Proverbial Phrases

Given the location of the correspondents discussed below, I feel I’ve struck a rich seam of coal recently.  Some of the letters exchanged between Elizabeth and Adlard Cage of Kippax Hall in West Yorkshire and the agent William Pearson include a few proverbs and idioms which I’ve found both charming and entertaining to see being used during this period. Pearson refers to the fact that Adlard is fond of such sayings and so they are used for his pleasure and amusement as much as anything.

In one letter, dated 12th January 1697, William Pearson writes from Kippax to Adlard Cage, working in London;

“as you are pleased to say, if I doe not play my cards well, this business will still fall hard upon me.”

I was curious as to when this phrase had first been used. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first use in P. Herbert’s Princess Cloria in 1661, in the sentence ‘I began quickly to play my Cards to the best advantage.’

In another letter, dated 30th March 1698, William writes to Adlard assuring him he has put right an untruth being circulated, using the term ” I sett the saddle on the other horse.”

The provenance of this phrase first appears in 1635, in Five Pious and Learned Discourses by R. Shelford. The lines in question areThe Papist and the Protestant strive about the seat of Antichrist; the one would have it to be at Rome, the other not. In my judgement the Protestant sets the saddle on the right horse.’

Lastly, on 16th Feb 1705 wife Elizabeth writes to husband Adlard;

“I find my Dearest is afeared I shall play to much and not work, but I remember that old saying that all work and noe play makes Jack a dull boy.”

It’s curious that Elizabeth refers to this saying as an old one. Its first recorded use is in 1660, when it was published in the Lexicon tetraglotton: an English-French-Italian-Spanish dictionary, by James Howell. A more recent use of this phrase with the later addition of ‘…and Jill a wealthy widow’ giving a rather ironic take on a well-known saying.

For me, the use of such language provides a sharper vision of a correspondent and imbue’s the letters with a warmth of character, which makes them a joy to read.


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