Common Idioms and Phrases: Meanings and Origins
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 know this is a common saying, or idiom, that conveys a different meaning. This sentence would not be taken literally, as the phrase "kick the bucket" has an alternate 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 translations of idioms found in other 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.
We use some of these phrases 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 culture, as 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.
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, later, muskateers, 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.
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."
"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, so 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. When someone says, "Oh, that's a piece of cake!" we know it 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.
"it's Raining Cats and Dogs!"
Now, this is an interesting one.
This must sound like a very odd expression to someone just learning the language for the first time. There are a lot of things I have seen falling from the sky, but cats and dogs are not one of them.
How did this expression come about, then?
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, and other small animals, like mice, bugs, 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 heavy rain.
"Graveyard Shift", "Dead Ringer" and "Saved By The Bell"
How about when someone refers to working the graveyard shift, or a dead ringer? How about when you hear someone say, "Ahhh, saved by the bell!" What do these phrases have in common? They 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 these 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 finding. An average of about one out of twenty five coffins that were being dug up to be reused were found with horrific scratch marks on the inside. They realized 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 concern about this for awhile that there were quite an array of devices invented so that the undead could escape their coffins, were 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 as a signal someone was alive.
Now, there has been no documented case of any person actually ringing the bell and thus, saved by the bell, to my knowledge. And I must also point 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 graveyard shift simply came from nautical origins when a person had the night shift on a vessel at sea, and 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 a closer inspection.
I think the truth lies somewhere in between, as is the case with most stories. There has to be some truth to the original story, or so much time and effort would not have gone into patenting so many designs of coffins from 1843 to 1913 that you could escape from or signal someone above, as described previously. Maybe all these theories are true, and as is the case with much of language in general, it changes and evolves over time. This is what makes etymology, the study of the history and origin of words and tracing their developments and meanings, so interesting.
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 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."
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 taken, it had to be painted, or sculpted.
This is a rather interesting fact, but if you notice old pictures, you will notice the paintings are of faces, or perhaps a person with one arm behind their back, or both arms. The truth is, in these times, 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.
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, 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.
Mind Your Own Bee's Wax
Now, honestly, I have to admit that this one I thought was just 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 early days before there was Stridex and Clearasil, the ladies would use bee's wax to smooth their complexion where they had 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 would 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 then the bee's wax would melt.
Gossip is a single word defined as something that is said between two or more people, usually in a derogatory nature, about someone else.
Gossip is just one word, but it actually is 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, and they would sip some ale, and listen to people's conversations, and thus learn 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.
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, and the wig came 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 as trying to fool someone, came into existence because of 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.
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".
Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls off a Brass Monkey (it's Not What You Think)
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, and it contracts faster and more than iron when it is chilled. 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.'
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
Now, to be fair, some of these origins may be debated. For everything you read, you can always seem to find something to counter it. Still, the important thing, I think, is to delve into the subject. You can't go wrong with doing research.
One thing's for sure: There are interesting words all around us. 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 so willed to come.
Did you know that the commonly used expression "ok" or "okay" came from an abbreviation meaning "all correct?" Or did you know that the word mortgage literally means "dead pledge", the debt is finished when the debt is either paid off, or it fails. The word "scapegoat" came about 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. You should do some research on your own the next time you hear an interesting term or wonder, "I wonder how that word or phrase came into existence." Etymology is a fascinating subject and one I will probably write about many times.
So if you have an interesting phrase or word you want to know the origin of, look it up, and learn something new!
© 2013 JoyLevine