There are some idiomatic expressions that come from the period in which slavery was legalized in America. They are frequently used today, but few Americans know their origin. In 1793, the cotton gin was invented in the United States, and after that it became illegal to import slaves. Cotton was planted in the South, and the cotton gin greatly increased production there. America exported cotton to Europe, and as the demand grew, so did the need for more slave labor. That’s when internal slave trading became major business. In general, the southern slave owners were harsher and crueler than the northern slave owners. Slave owners who wanted to get rid of troublesome slaves, the ones who tried to run away or the ones who they thought were lazy, sold them down the Mississippi River, where the big cotton plantations were. Many times slaves were also sold down the river just for profit or because their owners needed cash, and other times the children of white masters with slaves were sold down the river to get rid of the proof of the master’s affair with a slave. Down the river implied that the slaves went to a much more difficult life. Or, at the very least, it meant that they would be separated from their spouses, children, relatives and friends. The expression was often used as a threat. Today, it has come to mean to betray someone, especially for the reason to benefit oneself. Here are some modern examples of to be sold down the river:
• Some former Brazilian politicians who are now serving time in prison feel that the business executives who plea-bargained to have their own sentences reduced sold them down the river.
• An American politician is known to have bragged about selling investors down the river by bankrupting his casinos while at the same time enriching himself.
• Some British citizens think the UK has been sold down the river on Brexit deal.
Tattoos have been around for more than 5,000 years. Egyptians, for example, used tattoos to differentiate between peasants and slaves, a kind of social branding. But ink art, which is what some fans like to call tattooing, has really exploded in the past 25 years. But not all of us have succumbed to this fad. And many of us who don’t have a tattoo have a favorite mug. Having a tattoo or becoming attached to a mug are not dissimilar. According to research, 60% of Americans say they have an emotional attachment to a favorite mug. And about 40% said their special mug was irreplaceable, and about 1/3 of those said they would be devastated if it broke. Personally, I think that most of these people don’t have tattoos. Mugs and tattoos are both an extension of our personalities, and both express the way we would like the world to perceive us. That is not to mention, of course, that those of us who have tattoos or mugs are often irrationally attached to them.