Where Does “Beat Around the Bush” Come From?
The words “let the cat out of the bag” would seem to relate to freeing packaged cats. The phrase “take it with a grain of salt” appears to describe a chef demanding more salt. “Under the weather” could refer to someone taking refuge from a storm underground. Yet, these phrases mean none of those things.
Idioms, such as the previous phrases, are notoriously baffling. This is because the message of an idiom does not match the literal meaning of the words that form the phrase. For this reason, idioms seem without rhyme or reason.
However, at one point, an idiom’s literal meaning did connect to the phrase’s intended meaning. For instance, some believe that “to let the cat out of the bag” originates from dishonest merchants hundreds of years ago selling bags containing cats instead of piglets. (Apparently pigs had greater value than cats, so this sneaky switch profited the merchants.) The unsuspecting customer would later open up their purchase and see they were fooled. Hence, letting a cat out of a bag came to mean revealing a secret.
As this shows, idioms did come about with some form of sense and intention. Yet in the hundreds of years after their formation, society has developed greatly, abandoning the context the phrases once had. This leaves our language full of phrases with origins that seem amusing and absurd to our modern point of view.
While their perplexing nature can make conversation rather difficult at times, idioms do provide especially entertaining cases of etymology (or just regularly entertaining for oddballs that don’t find general etymology fascinating). In this issue, we will explore the origin of a particularly nifty idiom: “to beat around the bush.”
In medieval times, some men would accompany hunters with the task of scaring animals into the open. Carrying wooden sticks, these men would yell and whack the dense bushes to startle hiding creatures. The process worked fairly well, assuming only small, harmless animals — such as birds, squirrels, or rabbits — were hiding in the brush. Unfortunately for these blokes, more dangerous animals sometimes lurked amongst the bushes. When men beat bushes hiding these animals, they angered vicious predators. Wild boar would suddenly charge out of the thicket, directing their sharp tusks at the fool who dared disturb them, and the unlucky men had only futile sticks as defense. The boar usually won.
As a result, fearful men would tentatively beat around bushes, hoping not to aggravate any menacing creatures. From here, “to beat around the bush” began describing the act of not approaching something head-on. This phrase first appears in print around the year 1440 (when spelling differed from today) in the book Generydes: a Romance in Seven-Line Stanzas: “Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.” The common variation of the phrase, beat about the bush, is found in an old poem by George Gascoigne from 1572 (when spelling still differed): “To thinke bowe he abused was, alas my heart it bleedes: He bet about the bushe, whiles other caught the birds.”
Today, the idiom has lost relatively all connection to its initial meaning in hunting. Now, it most often describes someone who talks in circles around their point. However, the idiom maintains a connection to its origin through consistently relating to the act of avoiding the central purpose of a task. While the relation between the modern and original meaning has mostly dissipated, a small link remains.
While idioms’ meaning seems to contain absolutely no association to the literal words, they did initially have a strong connection. Referencing relevant situations of the time period, idioms began as logical phrases — despite seeming completely nonsensical in the context of today. Through studying an idiom’s formation, we see its forgotten logic and can better understand its meaning.
Note: The origin of idioms are not recorded thoroughly; however, based on multiple sources and usage in writings, these articles present probable origins. Write to Palette to request an idiom to be featured in future issues.