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What distinguishes idioms from other common phrases and old-time sayings is that their meanings typically can't be understood through literal interpretation. For example, imagine you’re learning a new language and hear someone saying, “It’s raining cats or dogs,” or telling you to “break a leg,” this would be very confusing! And on top of it all, even if you ask a native speaker what that phrase means, they might not be able to explain it to you. That’s because rarely does somebody know the origin story of a popular saying.

Here at Bored Panda, we went the extra mile to find out the origins of the most popular idioms. From the most common idiom examples, such as “kick the bucket” and “bite the bullet,” to more obscure ones, we’ve gathered the English expressions with known roots, though sometimes the origin story comes from different sources, thus making it harder to determine which one’s the right one. Nevertheless, the stories behind these funny idioms are highly entertaining.

Didn’t think learning a new language could be fun? Buckle up because we’re about to dive deep into the history of languages to find out the incredible origins of commonly used phrases all around the world!

Top Old Sayings and Their Meanings

Some old sayings and their meanings got more attention than others. Below, users voted and selected the top 10 sayings they liked the most. Disagree with the placement? Cast your vote for the old, often weird sayings that you want to appear in a higher position.

#1

Cat Got Your Tongue

Cat sitting on sofa

Meaning: Said to someone who remains silent when they are expected to speak.

Origin: There are two stories on how this saying came into being. The first one says that it could have come from a whip called “Cat-o’-nine-tails” that was used by the English Navy for flogging and often left the victims speechless. The second one may be from ancient Egypt, where liars’ tongues were cut out as punishment and fed to the cats.

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#2

The Walls Have Ears

Statue imitating listen to wall

Meaning: Be careful what you say as people may be eavesdropping.

Origin: The face Louvre Palace in France was believed to have a network of listening tubes so that it would be possible to hear everything that was said in different rooms. People say that this is how the Queen Catherine de’Medici discovered political secrets and plots.

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#3

Bury The Hatchet

Image of axe stucked in firewood

Meaning: End a quarrel or conflict and become friendly.

Origin: During negotiations between Puritans and Native Americans men would bury all of their weapons, making them inaccessible.

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Anne Reid
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

This phrase predates the Puritans. Several Native American tribes joined together as one nation so they could better defend themselves against a warrior tribe. They symbolically buried a stone hatchet under a cypress tree. No group would bury all of their weapons, because there are always other threats, the need to hunt, and the possibility of one side not holding up their end.

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#4

Cold Feet

Bare feet on snow

Meaning: Loss of nerve or confidence.

Origin: This idiom originates from a military term, warriors who had frozen feet were not able to rush into battle.

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#5

Big Wig

Portrait of a Gentleman

Meaning: An important person, especially in a particular sphere

Origin: Back in the 18th century, the most important political figures would wear the biggest wigs, hence today influential people are called big wigs.

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Laugh Fan
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

In the UK we still use the phrase bigwigs though fortunately don't tend to wear them. Not that type anyway!!

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#6

Caught Red-Handed

Scanned hand

Meaning: Used to indicate that a person has been discovered in or just after the act of doing something wrong or illegal.

Origin: There was an old law stating that if someone butchered an animal that didn’t belong to him, he would only be punished if he was caught with blood on his hands. If one was caught with the meat but his hands were clean, he would not be punished.

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#7

Raining Cats And Dogs

Painting of raining cats and dogs

Meaning: Rain very hard.

Origin: This idiom has two stories that try to explain its origin. The first explanation says that the origin of this phrase comes from Norse mythology, where cats would symbolise heavy rains and dogs were associated with the God of storms, Odin. The second version says that in 16th century England, houses had thatched roofs which were one of the few places where animals were able to get warm. Sometimes, when it would start to rain heavily, roofs would get slippery and cats and dogs would fall off, making it look like it’s raining cats and dogs!

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Nadja Aagaard Dueholm
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Not entirely true Mathias. Freja, godess of love, heartache and birth, had cats. But none of them ever rained down from heaven!

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#8

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

Hands of adult and child

Meaning: Family relationships and loyalties are the strongest and most important ones.

Origin: Even though many might think this saying means that we should put family ahead of friends, it actually meant the complete opposite. The full phrase actually was “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” and it referred to warriors who shared the blood they shed in battles together. These ‘blood brothers’ were said to have stronger bonds than biological brothers.

