Common Idioms and Phrases: Meanings and Origins

Updated on April 17, 2018
JoyLevine profile image

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

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 a rather dark origin. It came from a reference to someone hanging himself by standing on a bucket and then kicking it away, thus "kicking the bucket."

It is interesting to note that while there are different idioms for each individual 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.

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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 which 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.

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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."

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"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 counter intuitive. 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 a 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 was thought superstitiously to tempt evil spirits or demons to do your friend harm. 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.

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.

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"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?

It's quite simple, really. It originated in England in the 1500's, when houses had thatched roofs. 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. 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. Hence, the saying, "It's raining cats and dogs" ended up referring to a particularly heavy rain. Kind of gruesome, isn't it?

A
England:
England, UK

get directions

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"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, "Ahhh, saved by the bell!" What do these phrases have in common? These phrases have a very creepy origin, indeed!

For this, too, we go back to England. 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 up 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. In order 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 awhile that there were quite an array of devices invented so that the undead could escape their coffins in case they 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 more to superstitions or because of 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.

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Minding Your P's & Q's

This is a phrase we hear a lot when adults are speaking to children. This is a term that has come to signify that you are taking care, watching what you are doing, getting it right. The origins on this idiom are actually rather simple.

This one dates back to a time when local taverns, pubs and bars served up their patrons drinks by the quart and by the pint. Bar maids 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 came to be known, "minding your p's and q's."


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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?

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.

If they 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 | Source

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 awhile, as opposed to 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.

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Mind Your Own Bee's Wax

Now, honestly, many may think that this is simply a coined phrase mimicking the more common and literal phrase, "mind your own business."

However, it turns out this has a more defined origin. Apparently, in the days before Stridex and Clearasil, ladies would use a thin layer of bee's wax to smooth their complexion where they had severe acne.

There were actually several phrases that came from this practice. If a lady looked too long or stared at another lady's face, they might say, "Mind your own bee's wax!" If the woman were to smile, it might crack the veneer of bee's wax on her face, thus the phrase, "crack a smile." Also, the phrase "losing face" came from when a girl would sit too close to the fire and the bee's wax would melt.

No wonder the Southern belles are always fanning themselves in those old pictures. On those long hot summer days, their faces could literally melt off!

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Gossip

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

Although gossip is just one word, it is actually derived from more than one word. 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. 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.

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Big Wig

A big wig is generally thought of nowadays to be a person of high repute, a wheeler and dealer, someone prominent.

Back in early days, men and women used to only take baths twice a year (as bad as that sounds). Women would cover their hair so it didn't get as dirty. Men would shave their heads and wear wigs. They couldn't wash their wigs, however, so they would hollow out a loaf of bread, place the wig inside and bake it. This would kill any lice or bugs in the wig. The wig would come out big and fluffy due to the moisture and heat inside the loaf of bread. This is how the term "big wig" came into existence.

Also interesting to note is that the term "to pull the wool over someone's eyes", which we know means trying to fool someone, came into existence because it was referencing pulling a man's wig over his eyes, in effect, blinding him to what you did not want him to see.

Straight from the Horse's Mouth

When we hear someone say, "I heard it 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.

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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".

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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.'


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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.

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Beauty is all around us. You just have to look!

Female Honeybee Gathering Pollen
Female Honeybee Gathering Pollen | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 JoyLevine

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      • JoyLevine profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        7 weeks ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        "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.'"

      • profile image

        Student 

        8 weeks ago

        Its all greek to me

      • profile image

        Mooshi 

        3 months ago

        Origin of "never living [something] down"

      • profile image

        ANNA 

        8 months ago

        SOME OF THEM WERE VERY WERID

      • JoyLevine profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        9 months ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        "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 profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        9 months ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        "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.

      • profile image

        Dolores 

        10 months ago

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

      • profile image

        jiji 

        11 months ago

        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 ....

      • profile image

        Theater nut 

        11 months ago

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        12 months ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        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!

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        Duwayne Jensen 

        12 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        luis 

        14 months ago

        the idioms are awesome

      • profile image

        Humilonhj 

        16 months ago

        Add more idioms!

      • profile image

        dylan 

        21 months ago

        wow nice!

      • profile image

        Willow McGee 

        23 months ago

        You should add more idioms

      • profile image

        vrinda 

        2 years ago

        very intresting

      • profile image

        Anon 

        2 years ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Christian Isreal 

        2 years ago

        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

      • profile image

        Lisa HOlton 

        2 years ago

        Thanks i have to do this for class

      • JoyLevine profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        2 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        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! :)

      • marieryan profile image

        Marie Ryan 

        2 years ago from Andalusia, Spain

        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 profile image

        lidialbuquerque 

        2 years ago

        Great hub! Informative and interesting!!

      • JoyLevine profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        4 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        Interesting!

      • profile image

        Kitsune 

        4 years ago

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        4 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        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.

      • profile image

        femalegamer 

        4 years ago

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        5 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

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

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        5 years ago from Queensland Australia

        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 profile image

        oldiesmusic 

        5 years ago from United States

        "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!

      • RonElFran profile image

        Ronald E Franklin 

        5 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

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

      • profile image

        Poetic Fool 

        5 years ago

        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 profile image

        Jalapeno10 

        5 years ago

        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!

      • profile image

        Kieran Gracie 

        5 years ago

        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 profile image

        QudsiaP1 

        5 years ago

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

      • truthfornow profile image

        truthfornow 

        5 years ago from New Orleans, LA

        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 profile image

        CrisSp 

        5 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

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

      • MDavisatTIERS profile image

        Marilyn L Davis 

        5 years ago from Georgia

        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.

      • epbooks profile image

        Elizabeth Parker 

        5 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        5 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        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.

      • younghopes profile image

        Shadaan Alam 

        5 years ago from India

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

      • NateB11 profile image

        Nathan Bernardo 

        5 years ago from California, United States of America

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

      • Hezekiah profile image

        Hezekiah 

        5 years ago from Japan

        This is very useful too for advances English classes.

      • TDowling profile image

        Thomas Dowling 

        5 years ago from Florida

        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 profile image

        ptosis 

        5 years ago from Arizona

        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 profile image

        Demetry 

        5 years ago from Australia

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

      • StryderWriter profile image

        Laura Maynard 

        5 years ago from Lavon, Texas

        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?

      • light20 profile image

        Lanao G 

        5 years ago from Ozamiz City, Philippines

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        5 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        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!

      • MPG Narratives profile image

        Marie Giunta 

        5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

        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.

      • marieryan profile image

        Marie Ryan 

        5 years ago from Andalusia, Spain

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        JoyLevine 

        5 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        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.

      • profile image

        Benjamin Chege 

        5 years ago

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

      • IslandBites profile image

        IslandBites 

        5 years ago from Puerto Rico

        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 profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        5 years ago from San Diego California

        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.

      • eloisekate profile image

        eloise 

        5 years ago from australia

        Very informative and detailed. Great read :)

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