10 Common English Idioms, their Meanings & Uncommon Origins
English is a complicated and ever evolving language. Every year a new expression or idiom is added into the English dictionary.
Most times these idioms are added unconsciously with their origins becoming obscure and many times these phrases deviate from their original intentions.
This hub traces and explains the origins of 10 common idioms used in the English language.
Some are as ambiguous and obscure, some are witty and some are plausibly entertaining. However, understanding how these phrases came to existence gives us a better understanding and appreciation of their usage and the English language.
Back to Square One
Let's start at square one
This expression is traced back to the early days of BBC radio when sports commentators adopted an experimental approach to broadcasting Britain’s favorite sport, football or soccer.
The field was divided into eight theoretical squares and the commentator relay the position of the ball and players to the audience by indicating position the squares. However, this system was found to be cumbersome and was abandoned by the time of the Second World War. But the expression “back to square one” survived and found its way into common English use.
An alternative theory suggests that the expression is derived from the board game snakes and ladders; when one unlucky roll might send you back to the start or square one.
It's a catch!
This expression is a paradox and describes how alternative choices cancel elements in a situation creating a conundrum.
An example is the classic employment predicament that everyone faces during their early days: you cannot get a job unless you have enough experience; you cannot get enough experience if you don’t have a job.
The phrase comes from the 1961 satirical novel by American author Joseph Heller appropriately titled Catch-22.
The title is about a pilot trying to get out of bombing missions by declaring himself insane. However, the very action of trying to get out of such dangerous missions clearly proved his sanity. The book satire war and the military’s way of thinking, but there’s a more interesting story about the book’s title.
Heller had actually titled the book and paradox Catch-18. However, a bestselling novel that was published earlier by Leon Uris titled Mila 18 about an uprising in the ghettos of Warsaw during World War Two had become a bestseller and to avoid confusing between the two books, the publishers decided that Heller’s title needed to be changed.
He came up with the phrase that is widely used to describe its own paradox.
Feet of Clay
This one taken directly from the Bible and refers to the flaw in character of persons held in high regard.
The phrase is derived from the Book of Daniel and tells of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a huge statue with a golden head, silver arms and chest, brass abdomen and thighs, iron legs and feet made of iron and clay which Daniel interprets. He tells the king that his (the king’s) kingdom will fall due to weakness in its feet and will be divided. The exact passage is in Daniel chapter 2, verses 31 – 45.
There are also many other phrases taken from the bible like “good Samaritan”, “writing on the wall” and “forbidden fruit.”
Get Down to Brass Tacks
There are a couple of theories about the origins of this phrase. The first has a seafaring origin and suggests that because brass was used as clasps and nails to hold iron strips to the wooden frames, sailors scrubbing the grime and salt away from the hull only made progress once they got down to the brass tacks. The other has a more grounded origin and comes from tailors – not sailors.
The fanciful theory suggests that tailors used brass nails hammered into the counters to measure their cloth. If the tailor wanted to cut a strip, he/she would pull the cloth across the tack and once the preliminaries were done, the actual work would begin.
Hanging by a Thread
This expression implies someone’s life in grave danger and any moment could be their last. The story of the origin of this phrase is one of my favorites and is first recorded by the Roman statesman and historian Cicero.
The story begins with Damocles at the court of tyrant of Syracuse in the early 4th century BC, Dionysus the Elder. After he congratulated Dionysus on the fortune of enjoying the pleasure of power, he was invited to the palace for a banquet. However, the despot’s purpose was not to thank him for the kind words. There was a more sinister reason.
During the feast, Damocles looked up and saw a sword hanging directly above his head held by a single horsehair. He promptly stopped eating and did not enjoy the food and entertainment for the rest of the evening.
The message was crystal clear; the responsibilities of a ruler were full of worry and very little pleasure.
Keep Your Ear to the Ground
An ear on the ground
This phrase suggests being well informed and aware of the current rumors, gossip, trends and basic public opinions.
It is a reference to information gathering employed by tribal people like the American Indians who used to put their ears against the ground to hear amplified sounds through the ground. They would then estimate the distance of horses and movement from a considerable distance.
A curious tailor
This phrase is often associated with perverts who spy on naked women (or vice versa) and its origins are in the English folklore first recorded in 1230, the story of Lady Godiva.
The story goes that the kindhearted Lady Godiva, to persuade her husband Lord Leofric not to impose new taxes on the townsfolk of Coventry, rode the streets naked.
As tribute to the Lady’s generous gesture, the people agreed to stay indoors. However, a tailor by the name of Tom broke the agreement and peeped out the windows – he was immediately struck blind.
He became known as “The Peeping Tom of Coventry.”
Pulling Someone's Leg
Originally a dubious prank
To pull someone’s leg is to play a harmless practical joke on someone. However, its origins are more dubious than harmless.
The English streets in the late 19th and early 20th century was filled with muggers, pickpockets and street criminals who practiced tripping up their victims before going through their pockets. Hence to pull someone’s leg originally was to trip and then rob them.
Another theory was that people were hired to hang on a hanging victim's legs in order to give them a quicker death.
Beat around the Bush
Avoiding the Point
Being evasive in a conversation is often, although good manners, referred to as “beating around the bush”. It originally was a way of finding game birds in the 15thcentury. Poachers would tap the ground or rustle leaves to try to flush out the game. This was of course, preliminary to actual capture and killing of the bird.
The phrase now describes a roundabout approach to an awkward problem rather than taking a direct approach.
Go Through Fire and Water
Face any peril
This phrase means going through an ordeal, suffering and pain. It has similar meaning to “baptism of fire” and other phrases denoting hardship and suffering, and with good reason too.
The phrase originated during the Middle Ages in England when trials were cruel and barbaric. It refers to the legal method of trial then called the ‘ordeal of fire’ and ‘ordeal of water’ by which people were tried.
The concept was that God would not let innocents die and that he would intercede to protect someone falsely accused just like he did for Daniel. Unfortunately, this cost many innocent lives in the trials which was used more in criminal cases.
The trial had two forms and usually took around three days. In the ordeal of fire, the accused would be forced into contact with some form of heat usually an iron bar in his hand, or walk barefoot and blindfolded between hot ploughshares. If he was not guilty then he would be relatively unhurt – God would protect him or her. This form was commonly imposed on the nobleman. Commoners were usually tried with water.
The ordeal of water involved the accused to be plunged into a boiling tub of water. If the accused skin showed little or no sign of scalding then that was proof that he or she is innocent. The other water ordeal – the cold water one – was reserved for suspected witches. The accused would be tied and pushed into a lake and if she floated then she was considered guilty – because the water refused her. The opposite would be the case if she was innocent. Unfortunately, there was also the high possibility of drowning.
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These ten phrases are just a fraction of those used in the English language and while they are colorful, their origins are colorful too but often obscured.
This hub is a taste of the rich history of phrases and idioms in the English vocabulary and I hope it has whet your appetite to learn more about English idioms and phrases.