Skip to main content

Common Idioms and Phrases: Meanings and Origins

JoyLevine is an avid linguistics/language arts enthusiast. She grew up with her nose stuck in a book almost every day.

Read on to learn what an idiom is. You'll also learn a number of common idioms in the English language.

Read on to learn what an idiom is. You'll also learn a number of common idioms in the English language.

What Is An Idiom?

An idiom is a word or, more commonly, a phrase in which the figurative meaning is different than the literal meaning of the grouping of words. There are approximately 25,000 idioms in the English language alone.

For example, there is a common saying in English. You've probably heard it. If I were to say, "Fred kicked the bucket," what would you think?

Now, you could take this literally, in that Fred actually walked up to and kicked a bucket in his path. However, those familiar with the English language would not take this sentence literally, knowing that this is a common saying or idiom that conveys a different meaning implying that a person has died.

This idiom has no clear origin, but one popular theory is rather dark. The idiom may have come from a reference to someone hanging himself by standing on a bucket and then kicking it away, thus "kicking the bucket." The Oxford English Dictionary claims that the phrase might come from the alternative definition of "bucket" as a beam or yoke used to carry things. The phrase might refer to the practice of suspending slaughtered pigs on a beam: the pigs kick the beam; hence they "kick the bucket."

Interestingly, while there are different idioms for each language, many languages have equivalent idioms found in their respective languages.

For instance, the phrase "kick the bucket" in English which implies, as we've discussed, that someone has died, can be translated into a phrase that means the equivalent in Ukranian, "to cut the oak" (as in, building a coffin); in German, "to look at the radishes from underneath;" or in Swedish, "to take the sign down," and so on.

Most of us use idioms every day and yet many of us don't know how these same phrases originated. It's very interesting to learn the origins behind the phrases and how they came into existence. As you learn about idioms, you also learn about history, geography and culture. Idioms are usually derived from local culture and customs in each individual language.

So, lets explore some common idioms and phrases and take a look at the meanings and origins behind them.

common-idioms-and-phrases-meanings-and-origins

Loophole

As an idiom, a loophole is defined as a way of getting out of something or escaping a difficulty, especially finding a legal technicality that allows someone to evade compliance.

Where did this term originate from?

A loophole, in the middle ages, was a small, slit-like opening in a castle wall that men would fire their bows or musketeers through. The only openings in a seemingly impenetrable wall were these slits that a child or small adult could squeeze through. Thus, a loophole is a small opening, or "out," in a seemingly airtight law, which only the clever few can use.

Bundle of US pension documents from 1906 bound in red tape.

Bundle of US pension documents from 1906 bound in red tape.

Red Tape

This is a very common idiom. We use the term red tape to denote anything that may delay or hold us up, whatever the process may be. It also refers to a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy or paperwork.

This term originated from the fact that legal and official documents were tied up or bound with red tape since the 16th century. By doing so, it was often difficult to access them. Hence, the term "red tape."

common-idioms-and-phrases-meanings-and-origins

Break a Leg!

How many times have we heard someone shout, "Break a leg!" to someone going onstage? This is a phrase that seems to be counterintuitive. Certainly, you don't want someone to actually break their leg onstage. Where did such a saying come into existence?

The phrase was first recorded in print in the early 1900s.

Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Catchphrases, suggests that the term originated as a translation of a similar expression used by German actors: Hals- und Beinbruch (literally, "a broken neck and a broken leg.") The German phrase traces back to early aviators, possibly during World War I, spreading gradually to the German stage and then to British and American theaters.

Why would people twist a wish for dreadful injury into one for good luck? It is suggested that it is reverse psychology of sorts. Popular folklore down through the ages has been full of warnings against wishing your friends good luck. To do so is thought superstitiously to tempt evil spirits or demons to harm your friend. Instead, they would wish their friend bad fortune.

There is also evidence that some have pointed to the stage directions for the opening night of the reconstructed Globe Theater in London, which supposedly called for two actors to swing dramatically from a balcony down to the stage on ropes. One of the actors slipped and, you guessed it, broke his leg. However, this has not been substantiated.

In either case, it has become a common and accepted expression of good luck.

A layered pound cake with a piece missing.

A layered pound cake with a piece missing.

Piece of Cake

We've all heard this one. "Oh, don't worry. That's a piece of cake!" We know this signifies something that is easy, managed with no difficulties. We can do it with our eyes closed.

Where did this idiom originate?

This one's almost self explanatory. What's easier than eating a piece of cake?

The first reference to this was in the 1930s, when American poet Ogden Nash, who wrote Primrose Path, was quoted as saying, "Life's a piece of cake." This sweet idiom has stuck around ever since.

