From ‘stealing one’s thunder’ to ‘letting the cat out the bag,’ the English language has the most peculiar and baffling phrases that lead you to wonder… who came up with these phrases?! Well, get ready for the strangest history lesson of your life. Somehow, the origins of these phrases are, believe it or not, even weirder than the phrases themselves and can be traced as far back to Ancient Greek superstition and Medieval European cuisine…
“Barking up the wrong tree”
The phrase “barking up the wrong tree” is used to describe following the incorrect course, or making a wrong decision. The expression originates from the early 1800s in America, when it was popular to hunt accompanied with a pack of dogs.
Initially, the saying was used in quite a literal context – when animals such as raccoons would shrewdly fool the dogs into thinking they were in a particular tree, when they had, in fact, escaped. The end result? The dogs would be barking at the base of the wrong tree.
“Let the cat out of the bag”
We’re all guilty of letting the cat out the bag every now and again. Or in other words, divulging a juicy secret we most definitely shouldn’t be spreading, like that time you ‘accidentally’ let slip to your best friend that all their friends were planning a surprise birthday party for them.
This strange phrase has an equally strange origin. During the 1700s, it was not uncommon for pranksters to swap pigs for street cats, selling them covered in a bag to a poor, unsuspecting victim. The trick was discovered when the cat, quite literally, jumped out the bag.
“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”
The origin of the saying: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” is often misconceived to come from the most absurd myth. Supposedly, due to the recycling of bathtub water during the Medieval era, by the time the baby was given a bath the water was clouded by dirt.
Therefore, mothers had to be extra cautious not to, quite literally, throw the baby out with the bathwater. This strange phrase is actually attributed to satirist and writer Thomas Murner, who first used it in 1512, referring to watching over your valuables.
The term “upper crust” is used to describe society’s elite, and is often misconceived to have originated from the Medieval era, when only the wealthy could afford to buy the “upper crust” of a loaf of bread.
However, the phrase in fact originated in 1823, as a reference to the outrageously luxurious and expensive hats worn by the aristocratic members of the population. From there, it evolved to encompass this entire class of society – not just their favoured headwear.
“Toe the line”
First heard in the year 1813, the popular saying “toeing the line” is used to describe playing it safe and abiding by the rules. A common mistake is that the phrase is heard as “tow the line,” and is somehow connected to boats and other vehicles.
On the contrary – “the line” is, quite literally, a reference to the actual line drawn up on the track, designated for athletes to place their feet on before racing.
“Bated” doesn’t really seem to be much of a word, yet “bated breath” means to hold one’s breath in suspense or fear. In fact, if you thought the word was actually “baited,” you’re in good company – J.K. Rowling herself made this error in the first Harry Potter novel.
However, the phrase actually originates from the language revolutionary William Shakespeare, who played around with the word “abated,” which means to lie low, or depress, in his play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in 1598.
“Beat about the bush”
To “beat about the bush” means to stall a situation or to avoid a question. The origin of this idiom has quite a strange beginning – hunters during Medieval times would often hire someone to poke around bushes with sticks in order to drive out the game.
This would often prove to be a dangerous task, as there was no telling what was lying in wait in the leaves, so they would poke about the bush with sticks in order to avoid hitting anything directly.
“Between a rock and a hard place”
When facing a dilemma, we often describe it as feeling as though we are “between a rock and a hard place.” This bizarre-sounding metaphor is a somewhat inaccurate reference to Homer’s Odyssey. The hero, Odysseus, finds himself stuck between Charybdis, a menacing whirlpool, and Scylla, a carnivorous man-eating monster who dwelled in the cliffs.
From then on, the metaphor of a rock, as reference to the cliff, and a hard place, i.e. the whirlpool, has been used to describe being challenged by a double-pronged situation.
“Bite the bullet”
To “bite the bullet” means to face or endure a difficult or uncomfortable situation with resilience. The origin of this phrase is interestingly found in quite a literal context. Before the invention of anesthesia, soldiers would bite on a bullet to endure the pain of surgical procedures.
There is evidence to suggest, however, that the idiom actually originates from the expression “refusing to bite the cartridge,” used during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 by the British to refer to the Native Indian soldiers, who had mutinied.
“It’s all Greek to me”
“It’s all Greek to me” can be traced as far back to a Latin idiom “Graecum est; non legitur” (“it is Greek, it cannot be read”) and is used in reference to something that is perplexing. Yet, William Shakespeare made this Latin phrase quite popular, through bringing this ancient saying into our modern day English with his 1599 tragedy about Julius Caesar.
