Many of the expressions we use in everyday conversation have fascinating origins. Let’s take a look at a few…Ready? Let’s go!
To give the cold shoulder
Meaning: To make someone feel unwelcome
Origin: In Medieval times, the host would offer a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of mutton to his guest to let him know it was time to leave.
To pass with flying colors
Meaning: To pass with distinction or exceed expectations
Origin: Victorious ships returning to port would fly their ‘colors’ (flags) to publicly announce their success.
To let your hair down
Meaning: To relax and do what you want
Origin: Aristocratic women in the 17th century used to wear their hair up in elaborate styles in public and would only ‘let their hair down’ when they were home alone.
To turn a blind eye
Meaning: To ignore a situation
Origin: When his superior officer called on Admiral Nelson to withdraw at the height of the battle of Copenhagen, he held up a telescope to his blind eye proclaiming not to see the command and led the British fleet to victory.
To read between the lines
Meaning: To discern something intended but not explicit
Origin: A 19th-century cryptography method consisted of using disappearing ink concealed between lines of text to hide secret information.
To sleep tight
Meaning: To sleep well
Origin: Ropes used to be securely tied underneath mattresses to keep them firm and tight and provide a well-sprung bed for a comfortable sleep.
To get up on the wrong side of the bed.
Meaning: To start the day in a bad mood
Origin: In ancient Rome, getting out of bed on the left side was considered bad luck, so Romans were careful to get up on the right side to ensure they would have a good day.
To break the ice
Meaning: To break down a formal or tense atmosphere when meeting somebody for the first time
Origin: Ice-breaker ships would cut a passage through frozen water to allow other vessels to pass and enable future trade.
Bite the bullet
Meaning: To accept something difficult or unpleasant
Origin: In the olden days, when doctors were short on anesthesia or time during a battle, they would ask the patient to bite down on a bullet to distract from the pain. The first recorded use of the phrase was in 1891 in The Light that Failed.
Butter someone up
Meaning: To impress someone with flattery
Origin: This was a customary religious act in ancient India. The devout would throw butter balls at the statues of their gods to seek favor and forgiveness.
Mad as a hatter
Meaning: To be completely crazy
Origin: No, you didn’t already know this one because it didn’t originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries — well before Lewis Caroll’s book was published. In the 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The “”Mad Hatter Disease”” was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear “”mad.””
Cat got your tongue?
Meaning: Asked a person who is at a loss of words
Origin: The English Navy used to use a whip called “”Cat-o””-nine-tails”” for flogging. The pain was so severe that it caused the victim to stay quiet for a long time. Another possible source could be from ancient Egypt, where liars”” and blasphemers”” tongues were cut out and fed to the cats. (What a treat for the cats!)
Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: To have misguided thoughts about an event or situation, a false lead
Origin: This refers to hunting dogs that may have chased their prey up a tree. The dog’s bark, assuming that the prey is still in the tree when the prey is no longer there.
Bury the hatchet
Meaning: To stop a conflict and make peace
Origins: This one dates back to the early times North America when the Puritans were in conflict with the Native Americans. When negotiating peace, the Native Americans would bury all their hatchets, knives, clubs, and tomahawks. Weapons literally were buried and made inaccessible.
Meaning: To be caught in the act of doing something wrong
Origin: This originates from an old English law that ordered any person to be punished for butchering an animal that wasn’t his own. The only way the person could be convicted is if he was caught with the animal’s blood still on his hands.
Go the whole nine yards
Meaning: To try your best at something
Origin: During World War II, the fighter pilots were equipped with nine yards of ammunition. When they ran out, it meant that they had tried their best at fighting off the target with the entirety of their ammunition.
Rub the wrong way
Meaning: To bother or annoy someone
Origin: Early Americans, during the colonial times, would ask their servants to rub their oak floorboards “”the right way.”” The wrong way (not wiping them with dry fabric after wet fabric) would cause streaks to form and ruin it, leaving the homeowner annoyed. Alternatively, it could have derived from rubbing a cat’s fur the “”wrong way,”” which irritates them.
Straight from the horse’s mouth
Meaning: getting information directly from the most reliable source
Origin: This one is said to come from the 1900s when buyers could determine a horse’s age by examining its teeth. It’s’sIt’s’sIt’s’s also why you shouldn’t “”look a gift horse in the mouth,”” as inspecting a gift is considered bad etiquette.
Let the cat out of the bag
Meaning: to mistakenly reveal a secret
Origin: Up to and including in the 1700s, a common street fraud included replacing valuable pigs with less useful cats and selling them in bags. When a cat was let out of a bag, the jig was up.
Pulling someone’s leg
Meaning: teasing someone, usually by lying in a joking manner
Origin: Although pulling someone’s leg is all in good fun nowadays, it originally described how thieves tripped their victims to rob them.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing
Meaning: Someone who is pretending to be something they are not, usually to the detriment of others
Origin: This one’s attributed to the Bible (Matthew 7:15). The Bible also gave us “”rise and shine”” (Isaiah 60:1), “”seeing eye to eye”” (Isaiah 62:8), and a “”broken heart”” (Psalm 69:20).
Meaning: without a lot of effort; by far
Origin: Winning “”hands down”” once referred to 19th-century horseracing, when a jockey could remove his hands from the reins and still win the race because he was so far ahead.
Flying off the handle flying Off the Handle
Meaning: suddenly becoming enraged
Origin: This one is said to come from poorly made axes of the 1800s that would literally detach from the handle. Yikes!
Cost an arm and a leg
Origin: The story goes that this phrase originated from 18th-century paintings, as famous people like George Washington would have their portraits done without individual limbs showing. Having limbs showing is said to have cost more.
Minding your Ps and Qs
Meaning: being on your best behavior
Origin: There are many origin stories for this one, but perhaps the one that is most fun is that bartenders would keep track of the pints and quarts consumed by their patrons with the letters “”P”” and “”Q.””
Armed to the teeth
Meaning: to be extremely well equipped
Origin: The idea behind being “”armed to the teeth”” is that the weapon wielder would carry the maximum number of weapons, so many that he or she would be forced to move some between his or her teeth.
Pull out all the stops.
Meaning: to do everything you can to make something successful
Origin: Alluding to the piano-like instrument, the organ, this phrase refers to when the stops are pulled out to turn on all the sounds in an organ, allowing the organ to play all the sounds at once and, therefore, be as loud as possible.
A dish fit for the gods
Meaning: a very scrumptious or delectable meal
Origin: We can thank Shakespeare for this expression (found in Julius Caesar), and for “foaming at the mouth”(Julius Caesar), “hot-blooded” (The Merry Wives of Windsor), “in stitches”(Twelfth Night), “green-eyed monster” (Othello), “wearing your heart on your sleeve” (Othello), and “one fell swoop” (Macbeth).
Without idioms, our language would be as dry as a tech company’s’s privacy disclaimer.
Hope you enjoyed these phrases and meanings behind them.