Raining cats and dogs

Raining cats and dogs

It's Raining Cats and Dogs!

Now, this is an interesting one.

This must sound like a very odd expression to someone just hearing it for the first time. There are a lot of things we have seen falling from the sky, but cats and dogs aren't one of them. One has to wonder, how did this expression come about?

One old explanation, that it originated in England in the 1500s, when houses had thatched roofs, is probably false. Let's recount it for old time's sake, though! A thatch roof consisted of straw piled high, with no wood underneath. In cold, foggy England, this was sometimes the only place for an animal to get warm. It was said that cats, other small animals and the occasional dog would wind up on the roofs.

When it rained really hard, some of the animals would slip off the roof and wash up in the gutters on the street. It turns out that this is improbable since it is unlikely cats and dogs would slip from the roof in the rain, as they were slanted, and the thatched straw created good traction. They'd need to be sitting on the edges of the roof, which these animals would not likely do.

One theory explains the phrase as a combination of two associated meanings. The Norse god Odin, a god of storms, was sometimes pictured with dogs and wolves, which were wind symbols. Witches, who were said to ride their brooms during storms, were commonly depicted with black cats. Because of this, black cats became a sign of heavy rain for sailors. The mixture of these meanings may have created the phrase "It's raining cats and dogs."

One other theory states that it might be the result of a slow perversion of the Greek expression cata doxa, which means "contrary to experience or belief" and which sounds similar to "cats and dogs" in English. Thus, "raining cats and dogs" would mean it is raining unbelievably hard.

A graveyard where (hopefully) no one is buried alive!

A graveyard where (hopefully) no one is buried alive!

Graveyard Shift, Dead Ringer and Saved By The Bell

Has someone ever informed you that they are working the graveyard shift? Perhaps you have also heard someone refer to a person as a dead ringer? What about when you hear someone say they were "saved by the bell!" What do these phrases have in common? These phrases have a very creepy origin, indeed!

If you look at a map, you'll see that England is rather small. Therefore, they started running out of places to bury people. What they did in order to solve this problem was to dig up the existing coffins out of the ground and take the bones to a bone house. They would then reuse the grave.

Sounds like a simple enough solution. However, this practice turned into a very eerie and creepy discovery. An average of about one in twenty-five coffins that were dug up to be reused were found with horrific scratch marks on the inside, indicating that somehow people were being buried alive!

This obviously was an unsettling find. To avoid this happening in the future, they started placing a string on the wrist of the corpse before it went into the coffin. This string would lead through the coffin and up through the ground and was tied to a bell on the ground. This way, it was thought, if a corpse was indeed not a corpse and still alive, they could ring the bell (or be a dead ringer) and have a chance to be dug up if they were still alive and thus, saved by the bell. Someone would have to sit outside all night working the graveyard shift and listen for these bells.

In fact, there was so much hype about this for a while that quite an array of devices were invented so that the undead could escape their coffins in case they were buried prematurely. Some of them were rather simple, with spring-loaded coffin lids that would open at the slightest movement inside. Others were much more complex in nature, even using electrical switches, early dry cells and buzzers.

For clarification purposes, there has been no actual documented case of any person ringing the bell and thus being saved. It must also be pointed out that this explanation is a bit of a controversy. Some disclaim this theory, saying that while the practice of reusing existing coffins did exist, it was a lot less common than reported.

It has been said that the term "graveyard shift" simply came from nautical origins when a person had the night shift on a vessel at sea and that the shift was named such for the extreme quietness and loneliness of the shift.

It has also been reported that the term ringer simply refers to an old devious practice regarding horse racing and betting in which a proven racehorse similar in looks was switched out for an old nag with a bad record in a race securing a long shot bet. A dead ringer referred to an animal that you could not tell apart from the original without closer inspection.

Whatever the case, it is certainly interesting to ponder over. The truth most likely lies somewhere in between, as is the case most of the time.

It is interesting to note that, regarding the origins of "dead ringer," between 1843 and 1913, there was a lot of time and effort put into patenting designs for escape mechanisms built within coffins. Whether this was due to superstitions or actual evidence of people being buried alive, we will probably never know.

Maybe all these theories are true, to one degree or another. As is the case with language in general, perhaps these stories, too, change and evolve over time, encompassing more than one meaning or origin. This is what makes etymology, the study of the history and origin of words, along with tracing their developments and meanings, so interesting.

Classic pint and quart containers.

Classic pint and quart containers.

Minding Your P's and Q's

This is a phrase we often hear when adults speak to children. This is a term that has come to signify that you are taking care, watching what you are doing, and getting it right. The origins of this idiom are actually rather simple. It just means "mind your please's and thank you's"! Just kidding—the origins of this one are a bit shrouded as well.