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Jessica Nichole
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

This is actually referring to how old covenants or contracts were made. An animal was cut in half and the two halves were laid on the ground a few feet apart from each other forming a path. The two making the covenant would walk down the path saying "may this be done to me should I break my oath"

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#9

Don't Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth

Image of horse with mouth opened

Meaning: Find fault with something that has been received as a gift or favor.

Origin: While buying a horse, people would determine the horse’s age and condition based on its teeth, and then decide whether they want to buy it or not. This is the reason why people use this idiom to say it is rude to look for flaws in a thing that was given to you as a gift.

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Master Markus
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Well this is the first one I've come across on this article that I can unequivocally say is true. (Not saying the others are definitely lies, but rather that they may be missing some historical context or espousing some popular, but untrue theories on the origins.)

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#10

Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Dog looking at tree

Meaning: Be pursuing a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action.

Origin: This phrase refers to hunting dogs who chase their prey up a tree. Once it climbed the tree the dogs bark at them, yet sometimes the dogs would continue barking even if the prey was no longer there.

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Is the top 10 not enough for you? Well, there are more common English sayings you can read up on. While they might not be at the top, you shouldn’t write off the rest. While they might be old and dated, the origins of common sayings are still relevant today. Let’s go ahead and explore them!

#11

Turn A Blind Eye

Man covering his left eye with a hand

Meaning: Pretend not to notice.

Origin: It is believed that this phrase originates with naval hero Horatio Nelson, who used his blind eye to look through his telescope. This way he was able to avoid signals from his superior, who wanted him to withdraw from battle. He attacked, nevertheless, and was victorious.

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#12

Bite The Bullet

Image of bullets

Meaning: Decide to do something difficult or unpleasant that one has been putting off or hesitating over.

Origin: During battles there was no time to administer anesthesias while performing surgeries. Because of that, patients were made to bite down on bullets to distract themselves from the pain.

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Miss Cris
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

I don't believe it. Bullets are hard and round, difficult to be bitten without being rocketted or swallowed and hard enough to damage teeth... How a bad idea when you can just bite a piece of clothe, for example.

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#13

One For The Road

People celebrating something and raising glasses

Meaning: A final drink before leaving a place.

Origin: During the middle ages, the condemned ones were taken through what today is known as Oxford Street to their execution. During this final trip, the cart would stop and they would be allowed to have one final drink before their death.

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Dilly Millandry
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Said mostly to be myth regarding prisoners on their way to Tyburn. However, it's origins are said to be linked to provisions for a journey. If travellers wanted to eat on their journey they had to take their food with them. Whatever provision one made for one's journey was said to be 'for the road'. It isn't about a drink being quick at all but most likely the last. Taking 'one for the road' was when people were most likely to be travelling on foot. Different from the stirrup cup which is a cup of wine or other alcoholic drink offered to a person who are on horseback and about to depart on a journey.

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#14

Honeymoon

Couple laying on the beach

Meaning: A holiday spent together by a newly married couple.

Origin: According to tradition, a newly wed couple would have to drink a beverage with honey for an entire month for fertility and good luck.

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Laugh Fan
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

The Honeymoon was the whole month after a wedding rather than any kind of a holiday - which really is not a very old tradition. It was when the bride's father would give the groom all the mead he wanted. Mead is a honey beer. It was called the Honey Month by the Babylonians but then (due to it being a lunar calendar) became honey moon.

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#15

White Elephant

White Elephant sculpture

Meaning: A possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.

Origin: White elephants were considered to be sacred creatures in Thailand, yet they were also very hard to take care of. It is believed that Siamese kinds (now Thailand) would gift white elephants as a subtle form of punishment, since taking care of this animal would drive the recipient into financial ruin.

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bill marsano
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

And because it was a highly visible gift from the king, it was impossible to get rid of.

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#16

Break A Leg

Image of La Monnaie De Munt

Meaning: Good luck!

Origin: It is believed that the phrase dates to World War I Germany and a saying used by German actors “Hals- und Beinbruch” which translates to “a broken neck and a broken leg.” Besides that, it still doesn’t make sense why would you wish someone to break a leg? Well, as it turns out, popular folklore down through the ages encouraged people to wish others bad luck since it was believed that wishing someone good luck would tempt evil spirits. So, you guessed it, people started wishing each other to break a leg in order for them not to break one!