Shakespeare, however, wasn’t the only author to use this phrase; Thomas Dekker used the phrase in his play ‘Patient Grissel’ in 1603.
“My ears are burning”
“My ears are burning” is a reference to the Roman belief that one’s ears burning meant that they were being spoken about behind their back. If you had a tingling in your left ear, they believed you were being criticised or were spoken about with bad intentions.
A tingling in the right meant you were in store for some good luck or were being praised. Generally, people flush when they hear they are being spoken about, which is perhaps the origin for this myth.
“Pull out all the stops”
Pulling out all the stops is no easy feat. It means to go above and beyond in order to accomplish the maximum. The origin of this ambitious saying is quite random. The ‘stops’ is a reference to the knobs on an organ console.
If the organist would pull out all the stops, they were creating the maximum potential volume the instrument is capable of. This expression was first coined by author Matthew Arnold in Essays in Criticism in 1865, and has been used figuratively since.
“Up to scratch”
It is not uncommon to comment that a satisfactory outcome that meets your standards is up to scratch, but the origin of this expression is fairly bizarre. During the days of bare-knuckle fighting, the matches took place within a large circle drawn on the ground.
The games began with the competitors facing off while standing on opposite sides of a line scratched into the dirt in the center of the ring. A contestant who was ready to fight, physically and mentally, stood by the line – hence, was up to scratch.
“Wild goose chase”
To metaphorically go on a wild goose chase is to pursue something that is difficult to obtain or trivial. The idiom is believed to have originated from a kind of horse racing from the 16th century, in which the lead rider was chased by the other riders, not so different from the way geese fly in formation.
The exact rules and details of this race are vague, but the phrase was first used allegorically by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet in 1595.
“Steal one’s thunder”
Although “stealing someone’s thunder” is used idiomatically to describe when someone uses your ideas to their advantage, the origin of this phrase is surprisingly literal. The story goes that the literary critic and failure of a playwright, John Dennis, had invented a new method of producing thunder for his play Appius and Virginia in 1704.
After the play had bombed and closed, the method was repurposed for Macbeth. Dennis was furious and reportedly was quoted angrily declaring, “They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!”
“Raining cats and dogs”
Perhaps the most mysterious of phrases in its origins is the extraordinarily popular phrase “its raining cats and dogs,” used to metaphorically describe a torrential downpour. Rumor has it the expression is rooted in Norse mythology. Odin, the god of storms, was commonly depicted with dogs, representing wind, who rode brooms during storms and with black cats, representing rain.
Another theory is that it came from the Greek phrase ‘cata doxa’ (contrary to belief), i.e. it’s pretty unbelievable to rain cats and dogs. Another theory is that the phrase is a perversion of catadupe, the Old English word meaning ‘waterfall.’
“Make the grade”
Although it is quite feasible to assume that the origins of the phrase “make the grade” can be found in the context of school, as it is used to refer to meeting a required standard, it is actually a reference to grade in the context of a gradient or a slope. In 1912, railway lines were built across America to link the East and West Coasts.
The engineering behind the construction of these lines was done with careful precision so that the trains could safely handle the steep inclines planned, i.e. they had to ‘make the grade.’
“Turn a blind eye”
Legend has it that the phrase “to turn a blind eye,” used to describe ignoring reality, has its origins in quite a heroic tale. The British Naval Admiral Horatio Nelson was blind in one eye. During a battle against Denmark, British forces signalled to Nelson to stop attacking a fleet of Danish ships.
Nelson lifted the telescope to his blind eye and remarked that he didn’t see the signal and proceeded to attack, and ultimately claimed victory.
“Mad as a hatter”
We all know the Mad Hatter from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, but it is surprisingly not Caroll who coined the phrase “mad as a hatter.” In fact, the saying originated in 17th-century France, where hat makers would use mercury for the hat felt, often falling victim to the visible effects of the poison.
Mad Hatter Disease was marked by psychotic reactions, such as hallucinations, irritability, shyness, and insomnia, as well as physical effects, including tremors that start in the hands and eventually cause muscular spasms throughout the body.
“Rub the wrong way”
To “rub the wrong way,” to bother or annoy someone, has a peculiar origin. During the Colonial era, early Americans would instruct their slaves to rub the oak floorboards of their homes the right way.
