Quintessentially Speaking – Thursday Thoughts

"Quintessentially Speaking" a Thursday Thoughts blogpost from historytrace exploinr ght rich heritage of family sayings. A photograph of a red sky at night. Copyright www.freeimages.com / Pete Langy Langshaw.Does your family have some quintessential family sayings or expressions?

Quite often we can spot family expressions when others in the family come out with them or we are reminded of hearing them in our youth from the older generations of our family. Do you know who originated those expressions in your family and when they were first coined? How many generations have passed them down? Or would others recognise them as your own creation?

Each family has a cultural history – a richly woven heritage incorporating the uniquely personal, such as family sayings, recipes and recollections, as well as broader elements shared by other families from similar linguistic, national and religious backgrounds.

Language and accent as well as family sayings or expressions are incredibly personal to individuals and generations and yet perhaps this is one of the least noted family inheritances. If we find ourselves using an expression which we recall having heard from family members who went before us, how often do we stop to think about what we are actually saying, what those words point to and what circumstances might have first prompted them?

I’m renowned for mixing my metaphors and confusing my sayings. A favourite is “forewarned is forestalled” which sits with me better than the original expression “forewarned is forearmed”. Sadly I do not necessarily notice myself doing this, nor do I remember the combinations I come up with. Whilst those around me are too good-natured to draw attention to my personal quirk. But, I can definitely point to unique expressions which I know my parents used and phrases or idioms which I recognise as coming from their parents and grandparents.

Distinctly unique family expressions are often borne of one person’s interaction with and interpretation of personal situations and historical events or family happenings. Do you know the background behind the expressions or can you ask those who might know?

On the other hand it may be obvious that your family expressions are not necessarily unique. They may be the commonly used metaphors, old wives’ tales, colloquial wisdoms or folk sayings shared by many others within the linguistic community in which your family has been rooted.

These commonly shared expressions may even have been adjusted within your family, such as the English language weather expression “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight” with its variants such as “sailor’s delight” or “Angel Delight” (other puddings are available).

Despite commonality perhaps these favoured sayings are particularly attached to a family member with whom they resonate, for the comfort or guidance they bring or because of the associations between those phrases and close family members who used them such as their own parents or grandparents. Do you have a personal motto which you treasure or an expression or catchphrase which others associate with you?

In many cases the recourse to family linguistic heritage is a mixture of common sayings and linguistic traditions from the surrounding society incorporating also very personal family experiences. In my family for example the last two generations kept up a strong tradition of breaking out into popular song and poetry, originating on the one hand from pre-modern rural country life and by contrast from the convivial East End of London carousing following World War I and II. The real context and personal significance of those traditions I can only guess at sadly.

Many expressions, particularly rhyming ones do not necessarily have their origins in significant events but more from the everyday tran tran of life, the personality of the originator and their playful interest in language and sound. In our family we have a private fondness for nonsensical rhymes.

Perhaps your family spoke a different language in previous generations in contrast to the one your family presently uses at home or within the country or society in which your family is located. Is a former language lost to your generation? Or do some linguistic and cultural elements still live on in your family from an earlier used language or in translation? Perhaps your family holds on to distinctly regional expressions which have migrated with family movements across one country or continent.

What happens then when we borrow expressions from others, should we not also enquire about their background and original context before we proliferate them? I have two expressions picked up from friends for whom those sayings had very specific provenances. Most significantly I realise that whenever I use these expressions, my immediate thoughts are with that friend. Just as music has the ability to stir distant memories, pictures in the mind’s eye and associated emotions, perhaps also the rhythm, repetition and interpersonal value of quintessential expressions evoke most strongly recollections of the people who spoke them.

Where there is an inherent value, meaning or associated recollection in a family saying coupled with an intent to transmit them to subsequent generations, such oral traditions can survive generations and centuries. Whether transmitted orally or in written form. Have you taken stock lately of your family’s linguistic heritage? Perhaps you have older family members who would be happy to share their recollections of family sayings and the cultural heritage of the generations they can recall. Next time you find yourself repeating a well used family expression, stop and think about what is bound up in that phrase, it may take you on a “journey of uncovery”.

Hannah Gill, historytrace, 18/02/2016

Historytrace can help you to explore your family ancestry and get behind the cultural and linguistic inheritance of your family. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family heritage on a deeper level.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Quintessentially Speaking – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: freeimages.com / Pete Langshaw.

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