Whatever the question, George will furnish the answer

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The Independent Online
Today we have a guest appearance by Mr George Castaway, one of the foremost experts on furniture-making in the country, and he is going to answer your questions on the use of language. All yours, George . . . .

Where does the expression 'to cost an arm and a leg' come from? Does it have an origin in carpentry?

Yes. In the days when everything was hand-made and custom-built, it was harder to get spare parts than it is now - if you can imagine it] - so a master carpenter would often, when making a set of chairs, supply a spare leg and a spare arm to anticipate any breakages. Of course, he would charge the customer extra for this, and so any unexpected additional charge became known as costing an arm and a leg.

Where does the expression 'to turn the tables on someone' come from? Is it something to do with 'turning' as in 'turning on a lathe'?

No, nothing to do with that. It is actually an old drinking expression. You know how in cafes and pubs they often turn the chairs upside down at the end of the night, so they can clean the floor? Well, in the old days, in parts of the Midlands, they used to turn the tables upside down once a week as well, in order to remove all the strange things that people leave stuck behind on the underside of tables. Of course, if there happened to be any revellers fast asleep on the floor, incapable with drink, as there often were, they ran the very real danger of having a table overturned on them and being badly crushed. Hence the expression 'turning the tables on someone', to mean giving them a bad experience.

What did it originally mean to 'drive someone up the wall'?

This dates from the days when staircases and walls were both very roughly made, especially in areas where stone-built walls were common. In the poorer kind of house you would often get quite sizeable projecting stones on the inside, looking like a very rough kind of staircase, and if someone were not quite in their right mind they might well try to climb up what they took to be a series of steps, but was just the wall]

Where do the expressions 'musical chairs' and 'to play musical chairs' come from?

Believe it or not, there really used to be a musical chair. In the early 1800s there was a great fashion for inventing musical instruments. For example, Mozart was commissioned to write pieces for some tuneable glasses, and Schubert wrote his sonata for the 'arpeggione', which was apparently a mixture of cello and guitar. The composer Clementi, who lived in London and made pianos, also invented a chair which incorporated an ingenious music box and played tunes when you sat on it, although none of them has survived. Neither has his 'Sonatina for Musical Chair', which was said to be a very funny piece in that it contained passages from the National Anthem.

What was funny about that?

Every time it came to a bit of 'God Save the King', the player had to stand up and the music stopped.

Why was a country house in the old days referred to as 'the seat of a gentleman'?

This dates from the time when it was considered a luxury to have a chair at all, and any family in which everyone could sit down was thought to be rather posh. So words such as 'seat' and 'chair' were symbols of wealth and nobility, which is why we talk about the 'seat' of judgement or an 'old family seat'. When a professor met to instruct his pupils in medieval times, he was probably the only one present to have a chair, which is why we still say that so-and-so has the Chair of Chemistry at a university. Members of Parliament were not guaranteed somewhere to sit at Westminster unless they took a chair with them.

Hence the expression . . ?

To take your seat at Westminster? Exactly. And to have a safe seat, too. If you were one of those unlucky enough not to have a chair, you had to sit on the floor, which is why we still say that someone is 'floored' when they are discomfited.

How far back does the expression 'come out of the closet' go?

This is a widely misunderstood phrase. Closet was originally a kind of small room, yes, but the main meaning was always toilet, or lavatory, being short for water-closet. In the old days lavatory cisterns and flush pulls were very noisy, so when you heard this tremendous clanking and rushing of water, and then saw the person responsible coming out blushing, he was said to be coming out of the closet.

Mr Castaway will be back soon to explain 'cupboard love', 'pull the other one, it's got bells on', 'between you, me and the gatepost' etc.