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Say What?: Idioms and Their Origins

Dear FCI,


Languages can be beautiful—from how they look when written, how they sound when spoken—and one aspect of languages I particularly enjoy is figurative language. Figurative language adds colors to words and adds music to how they flow in sentences. It’s as essential to a language as grammar and the people who speak the language to keep it alive.


Of course, there are so many different types of figurative language, so in this letter, I want to talk specifically about idioms. One funny thing about this subject is that some people are familiar with types of figurative language, however they don’t know the official term. Sort of like how you may know portions of a song but you don’t know the song title or artist.


Idioms are statements or expressions that mean something different from the standard definition of the expression. For example: “It’s raining cats and dogs out there!”


Cats and dogs are not falling from the sky, it’s simply raining heavily. Or the expression “Break a leg” often said when wishing someone good luck. These are idioms and as weird as they are, what I find even more extraordinary is discovering where these expressions started from.


Sometimes there isn’t always one exact origin, depending on how far back the expression dates and sometimes, who you ask, but I’d like to share with you some commonly known idioms and their speculated origin.


 

1. If you want him to wash your car for you, you better butter him up a little.


Meaning: to praise or flatter someone; trying to get someone to do a favor for you.

Origin: This originated in ancient India as a customary religious act. Worshippers would throw balls of butter at the statues of the gods in order to seek good fortune and their favor.



2. My idea of a perfect Sunday afternoon is riding shotgun with the windows down; the sun above me and my love by my side.

Two coachmen in "Stagecoach" with the passenger holding a shotgun to ward off robbers.

Meaning: to ride in the front seat of a vehicle next to the driver; the passenger seat.

Origin: Back in the Wild West, the person who sat next to the driver often had a shotgun to ward off any robbers that may come near the coach.




3. It wasn’t until I saw the smiles forming across their faces that I realized they were pulling my leg.


Meaning: to tease someone, tell a lie in a joking manner.

Origin: Refers to when, back in the day, thieves would trip their victims in order to rob them.



4. You’re barking up the wrong tree if you think I’m going out today, it’s over 100 degrees out there with not a cloud in the sky.


Meaning: to pursue a misguided or mistaken thought or course of action.

Origin: Supposedly refers to hunting, when a dog would bark at the bottom of the wrong tree after the prey they are hunting moved to a branch of a different tree.



5. We were having a simple conversation and he just flew right off the handle! I’ve never seen him so mad.

A visual representing the idiomatic expression "to fly off the handle."

Meaning: to suddenly become enraged or angry.

Origin: Back in the 1800s, some axes weren’t made very well and when the person would swing it back, the top would completely detach from the handle.




6. As I went over the pothole and suddenly heard a loud CLANK, I knew whatever fell off was going to cost an arm and a leg.


Meaning: very expensive

Origin: Said to come from 18th century paintings, as famous people such as George Washington would have their portraits painted without showing certain limbs—having limbs in paintings is said to have cost more.



7. Sleep tight! Don’t let the bed bugs bite.

Beds used to have ropes underneath to act as springs.

Meaning: to sleep well.

Origin: The exact origin is uncertain, however one possible origin dates to when mattresses were supported by ropes which were tied under the mattress to hold it up, acting as springs. To sleep tight meant that the ropes underneath were pulled tight to create a well sprung bed.



8. Sometimes you just need to bite the bullet and spend a little more money to get a long-lasting quality item.


Meaning: to endure an unpleasant situation or carry out a painful task.

Origin: Back in the 1800s, patients would actually bite on a bullet to manage the pain of having surgery without anesthesia, as it wasn’t common then.



9. My mother always taught me to mind my Ps and Qs, especially when in the presence of those who were older than me.


Meaning: minding your manners and being on your best behavior.

Origin: There are several origins for this one, however one is that bartenders would keep track of pints and quarts consumed by drinkers with the letters “P” and “Q”.



Pulling out all the stops means to go all the way or all in.