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Matthew Deroche
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Break a leg is actually in reference to the leg line. Venues would often have more acts than stage time, and acts would only get paid if they performed. If they went up, they passed the leg line, so they got paid. Thus, break a leg, was to go get paid.

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#17

Give The Cold Shoulder

Black and white picture of mad man

Meaning: Reject or be deliberately unfriendly to.

Origin: This saying, that is currently considered to describe someone rude, was actually considered an act of politeness. During medieval times in England, after everyone was done feasting, the host would give his guests a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef or pork as a way of showing that it was time for everyone to leave.

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Robert HOWELL
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

I also read that when a not so desirable person arrived at the hosts "castle", to show the visitor was not over welcome the host would not hold through the trouble of preparing a hot meal and five the left overs, a cold shoulder

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#18

Riding Shotgun

Women doing selfie on the front mirror of the car

Meaning: Used to claim the right to sit in the front passenger seat of a vehicle on a particular journey.

Origin:
This expression refers to the passenger of an old fashioned stagecoach, who sat next to the driver with a shotgun to protect from attackers and robbers along the way. There is no evidence to suggest the expression was actually used in times of the ‘Wild West,’ but most likely came about much later on, when media and films began to romanticize the period.

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Dilly Millandry
Community Member
5 years ago (edited) DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Surely the person was unlikely to have been some random passenger? Who'd actually WANT to volunteer for that seat anyway? Make more sense in those days to call 'you've got shotgun' and dive inside the coach for safety!! I've also read that the person riding shotgun was a guard of some kind.

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#19

Crocodile Tears

Eye of crocodile

Meaning: Tears or expressions of sorrow that are insincere.

Origin: Written in the 14th century, a book called “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville” recounts a knight’s adventures through Asia. In the book it says that crocodiles shed tears while eating a man they captured. Even though it is factually inaccurate, the phrase ‘crocodile tears’ found its way into Shakespeare’s work and became an idiom in the 16th century, symbolizing insincere grief.

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Miss Cris
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Great Shakespeare! He has introduced a lot of expressions... not only in English! Wow!!!

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#20

Kick The Bucket

Green bucket for milk

Meaning: To die.

Origin: When killing a cow at slaughterhouses, people would place a bucket under the animal while it was positioned on a pulley. While trying to adjust the animal, the cow would kick out its legs and therefore kick the bucket before being killed.

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Dilly Millandry
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Eh? Don't understand how that works. I also thought it was from where the person with their head in a slip noose would kick the bucket so as to commit suicide.

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#21

Show Your True Colors

Image of ship sail

Meaning: Reveal one's real character or intentions, especially when these are disreputable or dishonorable.

Origin: To confuse their enemies, warships would use multiple flags. However warfare rules dictated that the ships must show its actual flag before firing and hence, the ships would then display its true colors.

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#22

Close But No Cigar

Man smoking cigar

Meaning: Almost but not quite successful.

Origin: In the late 19th century carnival games were targeted to adults and not children, so the winners would get a cigar as a prize instead of stuffed animals. If the person was close to winning but did not succeed they’d say it was ‘close but no cigar’.

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#23

Waking Up On The Wrong Side Of The Bed

Black and white image of sleeping woman

Meaning: Start the day in a bad temper.

Origin: Throughout history the left side of basically anything was considered to be ‘the evil side,’ so waking up on the left side was also considered a sign of bad luck. To ward off evil, house owners would push the left sides of the beds to the corner, so their guests would have no other option than to get up on the right side.

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Miss Cris
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

In catalan we say the same but it depens on the first foot that touches the floor, if you wake up "with your left foot" you'll have bad temper (or sometimes bad luck) for at least all the morning!

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#24

Butter Someone Up

Image of butter on table

Meaning: Flatter or otherwise ingratiate oneself with someone.

Origin: The people ancient India used to throw balls of clarified butter at the statues of gods in order to seek a favor.

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Rebekah
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

"... throw balls of clarified butter at the statues of gods..." am I alone in thinking this sounds like a hellva fun time?

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#25

Put A Sock In It

Vintage style card

Meaning: Stop talking.