One folk explanation dates back to the time when local taverns, pubs and bars served up their patrons drinks by the quart and by the pint. Barmaids had to keep an eye on the customers and keep the drinks coming. They had to pay special attention to who was drinking pints and who was drinking quarts; thus, the term "minding your p's and q's" came into being. It's also been said that barmaids shouted this during a fight to not end up with broken glasses everywhere.

That said, this explanation has been debunked both by Snopes and Mingon Fogarty (in the article already linked in this capsule).

King George II half penny, 1754.

King George II half penny, 1754.

An Arm and a Leg

"That's going to cost you an arm and a leg!"

This is a common phrase that means simply it's going to cost to the point of sacrifice. It's going to hurt. The price is high.

Where did such a phrase come into existence?

According to Wiktionary.org, the most likely origin of this phrase is a reference to the last names of Sir Thomas Armstrong and Colonel George Legge. Who were they? They were the men granted a patent by King Charles II to manufacture copper halfpennies for use in Ireland. The coins were later brought to the United States by Irish immigrants.

The phrase would originally have been thought of with the following punctuation: "It will cost you an Arm and a Leg", "Arm" being an abbreviation of "Armstrong" and "Leg" an abbreviation of "Legge."

There is, of course, a false etymology for this phrase as well. If we step back in time to George Washington's day, we would not see any cameras. For a portrait to be produced, it had to be painted or sculpted.

If you notice old pictures, you will notice something interesting. The paintings may consist of just a person's face. At other times, a person is portrayed with one arm behind their back, or both arms may be visible. Interestingly enough, portraits were not charged by the number of people who appeared in the picture but rather by the number of limbs that were painted.

Some people have cooked up the idea that if someone wanted a cheaper painting, then it would "cost them an arm and a leg." Artists knew it took more time and effort since arms, hands and legs were more difficult to paint.

mutton shoulder

mutton shoulder

Cold Shoulder

If someone is said to give us the cold shoulder, this means that they are disregarding, dismissing or otherwise ignoring us and treating us with disrespect. We are not welcome in their presence.

The origin of the term has been disputed over the years. However, one viable theory is that it came from serving an unwanted guest a cold shoulder of mutton that had been sitting out for a while instead of a nice hot meal like the rest of the guests.

Another theory is that it came from keeping one's back, or at least a shoulder, in between yourself and the unwanted person. In either case, it shows disdain and disregard and the message is clear.

The most likely origin, however, is from Sir Walter Scott's 1816 novel The Antiquary, where the first recorded version of the phrase turns up: "Ye may mind that the Countess's dislike did na gang farther at first than just shewing o' the cauld shouther ..."

This was itself a mistranslation of Scott's Latin Vulgate Bible. However, the meaning stuck, as it was reused by other 19th-century novelists, including William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens.

common-idioms-and-phrases-meanings-and-origins

Mind Your Own Bee's Wax

Now, honestly, many think that this is simply a coined phrase mimicking the more common and literal phrase, "mind your own business." These people are basically right! The first printed version of this phrase appeared in a 1929 children's book, and "non of your beeswax" was a popular 1920s slang phrase. The use of "bee's wax" in these instances was simply as a funny version of "business."

However, it turns out there is a popular false story surrounding this phrase's origin as well. It goes like this: In the days before Stridex and Clearasil, ladies would use a thin layer of bee wax to smooth their complexion where they had severe acne. If a lady looked too long or stared at another lady's face, they might say, "Mind your own bee's wax!"

However, as previously discussed, the fact that the heyday of this phrase was the 1920s and after, it is unlikely that it refers to this older practice. Additionally, most women used thin pieces of colored cloth to smooth out pock marks pre-1900.

common-idioms-and-phrases-meanings-and-origins

Gossip

Gossip is a single word defined as something that is said between two or more people, usually derogatory in nature, about someone else.

There is evidence of gossip being used as far back as the 12th century. It is believed to be derived from the Old English word godsibb, referring to a sponsor (like a good friend or godparent) of an infant's baptism.

There is, of course, a persistent etymological myth surrounding the word. Some hucksters have claimed that, before TV, phones and other media, politicians of old had to depend on feedback to find out what was important to people in their jurisdiction. It is said that they did this by sending their assistants out to the local taverns and pubs where most of the people hung out. They would sip some ale, listen to people's conversations, thus learning what was on people's minds and what their concerns were.

