There are common sayings and phrases that we just understand after hearing it many times, like “rule of thumb,” “give a cold shoulder,” and “break the ice.” But have you ever stopped to ponder where it came from?
Common expressions typically have fascinating origins that explain how they came to be. While the origins of some remain unclear, we can delve into the earliest recorded evidence to uncover when and where they first appeared.
Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: To follow a wrong thought or course of action because their beliefs or ideas about something are incorrect
This phrase is rooted in early 1800s American hunting, as hunters used dogs to find raccoons at night. It was quite literal, actually: the dog was supposed to go to a tree where the raccoon was hiding and bark to alert his master. Sometimes, the raccoons escape and trick the dogs into thinking they are in a tree, so the dog may go to the wrong tree and bark.
Bite the bullet
Meaning: To do something unpleasant or difficult because it’s necessary
The phrase first appeared in the 1891 novel The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling. It’s suggested that it was historically derived from outdated medical practices performed by soldiers. In the past, when there wasn’t time for anesthesia during an emergency surgery, doctors would make patients bite down a literal bullet to distract them from the pain.
History: When there wasn’t time for anesthesia during emergency surgery in battle, surgeons had patients bite down on a bullet to help divert their attention from the pain.
Blood is thicker than water
Meaning: Family connections are more important than other relationships or needs
This quote was first recorded in the 12th century. A German philosopher named Evan Franklin used it to say that people who are related have stronger connections and responsibilities towards one another than those outside the family.
However, some sources say that the quote comes from the practice of blood covenant among men to symbolize bonds stronger than those of families. The saying is also tied to “blood brothers,” as warriors who symbolically shared the blood shed in battle were believed to have bonds even stronger than biological brothers.
Break the ice
Meaning: To overcome social awkwardness often experienced between people who meet for the first time, helping them socialize with one another
Originating in the 17th century, the phrase was first used by writer Samuel Butler in the poem Hudibras with the line: “…At last broke silence, and the Ice.”
The expression was inspired by the olden practice of ships breaking ice to create pathways. Before there were trains and cars, port cities that relied on trade faced challenges during the winter when frozen rivers blocked commercial ships. Small ships called “icebreakers” rescued ice-bound vessels by breaking the ice and creating pathways for them. Today, it’s customary to “break the ice” before entering into any business arrangement or starting a project.
Butter someone up
Meaning: To flatter someone lavishly to get their help or support
The idea of buttering up came from an ancient Indian custom of throwing balls of clarified butter (called ghee) at statues of gods to ask for favors.
Cat got your tongue?
Meaning: Something said when a person is at a loss for words or being unusually quiet
As amusing as it sounds, its origins are not as clearly defined. A theory suggests that it comes from the practice during the Middle Ages when tongues of liars and blasphemers were cut and fed to the king’s cats.
Another theory links it to the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip used by the English Navy that causes so much pain that it leaves its victims speechless.
Meaning: To be caught doing something wrong or illegal
This saying originated from a law in 15th-century Scotland. It referred to being found with blood on your hands after committing a crime. Like if someone butchered an animal that didn’t belong to him, he had to be caught with the animal’s blood on his hands. Being caught with freshly cut meat did not make a person guilty.
Meaning: To feel frightened or scared to do something you planned to do
One of the earliest instances of the phrase “cold feet” comes from poet Stephen Crane. In 1896, he released Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, where he wrote, “I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.” While commonly used for backing out of engagements, the saying’s origin actually refers to simply losing interest in something.
Others trace the origin of this phrase to a German idiom that means the same thing with the same figurative meaning.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Meaning: Hold on to valuable things when getting rid of something unwanted or unnecessary
This expression is most probably translated from a German proverb and was first recorded in English in 1853 by Thomas Carlyle.
In the 1500s, when people bathed only once a year, the whole family used the same tub of water. The man bathed first, followed by other males, females, and finally, the babies. As the water became thick and cloudy, mothers had to be careful not to accidentally toss out their infants when emptying the tub.
Eat humble pie
Meaning: To make an apology and suffer humiliation along with it
In the Middle Ages, after a hunting feast, the lord received the finest meat, while those of lower status got a pie filled with entrails of animals called “numbles.” Eating “numble pie” was humiliating because it revealed their low social status.
The phrase originated from British savory pies, not the sweet American kind, and “numbles” referred to animal entrails baked into a pie. Over time, “numble pie” became “umble pie,” then “humble pie.”
Give the cold shoulder
Meaning: A rude way of telling someone he isn’t welcome or to ignore someone
While giving someone the cold shoulder is now considered rude, in medieval England, it was a polite way to signal the end of a feast. The host would offer guests a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton, or pork to let them know that they should leave now.
Go cold turkey
Meaning: To quit or stop a habit, usually something addictive or unhealthy, abruptly and completely
We all know that this is about quitting something, not deciding to eat some lukewarm poultry. The first appearance of this expression in this context comes from 1921 in a Canadian newspaper, describing patients of a certain doctor who are trying to kick an addictive habit.
