The other day, as I was walking, my mind was noodling along by itself, mulling over expressions that we use in everyday conversation. I’ve been re-reading (for the 5th time I think) Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian. They’re set in the Royal Navy of the early 19th C, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
One of thing many things that sets them apart is O’Brian’s command of the vernacular of the time. While written more than 150 years after their settings, he’s able to immerse himself in the language of the time and put words into the mouths of his characters that their actual contemporaries would have used, especially the many seafaring terms used at the time on a sailing vessel. Phrases likes “batten down the hatches“, “by and large“, or “to the bitter end” all have a naval origin but as they’ve been absorbed into everyday speech their original meaning has been lost to the casual user.
And that made me wonder, what phrases do we use in every day speech that arise from walking and travelling? How about “follow your nose”? When we use this, do we mean it literally?
I know there have been times when I have, literally, followed my nose. I remember wandering and exploring in downtown Kuwait City, and catching the scent of grilled lamb, which lead me through some backstreets to the old souk and its maze of little restaurants where I snacked on shwarma as I continued to wander.
There have also been times when I’ve more or less done the opposite, and followed my nose away from something, like when I’ve been walking near the Beaches Boardwalk in Toronto and caught a whiff of the Ashbridge’s Bay Sewage Treatment facility – it definitely puts some extra humpety into your steps to get downwind in a hurry.
But when we use that phrase, do we mean it literally like that? It’s true that you do actually have to follow your nose since it sticks out on the front of your head, so anytime you walk you’re doing just that. Still, I think we often mean it figuratively more than literally, as something like “it’s right there in front of you so just keep going”.
And then again, I think we use that phrase, to follow your nose, more along the lines of going after something that you know instinctively you really want. Deep down, I have this itch to go on long walks, to see new places and explore, to trek the Bruce Trail or the Waterfront Trail and see how far I can go and what I’ll find along the way. I want to follow my nose and see where it goes.
So follow your nose. It always knows where to point your toes.