Speaking our language: Medieval phrases that are still used today

International Medieval Congress lampost signage

The University of Leeds is welcoming the International Medieval Congress for its 26th year this July. The congress, which will bring together medieval experts for a series of discussions, demonstrations and debates, will also offer the public the chance to get involved on its final day, where there will be a medieval market serving historically inspired street food, a medieval craft fair, and a variety of medieval demonstrations taking place.

Whilst the University of Leeds is bringing its rich medieval history into the present day, much of its language and phrases are still commonly used in conversation today. Working with the team at the International Medieval Congress, MEETinLEEDS has outlined the top five medieval phrases that remain popular.

The Apple of One’s Eye

Today, the phrase ‘the apple of one’s eye’ is used to describe a person that someone loves above all others or a favourite thing. However, back in the medieval era, the pupil of the eye was known as ‘the apple’ (Old English æppel) since it was thought to be an apple-shaped solid. As the delicate pupil of the eye is essential for vision, it is important that it is protected and cherished. Therefore, ‘the apple of the eye’ was used as a figure for a much loved person or thing, so much so that even King Alfred the Great was known to have used this phrase.

Hue and Cry

Whilst it is more commonly known today as a phrase that is used to describe somebody who is causing a commotion, ‘hue and cry’ actually dates all the way back to 12th Century English law. The word ‘hue’ originates from the Old French ‘huer’, which means to cry out. During the Middle Ages, if somebody witnessed a crime being committed, they were obliged to raise hue and cry in order to warn the rest of the community and capture the criminal.

A Nest Egg

The phrase ‘a nest egg’ is used today to refer to a person’s life saving. However, it meant something very different in the Medieval Ages. During the 14th Century, the term ‘nest egg’ was used by peasants to explain why they left one egg in the nest when collecting from hens, as it would encourage the chickens to continue laying eggs. However, this phrase later evolved in the 17th Century to mean what we know it as today.

To Sink or Swim

Today the phrase ‘to sink or swim’ refers to failing or succeeding. Yet during medieval times, it was used to refer to the practice of judging whether a person was innocent or guilty by casting them into a lake. People used to believe that water would not accept anybody who had previously rejected the water of baptism. So, if the victim sunk into the water, it was believed that they were innocent, whereas if they floated, it was believed that they were guilty.


A phrase that is frequently used across Yorkshire, the word ‘nowt’ refers to nothing. However, many people aren’t aware that it means the same in Standard English as the word ‘nought’. In fact, both of the phrases come from Old English ne ān wiht. Ne means ‘not’, ān means ‘one’, and wiht means ‘a thing’, so ne ān wiht used to mean ‘not a thing’.