The History in our Language: Idioms from Ancient Times, Part 1

*Originally published on February 7, 2013, this is the first post in our Ancient Idioms series. Don’t miss Part 2 on Thursday!
apple of eyeIt’s no secret that English is heavily influenced by Latin and Ancient Greek – especially if you’ve ever had to study vocab for the SATs – but it might surprise you to know that many of our current idioms have been around since ancient times.  Idioms usually form based around the culture that speaks the language, yet the English language has several idioms that come from antiquity.  They are a testament to how relevant history is to our lives today, and how we’re not so dissimilar to our ancient ancestors.

DRAW A LINE IN THE SAND

Despite a line in sand being easy to erase, when someone says he’s going to “draw a line in the sand,” it means there’s no going back.  The person has issued an ultimatum, negotiating is over and he is not backing down.  This phrase is often used in politics, and it likely dates back to politics over territory in ancient times. [1]  The Roman historian Livy writes that when King Antiochus IV, the Macedonian ruler of the Seleucid Empire (modern day Syria), tried to invade Egypt he was met by the Roman Consul, Gaius Popillius Laenas.  Egypt was part of the Roman Empire during this time, so Laenas demanded Antiochus withdraw his troops.  When Antiochus tried to stall, Laenas drew a circle around him in the sand, and demanded that he not step out until he gave an answer Laenas could bring back to the Roman senate.  Sufficiently intimidated, Antiochus agreed to retreat.  As Word Detective notes, this is the only known instance of a line in the sand actually stopping someone.  Next time you figuratively draw a line in the sand over an issue, you can feel like you’re a butt-kicking Roman.

FROM SOUP TO NUTS

If you are doing something “from soup to nuts” it means that you are doing it from start to finish or the whole thing.  This version of the phrase goes back to a time when formal dinners started with a soup course and ended with nuts for dessert.  However, meals were a bit different in ancient Rome.  Martha Barnette, host of the wonderful A Way With Words podcast, points out that the Romans would do things ab ovo usque ad malum, literally, “from the egg to the apple. [2]

WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE ROMANS DO

While we may now view Rome as a homogenous empire, we must remember that this empire was vast and included many different cultures and customs.  This phrase was originated by St. Augustine in about 390 CE when he wrote in his Letters about the advice given to him by Saint Ambrose.  Advising travelling Christians on what they should do when they visit other Christian cities, he wrote:

Cum Romanum venio, ieiuno Sabbato; cum hic sum, non ieiuno: sic etiam tu, ad quam forte ecclesiam veneris, eius morem serva, si cuiquam non vis esse scandalum nec quemquam tibi.

which was translated as:

When I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but here [Milan] I do not. Do you also follow the custom of whatever church you attend, if you do not want to give or receive scandal. [3]

Simply put, when visiting you should adapt to the customs of the people around you.  It’s the polite thing to do.

APPLE OF MY EYE

This phrase comes together in two parts.  The first part is establishing that calling someone the pupil of your eye is a phrase of endearment.  As you need a pupil to see, it is the most important part of the eye.  If someone is your pupil, they are as precious to you as sight. The Latin pupilla can mean little man or doll, so calling someone the pupil of your eye would mean he is the little man of your eye.  This comes from the little reflection that can be seen of someone in the pupil. [4]  There is also a Hebrew idiom for this, which appeared in early versions of the Bible.  It is iyshown ‘ayin (אישון עין), which also translated to “little man of my eye. [5]”  This appears in the Bible several times, but by the time the King James version came about, it had been changed to apple:

“Keep me as the apple of the eye, Hide me under the shadow of thy wings.” – Psalms 17:8, King James Bible “Authorized Version”, Pure Cambridge Edition

“Keep my commands and live, and my law as the apple of thine eye.” – Proverbs 7:2, King James Bible “Authorized Version”, Pure Cambridge Edition

“He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.” – Deuteronomy 32:10, King James Bible “Authorized Version”, Pure Cambridge Edition

“Their heart cried unto the Lord, O wall of the daughter of Zion, let tears run down like a river day and night: give thyself no rest; let not the apple of thine eye cease.” – Lamentations 2:18, King James Bible “Authorized Version”, Pure Cambridge Edition.[6]

Why the change?  During the early Middle Ages, it was thought that the pupil was solid and shaped like an apple, so it became common for people to call the pupil the apple in Old English.  The earliest written example is from King Alfred’s Gregory’s Pastoral Care from ca. 885 CE. [7]

hwæt on ðæs siwenigean eagum beoð ða æpplas hale, ac ða bræwas greatigað, forðam hie beoð oft drygde for ðæm tearum ðe ðær gelome of flowað, oððæt sio scearpnes bið gewird ðæs æpples.

The pupils of the bleared eyes are sound, but the eyelashes become bushy, being often dried because of the frequent flow of tears, until the sharpness of the pupil is dulled. [8]

When translating the Bible from Hebrew/Latin to English, the creators of the King James Bible chose to stay with the common (at the time) word for pupil; and so pupil/little man became “apple” in the most widely read book of the Middle Ages, and the phrase stuck.  Next time you say it to your sweetheart, know you’re using one of the oldest terms of endearment that exists!

As you can see, antiquity lives on in many of our commonly used phrases.  Be on the lookout for Part 2!


1. Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman. “Line Drawings.” Grammarphobia. http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2009/08/line-drawings.html

2. Martha Barnette and Grant Barett. “Kissing Games.” A Way With Words. September 8, 2012. Wayword Radio. http://www.waywordradio.org/soup-to-nuts/

3. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/when-in-rome-do-as-the-romans-do.html

4. “APPLE OF ONE’S EYE.” World Wide Wordhttp://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-app1.htm

5. Bible Suite by Biblos. http://biblesuite.com/hebrew/380.htm

6. King James Bible Online. http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org

7. “The apple of my eye.” The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/the-apple-of-my-eye.html

8. Pope Gregory I. King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care: With an English Translation, the Latin Text, Notes and an Introduction. Ed. Henry Sweet. London: Oxford UP for the Early English Text Society, 1871.  The Old English copied and pasted from Wikipedia, which is apparently the only place online that has it easily available.

5 responses to “The History in our Language: Idioms from Ancient Times, Part 1

  1. Pingback: The History in our Language: Idioms from Ancient Times, Part 2 | AntiquityNOW

  2. Pingback: #IOTW: 5 Idioms from Ancient Times | @EnglishTips4U

  3. Pingback: Idioms « Kai ta. . . et cetera

  4. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Mesopotamia and the Middle East | AntiquityNOW

  5. Pingback: The History in our Language: Idioms from Ancient Times, Part 1 « SamEdringonAir

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