The wrong way was to skip wiping them with dry fabric after using the wet fabric, which would cause streaks to form on the floorboards and ruin the wood, much to the annoyance of the homeowner. Another suggested origin is that rubbing a cat’s fur the wrong way irritates them.
“Give a cold shoulder”
To give someone a cold shoulder is to be deliberately antisocial and unwelcoming towards them, much like the bluntness of the phrase’s origin. In medieval England, welcome visitors to a home were served a warm feast.
However, those who were unwanted were presented with a cold shoulder of either mutton, pork or beef, which was known to be tougher, inferior cut of meat. The host’s message was clear – it was time for the guest to leave.
“Break the ice”
Breaking the ice is to embark on a pathway towards a friendship, and originates from when ships were the main mode of transport in the trading industry. During the winter, ships would get trapped due to ice formation.
The country importing the goods would send out smaller ships to, literally, break the ice and clear a path for other, larger ships from the exporting country. This act was a gesture of affinity and unity between the two trading countries.
“Let one’s hair down”
When told to let your hair down, you’re not being asked to physically remove your hair ties and let your hair loose. Rather, it is a metaphor for relaxing and being at ease.
The idiom is a reference to the 17th century, when there was an expectation for aristocratic women to have their hair pinned up at all times, often in complex and extravagant styles. The only time they could let their hair down was in the privacy of their own homes and could relax without scrutiny.
“Spill the beans”
Sometimes we just can’t contain ourselves and we have to spill the beans and disclose information that was told to us in confidence. This phrase actually originates from the ancient Greek voting process, in which people would cast secret votes by placing either white (positive) or black (negative) beans in a jar.
However, if someone knocked over the jar, the proportion of white to black beans would be revealed and they have spilled the beans, revealing the outcome of the vote too early.
The origins of getting caught red-handed, i.e. being discovered doing something wrong, can be traced back to Scotland in 1432. The phrase was initially used to refer to someone getting caught with literally bloody red hands in a legal context.
However, in the early 19th century, Sir Walter Scott popularized this phrase in the English vernacular in his work “Ivanhoe,” morphing it from legal terminology into the common phrase we throw around today.
“Pleased as punch”
Despite its positive, upbeat connotations, the phrase “pleased as punch,” meaning to be very happy, has a more sinister origin. Punch was a puppet who starred in Punch and Judy, a puppet show for children originating in England in the 1660s.
Punch was a maniacal puppet who rampaged through town taking lives after being put into prison for causing the demise of his wife, Judy. Punch was based on an Italian character, Polichinello, and is still regarded as popular and wholesome children’s entertainment in England.
“Cat got your tongue?”
“Cat got your tongue?” is what’s asked when someone remains unusually silent, or doesn’t answer a question. There are a few interesting speculations as to what the origins of this idiom is. The first time this phrase was used was in an American magazine in 1881, describing the saying as a child’s taunt.
There is the theory that it comes from the medieval era, where there was a fear of witches and their black cats. Alternatively, it is a reference to the cat-o’-nine-tails – a vicious whip used for flogging sailors in the English navy.
“Show your true colors”
To reveal one’s true colors is to reveal one’s true character after putting up a fraudulent front. This phrase originated from a pirates’ trick – it was a common deception of pirates to fly a friendly flag on their ship to deceive potential victims and get in closer range to passing ships without raising suspicion.
Only once the pirates came into close quarters with their victims would they unfurl their signature pirate flags and reveal their true colors. By then, of course, it would be far too late for the merchant ships to do anything about it.
“All roads lead to Rome”
Although these days the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” is used to refer to multiple methods leading to the same conclusion, this was taken quite literally in the ancient world. The Romans constructed more than 50,000 miles of roads, spanning from Britain, crossing over through Spain and Northern Africa and extending eastward to the Danube River in Europe and the Tigris-Euphrates river in the Middle East.
The Appian way, meanwhile, was the first ancient highway, built in 312 BCE. Emperor Caesar Augustus then erected the Milliarium Aureum in Rome’s central forum, from which point all 50,000 miles were measured.
“Bury the hatchet”
Burying the hatchet is an act of peace – an agreement to forget past conflict and a promise to create a friendship. This strange phrase originates from a Native American ceremony, when rival tribes would declare peace.
As a gesture of goodwill and symbol of their alliance, each tribe’s chief would bury a war hatchet into the ground. The earliest recording of Europeans becoming aware of this tradition was in 1644, and from then the phrase evolved into mainstream vernacular.
