Some phrases make sense on the surface, such as ‘a blessing in disguise’, ‘go back to the drawing board’ and ‘better late than never’, to name just a few. But there are so many that need a little bit of explanation. In fact, discovering their origins are half the fun and make you greater appreciate the nature of language and the journey it’s taken to its current form.
‘This was my old stamping ground back at uni.’
The backstreets of the lower market quarter were the stamping grounds of the Barker Gang.
First things first: ‘stomping ground’ has come to us from the British English term ‘stamping ground’. While the latter is still used today, the former is more commonly used colloquially around the world.
A stomping or stamping ground is a place where a certain individual, or group of people, regularly hangs out or spends their time. As an example, in primary school (ages 6-12), you might spend time with your friends at the local library, skate park or playground, waiting for your parents to pick you up. These areas could become your stomping grounds. Likewise, in high school (ages 13-18), you might hang out at the shopping centre, the sports fields or—now this is showing my age—at a local internet cafe, playing multiplayer shooters… One person may have multiple stomping grounds, as each are bound to a different activity.
So where did this phrase come from? This one seems rather straightforward. According to some sources online, the origins of the phrase ‘stamping ground’ dates back to the 1800s and refers to a gathering place for livestock, usually cattle and horses. When looking at a herd milling together at the same area—perhaps around a shared waterhole or a good spot of shade—it’s easy to see how this could then be referred to humans returning to the same ‘haunts’ over and over.
So the next time you visit your old stomping ground, think of cows. Lots and lots of cows.
Unless you’ve spent time studying Ancient Greek drama tropes and terminology, the words ‘deuteragonist’ and ‘tritagonist’ may sound like a load of old tosh. And in truth, they’re not used all that often—but they exist in pretty much every story you’ve ever read, to varying degrees of strictness. But let’s start off with that first one, the one we all recognise.
protagonist (noun)—the leading character in a story
Identifying your protagonist is normally very easy. If you’re looking at a movie poster or a book cover, it’s probably the face that’s the biggest and in the middle. Think of your Luke Skywalkers, Harry Potters, James Bonds, Elizabeth Bennetts, Jessica Joneses and Katniss Everdeens.
A protagonist isn’t always ‘the good guy’, however, as many famous stories can attest—Hamlet, Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights, Alex from the first part of A Clockwork Orange and Dr Sheppard from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance.
And a story isn’t limited to a single protagonist either—just think of The Lord of the Rings being told from multiple different story angles (Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Faramir, Eowyn, Merry and Pippin), as well as the more recent A Song of Ice and Fire series, which, despite GRRM’s best efforts, still has enough characters left alive to tell a story (such as Jon, Tyrion, Arya, Daenerys, Sam, Cersei, Jaime, Bran, Theon and many others come and gone—not all of them ‘goodies’).
What defines a protagonist, therefore, does have a lot to do with the story that’s being told. It’s hard to sit down and think who is the main character in The Lord of the Rings. Yes, Frodo probably comes to mind, because he’s the one with the Ring, but in terms of who has the most ‘important’ chapters, that’s not so readily obvious, especially after the Fellowship parts ways. Equally true is the case with A Song of Ice and Fire, where each character follows their own storyline for much of the series, none of which seems to be the ‘most’ important. Yes, you may think perhaps Jon is the ‘main’ character because he’s the one who’s been facing the White Walkers for the longest, but like with Frodo, he shares his chapters with so many others equally.
Which brings me to the deuteragonist.
deuteragonist (noun)—the secondary or second most important character in a story
The role of the deuteragonist is often identifiable as a sidekick-like character to the protagonist. If The Lord of the Rings were simply a story about Frodo and Sam and Sauron, disregarding all the (in my opinion) best bits of the series, then Sam would be the deuteragonist. The sidekick role is the helpful companion, someone who aids the protagonist in their struggle in some capacity—perhaps physically, but often intellectually. Take Dr Watson as the deuteragonist to Sherlock Holmes’ protagonist, for example, or Ron Weasley to Harry Potter, Robin to Batman, Eleven to Mike (in Stranger Things) and Spock to Captain Kirk.
Like with the protagonist, however, it really does depend on the story. Not all sidekicks are substantial enough to be worthy of the label of deuteragonist (think Snowy from Tintin compared with the more substantial Captain Haddock, or Abu from Aladdin compared to the Genie).
Nor are all deuteragonists supportive of the protagonist. Many secondary characters who appear to be the protagonist’s friend or a supportive character actually turn out to be hindering them in some way (out of jealousy is a common reason), or reveal themselves to be the antagonist. As some examples, Iago from Othello, Prince Hans from Frozen and Talia al Ghul from The Dark Knight Rises.
In fact, depending on how the story is told, the deuteragonist could very well be the antagonist in plain sight. In Heat, Robert DeNiro plays a thief (our protagonist) and the secondary character in the film is Al Pacino who plays the detective in pursuit. Similarly, it could be argued that the Joker in The Dark Knight is the secondary character in the film, rather than Rachael or Harvey Dent. Also, Hans Gruber in Die Hard fills this role, as does Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs and Darth Vader.
Now, to the third of our ‘-ist’ trio.
tritagonist (noun)—the third main character in a story
As with the deuteragonist, the tritagonist’s role in the story is very much a case-by-case situation, depending on the story.
Examples of the tritagonist being a secondary sidekick character could be Hermione from Harry Potter (forming a trio of good guys), as could Jessie from Toy Story with both Woody and Buzz, and both Princess Leia and Han Solo from Star Wars.
Tritagonists, however, can also be the antagonist, the evil that the two main characters (and their lesser friends) must fight against. Think LeChiffe from Casino Royale, Doctor Evil from Austin Powers, Kahn from Star Trek: Into Darkness and Gothel from Tangled.
Of course, stories are so beautifully varied that characters don’t really have to adhere to any of the above ‘rules’ or trends, so if you can’t label characters… well, good!
There are many phrases which, when looked at on the surface, need a little bit of explaining. To ‘kick the bucket’, for example, or to ‘carry your heart on your sleeve’ and to refer to something as ‘a storm in a teacup’. I am personally fascinated by the origins of such phrases, so I thought I’d look at one that popped up in a podcast I was listening to last week.
Neck of the woods
‘I haven’t seen you in this neck of the woods before.’
This was his neck of the woods, he knew every nook and cranny.
The phrase refers to your area of a country or particular area. So if you are not from ‘this neck of the woods’, then you are not from the immediate area or its surrounds, but from further away.
Now, there are a couple of different claims for the origins of this phrase, but it’s actually a little bit of a mystery.
One is that it comes from a Canada-based Algonquian Native American word ‘naiack’, meaning a certain ‘point’ or ‘corner’ in the land.
Alternate sources have suggested that ‘neck’ had been used in English since the 16th century to describe a narrow strip of land, resembling a neck, usually bordered on both sides by water. Think of, say, an island that is only just joined to the mainland by an avenue of land that is slowly being eroded away by the sea over many years. This then could be applied to other natural formations, such as a narrowing of a forest.
The first suggestion, however, seems more suitable for the origins of this phrase, due to the fact that the phrase itself doesn’t literally mean a neck-like area or landmark. If you are from a certain ‘neck of the woods’, the phrase suggests, you don’t necessarily come from an area of the forest that narrows like a neck—it simply refers to a certain spot where you live. It’s quite a nice phrase, really…