They basically were told to "go sip some ale", thus, the term "gossip" was coined. However, the fact that there is ample evidence of the word being used centuries before the emergence of modern political structures and politicians, this explanation is very far from the truth.

common-idioms-and-phrases-meanings-and-origins

Straight From the Horse's Mouth

When we hear someone say they heard something "straight from the horse's mouth", we know what they mean. It's truth. You cannot contest it. Although being an odd phrase, since horses obviously don't talk, we understand that it means it is something you cannot deny, it's actual fact.

The truth is, horses have always been a prized commodity down through the ages. There were a lot of dishonest people who would try to sell less than quality horses to potential buyers. They would also lie about a horse's age. However, anyone who knew anything about horses knew that you could tell the age by examining the size and shape of the teeth, literally getting the truth straight from the horse's mouth. This is how the phrase later came to mean getting the literal truth.

common-idioms-and-phrases-meanings-and-origins

Heard It Through the Grapevine

This phrase has come to reference something that is heard, unofficially, or indirectly.

This phrase originated at the turn of the century when the telegraph was getting off the ground. Important information was transmitted across country using the telegraph system. The system required thousands of miles of wire to be installed and this wire was held in place several feet above the ground with poles at equal intervals. People thought the wires and poles looked like the strings used to train vines so the telegraph lines became known as "the grapevine".

People then started referring to hearing things "through the grapevine".

common-idioms-and-phrases-meanings-and-origins

Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls off a Brass Monkey

Sailing ships, including war ships and freighters, carried cannons. Cannons fire round iron balls. It was important to keep a steady supply of cannon balls, ready at a moment's notice. However, they were not easy to secure on a moving ship.

The would stack the balls in a square based pyramid with one ball on top resting on four resting on nine, and so on. They would stack the cannon balls in supplies of 30 this way. They would then make a metal plate of iron (called a monkey) with 16 round indentations to hold the cannon balls on the bottom layer.

There was only one problem. Since the balls and the plate were both made of iron and the ship was a very moist environment, the balls would easily rust to the plate, making them difficult to move.

In order to solve this problem, they made them instead out of brass.

However, they didn't realize that brass does not have the same properties that iron does. As it is chilled, it contracts more and it contracts faster. When the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey.

Thus, it was quite literally, 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.'


common-idioms-and-phrases-meanings-and-origins

More Interesting Origins

If you like this article, you might also like Famous Misquotes:The Best Lines That Were Never Said. We have all heard the famous quotes. "Beam Me Up, Scotty!" "Let them eat cake!" "The British are coming! The British are coming!"

What do all of these famous quotes have in common? The fact that they were never said at all! To find out more, read the article above.

You might also enjoy learning the fascinating origins behind some simple every day words by reading the article Everyday Etymology: Interesting Origins of Ten Common Words That Might Surprise You.

The Study of Language Is a Lot of Fun

There are interesting words and phrases all around us. Finding out their origins can prove to be entertaining and quite enjoyable. Even a simple dictionary can reveal volumes.

For instance, the word "welcome", which literally came from a meaning of a willed comer. They were invited and therefore willed to come.

Did you know that the commonly used expression "ok" or "okay" came from an abbreviation meaning "all correct?" The word "scapegoat" came from referencing that in the Bible a goat was symbolically given the sins of the people.

There are a lot of idioms and words out there that have interesting meanings and origins. The next time you hear an interesting term or phrase, do some research and find out where it came from. You may be surprised what you find out.

common-idioms-and-phrases-meanings-and-origins

Further References

Francis, Ben. (2006). Oxford Idioms Dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Partridge, Eric (2003). A Dictionary of Catch Phrases. Ukraine: Taylor & Francis. p. 56.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the origin of "on top of the world"?

Answer: "On top of the world" refers to being in a good place, everything going right. While this is an idiom, it also incorporates cultural standards rather than deriving from a specific original reference.

For many centuries, in writing, "top" or "up" generally refers to good things, while "down" or "bottom" tends to refer to bad things. So, "top of the world" would incorporate this cultural norm and use "top" to mean good. If you're on top of the world, you're in a good place.

Question: What is the origin of the phrase, “on the cheap?”

Answer: I have heard this is a rather newly coined phrase, simply manipulating the meaning of phrases already in existence simply by changing out some words.

Question: Where does the expression "he wears his heart on his sleeve" come from?

Answer: Although the expression first appeared in William Shakespeare's play "Othello", the saying originated in medieval times. In the King's Court, if a knight was jousting in order to defend the honor of a woman, it was customary for him to wear a handkerchief in her colors around his arm to show his loyalty to her.

Question: What is the origin of 'on the house'?

Answer: What I heard was that in England of old, the original pubs were literally large houses. This proved convenient for travelers who wished to get drunk or people who were too drunk to go home.

