Now it’s time for Words and Their Stories — our weekly program about common, everyday expressions in American English.
During the next few weeks, many people in South America will celebrate Carnival. It is a time of music and dancing. The party ends before the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday, which this year falls on February 26.
Ash Wednesday has a very different feeling than Carnival. It is meant to be a day of prayer, sorrow and asking for forgiveness.
In American English, guilt or sadness is often expressed by the symbol of ashes – the gray matter left over from a fire. For example, if you are feeling really bad about something you did, you might say you are wearing sackcloth and ashes.
The phrase is repeated in several places in the Bible, the Christian holy book. The word “sackcloth” refers to a kind of clothing that feels rough on the skin. It was sometimes made of goat hair. Wearing something made of sackcloth was a sign that a person was trying to punish himself.
As for the ashes part, the willingness to be touched by dirty material showed that a person was humble and that he understood he would someday die.
Yes, the image is pretty serious. You can use the expression in a somewhat serious way, too. Let’s say you forgot that you invited your boyfriend or girlfriend to a special birthday date. Your beloved waited for you, for hours, crying, in the rain. Much later, you sit up in bed and remember your missed appointment.
You immediately call your partner and say that you are so sorry. You promise to wear sackcloth and ashes for the rest of the month.
Of course, you do not really have to put on a shirt made of animal hair. But you could show you are sorry in a different way. Maybe you cook your partner dinner every night for a week, or buy a meaningful gift.
You can also use the phrase “sackcloth and ashes” in a sarcastic way. This means you say it, but do not really mean it. Let’s say you have done some very small bad thing, like borrowed your co-worker’s coffee cup without asking. And now, she won’t let you forget it. Every time you walk by, she holds her cup close to her and gives you an angry look. She also tells all your other co-workers not to trust you with any of their supplies, such as pens or plastic spoons. At the next team meeting, she asks your boss for a lock so she can keep her cup safe from you. “Okay, okay!” you might say. “I’m sorry! Do I have to wear sackcloth and ashes?”
Your angry co-worker just might say yes. She is clearly enjoying raking you over the ashes. In other words, she repeatedly brings up a past mistake. The phrase calls to mind a fire that has almost gone out, but that can be started again with a little effort.
Of course, being sarcastic is not always a good idea. It rarely makes other people want to forgive you. You would probably be better off apologizing honestly to your co-worker. But saying something nice when you are angry can be difficult. The sweet words might turn to ashes in your mouth. In fact, as an expression, anything can turn to ashes. A hopeful feeling, a relationship – maybe even your job if your co-worker keeps complaining about you – all can dry up and disappear.
Fortunately, most things can also rise from the ashes. In other words, what was thought to be dead or destroyed can return to life, often in a new and better way.
That is a good image to remember during periods of difficulty or loss. Usually, the situation does not last. In time, things get better, and you might soon find yourself playing music and dancing again.
And that’s Words and Their Stories.
I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
Words in This Story
humble – adj. not proud : not thinking of yourself as better than other people
spoon – n. an eating or cooking tool that has a small shallow bowl attached to a handle