It was once believed that during withdrawal, the skin of drug addicts became translucent, hard to the touch, and covered with goosebumps, which looked like the skin of a plucked turkey.
Meaning: Definitely, easily, absolutely
The phrase originated in the mid-1800s from horseracing. People used it to describe a jockey so far ahead that he could relax from holding the reins of his horse – putting his hands down – and still win.
Kick the bucket
Meaning: To die
Most etymologists agree that the “bucket” in this phrase refers to a kind of yoke that was used to hold pigs by their heels and acts as a pulley for slaughter. In slaughterhouses, a bucket was placed under a cow while it was positioned on a pulley, and then the animals’ legs would kick during the adjustment of the rope – literally kicking the bucket before being killed.
Let your hair down
Meaning: To relax or behave more freely than usual
This expression originated in the 19th century when aristocratic women in France used to appear in public with an intricate hairdo, as it was socially unacceptable at the time if they appeared with their hair down. Since these kinds of hairstyles can take hours to create, it became a relaxing ritual for them to come home after a long day and let their hair down.
Rub the wrong way
Meaning: To irritate, bother, or annoy someone without intending to
The origins of this phrase are linked to cats. When you rub a cat’s fur the wrong way and against their fur, you annoy the cat.
Here’s another theory: Back in colonial America, servants had to wet-rub and dry-rub oak-board floors weekly. If done against the grain, it caused streaks, making the wood look terrible. This will surely irritate and annoy the homeowner.
Rule of thumb
Meaning: A general and approximate principle, procedure, or idea based on experience and practice rather than theory
Legend has it that in the 17th century, English Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled it permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick as long as the stick was no wider than his thumb. Though some connect this phrase to domestic violence, the origin is uncertain. The earliest record of the phrase being used is by Scottish preacher James Durham, who said: “Many professed Christians are like foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb (as we use to speak), and not by Square and Rule.”
The phrase itself is also likely older and probably emerged from the practice of people using body parts to measure things. Thumbs and a “thumb’s breath was used to measure textiles.
Meaning: To behave disruptively or uncontrollably
The word “amok” came from the Malay word “meng-amuk,” which, when roughly defined, means to make a furious and desperate change. Captain Cook first used the phrase to describe the behavior of the Malay tribesmen in 1770 during his voyage around the world.
Saved by the bell
Meaning: To be saved from a difficult or unwanted situation at the last possible moment
As alarming as it sounds, being buried alive was once common. People who feared such a fate were buried in special coffins connected to a bell above ground. Guards listened for bells at night in case they had to dig up a living person and save them “by the bell.”
But while that phrase matches the current meaning, it’s not the only origin of the phrase. It was a boxing slang that was common during the late 19th century. A boxer about to be defeated would be saved by the bell if it marked the end of the round. Eventually, the phrase caught on and became common in the mainstream.
Show your true colors
Meaning: To reveal one’s true character or intentions, especially when these are dishonorable or unpleasant
This phrase came from a nautical lingo. Back then, warships used to fly multiple flags to confuse their enemies. However, the rules of warfare stated that a ship had to hoist its true flag before firing and thus revealing its country’s true colors.
Spill the beans
Meaning: To reveal a secret
In Ancient Greece, people used beans for the process of voting. Votes were cast by putting one or two different colored beans (usually white or black/brown beans) in a vase. If someone accidentally knocks over the jar, it reveals the otherwise confidential votes.
Steal your thunder
Meaning: To use someone else’s idea for one’s advantage, or to say or do what another person intends to do before they do it, especially if it takes the attention, praise, or success from them
This idiom has quite a funny origin from the 18th century. Dramatist John Dennis invented a thunder machine for his play “Appius and Virginia,” but it didn’t work. Fast-forward to the little-known production of Macbeth, and lo and behold, his idea was stolen for the play’s production. Oh, the drama!
The whole nine yards
Meaning: Everything you want to have, do, or want in a particular situation
The origin of this phrase is a bit mysterious – there are many theories, but none definitively proven. If you ponder upon it, you may think, “The whole nine yards of what?”
Some theories suggest that the expression originally referred to the capacity of a cement truck in cubic yards. Some include references to the sails on a three-masted square rigger, the length of an ammunition belt on World War II fighters, or the amount of cloth in significant items like the queen’s bridal train or the Shroud of Turin. The origin remains an intriguing etymological mystery.
Waking up on the wrong side of the bed
Meaning: Waking up in a bad mood, causing one to be grumpy or irritable
This phrase is rooted in a Roman superstition. They were careful to always get up on the literal right side of the bed to ensure that good luck would follow them throughout the day. Innkeepers pushed the left side of the bed against a wall to ward off evil, leaving guests with no choice but to get up on the right side.
Interestingly, the Latin word for “sinister” meant “on the left side,” so the left side began to be associated with evil in the 14th century well into the 17th century.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing
Meaning: A person who looks and appears to be trustworthy but has a malicious intent.
This phrase comes directly from the Bible. In Matthew 7:15, Jesus warns Christians, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Jesus goes on to explain that you can discern their true nature by the fruit they bear, meaning how they live.