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Pulling my leg

Posted by James Briggs on August 02, 2001

In Reply to: Pulling my leg posted by ESC on August 02, 2001

: : As I was discussing some political views with a chap, he replied that I was pulling his leg. I know what he meant but I'm curious to find out where that was first used.

: For more discussion, search the archives under "leg."

: "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).

In British English, 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 there is much more a feeling of trickery and deception when the saying is used.

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