Dark Thoughts Afoot in the Deep of the Night

Last night, things came crawling into bed with me in the dark—worries and sadnesses, fear and forebodings. I could not make them leave, not even after my husband slid under the blankets, his warm body usually a barrier to Dark Things.

I tossed and I turned, and finally, after 90 minutes or so, I got up, grabbed my books from the side table, and went downstairs to turn on the lamp, sit in its warm amber light, and read.

I wrapped my legs in the gold knit blanket, but no matter how I snugged and tucked, my feet were freezing.

“I have cold feet,” I thought, and then my thoughts went rabbiting down that hole.

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There wasn’t a commitment I was about to undertake—like a wedding or a parachute jump, for instance—that I was having second thoughts about. That’s what getting cold feet means, of course: to come right up to the time of an event and decide that maybe, in reality, that’s not something I want to do at all.

I went to the computer, and I looked it up.

Bloomsbury.international.com tells me that the origins of ‘having cold feet’ are obscure, but that it may have come from military days. Soldiers, way back in the day, if they were frightened to go into battle, might complain of frozen feet.

But Wikipedia—which you should never, ever use as a source in an academic paper—says that the use is often attributed to Stephen Crane, who penned the term in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. In that novel, Crane writes, “I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.”

But Crane, Wikipedia says, may be getting unearned credit. The site notes that Fritz Reuter used the term in “Seed Time and Harvest,” which was published in 1862. And long before that, scholars say, Ben Jonson used the term in his play Volpone in 1605.

Origins may be lost in the fog of time, but the soldier’s lament makes sense to me.

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And on the subject of feet, how about, I thought, scrabbling around the words at the bottom of the rabbit hole, HOW about, “To put one’s foot in one’s mouth?” That phrase has never made sense to me; it’s all about saying something that embarrasses me and the person to whom I’m speaking. I would have been better off, actually, if my foot had BEEN in my mouth; it would have been harder to talk around it.

Given my history of tact and blundering, there have been many times I’ve wished I was chewing on my toes instead of choking on my words. But it’s certainly a vivid term. I went looking for its origins, and I came away frustrated.

Jon Pennington, on Quora.com, thinks that the phrase morphed from the concept of ‘foot-and-mouth’ disease, a deadly thing that afflicted cattle. Somehow, he says, the term came to mean people who had said something so egregiously embarrassing or offensive that they just couldn’t recover.

There’s a leap in that theory that I can’t make; I keep tumbling into the abyss when I try.

Phrases.org.uk says that an expression for saying something stupid, back in the dawn of the eighteenth century, was “I put my foot in it.” It’s easier to see where that phrase came from; and I bet there was a lot if ‘it’ back in those days to step in. But then the site jumps to the mid-twentieth century, when it says, “….it was a popular joke to say, ‘every time I open my mouth I put my foot in it.’ This became so commonplace that people took to speaking of ‘putting one’s foot in one’s mouth’ and a tactless person as ‘having foot-in-mouth disease’.”

There are some unfilled crevices in that theory, too.

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Frustrated, I wonder why I bother to put my best foot forward, and then I go chasing that phrase.

The Free Dictionary says that the phrase means to act as an ideal version of myself, struggling mightily to make a good impression. Phrases.org.uk puts the first published use of ‘best foot forward” in 1613, in a poem by Thomas Overbury called “The Wife.”

“Hee is still setting the best foot forward,” the site quotes Overbury as writing.

The site takes exception with the imagery. It might make sense, it argues, for a four-legged creature to put its best foot forward; but the best a human can do, only having TWO feet, is to put her better foot forward.

In fact, Phrases.org.uk says, Shakespeare uses the term in just that way, in King John (1595). He writes:

“Nay, but make haste; the better foot before.”

It makes sense to me that, if we’re not sure where a phrase comes from, we give the credit to Shakespeare.

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And then I started thinking about ‘footing the bill,’ and the more I thought of THAT image, the more ridiculous it seemed. I imagine footballs full of money flying over goal posts, and I went looking for the sensible origins of the term. And I found an explanation on zippyfacts.com, that submerges ‘footing the bill’ deep into a sexist quagmire.

The term, the site posits, dates back to a time when women had to bring a dowry to their marriages. “Footing up” back then meant totaling the bill…with the ‘foot’ of the bill being what we’d call today the bottom line. So the costs of the wedding, and the cost of the dowry, were footed up.

And the bride’s family had better cough up the cash.

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By the time I finished looking up ‘footing the bill,’ I realize my feet were no longer cold, my thoughts had settled into calm, grim rows, and my brain was not functioning at a learning level. It was time to sleep.

So I turned off the lamp, and I hotfooted it back to bed (etymonline: “hastily,” c.1300.)

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