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An Idiom Is an Idiom Is an Idiom: Some Fun Little Facts for You!

An Idiom is an Idiom is a...What?

An idiom, that's an idiom, that's an idiom...(I promise I'm all done with that really horrible joke)

is, according to Merriam-Webster:

a. the language peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class

b. the syntactical, grammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language

2. an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements.

3. a style or form of artistic expression that is characteristic of an individual, a period or movement, or a medium or instrument; manner, style.

It derives from Middle French and Late Latin.

Middle French: idiome

Late Latin: idioma

But after all that's said and done,it's basically phrases we use in everyday life that really don't make sense if you sit and think about them.

I've always been interested in idioms and the English language as a whole. My mind is a little preoccupied with finals right now, so I thought I'd go to this great website called Phrases and find some of the more interesting idiom histories from their vast and wide array of funny sayings. So really, this article is all about personal preference, but hopefully you also learn a little (and maybe use your idioms more wisely!).

Obviously there are hundreds and hundreds of idioms, so I'll be adding to this from time to time. So it's going to be an EPIC post when I'm all done and bored with idioms, yay!

Maybe it'll be SO LONG that it'll have to have a party two.


Get ready. Stay tuned. Learn lots!


A Bang For Your Buck


More for your money!


Military and political leaders needing to budget their money. Even though this still goes on today, the prime example can be found with Eisenhower and his dilemma with state spending. To cut costs, logically, he cut the budget of the army (while simultaneously adding infantry...). Of course, this makes little sense. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not deterred, and they came up with the "New Look" solution, which encouraged the use of nuclear weapons in large wars. This, hopefully, would reduce the amount of manpower needed by replacing them with bombs that were, all in all, much cheaper. This policy was named the "bigger bang for your buck" theory by Admiral Arthur Radford, and was popularized through the publishing of the Winona Republican Herald 1953 December issue. The phrase itself, seeming peculiar, can be explained thanks to Pepsi-Cola, who was overall the inspiration. In the 50s, their slogan was "More Bounce to the Ounce", a phrase which clearly inspired the now-popular "bang for your buck" idiom.

But the idiom itself did go through a few changes: primarily, it altered from "a bigger" to "more", with a dwindling association with nuclear warfare.


A Friend In Need is a Friend Indeed


My handy-dandy website source gives me these four options for the meaning:

1. A friend (when you are) in need, is indeed a true friend.

2. A friend, (when you are) in need, is someone who is prepared to act to show it (in deed).

3. A friend, (who is) in need, is indeed a true friend.

4. A friend, (who is) in need, is someone who is prepared to act to show it (in deed).


This phrase is probably one of the older ones in this list of idioms. Originally seen in a 3rd century BC proverb, it was originally recorded by Quintus Ennius as "Amicu certus in ne incerta cernitur", which means "a sure friend is known when in difficulty" in Latin.

There are, of course, modern origins as well. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations claims that its first appearance in English was around the 11th century, with the earliest quoted use (in English) from the late 15th century. "It is sayd, that at the nede the frende is knowen" was said in Caxton's 1489 Sonnes of Aymon.

Everyman, a supposedly late 15th century play, also has similar wording.

Fellowship: Sir, I say as I will do in deed.

Everyman: Then be you a good friend at need;

There's more!

The phrase was also in John Heywood's A Dialogue Conteynyng Prouerbes and Epigrammes as part of a proverb in 1562:

Prove thy friend ere though have need; but, in-deed

A friend is never known till a man have need.

Before I had need, my most present foes

Seemed my most friends; but thus the world goes

So there are so many sources...which is the right one? It's difficult to say because of how varied it all is. It's really up to personal interpretation in a way, though all of the above listed origins are relatively ambiguous due to the wide variety of different meanings for the phrase itself based on syntax and grammar.

So this was probably not the most helpful...

But isn't it interesting all the same?


A Man After My Own Heart


Someone who is agreeable, a kindred spirit.


The Bible! Specifically, the King James Version, Samuel 13:14.

"But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee."

Also, The King James Bible Act 13:22.

"And when he had removed him, he raised up unto them David to be their king; to whom also he gave testimony, and said, I have found David son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fullfil all my will."

Well, that was simple and straightforward.


A Pig in a Poke


A deal that is accepted without much thought.


