seven lumps of coal

Caroline Woodward liked my article “carry coals to Newcastle” and suggested there might be other interesting “coal” phrases. Well, she was right, and here are seven more.

Haul (someone) over the coals — to reprimand a person severely for an error or mistake. The earliest print record of the phrase appears in 1565, in the Catholic Church’s practice of dragging or raking heretics over coals as a form of torture. When someone was suspected of going against the church’s preaching or practicing witchcraft, they had to survive being dragged over burning coals in order to be declared innocent. If they burned to death they were considered guilty. The logic escapes me, but there you go!

Heap coals of fire on (one’s) head — go overboard in creating feelings of guilt or remorse in someone. This phrase is of biblical origin: “if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head” (Romans 12:20). So, if you give food and drink to your enemy, you may be making him feel guilty for whatever he did to you. Is that gift of food and drink an act of kindness? Or is making your enemy feel guilty an act of revenge?

At the coalface — When people talk about those “at the coalface,” they mean the people who are actually doing the job, those who really know about the profession. The expression comes from coal mining. The coalface is the part where the coal is being cut out of the rock, a dirty, hazardous job done in dark and cramped conditions.

Blow the coals — to turn a minor issue into a major source of conflict. The phrase probably arose from  coaxing a smoldering flame into a fire by literally blowing on the hot coals.

Rake over old coals — to revisit, dredge up, or talk about something that happened in the past, especially something unpleasant.

Pour on the coal — to increase one’s speed, effort, or energy. It means the same thing as “step on the gas” in driving a car. The expression is an allusion to the coal-burning engines of trains and ships. It has since been transferred to other vehicles and other endeavors.

Canary in a coal mine — something or someone who acts as an early warning of danger. The phrase arises from the former practice of taking caged canaries into coal mines. If the air was bad enough to kill the canary (more sensitive than humans to deadly fumes), it would soon be bad enough to kill people. So the death of the canary would warn the miners to get out. The earliest mention of this practice appears to be from the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star (Sheffield, Yorkshire) of 21st December 1906. The practice was phased out in the US and the UK by the late 1900s, but the phrase lives on a metaphor.

There’s one more lump to come! 

And, by the way, Caroline Woodward is a fine writer. My favorite of her books is Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper.

  One thought on “seven lumps of coal

  1. how9473
    December 2, 2020 at 7:43 am

    All these ways of using “Coal” to mean something. On New Years Eve in the north of England, we used to take out a shovel with a piece of coal, some silver and some salt on it to bring in the New Year. I still do and I have added some sugar for sweetness!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 2, 2020 at 8:00 am

      That’s really interesting! I may not be remembering this correctly, but I think the Scots bring a piece of coal to a house they’re visiting on New Year’s Day. When I get a chance, I’ll ask my Scottish friend about it. Perhaps I’ll have another “lump of coal” for the blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. December 2, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    Thank you very much digging up more nuggets of coal wisdom, Lea! I’ve forwarded these ones to some of my Welsh cousins as our family came from the Rhondda Valley in south Wales where my Grandpa eventually worked with the cars at the top of the tram line and several of my uncles worked down ‘at the coalface’. Thanks also for your kind mention of my work!


  3. Pat Steward
    December 3, 2020 at 7:57 am

    Another good One Irene!

    Sent from my iPhone



  4. Leanne Taylor
    December 6, 2020 at 2:04 pm

    Before Christmas, a little guy’s older sisters kept telling him that he’d better be good, or he’d get coal in his stocking. He asked and asked, “What’s coal?” But the adults were too busy to answer and his sisters might not have known what it was, either.
    So, on Christmas Eve, the small one crept downstairs and found Santa (his father) placing presents under the tree. Santa turned around and said, “Why, here’s a little boy! If you’ve been a good boy this year, one of these presents is for you!” The urchin peered at Santa and responded, “Sure. I been good. But Santa? What is ‘coal’?”
    “It’s a rock. A rock that you can burn.”
    “Oh! Oh! Then i want COAL, please!”

    Liked by 2 people

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