Thus, the owner could refer to his establishment as a house.

The phrase "on the house" originated when people would have spent so much money at the pub or house, and the money was so far ahead that the pub owner could afford to give you a round for free or in some instances, a room for the night. Thus, 'on the house' was born.

Question: Where does the expression 'bored stiff' come from? Was it used in the 18th century?

Answer: I've heard variations on this, but the most common was a hyperbole-type explanation, referring to someone (talking) being so uninteresting and long-winded that the person listening literally dies (goes stiff) before the person stops or notices. As for when it originated, I'm not sure. But it certainly sounds like something that could come from the 18th century.

Question: What is the origin of "get a leg up?"

Answer: "Get a leg up" refers to getting a handle on things, or maybe even getting a little ahead of something. To "get a leg up" originated when horse back riders mount a horse. They always mount from the right side, and put the right foot into the stirrup first before 'getting a leg up" or lifting their left leg over the horse's back. It might sound a bit obscure, but obviously if you get a leg up properly, you are seated and ready to go, everything in proper order, with success to follow, or at least that is the idea.

Question: What is the origin of "Nest egg"?

Answer: From what I understand, it refers to something valuable, or storing up something for the future... the analogy being in a nest, an egg is an investment for future generations, something precious and valuable.

Question: Where did the term "say when?" Originate from? And why.

Answer: I'm not sure if this is a real idiom or not. I believe it's more of a shortened reference. The term has been used since the 1800's. A hostess may say something like, "Say when..." to refer, mostly when pouring drinks, "...say when to stop pouring." It's more of just a shortened phrase.

Question: What is the origin of the phrase 'to get out of the wrong side of the bed'?

Answer: Getting out of the wrong side of the bed originated when houses were much smaller and beds were usually housed in small corners or lofts. There was generally one way in and one way out. So, obviously, you were to get up in the morning and become disoriented, you could possibly get up on the wrong side of the bed, which would cause you to bump your head, or otherwise injure yourself or worse. Hence, 'getting up on the wrong side of the bed" ended up as a reference to things going wrong.

Question: What is the origin of 'The British are coming. The British are coming'?

Answer: This is not an idiom. This is a supposed quote from Paul Revere in the history of the pre-United States era. Paul Revere is said to have galloped his horse at midnight through Concord, MA, warning of the coming British Invasion, proving himself hero and solidifying himself as a historical figure. Interestingly enough, however, this was another infamous misquote. You should see my other article, World Famous Misquotes.

The truth is that Paul Revere did manage to warn about the British invasion, but he never made the infamous midnight ride and he never made it to Concord. It was actually Samuel Prescott who made it to Concord to warn of the British invasion, as he, Paul Revere and William Dawes had been detained by a British patrol.

Samuel Prescott was the first to escape and rode to Concord, warning of the coming invasion. Dawes was the second to escape, although the account is that he became lost in the dark and never made it to Concord. Revere was released, but did not have a horse and walked back to Lexington instead, where the battle had already just began. He did, however, warn the rest of Lexington of what was happening.

So, how did Paul Revere become famous for a ride he never took and become a hero for something he never did?

Credit the poet Wadsworth for that. He wrote the poem "Midnight Ride" in 1860, and almost infamously, rewrote history.

© 2013 JoyLevine

Comments

Sally Willard on August 15, 2020:

what is the origin of the expression "say when"?

Alex on June 22, 2020:

I'm German and the phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch" (maybe the origin of "break a leg") is common used for wishing luck as you correctly wrote. But the origin of the German phrase has two different possibilities. On the one hand, that it was lucky to wish the opposite of what you really wished for and on the other hand, which is more believed in, that the Germans just took the Hebrew phrase "hazlacha we beracha" or Yiddish "hazloche un broche", which means "=success and blessing", and just misunderstood the foreign language as German which lead to the German phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch", which is nearly similar pronounced. Quite complex but hilarious in some way :D

Srikanto Chowdhury on June 01, 2020:

Meaning of "Let's get our cows over their bucket"

Lala on January 21, 2020:

What is the origin of the phrase "Bear in mind?"

Think fast on December 28, 2019:

What does this mean, what is goid for the goose is also good for the gander?

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on November 06, 2019:

Of course, this expression refers to acting impulsively or irrationally, being carried away with emotion or acting in the heat of the moment. "Going off the deep end..." It is related to the saying, "Getting in over your head," which draws its comparison from jumping into a river or body of water, i.e., on a dare or a whim to impress or to prove bravery, which can be irrational and dangerous, and in such an instance, they may be 'carried away' with the current.

