Origins of Familiar Phrases

Updated on January 16, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.


On the Wagon

Current meaning: to abstain from drinking alcohol.

For several hundred years (ending in 1783) condemned prisoners in London were taken from Newgate Prison to their place of execution at Tyburn about two-and-a-half miles away. They were conveyed in horse-drawn carts. notes that, “Stops were made at two public houses along the way … where the condemned would be allowed an alcoholic drink.” Thus fortified to face the coming ordeal, they climbed aboard the wagon never to have another alcoholic drink in their lives that were now measured by minutes.

Some people claim the phrase comes from water wagons used to keep down dust on unpaved roads.
Some people claim the phrase comes from water wagons used to keep down dust on unpaved roads. | Source

Nope says the Salvation Army; the adage springs out of the temperance movement. “The phrase ‘on the wagon’ was coined by men and women receiving the services of The Salvation Army. Former National Commander Evangeline Booth - founder William Booth’s daughter - drove a hay wagon through the streets of New York to encourage alcoholics on board for a ride back to The Salvation Army. Hence, alcoholics in recovery were said to be ‘on the wagon.’ ”


Current meaning: stylish, wealthy.

In the days of the British Raj the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company enjoyed a lucrative trade of carrying passengers between Britain and India. Through the heat of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea the favoured cabins were on the shady side of the vessel. That meant the port side on the eastbound journey and the starboard side on the westward trip. So, Posh comes from the acronym derived from Port Out Starboard Home.

However, those debunkers of everything we know to be true at say the seafaring origin of posh is wrong. They confess to a murky history for the phrase but suggest it first appeared in print in 1830 and was a slang term for money. Or, it might have come into the English language from the Romany “posh-houri, meaning ‘half-pence.’ ” This is dated to the 17th century and the word slowly morphed into jargon for money.

The Oxford Dictionary offers both derivations of the phrase but doesn’t pick one and leaves us dangling with “Sadly, posh will just have to remain in the ‘origin unknown’ category.”

Johnny Carson Pranked by Phony Posh British Accents (apologies for video quality)

Wrong End of the Stick

Current meaning: Getting the worst of a bargain or misunderstanding the facts of an argument.

One origin for this phrase has to do with Roman toilets and bodily functions that we really don’t need to explore in detail, except to note that cleaning up was achieved by use of a stridulum; a sponge on a stick. The second person into the latrine might accidentally grab the wrong ... Oh never mind.


For a more palatable version we are indebted to Back in the days of early printing a typesetter would pick individual letters from a type case and put them into a hand-held rack: “This rack was known as a composing stick and the letters must be loaded on to this stick the wrong way around so that when you drop the stick and all its letters face down onto the galley the letters will then be the right way around.” Apprentices would struggle with this for a while, putting the letters at the wrong end of the stick.

Another suggestion has to do with keeping the hired help in line. Walter Skeat was a noted Victorian philologist who tracked down word origins. In 1895, he wrote that “The right end of the stick was that held in the master’s hand, whilst the other was the wrong end, or (as our American cousins would say) the ‘business end.’ ”

Upper Crust

Current meaning: the aristocracy.

Tour any baronial mansion in the British Isles and you will likely hear the guide tell this story about where the term “Upper Crust” came from.

In the absence of thermometers, baking in the Middle Ages was a hit-or-miss affair. The oven was heated and the coals and ash racked out before the dough was placed on the hearth. The result was often a loaf with a blacked and burned bottom and a properly cooked top. The natural order of society dictated that the peasants got the bottom crust and the toffs the upper crust.


Gary Martin of says this explanation is “twaddle.” He says it relates to the outer layer of the Earth and/or to heads and hats.

“The ‘Earth’s surface’ and ‘head/hat’ meanings connect ‘upper crust’ with ‘top’ and there’s every reason to believe that our present application of the term to members of society is another use of that same metaphor. The connection between the ‘upper crust’ of society and the upper crust of loaves of bread is fanciful.”


The Penny Dropped

Current meaning: A sudden understanding of a statement or theory

From Victorian times until 30 or so years ago, in order to access public toilets in Britain a penny had to be put into a locking mechanism. (In a clear case of gender discrimination, men could use urinals free of charges). When the penny dropped, the door opened, and the interior was revealed within in all its porcelain glory. The delicate “Spend a Penny” euphemism for going to the toilet comes from the same source.

And, here comes the challenge. The Oxford English Dictionary throws the great weight of its authority behind the penny-slot-machine theory.

Sometimes, the penny got caught in the mechanism requiring a few judicious nudges to the side of the cabinet to dislodge it. Eventually, the penny would drop and the toy delivered or the game begin.


Living on Queer Street

Current meaning: Being short of money.

For once, there seems little disagreement about where this idiom came from. Carey Street in London was the site of the British bankruptcy court in the 19th century. The phrase is sometimes interchangeably quoted as “Living on Queer Street,” a location that was fictional. Modern usage suggests having a home in the middle of a gay community, but it does mean being in debt as well as experiencing something against one’s wishes. “Living on Queer Street” predates “Living on Carey Street.”

Bonus Factoids

Giving the cold shoulder.

Current meaning: Rudely disregarding someone.

Those pesky British tour guides are behind the false story that this was a way of telling unwanted guests it was time to leave. The offenders would be served a slice of cold meat from a shoulder of mutton, the toughest and least palatable part of the animal.


Rubbish says The Word Detective. The expression comes from the pen of Sir Walter Scott and his 1816 novel The Antiquary: “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.” The maxim was soon showing up in books by Thackeray, Dickens, and others.

There are hundreds more familiar phrases and sayings whose origins might be surprising. Readers are invited to add their own derivations in the comments box below.


  • “Being Hanged at Tyburn., undated.
  • “Did You Know?” Salvation Army, undated.
  • “The Etymology of Posh.” David Mikkelson,, undated.
  • “What is the Origin of the Word ‘Posh’?” Fiona McPherson, Oxford Dictionaries, February 3, 2012.
  • “Two Printing Terms.” Historyzine, undated.
  • “Wrong End of the Stick.” World Wide Words, undated.
  • “Upper Crust.” Gary Martin,, undated.
  • “Cold Shoulder.” Evan Morris, The Word Detective, June 2, 2009.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


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