This idiom is pretty close to its roots. Originally, it was said to not buy a pig until you've seen it. In British Law this can be considered "caveat emptor" or "let the buyer beware". Essentially, it meant (and still means) that the buyer of something is responsible for any outcomes and that buyers should know what they're getting.

The poke of the idiom refers to a sack or a bag, originating from the French "poque". The Scottish and even us Americans still use this term, and it usually refers to a small bag that a piglet could fit into. Cute!

The pig of this idiom, if taken literally, might be a pig that isn't a pig at all. If we're following this hypothetical story of the merchant and the buyer, then the merchant could easily have but a less valuable animals into the bag. The discovery of this animal would be "letting the cat out of the bag", though this phrase has many other variations like don't "buy a cat in a bag". So really, these two idioms are more or less interchangeable and are definitely closely linked.

Iterations include a quotation from Richard Hill's Common-place Book of 1530 ("when ye proffer the pigge open the poke"), and a quotation from John Haywood in Proverbes and Epigrammes of 1555 ("I will neuer bye the pyg in the poke: thers many a foule pyg in a feyre cloke").


A Rose is a Rose is a Rose


What something is, is what it is after everything is said and done.


This idiom is a direct quotation from a poem by Gertrude Stein titled Sacred Emily. Written in 1913 and published in 1922. The phrase is taken from this segment:

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

Loveliness extreme.

Extra gaiters,

Loveliness extreme.

Sweetest ice-cream.

Pages ages page ages page ages.

Unlike many of the older idioms, we nerds get much more of an answer about this particular phrase because the artist herself was able to comment on it. When addressing the line, Stein argued that in Chaucer or Homer's time, "the poet could use the name of the thing and the thing was really there". She was trying to prevent the object of the rose from being only its memory, and she was attempting to keep its identity in tact. She was such a fan of the line that she had created that she used it in several other poems of hers:

"Do we suppose that all she knows is that a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" (Operas and Plays)

"...She would carve on the tree Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose until it went all the way around" (The World is Round)

"A rose tree may be a rose tree may be a rosy rose tree if watered" (Alphabets and Birthdays)

"Indeed a rose is a rose makes a pretty plate" (Stanzas in Meditation)


A Skeleton in the Closet


A source of shame that could be disastrous if exposed, and is thus concealed with great effort.


This phrase was coined in the 1800s in England. A closet during this era usually referred to a "water closet" or bathroom. The English iteration of this phrase is now "a skeleton in the cupboard", though the Americans use the former.

The meaning back then is pretty close to the meaning now, and the origins are not far either. Using a closet or cupboard in the idiom probably brings home a sense of closeness, something that is always there and always looming that the person cannot avoid because it's in their everyday life. But is the skeleton real, or metaphorical? Dun dun dun...

Regardless, it was originally used early in the 19th century and can be found in William Stowell's The Eclectic Review. In this monthly periodical of 1816, the skeleton refers most likely to disease. The fear of catching a disease or having it in your family was a real one, and there was a true fear of being known as the source of someone else's pain and thus these diseases were often hidden.

Another source is from the Victorian period, where the drama of a hidden body was popular in Gothic novels. Specifically, Edgar Allan Poe's Black Cat of 1845:

"Gentlemen, I delight to have allayed your suspicions", and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom. The wall fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators.

But wait! There's another possibility! The phrase might have also originated from the body snatchers era of 1832, in which the use of corpses for medical research was much more liberal thanks to the UK's Anatomy Act. It is supposed that during this era, doctors would hide skeletons in closets illegally. For the most part, these are just rumors, as most skeletons that are found in old houses are that of unwanted infants rather than anatomically educational skeletons.

The skeleton in the closet as a reference to the concealment of murder came about thanks to William Makepeace Thackary of the Victorian era. He referred directly to skeletons in closets in his 1845 book The Newcomes; memoirs of a most respectable family.

Some particulars regarding the Newcome family, which will show us that they have a skeleton or two in their closet, as well as their neighbours.

Interestingly, there is a man who was found, after death, as a skeleton in a closet. Jeremy Bentham was an 18th and 19th century philosopher who actually asked to be perserved in a wooden cabinet, and is now on display at the University College of London. Go figure.

So is "come out of the closet" related at all? Of course! Blooming in the 1960s, this phrase is definitely inspired by the older idiom.


