard ship it was the job of a Leadsman to calculate the depth of water around a coastline by dropping a lead weight attached to a measuring line at the bow end.
As the easiest job on board it was usually given to a sick or injured seaman and many feigned illness in an attempt to secure such light work.
The phrase came ashore and is now used to describe anybody making excuses or simply ‘going through the motions.’
A Dead Ringer is a well-known phrase for somebody who looks just like another. In medieval Britain, the medical profession was not quite as refined as it is now, and often anybody found not to be breathing was regarded as dead, when they may have simply been unconscious. (And this was also before comas were fully understood.)
It was not uncommon for bodies to be later exhumed by body snatchers, and corpses might be found with their fingers worn to the bone, a clear indication they had returned to life and tried to claw their way out of their coffins.
So horrific was this image that the English gentry began mistrusting medical opinion and in some cases would bury their loved ones with a string attached to their wrists connected to a bell above the grave.
Anybody who returned to life and found themselves prematurely buried could attract attention by ringing the bell, and it has been recorded that this actually worked. Many ‘bodies’ were exhumed after bells were rung and some people carried on with their lives as before.
But when they were spotted in the street, startled acquaintances might exclaim to each other: ‘That looks just like Jack Jones! I thought he was dead.’ To which they would receive the reply: ‘Yes, he must be a dead ringer.’ And that, believe it or not, is true.
Kick the Bucket
To have Kicked the Bucket is an expression used to describe the dearly departed, those no longer of this world, the deceased.
There are three possible explanations for the phrase and the squeamish should cover their eyes while reading, or look away now.
The first relates to abattoirs and slaughterhouses where culled animals would be hung by the hind legs from an overhead beam, called a ‘bucket,’ while blood drained from the carcass into a tin bucket below.
Any twitching or spasms would result in the poor creature kicking one of the buckets. The word for the overhead beam derives from the Old French word buquet, meaning ‘balance.’
The second explanation is provided by the lynch mobs and their method of standing a victim on an upturned pail, or bucket, placed under a tree while securing a noose to an overhead branch.
Kicking the bucket away would then deliver justice, lynch-mob style. Suicide is our third option and an article published in the London Magazine during 1823, by Thomas De Quincy, provides a description:
‘One Bolsover, having hung himself to a beam, while standing on the bottom of a bucket, kicked the vessel away in order to pry into futurity and it was all up with him from that instant – finis!’