“Through Thick and Thin” – Phrase Origin

“Through thick and thin” is a common and widely-used idiom in the English language. Idioms are commonly used phrases that have meanings beyond their literal interpretation, but does this popular expression have any double or hidden meanings? Where did this phrase come from?

The phrase “through thick and thin” has 14th-century Middle English origins, where  

“through thicket and thin wood” was the original phrase. First documented in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the phrase lends its meaning to the dense English landscape.

Let’s take a look at why understanding the origin of this idiomatic expression is necessary to appreciate how and why it came about.

The Earliest Documented Use of the Idiom “Through Thick and Thin”

The earliest recorded use of the idiom “through thick and thin” was in the 14th century. It first appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale.” In the poem, Chaucer uses the idiom to describe a man who is lost in a forest but preserves through the challenges ahead of him. Chaucer writes:

“Behind the mill, under an arbour green;

And to the horse he went, then, still unseen;

He took the bridle off him and at once,

When the said horse was free and saw his chance,

Toward the fen, for wild mares ran therein,

And with a ‘whinny’ he went, “through thick and thin”.”

The expression is actually a shortened version of the old to-middle English idiom of  “through thicket and thin wood.” It was used to describe how the fortunes of many people in England fluctuated based on their ventures through thick forests, thick woods and thin woods, or comfortable and challenging times.

The Original Meaning Behind “Through Thicket and Thin Wood”

The phrase “through thicket and thin wood” is found in both Old and Middle English. It originally referred to the physical act of cutting through a dense forest, but over time it came to be used more figuratively to describe overcoming obstacles.

If you look at the English landscape hundreds of years ago, you will have a good visual impression of how the phrase came to be used. 

The phrase is traced, like many idioms, to medieval Europe, based on the first part of the phrase, “thick and thin,” being used in the sense of “thick and thin soil.” 

However, the phrase’s original meaning was not about good and bad times but rather about a person’s experience and endurance through forestry or traveling. 

Woodland in English History

Woodlands have been an important part of English history since at least the Iron Age, when many of the forests that covered England were cleared and cultivated for agricultural purposes. 

Many of these forests have survived to the present day as woodlands, which were particularly important for political reasons. During the Anglo-Saxon period, forests were often royal hunting grounds and dotted the landscape of southern England. 

Though these forests were more for hunting than for any other reason, they were increasingly seen by the Norman kings as a symbol of their power and, therefore, as a threat to their rule. 

This culminated in the 13th century with the Forest Law, which was issued by Henry III to control the forests, the people who lived in them, and the lawlessness that was thought to exist in those forests. The Forest Law made the forests a symbol of royal power and English identity.

The Formation of “Through Thicket and Thin Wood”

England is a country that has taken its landscape very seriously. From Wordsworth and the Romantic poets to J.R.L. Thomas and John Lewis, England’s leading thinkers have spent much time thinking about the impact of its landscapes on national character

Perhaps for this reason, we tend to think about English identity in terms of green pastures and misty mountains more than anything else — especially thickets. 

A thicket is a dense, tangled growth of shrubs or small trees. The word can also be used to refer to an area of land that is overgrown with such vegetation. Thickets are often found in woodlands, along the edges of forests, or in other areas with a lot of plant growth.

The 13th-century English landscape was covered in dense woodland. This made travel difficult and dangerous, meaning that people had to travel “through thicket and thin wood” to get from one place to another. 

What Does “Through Thick and Thin” Mean Today?

Today, we use phrases as little nuggets of wisdom to communicate more effectively. They’re short and shareable bits of information that, when spoken or written, can help clarify an idea or meaning in a shorter amount of words than it might normally take. 

Phrases are also commonly referred to as idioms, catchphrases, colloquialisms, and other similar terms. These codified expressions have a variety of meanings based on their usage and may be traced back to old proverbs or literary works. 

Of course, the phrase has multiple meanings, which depend on the context. However, it’s normally used to indicate loyalty, staying power, and sticking with someone or something, regardless of how difficult it is.

What Is the Literal Meaning of “Through Thick and Thin”?

The phrase “through thick and thin” means both thick and thin (as in “good times and bad”). Even when the going gets tough, and the situation is bad, a person with this mindset will be steadfast in a situation or relationship. 

It also refers to someone who is there for you through the good and bad times and trustworthy and dependable no matter what may come. Let’s take a look at a couple of example sentences:

  • “My best friend and I have been ‘through thick and thin’ together since diapers.” This example shows that the two friends have been friends since a very young age and have been through a lot together. 
  • “I know this company is going through some rough times right now, but I am here for the long haul, “through thick and thin.” The speaker in this example shows that they’re not leaving the company, no matter how bad things get.

Mostly, the phrase is often used to describe someone determined and resilient, someone who is willing to face challenges head-on. The phrase is also a reminder that even the most difficult journey can be overcome with perseverance.

How People Use the Phrase “Through Thick and Thin”

In the good times, it feels like the world is our oyster and that nothing can bring us down for too long; but in the bad times, it feels like everything is against us and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. 

Whether it’s a relationship or friendship, or family or colleagues, there will always be times when people go through something challenging together. Going “through thick and thin” with someone refers to the ups and downs of the relationship. 

Here are a few examples of how people use this phrase:

  • When someone has been there for you when things weren’t so great. When someone has been there for you when you’ve been in a very bad place, “through thick and thin,” it means they have always stuck by you. They’ve been there for you when you needed someone the most. 
  • When a relationship or friendship is going strong. When something has been going so well for so long and with no sign of it disappearing any time soon, it’s safe to say that it’s been going strong “through thick and thin.” When relationships go strong, they’re usually very positive and healthy; and the same can be said for friendships. 
  • When you’ve decided to stick by someone. When you’ve decided to stick by someone and be there for them no matter what happens, you’ve decided to go “through thick and thin” with them. This could be both good and bad times as mentioned previously. 
  • When you’ve decided to be at a place at a specific time. “Through thick and thin” can be a type of promise that you’ve made to yourself. For example, you might make a decision to visit a friend who you know is going through a difficult time, even though you are too.

Conclusion 

Phrases are short, expressive bits of language that don’t always translate literally. Depending on the context in which they’re used, they can have different meanings.

As part of its meaning of origin, “through thick and thin” (once “through thicket and thin wood”) referred to travel through the dense English landscape.

Today, the phrase “through thick and thin” refers to a person who is loyal and steadfast in both the good and bad times.

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