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Not a leg to stand on

Posted by Smokey Stover on January 12, 2009 at 05:15

In Reply to: Not a leg to stand on posted by Victoria S Dennis on January 11, 2009 at 11:54:

: : Could you go into detail of how (in church history, dealing with the split around 1054) this phrase originated - "Not a leg to stand on"?

: The phrase has nothing inherently to do with church history; it's just a folksy way of describing something that has no support. The metaphor probably refers to furniture rather than human legs; years ago we used to have four-legged, three-legged and even one-legged stools. All of these had functionality, but a stool without a single leg to stand on was incapable of supporting you! (VSD)

Three-legged stools, in my experience, are used most often for milking cows, while one-legged stools are to put under your hinie and allow you to lean or sit unstably while watching races or other interesting outdoor activities where there are no "stands."

'm inclined to take the "leg to stand on" as referring to the leg or legs one usually stands on, that is, their own. But if Victoria can find evidence to make her case to the contrary, I'll gladly change my mind. I'm somewhat receptive to her argument, since it's more often the furniture than the human that is missing a leg.

Incidentally, I can imagine someone in the church finding an occasion to use the phrase, as in debating. The Papal Schism of the 14th century occurred at a time when debating in church ws a great entertainment for clerics. William of Ockham was one who did so regularly; he threw in his lot with the Avignon Pope, who protected him for a time from his many clerical enemies.
owever, if any of these debaters or any other churchmen talked about "a leg to stand on," they would have done it in Latin, and if this were the source, I don't think it would have become a cliché in English.