Guest post by Anais John
You probably use tons of expressions, idioms, proverbs, and slang phrases every day that don’t make literal sense. If you ever thought long and hard about why you say something a certain way, you could probably make a guess. However, some English expressions are so unusual that it is impossible to guess where on earth they originated from — unless you know the history.
In case you didn’t know, historical events, legends, important figures, religion, and even advertisements form the basis of many expressions and colloquialisms used today. Here are the origins of some of the most interesting idioms!
Bite the bullet
Meaning: To accept something difficult or unpleasant
Origin: In the olden days, when doctors were short on anesthesia or time during a battle, they would ask the patient to bite down on a bullet to distract from the pain. The first recorded use of the phrase was in 1891 in The Light that Failed.
Break the ice
Meaning: To break off a conflict or commence a friendship.
Origin: Back when road transportation was not developed, ships would be the only transportation and means of trade. At times, the ships would get stuck during the winter because of ice formation. The receiving country would send small ships to “break the ice” to clear a way for the trade ships. This gesture showed affiliation and understanding between two territories.
Butter someone up
Meaning: To impress someone with flattery
Origin: This was a customary religious act in ancient India. The devout would throw butter balls at the statues of their gods to seek favor and forgiveness.
Mad as a hatter
Meaning: To be completely crazy
Origin: No, you didn’t already know this one, because it didn’t originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries — well before Lewis Caroll’s book was published. In 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The “Mad Hatter Disease” was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear “mad.”
Cat got your tongue?
Meaning: Asked to a person who is at loss of words
Origin: The English Navy used to use a whip called “Cat-o’-nine-tails” for flogging. The pain was so severe that it caused the victim to stay quiet for a long time. Another possible source could be from ancient Egypt, where liars’ and blasphemers’ tongues were cut out and fed to the cats. (What a treat for the cats!)
Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: To have misguided thoughts about an event or situation, a false lead
Origin: This refers to hunting dogs that may have chased their prey up a tree. The dogs bark, assuming that the prey is still in the tree, when the prey is no longer there.
Turn a blind eye
Meaning: To ignore situations, facts, or reality
Origin: The British Naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, had one blind eye. Once when the British forces signaled for him to stop attacking a fleet of Danish ships, he held up a telescope to his blind eye and said, “I do not see the signal.” He attacked, nevertheless, and was victorious.
Bury the hatchet
Meaning: To stop a conflict and make peace
Origins: This one dates back to the early times North America when the Puritans were in conflict with the Native Americans. When negotiating peace, the Native Americans would bury all their hatchets, knives, clubs, and tomahawks. Weapons were literally buried and made inaccessible.
Meaning: To be caught in the act of doing something wrong
Origin: This originates from an old English law that ordered any person to be punished for butchering an animal that wasn’t his own. The only way the person could be convicted is if he was caught with the animal’s blood still on his hands.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Meaning: Don’t get rid of valuable things along with the unnecessary ones.
Origin: You won’t believe this one! In the early 1500s, people only bathed once a year. Not only that, but they also bathed in the same water without changing it! The adult males would bathe first, then the females, leaving the children and babies to go last. By the time the babies got in, the water was clouded with filth. The poor mothers had to take extra care that their babies were not thrown out with the bathwater.
Give a cold shoulder
Meaning: Being unwelcoming or antisocial toward someone
Origin: In medieval England, it was customary to give a guest a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of mutton, pork, or beef chop when the host felt it was time for the guest to leave. This was a polite way to communicate, “You may leave, now.”
Go the whole nine yards
Meaning: To try your best at something
Origin: During World War II, the fighter pilots were equipped with nine yards of ammunition. When they ran out, it meant that they had tried their best at fighting off the target with the entirety of their ammunition.
Let one’s hair down
Meaning: To relax or be at ease
Origin: In public, the aristocratic women of medieval times were obliged to appear in elegant hair-dos that were usually pulled up. The only time they would “let their hair down” was when they came home and relaxed.
Rub the wrong way
Meaning: To bother or annoy someone
Origin: Early Americans, during the colonial times, would ask their servants to rub their oak floorboards “the right way”. The wrong way (not wiping them with dry fabric after wet fabric) would cause streaks to form and ruin it, leaving the homeowner annoyed. Alternatively, it could have derived from rubbing a cat’s fur the “wrong way,” which annoys them.
What other idioms are confusing for you? Which origin most surprised you?
About the Author
Anais John is a specialist in English Language and loves to share her expertise on online communities. Currently she’s working with an online consultancy Essay Mall, supervising their editing panel. Apart from writing, she has an endless passion for every form of art, i.e., from abstract to realistic art. Get to know more about her on Google+.