10. When you’re on vacation, you have to pull out all the stops to get the most out of it.


Meaning: doing everything you can to make something successful.

Origin: When playing the organ, stops are pulled out to turn on all the sounds the instrument can produce—allowing the player to play very loud and play all sounds at once.



 


11. It’s such a beautiful day out but I’m feeling rather under the weather for a walk in the park.


Meaning: to feel sick or ill.

Origin: Thought to come from sailors. When a sailor was feeling sick, he would go under the front part of the boat in order to protect him from the harsh conditions above. He was literally resting underneath the bad weather above that could make him feel worse.



12. There’s no need to beat around the bush, just get to the point!


Meaning: to avoid the point or the intention of something, to circle around it.

Origin: Speculated to originate from game hunting in Britain. When hunting birds, hunters would beat the bushes to draw out the birds. They were beating the bush before getting to the point of the game, which was catching the bird.



13. After her husband died, she was a complete basket case—she had lost her best friend, her soulmate.


Meaning: someone or something considered useless or not able to cope.

Origin: Originally referred to when soldiers would lose their limbs in battle (circa 1919) when it was speculated that the missing limbs would arrive in baskets to the hospital.



14. When you meet someone new, tell a little joke to break the ice.


Meaning: to make someone feel comfortable in an effort to develop a friendship or to cease a conflict between existing friends.

It's often advised to break the ice when meeting someone new.

Origin: Back when roads weren’t fully developed, ships were used as the main mode of transportation and trade. Throughout the winter, ships could get stuck due to large bodies of ice forming over the water, blocking the way. The receiving country would send smaller ships and boats out to break the ice to allow for the larger ships to pass through. This action was an invitation of friendship between the sending and receiving countries.



15. Let’s bury the hatchet and let bygones be bygones, life’s too short to stay angry with one another.


Meaning: to forget an offense and make amends.

Origin: This dates back to when the Puritans were fighting with the Native Americans. The Native Americans had a tradition of burying hatchets, clubs, tomahawks, and all weapons during peace negation. The act of burying weapons and making them unattainable was their sign for peace.



16. I caught my dog red-handed, stealing food off my plate while I was getting a drink.


Meaning: to catch someone in the act of doing something wrong.

Origin: Back in the day, an old English law said that anyone who butchers another person’s animal would be punished. They would be found guilty if the accuser caught them while they still had the blood of the butchered animal on their hands.



17. Don't by shy, let your hair down and stay a while!


Meaning: to be comfortable with someone.

Origin: During medieval times, higher class women were required to appear in public with their hair up in elegant buns. When they came back home, they could let their hair down and relax.



18. It may not be the best idea to pursue someone with so many skeletons in their closet.


Everyone has skeletons in their closets... not literally though.

Meaning: a secret or secrets that someone is embarrassed about.

Origin: Before the United Kingdom passed the Anatomy Act in 1832, there was a shortage of corpses for medical schools to teach anatomy. They could only use executed criminals, who were in short supply. A black market trade sprung up and freshly buried corpses began to vanish—ending up in the hands of studying medical professionals. The expression is said to come from when the doctors would hide the corpses in their closets as they were working on illegal subjects and would be prosecuted if the skeletons were found.



 

Amazing, simply amazing, don’t you think? Its crazy how these phrases start and how they stick around for so long. And how today, we really only know these expressions by their idiomatic meaning, not the original.


The mysteries of languages never cease to amaze me and sometimes when you dig deeper, that’s where you find the truly fascinating information.


That’s all for now, friends. And remember: peace, love, and language.


Until next time,




 

Sources


“20 English Idioms With Surprising Origins.” Writing Prompts, 15 Mar. 2022, writingprompts.com/english-idioms-origins.


Cabag, Yen. “23 Common Idioms and Their Surprising Origins.” TCK Publishing, Jan. 2021, www.tckpublishing.com/common-idioms-and-their-origins.


Lohnes, Kate. “7 Everyday English Idioms and Where They Come From.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/list/7-everyday-english-idioms-and-where-they-come-from.


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