About Face

By the way, you should see the movie About Face; trailer is in this capsule!


Change directions.


The military, again! It's actually still used as a military command in the English Army. One of the earlier references is in Manoeuvres, or Practical Observations on the Art of War from 1717, which was written by Major William Young, and English soldier. In this text he explained many different commands and their meanings, this one included.

To the Right Face! - Bring up the firelock, with a quick motion high before you, till your left hand comes even with your eye, with the fingers of your hand extended along the stock, just above the feather spring. The right foot to be brought close up to the left heel in this motion.

To the Right About Face! - As before, coming to the Right About, instead of to the Right.

Hint: about meant facing the opposite direction, in case you were confused!


Aid and Abet


To help with something usually involving a criminal act.


We know what aid means. But what about abet? Well, for this we have to look at the French word abeter, which means to hound. The French is actually derived from the Norse beita, which means to cause to bite.

Another 18th century phrase, it came about once the original meaning of abet as "cause to bite" had faded. George Washington used the phrase in 1798 in one of his letters published in Writings in 1892.

My mind is not a little agitated by the outrageous conduct of France towards the United States, and at the inimitable conduct of its partisans, who aid and abet their measures.

Another possible derivation might be from bear baiting, which was originally called bear abetting. It was a popular source of entertainment in the 16th and 19th centuries and often took pace in bear gardens, where poor bears were essentially beat up by well trained bulldogs. During the era these were popular, the issue of animals rights was nonexistent. Robert Laneham wrote:

It was a sport very pleasant to see, to see the bear, with his pink eyes, tearing after his enemies approach...and when he was loose to shake his ears twice or thrice with the blood and the slaver hanging out his physiognomy.

How sad!


It Cost an Arm and a Leg


A large large LARGE amount of money!


Some people believe it might have originated from the arts. Portrait painters were expensive, and the cheapest option was to do just the head and shoulders. If a patron wanted any more, it would cost more: arms would be more expensive, and then legs and everything else would be the highest valued.

This isn't true, though.

The real phrase came much later in WWII from America. An early example is from The Long Beach Independent of 1949.

Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say "Merry Christmas" and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.

What the arm and leg represent are pretty clear: things that you wouldn't want to sell or give up unless you were being paid a handsome amount for your future inconveniences. Some postulate that this idea came from the fact that soldiers who had lost limbs were often those who paid a higher price in the war efforts.

The more likely assumption is that the phrase in fact derives from other phrases, including "I would have given my right arm for..." and "[even] if it takes a leg". Both were coined in the 1800s, with examples including one from the 1849 Sharpe's London Journal,

He felt as if he could gladly give his right arm to be cut off if it would make him, at once, old enough to go and earn money instead of Lizzy.

and one from the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye in 1875.

A man who owes five years subscription to the Gazette is trying to stop his paper without paying up, and the editor is going to grab that back pay if it takes a leg.

The French have a similar rendition, but with different body parts:

Ça coûte les yeux de la tête (it costs the eyes from the head).

The Bulgarian also use the same idea, but this time with parents!:

Това струва майка си и баща (It costs one's mother and father)


Basket Case


A person/thing that is failing or unable to function properly. Used for soldiers that had to be carried by others because of loss of lims, as well as failing organizations or schemes.


The US Military, again! This was used directly after WWI, but was never actually used to describe a person. Rather, it was used to deny that a person actually existed (thanks, US, that was confusing).

The Surgeon General of the Army...denies...that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated...of the existence of "basket cases" in our hospitals.

This statement was put onto many US newspapers, who also thankfully defined exactly what a basket case was at the time. In the Syracuse Herald of 1919, it was stated:

By "basket case" is meant a soldier who has lost both arms and legs and therefore must be carried in a basket.

The phrase wasn't used again until WWII, where it again was popular amongst US military personel in the same manner of denial. Even though the Surgeon Generals of each time denied "basket cases" in their hospitals, the level of casualties and injuries accumulated between these two wars makes it hard to believe that there weren't men who suffered multiple amputation injuries.


Beat Around the Bush


The avoid the point.


The earlier meaning of this phrase is surprisingly literal. Bird hunters would beat bushes and force birds out, while others "cut to the chase" and caught the roused birds in nets. Yet again, a phrase that's closely connected with another. Go figure!

