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It’s April 1, and in the spirit of our annual fun post for this rather foolish day, here are the origin stories of common phrases you might not have known.
The English language is a lot of fun because of all of its variations, but it’s a beast to learn. In addition to its numerous irregularities, there’s a bushel basket full of phrases and idioms that seem to make no sense to non-native speakers:
- To spill the beans
Meaning: To reveal a secret
Origin: This is likely drawn from the ancient Greek process of voting, where votes were cast by placing one of two different colored beans in a vase (usually a white bean meant yes, and a black/brown one meant no).
If someone literally spilled the beans, the election results would be revealed.
- To turn a blind eye
Meaning: To know something is true but refuse to acknowledge it
Origin: Horatio Nelson was a skilled British maritime officer who was also blind in one eye. In 1801, he led a naval attack in the Battle of Copenhagen. When his partner in the battle, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, communicated via flags that he needed to retreat, Nelson didn’t want to acknowledge it. So he turned to a fellow officer, lifted the telescope to his blind eye, and said he “didn’t see any signal.”
He won the battle.
- Straight from the horse’s mouth
Meaning: Getting info directly from the source
Origin: In the 1900s, savvy horse buyers could determine a horse’s age by looking at its teeth. It was the most reliable way to know whether you were getting a good deal or not (as opposed to speaking with the seller).
- To pull someone’s leg
Meaning: To tease someone (often by lying in a joking fashion)
Origin: This has somewhat of a darker origin; thieves used to pull the legs of victims to trip them before robbing them.
- Feeling under the weather
Meaning: To feel sick
Origin: When a sailor felt ill he often went belowdecks, and specifically under the bow (the front of the boat). The idea was to gain protection from the bad weather above (rain, lightning, swells, etc.). Thus a sick sailor was described as being “under the weather.”
- A penny for your thoughts
Meaning: An invitation to a person lost in thought to share his or her preoccupation.
Origin: It originated from Sir Thomas More in 1535. As a writer and philosopher he noticed that many of the upper classes seemed to have nothing better to do other than sit and think about why they had nothing to do. So this is often used when people notice that someone appears disengaged and wish them to rejoin the conversation
- To fly off the handle
Meaning: To become enraged suddenly
Origin: In the 1800s, some poorly-made axes would literally themselves detach from handles, sending them flying. This would be not only dangerous, but very annoying for the person wielding it.
- A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
Meaning: it’s better to hold onto something you have rather than take the risk of getting something better which may come to nothing.
Origin: It came into the language in the 15th century. The allusion comes from the sport of falconry where a bird in the hand (the falcon) was a valuable asset and certainly worth more than two in the bush (the prey).
- To get someone’s goat
Meaning: To annoy someone
Origin: Another from the world of horse racing: jockeys and others who cared for horses often put goats in stables to help horses relax and feel a sense of companionship (horses get lonely just like humans).
Competitors would remove the goat from the stables of rivals in the hopes of spooking the horse and having it lose the race.
- To pull out all the stops
Meaning: To do everything in your power to make something succeed
Origin: The musical instrument the organ, often played in churches, has “stops” within it. Stops are knobs near the keyboard, which the player uses to select different sounds or timbres. When you pull out all the stops, it allows the organ to play to its fullest capacity (as loudly as possible).
- Armed to the teeth
Meaning: to be completely ready for battle
Origin: Ever seen a pirate movie where they’re carrying a knife between their teeth? When you’ve got weapons everywhere you can fit them on your person, the only other place to put the last one is between your teeth.
- To kick the bucket
Meaning: Someone has died
Origin: Another dark one: when people used to hang themselves, they’d use a bucket to get up high enough to tie the rope over a rafter; when they were ready, they’d kick the bucket to begin the strangulation process.
Interestingly, this phrase has equivalents in other languages. In Ukranian it’s “to cut the oak” (that you’ll need for the coffin); in German, it’s “to look at radishes from below” (like our “six feet under”); and in Swedish, it’s “to take the sign down” (i.e. you’d hung out a shingle for your business on the main street, and now you’d take the sign down).
- He’s tripping
Meaning: The person seems to have lost a sense of reality.
Origin: This is from the 1960’s drug culture. If a person had been doing heavy drugs he was “going on a trip’, as if away from reality.
- The early bird catches the worm
Origin: This phrase comes from early 1500’s England. Farmers had learned by observation that many birds fed early in the morning. Since birds had a diet of bugs and crawly things, it was natural that those birds that fed early in the morning had the best chances of getting the best of those bugs and crawly things. Those that fed later or those that were simply flying through settled for what was left over.
- It’s raining cats and dogs
Meaning: To rain very hard
This is my personal favorite. In Britain in the 1500s, many farm houses were built into the side of dirt mounds or hills and had thatched roofs – think Hobbit houses. The roofs were really just a bunch of straw piled up on itself (no wood below). When it was cold and gray–which is at least half the year in the UK–animals like cats and small dogs (and other critters) would crawl into the straw of the roofs and huddle for warmth and protection.
When it rained particularly hard, some of these animals would slip off the straw and wash into the gutters cut around the house for drainage. Thus people started to say, “It’s raining cats and dogs!” to refer to a particularly heavy rain.
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