Skip to main content
warren clements: word play

It helps to have pull in this world. Pull means influence, a reference to the pulling of strings, in particular a puppeteer's pulling of a marionette's strings.

But pull is also a crucial word in the land of English idioms. If pull were to pull out, would other verbs pull their weight and pull out all the stops to pull endangered phrases back from the brink?

Reader Anson McKim asks about one such phrase, which means to trick or mislead a person. "Where did the phrase 'pulling the wool over one's eyes' originate?"

Nobody knows for sure, but there is a leading candidate among the theories. Since the late 1600s, "wool" has been a synonym for hair. During much of the 1700s, it was used patronizingly to describe the hair of descendants of black Africans, but by the 1800s it referred to anyone's hair.

One theory is that pulling the wool over the eyes referred specifically to the hair in wigs worn by British judges. The idea is that a judge's poorly fitting wig would fall over his eyes, obscure his vision and, metaphorically, enable a nimble lawyer to capitalize on the judge's inattention.

A flaw in this theory is that the Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citation for the phrase is from a U.S. source, the Jamestown Journal in New York. In 1839, the Journal wrote: "That lawyer has been trying to spread the wool over your eyes."

But the flaw is not fatal. One reference book says the expression is believed to have originated earlier in Britain and to have been imported to the United States. And if the timing can be pushed back to the 1700s, when fashionable people wore elaborate wigs in the streets, another explanation presents itself: that thieves would push their victims' wigs down over their eyes to disorient them and make it easier to steal their valuables. Those victims would have had the wool pulled, spread or drawn over their eyes.

Maybe, maybe not. Unless someone can find an illuminating citation from a couple of centuries ago, this is all guesswork.

Similar uncertainty surrounds leg-pulling. To pull someone's leg, an expression dating from the mid-1800s, is to fool the person as a joke. The phrase may have originated in a more violent manoeuvre, in which a villain would use a cane or other device to trip someone up before making off with the person's purse. Again, nobody knows for sure.

In Britain, if someone tries to pull your leg, the standard response is, "Pull the other one, it's got bells on [it]" The "other one" is the other leg, and the bells are believed to be a reference to court jesters, who wore bells on their outfits.

To pull a fast one - to get around a person's defences by stealth or subterfuge - derives either from the fastball in baseball or from a bowler's fast delivery in cricket, depending on where one's loyalties lie. The gist is that someone has executed a manoeuvre too speedy to be deflected.

To pull someone's chestnuts from the fire - to rescue a perhaps undeserving individual from a dicey situation at the cost of personal pain - originates in Jean de la Fontaine's fable about the monkey and the cat. The monkey talked the cat into plucking chestnuts from the embers. The cat burned his paw while the monkey ate all the chestnuts. This fable was also the origin of "cat's paw," meaning a dupe or stooge.

There is barely enough time to mention pulling a bird, which is British slang for seducing a woman, or pulling out all the stops, which originates with the pipe organ, or pulling rank. But enough. It's time to pull up my socks, pull myself together, pull the plug, pull up stakes and pull out of the station, hoping that in next week's column I can pull a rabbit out of a hat.