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Which phrases were coined by Sir Walter Scott?

Phrases coined by Sir Walter Scott

There are many sources for the phrases and sayings that colour our language. One important source is the Bible, from which we get 'by the skin of your teeth', 'from strength to strength' and many more. Whether we view these as English phrases is debatable as the first English translation of the Bible was a thousand years or more after the writing of the original biblical texts. Wycliffe's translation, circa 1392, is the first version that brought the Bible to the English-speaking world - apart from that small number of scholars who had read the previous Latin versions and discussed them in English. Whatever we think about the Englishness of translated biblical phrases even they pale next to the single most prolific coiner of English - Shakespeare. To use his own words from All's Well That Ends Well:

A man in all the world's new fashion planted,
That hath a mint of phrases in his brain;

The list of phrases coined by the Bard of Avon is very long - 'foul play' and 'fair play', 'in a pickle' and 'in stitches', 'high time' and lie low' and many more.

If Shakespeare and the Bible are leading the Premiership; who is top of the First Division? Chaucer? Dickens? Well, it's neither of them - step forward the Scottish poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832). While there are collective works which have brought us more idioms and phrases - The Book of Common Prayer for example, Scott is the individual author who can claim to come second - if a distant second - after Shakespeare.

Sir walter scottScott might seem an unlikely candidate as a major source of phrases in the language as he is rather out of favour in the 21st century and hardly any longer a household name. That wasn't the case in his lifetime though, when he was the best-known and most widely read novelist writing in English.

Nor is Sir Walter regarded as the most highly innovative of writers. Much of his prolific output calls on old songs and tales that he learned at his grandmother's knee. He was no plagiarist though and is now thought of as the inventor of the historical novel. He coined several phrases that are now in everyday use. Or at least, as was his style, he adapted existing texts and brought the phrases to the public attention. At this distance in time it's quite hard to tell just how much was the transformation of inherited materials and how much was pure invention. Take the phrase 'caught red-handed' for example. 'Redhand' was an existing Scottish legal term meaning 'in the act of crime'. It's a small step for a Scottish author from 'redhand' to 'caught red-handed'. Nevertheless, without Scott we wouldn't have the phrase.

Dandie DinmontScott went a little further than most authors in his coining of language. He also gave a name to a breed of terrier dogs, calling them Dandie Dinmonts, after a character in Guy Mannering.

Other phrases of which Scott is either the father or the midwife:

Caught red-handed
Cold Shoulder
Blood is thicker than water
Flotsam and jetsam
Go berserk
Infra dig
Lock, stock and barrel
Savoir faire
Strain at the leash
The apple of my eye
The back of beyond
Tongue in cheek
Wide berth

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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