Why ‘beat around the bush’?

We’ve all been told to stop beating around the bush at some stage in our lives, but from where did the saying originate and what does it mean?

Well, that one’s easy: it basically means ‘stop stalling and get to the point’ or to ‘get on with it’.

The meaning of the phrase stems from a very literal source. Back in the days of yore, when hunting was in vogue (bird hunting in particular), some participants of the hunt would rouse the birds out of hiding by beating the bushes in which the birds were concealed. This enabled the hunters to catch to their prey quicker or, to quote another common phrase, to ‘cut to the chase’.

In essence, beating around the bush was the lead-up to the main event.

The phrase first appeared in 1440 in a handwritten medieval poem called Generydes – A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas, which still exists to this day in the library of Trinity College in Cambridge. It reads:

Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,

Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.

It is believed that the author is saying that some people procrastinate (Some bete the bussh) and some get on with it (some the byrdes take). It is also thought that if the poem is correct and this saying was said ‘full long agoo’, that ‘beat about the bush’ may be one of the oldest non-biblical phrases in the English language.

There’s also another version of this saying which appears in 1572 in George Gascoigne’s Works. It reads:

He bet about the bush, whyles other caught the birds.

Although the original saying is ‘beat about the bush’, the more popular standard these days is ‘beat around the bush’. It is not really known how this change came about.

Do you have any favourite well-known idioms?

Related articles:
Have you been ‘caught red-handed’?
What does ‘scapegoat’ really mean?
Why do we say ‘apple of my eye’?

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