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ordeal by fire A severe test of character; a very distressing situation. In ancient Britain, an ordeal was a type of trial in which divine intervention was considered the only proof of a suspect’s innocence. These ordeals took many brutal forms, ranging from having one’s arm immersed in boiling water to being bound and tossed into an icy river. In both cases, an unscathed survivor was proclaimed innocent. The harshest ordeals, however, involved fire. The accused was forced either to grasp a red-hot iron in his hand or to walk barefooted through sizzling rocks and embers. Again, a suspect who emerged uninjured was considered guiltless. Although these cruel trials were abolished shortly after the Norman conquest of Britain, the expression has retained its meaning of an exceedingly agonizing experience undergone to test one’s worth.

put through one’s facings To require another to exhibit his skill for purposes of scrutiny; to make a person perform to the utmost of his capabilities. Literal facings are military maneuvers.

Grace, not at all unwillingly, was put through her facings. (Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset. 1867)

The expression usually carries connotations of being badgered or harassed, as in the following bit of doggerel by F. Egerton.

We were scarcely wed a week When she put me through my facings.

And walloped me—and worse;

She said I did not want a wife, I ought to have had a nurse.

put through one’s paces To require another to display the full range of his abilities; to test another’s resources to the utmost. Paces here refers to the training steps or gaits of horses. The equestrian phrase was first extended to persons called upon to perform at their maximum potential, and subsequently to inanimate objects as well.

The captain affirmed that the ship would show us in time all her paces. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits. 1856)

The test pilots … put the new planes through their paces. (H. H. Arnold and I. C. Eaker, cited in Webster’s Third )

take the measure of To judge the character of, to size up, to ascertain the good and bad points. Measure in this expression refers literally to the dimensions of a body, information necessary to a tailor who needs exact “measurements” to fit someone for clothes. Figuratively the term refers not to size, but to character.

Our hostess … bustled off … to take the measure of the new-comer. (Sir A. Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke. 1889)

Even further removed from the literal use is the application of this expression to organizations or institutions.

The people have taken the measure of this whole labor movement. . January 5, 1893)

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