This is another older idiom, as well. Originally found in Generydes - A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas from around 1440, it's a phrase that clearly dates back to the middle ages.

Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,

Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.

Even though this piece of text is anonymous and hand-written, the author has clear opinions on the flaws of waiting around and not getting to the point.

The earliest English variant was found a little later, in George Gascoigne's Works of 1572.

He bet about the bus, whyles other caught the birds.


The Bee's Knees


The highest quality.


Let's get down to science! To defeat...the...oh I don't know.


Bees carry pollen to their hives in sacs that are located on their legs. But bees don't have knees, so the phrase isn't literal in that sense.

"A bee's knee" as used in the 18th century referred to smallness, but there's no connection between that phrase and the one that we use now. Instead, that phrase has been replaced with "gnat's bullock".

This idiom is relatively new compared to the others; it was used starting in the 20th century in America. It was originally pretty nonsensical, and doesn't really have any deeper meaning. It served, more so, as the butt of a joke and a spoof in a lot of ways, as shown in The West Coast Times, a New Zealand newspaper.

A quantity of post holes, 3 bags of treacle and 7 cases of bees' knees was listed as cargo carried by the SS Zealandia.

Further, it was used in The Shortstop, a story by Zane Grey from the 1900s. A city-slicker teases a yokel by asking him about imagined farm products.

How's yer ham trees? Wal, dog-gone me! Why, over in Indianer our ham trees is sproutin' powerful. An' how about the bee's knees? Got any bee's knees this Spring?

The phrase itself is probably only in existence because it rhymes, if we're being honest. Culturally, the 1920s were a time in which nonsense phrases were often used to imply excellence. "The snake's hips", "the kipper's knickers", "the cat's pyjamas/whiskers" and others were also common phrases that pretty much meant the same things. Oddly enough, out of all of the random phrases, the cat's whiskers and the bee's knees are the only ones that truly survived. Go figure.

There is one very, very tenuous connection that might put the phrase into a more realistic perspective: it might have referred to Bee Jackson, who was a dancer in the 1920s. She popularized the Charleston, and the phrase might have come from her active knees, but the phrase was used so much earlier than that that this is not a likely scenario.


By the Skin of Your Teeth


Narrowly or barely; usually it's used to reference a narrow escape from an impending disaster.


Another oldie, but goodie.

This comes from the Geneva Bible of 1560, from Job 19:20.

I haue escape with the skinne of my tethe.

Now we all know that skin don't have teeth, so this must be a metaphor. And if it were a metaphor, it would be one for a notionally minute measure. Or he could have just been explaining what the tooth's surface looks like.

But hey, at least we're not saying "as small as the hairs on a gnat's bollock"!


Carpe Diem

This is my favorite, cause I allude to it in my "company name", karpediem!


Seize the day is its popular Latin translation, but some believe that carpe instead means "pluck" as in fruit, so perhaps a more accurate definition would be "enjoy the day, pluck the day when it is ripe". If you continue reading after diem, the complete phrase means to "pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the future" (carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero...hey, a lot of that made sense to me!)

Basically, it warns us to make the most of the time that we have, much like "strike while the iron is hot" and "the early bird catches the worm" as well as "gather ye rosebuds while ye may" (arrrgh...)


Originally, the Latin is from poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, who wrote in Odes Book I:

Dum loquimur, fugerit invida

Aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

(While we're talking, envious time is fleeing: pluck the day, put no trust in the future)

Even though this has been quoted throughout history, it began to become its English variant thanks to Lord Byron, who used the phrase in Letters written in 1817, published in 1830.

I never anticipate, -carpe diem- the past at last is one's own, which is one reason for making sure of the present.


damian0000 from Belfast on April 30, 2013:

Anna... I loved this hub. I love finding out new things about language and the history of idioms is always really fascinating.

I think you really put a lot of effort into this and it's extremely informative but very funny and light in tone --- I laughed a lot at your explanation for skin of your teeth :-)

Just one nerdy little fact for you --- a rose is a rose also has a mention in Romeo and Juliet (well, close enough) ...

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet."

I learnt a lot from this great hub and you can be sure that the 'kipper's knickers' and the 'snake's hips' are entering my lexicon as of today!

Voting up for everything and very happy to follow you, I hope you do a follow-up to this.. :-)