Where do the common phrases we use today come from? Have you ever wondered? Often the common phrases we say actually have bizarre origins we never even think about. Some go way back, while some may surprise you with their bizarre origin stories. Have a look and see if you ever guessed the origins of these phrases.
1. Close, but no cigar: During the carnivals in the 1800s, cigars were rewarded as prizes for winning carnival games.
2. Carbon copy: Our generation knows about the carbon paper and how it was once used for making duplicate copies of written and typed documents by slipping it between the original document to be typed / written and a blank paper. This was before photocopiers came into the market. This is what ‘Cc’ means in your Email
3. Blackballed: In the 18th century in the social clubs membership of a new aspirant was agreed upon by a vote. Typically an anonymous vote was cast using different coloured balls – a red ball was a positive vote and a black ball was a negative one and some clubs required only one black ball to reject an applicant’s membership.
4. At the drop of a hat: Instead of a gunshot to indicate the start of a race in 1800s it was customary to drop a hat to signal the start.
5. Pull out all stops: An organ is a musical instrument which has stops on every pipe. An organist would pull the stops from every pipe in order to play at maximum volume.
6. Best foot forward: When bowing to nobility a gentleman would literally put his best foot forward, extending his legs to take a bow.
7. In the nick of time: Through the 18th century businessmen often kept track of their debts owed and interest incurred on such loans by carving nicks on a “tally stick”. When someone arrived to pay off their debt just before the next nick was carved, they would save that day’s interest – hence ‘the nick of time’!
8. Burning the midnight oil: Before electricity was invented candlelight or lamp light was used for illumination. When one stayed up late at night to work, one would literally burn the lamp oil at midnight.
9. Jumping on the bandwagon: In the mid 1800s circuses would parade around the town before setting up tents, with bandwagons leading the parade. They drew large crowds and politicians started renting space on the bandwagons to get face time with the audience!
10. Roll up the window: Again people of my generation who have driven cars before they had power windows know how we had to rotate a handle to roll up and roll down the window.
11. Get off your high horse: Before cars were invented owning a horse was a sign of aristocracy. Only nobility and high ranking military officials owned horses. Getting off the horse thus means to humble oneself.
12. Mad as a hatter: In the 17th and 18th century hat makers (hatters) often went insane as a result of mercury poisoning, a side effect of manufacturing felt hats.
13. Take with a grain of salt: Dating back to 77 AD, a grain of salt was thought to help digestion and be an antidote for poison too, by its property to promote vomiting perhaps.
14. Dressed to the nines: So rich that the person could purchase the entire nine yards it took to make a tailor fit outfit including the pants, vest and jacket.
15. Time to face the music: In Great Britain and in early American colonial era, disgraced military officers were drummed out of their regiment when discharged.
16. Above board: Cardsharps place their hands under the ‘board’ or table to stack the deck. If they keep their hands above the board, they can be presumed to be performing without trickery.
17. Armed to the teeth: Medieval warriors were often so laden with weapons that sometimes they would have to carry one in their teeth.
18. Balls to the wall: It derives from aviation. The ‘balls’ sat on top of the levers controlling the throttle and fuel mixtures. Pushing them forward toward the front wall of the cockpit made the plane go faster.
19. Beat about the bush: In hunting it’s often necessary to beat the underbrush noisily in order to flush animals out into the open. A timid and unwilling hunter will ‘beat about the bush’, making a show of finding and killing the beast, but not actually doing so.
20. Between rock and a hard place: Out of option. It’s a somewhat inaccurate reference to the Greek epic poem The Odyssey. There’s a passage where the hero has to choose whether to sail close to the monster Scylla or the whirlpool Charybdis.
21. Bite the bullet: Face up to unpleasant reality. Before anaesthetics were invented, injured soldiers would bite on a bullet to help them endure the pain of an operation/amputation.
22. Chance your arm: Take a risk. The arm in question refers to a stripe of military rank worn on the upper sleeve. Take a risk and you might be demoted, thereby losing a stripe.
23. Cold feet: To show reluctance. It’s a military term. A man who has cold or frozen feet — a common affliction until the late 19th century — can’t rush into battle and so proceeds slowly.
24. Cold shoulder: Made to feel unwelcomed. In times gone by, an unwelcome visitor would have been given the cheapest and most common type of food: cold shoulder of mutton.
25. Fag end: Nothing to with smoking. In the textiles trade, the last part of the piece of cloth was made of coarser material than the rest and left hanging loose. It came to be known as the fag end, possibly as a corruption of ‘flag’, meaning ‘hang down’.
26. Flash in the pan: Disappointingly short lived. There was an old type of gun that had a ‘pan’ on which a trail of powder led from the charge to the flint. Sometimes the powder ignited, but the gun didn’t go off. Hence it was merely a flash in the pan.
27. Get one’s goat: It’s a horse racing term. Nervous horses could be calmed down by placing a goat in the stall with them. Dastardly rival horse owners would sometimes steal, or ‘get’, these goats, thereby upsetting the horse and making it likely to lose the race.
28. Hell for leather: At top speed. A horse that had been ridden fast used to be called ‘all of a lather’. Over time this got intensified to the more potent-sounding ‘hell for leather’.
29. Keep mum: Nothing to do with mothers. It’s derived from the German word for mumble, mummeln. Hundreds of years ago people played a dice game called mumchance, which was played in complete silence.
30. Let the cat out of the bag: Divulge a secret. In times gone by, farmers would bring suckling pigs to market wrapped up in a bag. Unscrupulous ones would substitute a cat for the pig. If someone let the cat out of the bag, the deceit was uncovered.
31. Make the grade: Reach the required standard. Nothing to do with sitting exams. ‘Grade’ is short for ‘gradient’. The expression derives from railroad construction in 19th century America. Careful calculations had to be made to ensure engines didn’t encounter sudden steep gradients.
32. Over a barrel: To be under someone’s control. This dates back to the Spanish inquisition. A form of torture was to suspend someone over a barrel of boiling oil. If you didn’t agree to the demands, you’d be dropped in.
33. Pass the buck: Pass the responsibility. In an old English card game, a jack, or ‘buck’, was passed from player to player to indicate whose turn it was to play.
34. Raining cats and dogs: In Norse mythology, cats symbolized heavy rain, while dogs were associated with Odin the storm god, and therefore represented howling wind.
35. Red Herring: A distraction from the main issue. It comes from fox hunting. A red herring has a strong odour. Hounds chasing a fox could be distracted by the smell of the herring and start following that instead.
36. Round robin: A document signed by multiple parties. ‘Robin’ is a corruption of the French ruban, meaning ribbon. These petitions were originally signed in a circle so that no single person’s name appeared at the top. The shape of the signatures resembled a circular ribbon.
37. Steal one’s thunder: To do something that takes attention away from what someone else has done. The 18th century playwright John Dennis claimed to have invented a machine that could mimic the sound of thunder in the theatre. When rivals used the same trick, he complained they’d 'stolen his thunder'.
38. Wild goose chase: A pointless search. This was once a sort of horse race, so named because the positions of the horses resembled geese in flight — except it wasn’t much of a race, because no one could win.
39. It takes two to tango: Everyone knows that two people are needed to dance the tango, so this expression means that if there has been some kind of unpleasant situation in which two people were involved, they are both to blame.