Gentleman on October 17, 2019:

Hi,what's the origin of the expression:going off deep end''?(:

p ruscak on September 04, 2019:

mind your p's and q's comes from typesetting.

Bert Ayers on July 23, 2019:

Where did the phrase "beside myself" come from?

Brandon H on July 06, 2019:

What does the russion fraise I am not made of wood mean?

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on December 03, 2018:

"It's all Greek to me." This is said to have come from William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Apparently there was a speech given deliberately in Greek so that many would not understand it. The character Casca was quoted as saying, "It's all Greek to me," meaning he didn't understand any of it. Later, it was adopted and adapted to meaning anything unintelligible.

"Never living something down." This one is harder to find the origin. The only reference I have been able to find says that it came originally from a reference to a home in France. The explanation goes like this:

There was a region in France, a plain or knoll of a hill, where there was a large plantation-like home. Apparently, this well-to-do family chose this location because it was prominent. They could hide nothing as everyone would watch dinner parties, activities, etc. because the home was located on a hill that everyone could see from a distance.

Apparently the saying was coined after people would make an opposite reference, in effect, saying that if you didn't want people to learn of something you did or said, you must "live it down" or do it or say it somewhere that was not prominent or where everyone could see or hear. IN turn, the saying was that when anyone did something that was seen or heard by many, "'You will never live it down.'"

Student on November 28, 2018:

Its all greek to me

Mooshi on September 27, 2018:

Origin of "never living [something] down"

ANNA on April 30, 2018:

SOME OF THEM WERE VERY WERID

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on March 31, 2018:

"Something's coming down in Denver"... I have heard that is a reference meaning "anything goes" or "anything can happen," metaphorically referencing the weather in Denver and how it changes minute to minute (i.e., it can be 80 degrees F during the day and 30's and snowing at night).

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on March 31, 2018:

"On Pins and needles".... (sorry for the delay in response)... From what I understand, the most likely origin is traced back to England. It was a reference to something uncomfortable, and the feeling was describing the act of recovering from a feeling of numbness, which is one of the most uncomfortable feelings one can endure for those few seconds. Think of getting up after you sat on your leg wrong and it is completely numb, then goes to that horrible hyper nerve sensation of 'pins and needles'.

I don't have any books dedicated solely to Idioms myself, but there are wonderful references online that I have been fascinated with. For English Idioms, Most Comprehensive Origins of Cliches, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions by Stanley J. St. Clair is great. For idioms outside the US, Cambridge Dictionary of International Idioms by James Gordon White is very useful.

Dolores on March 19, 2018:

What does the phrase ' something's coming down in Denver' mean? Where did originate from?

jiji on February 14, 2018:

what's the origin of "on pins and needles" ? and do you have any book that discusses idioms origins ? i really need it for my research ....

Theater nut on February 07, 2018:

The phase break a leg stems for the small curtain that is just offstage and goes up and

Down with the main curtain- it has a small wooden rod at the bottom to holdd

It taunt- If a show was a performance was really good and the audience kept

Applauding-the curtain would rise and fall- putting the curtain called a

Leg to break- thus have a reallt good show= make the audience so excited

That the curtain goes up and down so often that the baton in the leg breaks

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on January 14, 2018:

That sounds very reasonable as well. In researching, as stated in the article, I found multiple origins for many idioms. I suppose we'll never know for sure exactly where each came from. I happen to think many may have evolved along the way, perhaps starting out as one thing, and being 'adopted,' as it were, for other things along the way where it fit.

Fascinating!

Duwayne Jensen on January 13, 2018:

I believe the idiom "Break a leg" came after John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln the leaped away landing on the stage and breaking his leg in the process.

luis on November 14, 2017:

the idioms are awesome

Humilonhj on September 19, 2017:

Add more idioms!

dylan on April 10, 2017:

wow nice!

Willow McGee on February 25, 2017:

You should add more idioms

Tim Johnson Salem Oregon on January 06, 2017:

I got to wondering how the phrase b-line or bee line came in to existence. I found this wonderful article. Excellent, I enjoyed it .

vrinda on December 31, 2016:

very intresting

Anon on December 10, 2016:

I did hear that 'minding your PCs and q's' was from the days of movable printed type, where letters were inserted manually into the printer, and as letters were mirrored to provide opposite print when applied to paper, one had to mind their P's and Q's.

Christian Isreal on December 09, 2016:

Im a Student at Wynne Junior High School and this was very useful to help me know what the orgin and meaning of idiom is

Lisa HOlton on October 06, 2016:

Thanks i have to do this for class

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on July 19, 2016:

Thanks to all of you for the comments. I apologize, I have had so much going on that I myself haven't been on this website much lately. But perusing around today, I want to change that! Such interesting articles and even more interesting people here. Such a nice community.