Origin: In the late 19th century people would use woollen socks to stuff the horns of their gramophones or record players to lower the sound, since these machines had no volume controllers.

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#26

Sun Of A Gun

Child playing with toy gun

Meaning: A jocular or affectionate way of addressing or referring to someone.

Origin: Back in the day, sailors would sometimes take their wives on long ocean voyages. It is believed that if the woman gave birth on a ship, it should take place between the cannons on the ship’s gun deck, since it was the most secluded place. Because of this reason, a child that was born on a ship would be called ‘a son of a gun’.

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#27

Best Man

Photography from wedding of two man in same colors suits

Meaning: A male friend or relative chosen by a bridegroom to assist him at his wedding.

Origin: It is said that during feudal days it was possible that a rival Lord would try to break up a wedding ceremony and steal the bride for political reasons. To avoid any trouble, grooms would ask their best friends to stand next to them during the ceremony so they would help during the possible battle. The man, standing next to the groom was named ‘Best Man’.

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Thomas Dahlmann
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

also in old days if the bridegroom did a runner the bride had to marry or it would be bad luck so she married the next best man

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#28

Born With A Silver Spoon In Your Mouth

Kid eating with a spoon

Meaning: Be born into a wealthy family of high social standing.

Origin: It is an old tradition for godparents to gift a silver spoon to a christened child. However, not everyone was able to afford this type of luxury gift so those who did receive the spoon as a gift were considered to be wealthy, sometimes even spoiled.

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#29

Steal One's Thunder

Image of thunder with lights

Meaning: Win praise for oneself by pre-empting someone else's attempt to impress.

Origin: You think that you’ve done something awesome and unique, but someone got in there first and took your credit! Spare a thought for playwright John Dennis who, back in the 18th Century, made a machine that could nicely mimic the sound of thunder for his play. Sadly, his play wasn’t a success, but somebody had taken note of his clever invention. When, later on in another theatre, Dennis found somebody had copied his thunder machine and was using it without credit, he got mad. Really mad. Somebody had stolen his thunder!

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BusLady
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

That's how I feel on BP (dammit, I wanted to say that!) Lol

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#30

Get One's Goat

Goat eating grass

Meaning: Irritate someone.

Origin: During horse racing some horses would get anxious, so owners would places goats in the stalls with them to calm them down. Rival horse owners would sometimes steal these goats therefore upsetting the horse and making it more likely to lose.

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What Are Old People’s Sayings?

Funny or not, old sayings and their meanings can feel slightly dated. However, they were once fashionable and trendy, just like slang from the 20th century. Hip then, today, it’s nothing more than hits of nostalgia. So, don't get too angry the next time your parents or grandparents spew some old sayings about life. They are just trying to enjoy the good old days.

#31

Achilles Heel

Image of Achilles Heel

Meaning: A weakness or vulnerable point.

Origin: This phrase comes from Greek mythology, where Thetis dipped her son Achilles in the Styx, a river that was believed to be a source of incredible power and invulnerability. However, this was holding her son by his heel, meaning it was the only part of his body that was not touched by water, making his heel vulnerable. Eventually, Achilles was killed by the shot of an arrow in his heel.

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#32

My Ears Are Burning

Close up image of ear

Meaning: One is subconsciously aware of being talked about or criticized.

Origin: The idiom dates back to ancient Romans who believed that burning sensations in various organs had different meanings. In fact, it was believed that if your left ear is burning it signaled an evil intent, and if your right ear was burning you were actually being praised.

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Miss Cris
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

In Catalan ears are whistling, not burning. We use this expression a lot 8O

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#33

Let The Cat Out Of The Bag

Cat sitting in a bag

Meaning: Reveal a secret carelessly or by mistake.

Origin: Some time ago farmers who sold pigs would bring them to the market wrapped up in a bag. Unscrupulous ones would replace the pig with a cat and if someone would accidentally let the cat out, their fraud would be uncovered.

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Christine Blackburne-Kowal
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Unlikely: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/let-the-cat-out-of-the-bag/ More likely, it has more to do with the fact that once a cat has gotten out of a bag, there is no putting it back in.

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#34

Blue Blood

Image of Louis painting

Meaning: Noble birth.

