10 Strange Idioms
What's An Idiom?
Idioms are those strange phrases we say that have unrelated meanings. According to dictionary.com:
[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 is recorded is 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
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 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
While it may seem 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
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:
- 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.
- 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".
- 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 birth 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
9: Cold Turkey
The abruptly cease from a habit, especially drugs, alcohol, and smoking.
This phrase had it beginnings in early American history, when "talking turkey" meant to get down to the facts, stripping away all the excess details.
The first reference of 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.
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