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10 Strange Idioms

Jordan Hake is a lif-long learner and host of the Curiosity Channel on YouTube

Let's explore the origins of some common idioms.

Let's explore the origins of some common idioms.

What is An Idiom?

Idioms are those strange phrases we say that have unrelated meanings. According to



[id-ee-uhm] An expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as kick the bucket or hang one's head, or from the general grammatical rules of a language,as the table round for the round table, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.

Sometimes an idiom's meaning can be guessed, such as "a blessing in disguise".

But others aren't so obvious.

1: It's Raining Cats and Dogs!


A very heavy rain.


The first recorded use of this phrase was in Olor Iscanus, a collection of poems by Henry Vaughan, finished in 1651. He referred to a strong roof as being safe against “dogs and cats rained in shower.”

The Library of Congress website said:

“Cats and dogs” may be a perversion of the now obsolete word catadupe. In old English, catadupe meant a cataract or waterfall. A version of catadupe existed in many old languages.In Latin, for example, catadupa. was borrowed from the classical Greek κατάδουποι, which referred to the cataracts of the Nile River. So, to say it’s raining “cats and dogs” might be to say it’s raining waterfalls.

2: Head Over Heels


Upside down; cartwheeling; very excited; in love.


The meaning of this phrase, originally, was to simply be upside down.

The first recorded use of this phrase was in Herbert Lawrence's Contemplative Man, in 1771:

"He gave [him] such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels."

But over time, the phrase became commonly associated with being hopelessly in love, its modern usage. The first time this usage was recorded is seen in David Crockett's Narrative of the life of David Crockett, 1834:

"I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl."

3: Kick the Bucket


To die.


The origin of this phrase remains in mystery, though there are some theories. One says that a man would be hung by standing on a bucket. The noose was then applied, and the bucket was kicked out from under him.

Others say it comes from "bucket" meaning a yoke used to hold animals for slaughter. They would spasm upon death and kick the bucket.

4: Break a Leg


Good luck!


While it may sound strange to wish someone good luck by wishing an injury upon them, this phrase came about in the theater, where superstition dictated that wishing someone good luck would have the opposite result, whereas a curse would be reversed.

The earliest recorded use of this phrase is 1948, from a US newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, in May that year. From their 'Ask The Gazette' column:

Q. What are some of the well-known superstitions of the theatre?
A. Superstitions of the stage are numerous and many are particular to individual actors and actresses. That it is bad luck to whistle in a dressing room is a widely accepted belief. Another is that one actor should not wish another good luck before a performance but say instead 'I hope you break a leg.'


5: Bought the Farm


To die.


While this example from 1943 isn't the earliest, it clearly demonstrates the meaning.

From Cyril Ward-Jackson's It's a piece of cake; or, R.A.F. slang made easy:

"He's bought it, he is dead—that is, he has paid with his life."

As for the actual context of the original phrase, no one knows, but there are three popular opinions:

  1. A pilot might crash into a farm, wrecking his plane and destroying the crops and land in the process. The government would then recompense the farmer by paying for the farm.
  2. A pilot might have dreams of settling down to the quiet life of a farmer. If he died, his buddies might say "he bought the farm early".
  3. A dead pilot's family might be recompensed by the government by paying off the mortgage.

6: Mum's the Word


I'll not speak of this.


While 'mum' sounds like 'mother', or maybe 'mummy', the 'mum' in this phrase is an Old English word for silence, derived from the sound 'mmm' while your lips are pressed together.

The first written reference to the word 'mum' is in William Langland's Middle English narrative poem Piers Plowman, circa 1376:

Thou mightest beter meten the myst on Malverne hulles
Then geten a mom of heore mouth til moneye weore schewed!

Shakespeare used this phrase in Henry VI, Part 2, 1592:

"Seal up your lips and give no words but mum."

7: Born With a Silver Spoon in Your Mouth


Born into a rich family.


The first recorded use of this phrase was in U.S. Congress, 1801:

"It was a common proverb that few lawyers were born with silver spoons in their mouths."

No one knows where this phrase came from, but some suppose it dates back to the middle ages when a person would carry around his own spoon with him; wooden spoons for commoners, silver spoons for rich people.

8: Tongue in Cheek


Not serious; making a joke.


This phrase refers to the face you make when winking. While it's exact origin is unknown, it is used in 'The Fair Maid of Perth' by Sir Walter Scott in 1828:

"The fellow who gave this all-hail thrust his tongue in his cheek to some scapegraces like himself."

