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23 idiomatic expressions and their SURPRISING origins

Are you aware about the origins of some of our commonly used idiomatic expressions? From "kicking the bucket" to "rule of thumb," it may be surprising to discover the origins of these everyday sayings.

By Tjaša GomoljPublished 2 months ago 7 min read

23. Bite the Bullet

Meaning: To accept something difficult or unpleasant

History: In times of battle, emergency surgeries were often performed without the luxury of anaesthesia. To divert the patients' attention from the excruciating pain, surgeons would instruct them to clench down on a bullet.

22. Blood is Thicker than Water

Meaning: Family takes precedence over everything else

History: In ancient Middle Eastern culture, blood rituals among men symbolised bonds that surpassed those of familial ties. Additionally, the saying is associated with the concept of "blood brothers," as warriors who symbolically shared the blood shed in battle were believed to have stronger connections than biological siblings.

21. Butter Someone Up

Meaning: To flatter someone

History: In ancient Indian culture, there existed a custom where individuals would throw balls of clarified butter at statues of the gods in order to seek favour.

20. Cat Got Your Tongue?

Meaning: A phrase used when a person is unable to find words to speak

History: This commonly used expression has two possible origins. The first refers to the cat o' nine tails, a whip utilised by the English Navy for flogging, which caused such intense pain that the victims were left speechless. The second origin relates to the practice of cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers, feeding them to cats as a form of punishment.

19. Caught Red-Handed

Meaning: To be apprehended while engaging in wrongdoing

History: This phrase originated from a legal context. According to a specific law, in order to be convicted of butchering an animal that did not belong to them, an individual had to be caught with the animal's blood on their hands. Merely being found with freshly cut meat did not establish guilt.

18. Don't Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

Meaning: To retain valuable things while discarding unnecessary ones

History: During the 1500s, bathing was infrequent, with most people bathing only once a year. Even when they did bathe, the entire family would use the same tub of water. The man of the house would bathe first, followed by other males, females, and finally the babies. As a result, the water would become thick and cloudy by the time the babies were bathed, necessitating caution to ensure they were not accidentally thrown out with the dirty water when the tub was emptied.

17. Eat Humble Pie

Meaning: To apologise and endure humiliation as a consequence

History: In the Middle Ages, after a hunting expedition, the lord of a manor would host a feast. The lord would receive the finest cut of meat, while those of lower social standing would be served a pie filled with the entrails and innards, known as "humbles." Thus, receiving humble pie was considered humiliating as it publicly revealed the guest's lower status to others in attendance.

16. Give the Cold Shoulder

Meaning: To display a discourteous attitude towards someone, indicating that they are unwelcome or to ignore them

History: Although giving someone the cold shoulder is considered impolite in contemporary times, it was actually regarded as a courteous gesture in medieval England. After a feast, the host would signal to their guests that it was time to depart by offering them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton, or pork.

15. Go the Whole 9 Yards

Meaning: To put forth one's maximum effort

History: During World War II, fighter pilots were given a 9-yard chain of ammunition. Therefore, when a pilot expended all of their ammunition on a single target, they were said to have given it the whole 9 yards.

14. Jaywalker

Meaning: An individual who crosses the street in a reckless or illegal manner

History: Jay birds that ventured outside of the forest into urban areas often became disoriented and unaware of the potential dangers of traffic. Amused by their erratic behaviour, people began using the term jaywalker to describe someone who crossed the street irresponsibly.

13. Kick the Bucket

Meaning: To pass away

History: When a cow was slaughtered at a butchery, a bucket was placed beneath it while it was suspended on a pulley. Occasionally, the animal's legs would kick during the adjustment of the rope, causing it to literally "kick the bucket" before being killed.

12. Let Your Hair Down

Meaning: To unwind or relax

History: Parisian nobles risked condemnation from their peers if they appeared in public without an elaborate hairstyle. Some of the more intricate styles required hours of work, so it was a relaxing ritual for these aristocrats to come home at the end of a long day and let their hair down.

11. More Than You Can Shake a Stick At

Meaning: Possessing an abundance of something

History: In the past, farmers would use their staffs to control their sheep by indicating where they should go. When farmers had more sheep than they could manage, it was said that they had an excess that could not be controlled by a single staff.

10. No Spring Chicken

Meaning: Referring to someone who is no longer in their prime

History: In New England, chicken farmers would sell their chickens in the spring, as the chickens born during this time yielded better earnings than those that survived the winter. Some farmers would attempt to sell older birds for the price of a new spring chicken. Astute buyers would complain that the fowl was not a spring chicken, and the term came to represent anyone who was past their prime.

9. Pleased as Punch

Meaning: To be very happy

History: In the 17th century, a puppet show for children called Punch and Judy featured a puppet named Punch who always killed people. The act of killing brought him pleasure, so he felt pleased with himself afterwards.

8. Rub the Wrong Way

Meaning: To irritate, bother, or annoy someone

History: During colonial America, servants were required to wet-rub and dry-rub oak-board floors each week. Rubbing against the grain caused streaks to form, making the wood look unsightly and irritating the homeowner.

7. Rule of Thumb

Meaning: A widely used standard

History: Legend has it that in the 17th century, English Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled that it was permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, provided that the stick was no wider than his thumb.

6. Run Amok

Meaning: To go crazy

History: This phrase originates from the Malaysian word amoq, which describes the behaviour of tribesmen who, under the influence of opium, became wild, rampaging mobs that attacked anyone in their path.

5. Saved by the Bell

Meaning: Rescued from an undesirable situation

Historical Background: In the past, the unsettling practice of being buried alive was not uncommon. Individuals who feared falling victim to such a fate were interred in specialised coffins that were connected to a bell located above ground. During the night, sentries would listen attentively for the sound of any bells, as this would indicate the need to exhume a living person and rescue them in the nick of time.

4. Show Your True Colors

Meaning: To reveal one's authentic character

Historical Background: In the realm of naval warfare, warships would often fly multiple flags in order to confuse their adversaries. However, the rules of engagement stipulated that a ship had to hoist its genuine flag prior to initiating any hostilities, thereby displaying its nation's true colours.

3. Sleep Tight

Meaning: To sleep soundly

Historical Background: During the era of William Shakespeare, mattresses were secured to bed frames using ropes. In order to achieve a firmer sleeping surface, one had to pull on the ropes to tighten the mattress.

2. Spill the Beans

Meaning: To disclose a confidential piece of information

Historical Background: In Ancient Greece, beans were employed as a voting mechanism for candidates seeking entry into various organisations. Each candidate had a designated container, and group members would deposit a white bean into the container to indicate their approval or a black bean to signify their disapproval. Occasionally, a clumsy voter would inadvertently knock over the jar, thereby exposing all of the beans and allowing everyone to see the otherwise confidential votes.

1. Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed

Meaning: Waking up in a sour or irritable mood

Historical Background: The left side of the body, or anything associated with the left, was often linked to something ominous or sinister. To ward off evil influences, innkeepers ensured that the left side of the bed was positioned against a wall, leaving guests with no alternative but to rise from the right side of the bed.

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