Talking sense: hearing and ears in everyday language

Ever turned a blind eye? Touched a nerve? Looked a gift horse in the mouth? Smelled a rat? Been left with a bad taste in your mouth? Our senses feature highly in the idiomatic language we come across every day. And though we might not know the origins of our most-used clichés, phrases and expressions; we can generally decipher the essence of what’s being implied through the pictures they form in our mind’s eye (there’s another one). The lingo of our auditory sense is no different. Here we explore the origins and meanings of some common phrases that reference hearing and ears.

Hear, hear
Not to be confused with ‘Here, here!’ (possibly how you might call your dog). This form of enthusiastic agreement originated in the British Parliament’s House of Commons, and is actually an abbreviation of the directive ‘Hear him, hear him!’ Nowadays, obviously this kind of gender specificity doesn’t go down well. And listeners must be careful to detect the user’s intonation, which when tweaked ever-so slightly can introduce traces of irony that greatly affect its meaning.

I heard it through the grapevine
We’re all familiar with Marvin Gaye’s 1968 hit version of this Motown soul classic, but have you ever wondered what this business about grapevines actually means? The gist of the phrase is the spread of information in an informal way, and there are a couple of theories about its origins. The first: it’s a reference to the New York’s Grapevine Tavern – an infamous stronghold of Confederate infiltrators, union officers and politicians (i.e. a great place for gossip). The second (and more likely): the term ‘grapevine telegraph’ references the word-of-mouth information network of rural workers and slaves in the US’s South. And there’s a good chance Australia’s own ‘bush telegraph’ is a derivative of the same phrase.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
Co-opted by criminals as a symbol of a code of complicit silence, this phrase’s lineage draws lines back more than 2000 years to the Chinese philosopher Confucius. But in its modern form the visual representation – three monkeys with eyes, ears and mouth covered respectively (now available as pictures to send online!) – is attributable to a carving on a door at the Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Japan. Interestingly, there are variations which include a fourth and even fifth monkey: one covering its genitals (‘doing’ no evil) and one with – you guessed it – its nose blocked. Across the centuries and continents, the exact meaning differs slightly but follows the general theme of being a good monkey.

Eavesdropping
One of the more unusual terms in the English language, ‘eavesdropping’ is the act of listening in on private conversations. But its initial meaning was more literal: an eavesdrop being the water dripping from the eaves of a house. So what’s the logic behind its modern usage? Let’s work backwards. These droplets fell to the ground next to the exterior walls, an ideal place for a snoop to linger outside an open window or door. Similarly, the expression ‘the walls have ears’ has physical origins – referencing the practice of cutting listening cavities into palace walls. Talk about invasion of privacy! These days we just wouldn’t hear of it...

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NHC blog is our place to explore ideas and themes of interest. For professional audiology advice, please contact your local clinic for a consultation.