Though some could argue that this usage meant something other than our modern use, this example from Richard Barham's The Ingoldsby Legends in 1845 is undeniable:

He fell to admiring his friend's English watch.
He examined the face,
And the back of the case,
And the young Lady's portrait there, done on enamel, he
Saw by the likeness was one of the family;
Cried 'Superbe! Magnifique!' (With his tongue in his cheek)
Then he open'd the case, just to take a peep in it, and
Seized the occasion to pop back the minute hand.

9: Cold Turkey


To abruptly cease from a habit, especially drugs, alcohol, and smoking.


This phrase had its beginnings in early American history when "talking turkey" meant to get down to the facts, stripping away all the excess details.

The first reference to this phrase in relation to drugs was in the Canadian newspaper The Daily Colonist, October 1921:

"Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, they [drug addicts] are given what is called the 'cold turkey' treatment."

10: For the Birds


Meaningless or worthless.


This phrase is of American origin, beginning as army slang in WWII.

The earliest recorded use is in The Lowell Sun, October 1944, in an interview with a Sergt. Buck Erickson, of Camp Ellis, Illinois:

"Don't take too seriously this belief that we have football at Camp Ellis solely for the entertainment of the personnel—that's strictly for the birds. The army is a winner . . . the army likes to win—that's the most fortunate thing in the world for America."

While it began as an army phrase it was quickly accepted into civilian culture, but never really caught on anywhere else.


  • Library of Congress Home
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  • The meanings and origins of sayings and phrases
    An archive of the meanings and origins of thousands of phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions.


gss on December 18, 2019:


MIA Sara on November 12, 2019:

What is the pins and needles means in idiom

Bimal kunkal on August 25, 2018:


Jordan Hake (author) from Southwest Missouri, USA on May 31, 2018:

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

game lord on May 24, 2018:

thanks this was good to know! (:

Jordan Hake (author) from Southwest Missouri, USA on February 18, 2018:

Thanks! I'm glad it was helpful for you!

Cactus God on January 20, 2018:

This was a nice website. Kid friendly and educational. I used this for an idiom report in school. Thx!

Kawser on December 12, 2017:

Very funny and great

Jordan Hake (author) from Southwest Missouri, USA on November 10, 2017:

Thanks! I hope you enjoyed reading it.

Kya on November 01, 2017:


jr on September 14, 2017:

its cool

Virat kohli on March 25, 2017:

Man what is your source for info

Justin Jones on March 08, 2017:

Good edgacasion thans lol

lidialbuquerque on March 31, 2016:

English is my second language so I am constantly learning, and found this hub very interesting and informative!!

Jordan Hake (author) from Southwest Missouri, USA on March 29, 2015:

Thanks for your comment! I've always found the idiosyncrasies of the English language fascinating. I'd love to learn more about idioms, maybe you could start your book as a hub?

Claudia Mathews on March 02, 2015:

Great hub, I've often thought of writing an entire book on this stuff. Very interesting and liked the quiz at the end.

Jordan Hake (author) from Southwest Missouri, USA on October 09, 2013:

*word roots. Oops.

Jordan Hake (author) from Southwest Missouri, USA on October 09, 2013:

I love studying wood roots and language history, It's one of those catagories of useless knowledge that's just fun to read about. ;)

Anne Harrison from Australia on October 09, 2013:

A great read, thank you. With so many language derivations and influences, the history of English words and expressions is intriguing.

Jordan Hake (author) from Southwest Missouri, USA on May 21, 2013:

@To Start Again: I agree, history is an engaging topic when given proper context!

Selina Kyle on May 21, 2013:

I love hearing the history of things like this. very interesting!

Derwick Associates Venezuela on May 21, 2013:

Wow The Great Article

Jordan Hake (author) from Southwest Missouri, USA on May 20, 2013:

@Tennicut: Thanks for reading! It's strange the things we say on a day-to-day basis without really knowing why they mean that. Word roots and etymology make a fascinating study!

Tennicut on May 20, 2013:

Very fun to read. We grow up hearing these idioms and coming to an understanding of what they mean, but their origin is another matter altogether. Thanks for putting this together.

Jordan Hake (author) from Southwest Missouri, USA on May 20, 2013:

Thanks, Sharkeye11. This hub was fun to write, too.

It's incredible how varied the English language is. I count myself blessed that I speak it as a native tongue, it must be very hard to learn as a second language!

Jayme Kinsey from Oklahoma on May 20, 2013:

This was fun hub to read! Loved reading the excerpts--very well presented!

Our language has changed so drastically over time and depending on region that it is no wonder we have strange sayings!

Jordan Hake (author) from Southwest Missouri, USA on May 20, 2013:

Thanks, billybuc. English has enough idioms to make my head spin just looking at a list of them; it took me about half my research time just paring down my choices to ten!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 20, 2013:

Very interesting research and results. Nice job presenting some very interesting information. I think I use them all. :)