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Re: Pull one's leg - a darker origin

Posted by James Briggs on March 28, 2003

In Reply to: Re: Pull the other one, it's got bells on posted by ESC on March 28, 2003

: : : : I've been looking for the origin of this phrase, and I think it's from somewhere in the 17th or 18th century but don't know for sure. Can anyone help me with this?

: : : Do you mean " Pull the other ONE ??

: : I think it refers to "pulling someone's leg." Fooling or teasing him or her. It's a variation of:

: "pull one's leg. When you pull a person's leg you are spoofing or making fun of him, usually in a good-humored way. But that wasn't always the meaning of the expression. When the expression first turned up in Scotland about a hundred years ago, it was lacking the lighthearted touch it has today. In those days 'pull one's leg' meant to make of fool of him, often by outright cheating. The best theory of the origin of the phrase is that by tripping a person -- pulling his leg -- you can throw him into a state of confusion and make him look very foolish indeed." From "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollinsPublishers).

If someone says "don't pull my leg" they want you to stop playing a joke on them; to stop telling fibs and to tell the truth. There is a sense of good humour about the whole concept, but it may not have always been so. The origin is found in a Scottish rhyme in which "draw" is used in the sense of "pull" rather than the word itself. It goes:

He preached, and at last drew the auld body's leg,
Sae the Kirk got the gatherins o' our Aunty Meg.

The suggestion in the rhyme is that Aunty Meg was hung for a crime and, at the end, the preacher pulled on her legs to ensure that she was dead.

The rather more sombre overtones of this possibility than are apparent in the British use of the phrase are mirrored in the American usage, where, I believe, there is much more a feeling of trickery and deception when the saying is used.