“Waking up on the wrong side of the bed”
Although it sounds quite metaphorical, waking up on the wrong side of the bed actually originates from quite a literal fear maintained by the ancient Romans of waking up on the left side.
According to Roman superstition, the left side was associated with the devil, who they believed liked to attack from the left side, i.e. the more sinister side. Waking up on the left side meant you were in for a horrible day. Later, this phrase evolved into a more figurative idiom.
The idiomatic expression “going haywire” commonly refers to chaotic disarray and general mishaps. The origin of this phrase can be traced back to roughly 1905, when the wire used for balling hay was often repurposed for makeshift, sloppy repairs.
The flimsy patch-ups created using haywire and its tendency to become messily entangled around the repairs made it the perfect adjective to describe any disordered mess, or specifically to refer to an explicitly obvious sticky situation.
“Sleep tight” is an expression we often use to refer to having a well-rested sleep. But what does sleeping tight actually mean? During the Shakespearean era, beds were constructed from wooden frames, with a grid pattern of latticed ropes strung to bolster up the mattress.
Over time, the ropes would begin to loosen and stretch, making the mattress cave in. The solution to this was to tighten the ropes, thus holding up the mattress securely once again. So, sleeping tight meant making sure your ropes were secure enough to ensure a comfortable sleep.
“Butter someone up”
It’s pretty obvious that buttering someone up does not involve spreading butter over them. The commonly used idiom refers to excessive flattery, generally with the ulterior motive of getting something in return.
This strange expression has quite a cool origin: the phrase is allegedly rooted in ancient India, when people would toss little balls of butter at their statues of gods when asking for favors. In Tibet, there is the ancient tradition of creating sculptures from butter during the new year, symbolizing good fortune in the upcoming year.
“Saved by the bell”
Being saved by the bell generally refers to being saved by an interference in the nick of time. The origins of this expression are surprisingly pretty literal. There is the belief that the source of the phrase comes from the ancient fear of being buried alive.
If someone was erroneously pronounced to have passed on and was buried, they supposedly had a bell attached to the coffin which they could ring if they came to… and thus be saved by the bell.
“No spring chicken”
The expression “no spring chicken” is often used to derogatively refer to someone who is past their prime and attempts to behave younger than they are. The allegorical phrase actually stems from a literal context.
In the early 1700s, it was known among farmers that spring-born chickens had greater value than the older ones that had endured winter. When the farmers would attempt to sell off the winter birds as spring-born, they were met with the complaint that they were no spring chickens.
Running amok is commonly associated with going wild, but the origins of this expression are found in quite an obscure place: Southeast Asia. ‘Amok’ means to be in a dangerous craze, and was derived from the mindset of the Amuco, mercenaries employed to take part in local conflicts in Java and Malaysia.
The Amuco believed that the gods favored those who fell in battle, while those who failed in their missions were subject to dishonor, thus giving them little reason to be anything but manic in their attacks.
“Go cold turkey”
There are a number of possibilities as to why we refer to abruptly quitting a habit as going cold turkey. One suggestion as to the expression’s origin is that it emerged from the older phrase dating from the early 1800s “talking turkey,” which refers to speaking curtly.
Perhaps the association of bluntness with turkey evolved into a phrase associated with directness. Another possible meaning is that cold turkey requires minimal preparation, as does quitting something abruptly.
“Eat humble pie”
To eat humble pie is to face humiliation and own up to your mistakes, leading to the wrongful assumption that the origin of this phrase is merely an expression associated with the word “humble.”
However, the source of this phrase is actually derived from ‘umble pie,’ a word whose origins are completely unrelated to ‘humble’ that’s actually from the French word ‘nomble,’ which translates to ‘deer’s innards.’ Umble pie, traditionally, was a pie filled with meat scraps, served to peasants during medieval times.
“The walls have ears”
The cautionary idiom “the walls have ears” warns against potential eavesdroppers. The phrase allegedly comes from a story about the Greek tyrant Dionysius (430- 367 BCE), who had a cave sculpted to represent an ear, carved into a rock between palace rooms so he could eavesdrop on his prisoners.
Throughout history, there have been legends of similar listening networks throughout palaces. Catherine de Medici, for example, was said to have built an intricate eavesdropping system throughout the Louvre, as well as there being a similar listening post in Hastings Castle in England.
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