Roots of common expressions

Idioms are figures of speech that become fixed in a language, they are the root of common expressions. Usually, a phrase is figurative in modern contexts and once had a literal meaning. These literal meanings, or idiom origins, can help a learner understand where a phrase originated.

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.

Caught red-handed

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).

Hands down

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

Meaning: costly

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.

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