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.