Thursday, December 22, 2005

Why do we use so many foot metaphors?

Like the word "hand", foot has everyday meanings other than the obvious. With the exception of head and back and of course the naughty bits, no other part of the human body features so prominently in the English language as dies the foot. Now why this is so, is not too clear but it may infer the importance the foot has to the human condition.

Homo sapiens did walk on two legs for two million years before they developed the brain we now associated with humans. Many believe upper body function including speech came from bipedalism. It is commonly known we measure our universe with our bodies and we think through our feet. The residual evidence is seen in speech phrases and metaphors. Not many words in English language have spawned more derivatives than the eighth century, “fut.” The Oxford English Dictionary devotes 13 columns to the ancient noun and its offspring. The etymology of “Fut” comes from Indo-Aryan. In the pre Chaucerian era, the word was spelt a dozen ways including: fowte, foyrw, fotte and even vot. Surprisingly the plural has always been some variant spelling of feet. By the 15th century the spelling had settled down to foot and the irregular plural feet.

As a prefix foot has contributed to our speech. “Footsteps” can be traced back to before 1250. “Foot less” and “footman” appeared in the 14th century. “Football” was described in 1409 and the muggers of the 17th century were referred to as “footpads.” As far back as 1789 pedestrians were “footsore.” The term foot is also used for many purposes other than the description of the "terminal part of the leg". Foot can have a diverse set of meaning including a wide range of human behaviour.

The call of the grease paint and footlights (1839) pertain to the life of an actor. "Footloose (1873 created by novelists) and fancy free" and "putting things on a loose footing" mean to relax formality and be without commitment. Boxers demonstrated their fancy footwork in 1895. Of course a foot contains 12 inches or 30.48cm"; and in poetry the foot is a basic unit of division in scansion, Common everyday phrases include: "to fall on one's feet", "land on one's feet", with reference to be lucky or successful; "find one's feet", to become independent of the help of others. "My foot!", or complete nonsense! "to put one's foot down", is to be strict or firm; "to put one's foot in it", is to make an embarrassing blunder; "to stand on one's own feet", to be self-sufficient; footsie footsie describes pre-coital foreplay, and "to sweep off one's feet", is often the result. To “kneel at another’s feet” is giving homage and can be traced far back in English literature. “To set foot”, means to make a discovery. “To follow in father's footsteps,” relates back to the time when shoes were so expensive many poor people bequeathed their shoes to relatives. “To have a foot in the door,” refers to someone with an advantage over others. When things are not going as well as they might you may find yourself "under foot", meaning in the way; and of course eventually we all end up like Victor Mildew with " one foot in the grave". My all-time favourite is "the games afoot, Watson" from Sherlock Holmes, meaning the commencement of the action starts here.

Reference can be made to foot as a verb, e.g. to walk: "we footed it to the shop"; and to pay as in "he footed the bill". 'To pussyfoot about’ or "to be sure footed” displays a spectrum of meaning with the former being unsure with the latter, assured. “She dances with a light foot" and "showing nifty footwork" means great agility.

Finally, the foot means the lower end and is used in architecture to describe a column, as in “foot of the column.” The position of the column may stand at the foot of the hill and meantime, if I can think of anything else I will put it into a "footnote."

Reviewed 25/08/2016

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