Anyway, :) @ marieyan... Yes, I always love going back and reading things over myself. I think you can always take away something new, new angle, new way of looking at it, etc. Besides, there is an old saying too, repetition for emphasis... but I say, repetition for remembering... because the older I get, the less I recall! :)

Marie Ryan from Andalusia, Spain on March 31, 2016:

Hi Joy Levine, I am revisiting hubs I have commented before (2 years ago, in fact!) and, reading your interesting hub again, I noticed your Ps and Qs definition. Of course, that makes so much sense! I had always attributed the "minding your Ps and Qs " to being always dilligent in using "Please" and "Thank (Q)you"! What you learn on a second reading, eh?

lidialbuquerque on March 31, 2016:

Great hub! Informative and interesting!!

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on July 12, 2014:

Interesting!

Kitsune on July 02, 2014:

Another origin for the term 'dead ringer' comes from horses. A ringer is a horse that looks identical to another horse. In cases where an expensive and well insured horse was owned. An owner might chose to 'accidentally' on purpose kill the ringer, claiming it as the insured horse (and thus get the insurance money) and then either sell the actual horse, or replace it for the ringer and build the 'ringer's' reputation up with a horse the owner already knows is proven. Mind, this was all before DNA testing.

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on February 13, 2014:

Thank you for your comment. I always appreciate constructive criticism. And you're right, some of these may or may not be true. This is the reason I stated exactly that in the last paragraph of the article, as you probably read.

Again, I think the important thing is actively researching a subject to find out answers. One always comes away with something, just as you did in researching it yourself.

I appreciate the time you took in responding. A different point of view always helps us to learn more and makes us sharper, so I thank you.

femalegamer on February 03, 2014:

Some of your explanations are flat out wrong, such as raining cats and dogs and mind your p's and q's. As a medieval reenactor, I find the beeswax item dubious - it can be used to smooth bowstrings, but for a complexion it would either be too thin to be useful or too thick to be comfortable; much easier to cover it with white lead makeup! You can find a debunking by the snopes people here of an email that made the rounds at one point: http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on November 25, 2013:

Thank you for your kind comments. Etymology is a fascinating subject and a favorite of mine. I'm already planning a sequel! :)

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 16, 2013:

Fantastic hub, and a joy to read. I did know the origins of a couple of these but not many. I find this a fascinating subject and you presented it well. Look forward to checking your other hubs. Voted up.

oldiesmusic from United States on October 03, 2013:

"Mind your own beeswax"... first time I've heard of that phrase. Really informative, and detailed. You really did a lot of research on this one. Thanks for posting!

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on August 16, 2013:

Fun hub to read. Some fascinating lore, like the thing about beeswax, which I never heard about before. I enjoyed reading.

Poetic Fool on August 09, 2013:

Awesome hub! I've always been fascinated with the origins of certain words and idioms and your hub has satisfied my curiosity on a few of them. Thanks for this fun, entertaining and educational hub!

Jalapeno10 on August 09, 2013:

These are great! I am going to start saying mind your p's and q's much more now that I know what it's about, lol. This was very informative and fun to read!

Kieran Gracie on August 08, 2013:

Great Hub - I really enjoyed reading it. I know it is not exactly an idiom but the phrase "Don't Drink and Drive", which we see constantly displayed on UK motorways, must be very confusing to any foreigner using a literal translation - unfortunately it always makes me laugh, which is not the intention of the notice at all!

Voted up, interesting and shared. Thank you, Joy.

QudsiaP1 on August 07, 2013:

Wow, this was so informative; I had no idea about where most of them came from. :P

Marie Hurt from New Orleans, LA on August 07, 2013:

I had no idea about the origins of most of these phrases. Definitely a very interesting read, and I learned a lot. Voted up and useful.

CrisSp from Sky Is The Limit Adventure on August 07, 2013:

Great, interesting hub. Well done! Voting up and sharing.

Marilyn L Davis from Georgia on August 07, 2013:

Interesting article. I too value the origin of a word or a phrase, so enjoyed learning the derivation of some of these common, but often misunderstood idioms.

In your spare time, look up www.idiomsite.com; lists a lot and we'll leave the research up to you since you write about them so well. Voted up.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on August 07, 2013:

Wow- very interesting. I never knew where any of these phrases originated, so this hub was entertaining. Scary about the graves though-how dreadfully awful! Voted this hub up!

