CALLE

Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Idioms Explained

This page will feature explanations of idioms and words of idiomatic root.  The history of phrases, sayings, and curious names is always interesting.  It is hoped that understanding the root of such speech may aid in understanding its usage.  New Entries will be added and placed into alphabetical order.  Requests for explanation can be made via the ?Ask CALLE link at top.

Blue Jeans

Jeans are sturdy trousers made of heavy cotton fabric and are by far among the most common types pants in the world today.  The common colour for jeans is blue.  Blue became common hundreds of years ago because indigo dye was inexpensive and bound well to the cotton fabric.  The colour blue is so standard today that most people just say ‘jeans’ and the understood colour is blue unless otherwise specified.  ‘Jeans’ is actually not just short for blue jeans, but for blue jean pants.  That’s because jean refers not to a style of trousers, but to the fabric from which they are made and how they are sewn.

Europe was a centre of trade and innovation following the middle ages, with many cities becoming known for the specific products their artisans and factories produced.  Often these products became known for the city in which they were made.  The English word “jeans” comes from the French phrase bleu de Gênes, referring to the unique fabric of Genoa, Italy.  The Italians did not create the fabric known today as jeans, but were the first to fashion them into such sturdy pants.  Jeans fabric is actually called denim and seems to have been created independently in two areas — the French town of Nîmes (the English word denim coming from the French de Nîmes), and in India, where trousers made of similar material were worn by the sailors from the region of Dhunga (from which we get dungarees).

Eventually tailors in Chieri, a town near Turin, Italy became known for sewing quality trousers out of the hardy denim fabric.  These trousers were an early export good, manufactured for sale abroad and were sold through the markets of Genoa, a major center and naval power.  Ships from Genoa sailed all around Europe selling Italian wares at port.  One of the many popular staples of these shipments were the sturdy blue Genoese (say it quickly) pants.  It is said that King Henry VIII was so impressed with the durability of the fabric that he bought 262 bolts of it for manufacture of uniforms within the royal estates.  These ‘jeans’ developed quite a following among workers and outdoorsmen and have been popular ever since.

Flour

During the Elizabeth era, people in England used the word flower to mean “the best” of something.  It was applied to merchandise, weapons, animals, and even people who were considered superior.  In this time when bread was made in the kitchen of each house, grain played an important role.  And, like every other product there were different levels of quality for it.  In the mills of this period, wheat was ground by a crude process, then sifted into varying grades of meal.  Only the finest meal passed through the cloth sieve (a fine filter).  The highest quality of milled wheat was originally reserved for the nobility, and being as it was “the best” was called flower of wheat.  Over time the milling process improved so that most wheat was milled to this higher standard so that flower of wheat eventually was reduced to flour which became the standard term for any finely milled product (meal still being used for more coarsely ground products).

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