River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Red Herrings & White Elephants

April 2005

A new book, entitled Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack is the inspiration behind this interesting item. Watch out for further definitions next month!

The origins of the following well know sayings were extracted by the Mail on Sunday from the book Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack.

As drunk as a newt

A NEWT was the name that gentlemen in the 17th century England gave to the boys who looked after their horses when they went out on the town. As they whiled away the evenings in taverns, gaming houses and opium dens, they would send out the odd "warm-up" drink to their newts who could often be found rolling drunk when the horsed were eventually collected.

Red Herring

Anti-hunt protesters are not a modern phenomenon in Britain. In the 1800s, fox lovers would sabotage the hunt by dragging pungent red herrings - salted and smoked red to preserve them -along the hunt route away from the fox. The hounds would be confused following the scent of the herring rather than the fox, hence the phrase meaning to follow the wrong clue.

The clink

This word for a prison refers not to the rattling of chains, but to the name of a prison in an area of 13th century London known as The Liberty of Clink.

Just south of the Thames, the prison lay outside London jurisdiction and so was notorious for brutal punishments.

Pay through the nose

When the Vikings invaded 9th century Britain, they brought with them their violent customs and imposed strict taxes on the locals. Any citizen refusing to pay would either have his nose slit open or cut off.

Only when English King Ethelred beat Viking leader Eric Bloodaxe in 954 at the Battle of Stanmore did the practice stop, but the phrase remained to imply paying dearly for something.


This phrase, meaning a troublesome and time-consuming task, dates to 1291 and the court of King Edward 1, when Scottish noblemen signed a deed of loyalty to the English king.

Each nobleman was required to affix his seal to the document, and once all the seals and papers were added it was 12m long and such a mess it was known as the Ragman Roll, which became "Rigmarole" over time.


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