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on August 05, 2013:

The closest I could come to a true origin of "Who opened the gates?" was that the cities of old (Roman and others) were fortified and protected by great walls. These walls served to protect the city against siege. However, in some rare cases, the city walls were left open, and the opposing armies would stampede through in force. Also, the walls were attacked and if they armies broke through the gates, same thing, they would stampede through in massive numbers. So perhaps this is where the saying comes from.

I couldn't find anything specific on "Dot your i's and cross your t's" although it sounds like a similar saying like minding your p's and q's. The theory it came from typesetting certainly sounds feasible. Interestingly enough though, the expression "To a T" which means pretty much the same thing, came from an old word that was used precisely the same way... To a Tittle, or To A T. Tittle came from the same latin word as title does. As far as the case of the underwear, lol, yes, I think that's strictly a mother thing.

Shadaan Alam from India on August 05, 2013:

It is such an interesting post, i always love to use idioms and phrases in my articles during college time

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on August 05, 2013:

Fascinating subject. I often wonder where old sayings come from.

Hezekiah from Japan on August 04, 2013:

This is very useful too for advances English classes.

Thomas Dowling from Florida on August 04, 2013:

Very interesting and thorough Hub! The "dead ringer" and "saved by the bell" gave me the creeps. I'll twice now before I use those idioms again.

You earned my vote for the Rising Star accolade.

ptosis from Arizona on August 04, 2013:

Talking through one's hat = Talking nonsense; especially on a subject that one professes to be knowledgeable about but in fact is ignorant of.

I believe that came from Joseph Smith who so-called "translated" the Book of Mormon via invisible "seer stones" placed inside his top hat and he stuck his face into it and plenary dictated to Brigham Young.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_plates

Demetry from Australia on August 03, 2013:

Great read! Some people at work use some naval based phrases like " she's over the yard arm" when its coffee time :)

Laura Maynard from Lavon, Texas on August 03, 2013:

Great article. We take for granted a lot of what we say and a lot of what we think we know. The meaning becomes so much clearer when we understand exactly what we are saying and the reasons behind it. These are a couple that come to my mind: "Who opened the gates?" which used to drive me crazy as my father said in when traffic was heavy. He came from a farm and I always assumed it had to do with letting the cattle cross the dirt road. It would be interesting to find it's true origin. Of course now the term is endearing to me. Or "dot your i's and cross your t's" which I'm pretty sure came from typesetting. And finally, do we put "always leave with clean underwear" in this category, or is this just something mothers say to embarrass us?

LG from Ozamiz City, Philippines on August 02, 2013:

I like this hub. English is not my mother tongue, so i found this useful. Sometimes, when i watched English movies I take note (keep on mind) of the phrases which made me confused (well, i can be idiot sometimes) Most of the times I would think they were idioms, so i try to look for it on the internet. lol.

nice hub!

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on August 02, 2013:

I feel like now that I wrote this, I pay attention more to when I speak or say an idiom, or when I hear others use them. And the more I notice, the more I am curious now and do research. I may have to write a follow up on more! :) If any of you that comment have a favorite idiom, and know the origin please list it here for us all to enjoy. Or if you would like to know the origin, I don't mind doing the work. Thanks!

Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on August 02, 2013:

It's so interesting to hear how idioms came about. I like the one "costs an arm and a leg", how incredible that artists charged more to paint limbs :) Thanks for sharing this fabulous information, I enjoyed reading this hub and learnt quite a lot about how idioms came about. Voted up and shared.

Marie Ryan from Andalusia, Spain on August 01, 2013:

I love finding about origins of the phrases we use everyday in the English language. This was a really interesting article. There are absolutely hundreds of idioms in the English language....and other languages...that are fascinating. The amazing thing is we grow up with these idioms and hardly ever question their origin, as long as we know their meaning.

JoyLevine (author) from 3rd Rock from the Sun on July 31, 2013:

Thanks for all the comments. An eye! I like that. lol And I didn't get the phrase in there "let's get down to brass tacks." But I just did research and found out that its origin is up for debate. However, a seemingly plausible theory is that it came from the brass tacks that held a soldier's shoes together. When the shoes wore down to the brass tacks, it was really getting to the bottom (or the parallel, truth) of the matter.

Benjamin Chege on July 31, 2013:

I like all the idioms and phrases; they are funny, yet real.

IslandBites from Puerto Rico on July 31, 2013:

Great hub! In Puerto Rico we say "cuesta un ojo de la cara (an eye)" instead of an arm and a leg. LOL

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on July 31, 2013:

Great analysis of some interesting expressions. Did you include the phrase "let's get down to brass tacks?" There are probably hundreds like this. Interesting hub.

eloise from australia on July 30, 2013:

Very informative and detailed. Great read :)