Origin: Saying that some has blue blood comes from the Middle Ages, where it was believed that those who had pale skin (meaning their ancestor have not inter-married with darker skin partners) were noble or aristocrat. The main reasoning behind it is that when your skin is really pale, the veins are more visible and they usually look quite blue.

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FloC
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Rather that not having inter-married with darker skin partners, it meant that these people did not have to work outside (like the farmers) and thus would not get their skin tanned by the sun.

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#35

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

Image of clouds

Meaning: Negative occurrence may have a positive aspect to it.

Origin: This expression can be traced directly from a piece written in 1634 by English poet John Milton called Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle. He spoke of a silver lining of brightness behind a gloomy cloud, and soon afterward ‘Milton’s clouds’ became a staple of English Literature. The proverb ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ eventually came into being in the 1800’s, a time of optimism and positivity in the upper-classes of Victorian England.

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#36

The Whole 9 Yards

Image of soldiers with bullets

Meaning: To do everything that is possible or available.

Origin: During World War II, pilots would have a 9-yard chain of ammunition. When a fighter pilot used all of their ammunition on one target, they would give ‘The whole 9 yards.”

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Dilly Millandry
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

There is no consensus on the origin. Bridal veils, saris, burial shrouds, ships sails, kilts - all are offered as explanation older than the american ammunition theory.

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#37

Sleep Tight

Image of woman sleeping in white linen

Meaning: Sleep well (said to someone when parting from them at night).

Origin: It is believed that the saying comes from Shakespeare's time when mattresses were secured by ropes. During that time, sleeping tight meant sleeping with the ropes pulled tight, making a well-sprung bed.

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Night Owl
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Looks like many of the phrases come from Shakespeare's time

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#38

Piece Of Cake

Image of piece of cake

Meaning: Something easily achieved.

Origin: The saying ‘Piece of Cake’ comes from American poet Ogden Nash who, in 1930, was quoted saying ‘Life’s a piece of cake’.

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#39

Spill The Beans

Image of beans in human hands

Meaning: Reveal secret information unintentionally or indiscreetly.

Origin: This saying comes from Ancient Greece, where voting was done using beans. Citizens would put a white bean into the jar of a candidate they support, and a black one for a candidate that they do not approve of. However, on a few occasions clumsy people would spill the jars, revealing classified information.

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#40

Pull Out All The Stops

Stop sign on the road

Meaning: Make a very great effort to achieve something.

Origin: Organ consoles have knobs that are called ‘stops’. Without them the organist can play at a much higher volume, so ‘pulling out all the stops’ would let the organist squeeze the maximum volume out of the instrument.

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Nathan Girard
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

This isn't quite a complete explanation. Classic pipe organs have many sets of pipes, with the stops controlling airflow to each set. With all of the stops pushed in, there is no air movement at all, so there's no sound. Strategically pulling out stops allows the organist to greatly influence the quality of the sound. Pulling out all of the stops activates all of the pipe sets, so it results in a very full sound, and yes, maximum volume.

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#41

Run Amok

Image of face impression

Meaning: Behave uncontrollably and disruptively.

Origin: The saying comes from the Malaysian word amoq, which describes the bizarre behaviour of tribesmen who, under the influence of opium, would become wild and attack people.

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João Ferreira
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

I can't really conceive the idea of someone becoming violent due to opium consumption, but ok.

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#42

Resting On Laurels

Image of Laurel wreath

Meaning: Be so satisfied with what one has already achieved that one makes no further effort.

Origin: Since ancient Greece laurel branches symbolized victory and success. This plan was closely tied to Apollo, the god of music, prophecy and poetry. Laurel branches were given to victorious athletes in ancient Greece and later to generals who won important battles, thus the term ‘laureates’ and the phrase ‘resting on laurels’. In the 19th century, the term received a negative connotation to describe those who are overly satisfied with their achievements.

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Robert Thornburrow
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Is it not "resting on ones laurels"? As in the things YOU have achieved, rather than someone else?

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#43

Eat Humble Pie

Photo of a pie

Meaning: Make a humble apology and accept humiliation.

Origin: In the Middle Ages there would be a huge feast after a hunt. The lord of the manor would receive the finest piece of meat, and the ones with a lower status would eat a pie filled with entrails and innards, which were also known as “umbles”. Those who would eat the “umble pie” were considered to be humiliated, since it symbolized their lower status.

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#44

Hands Down

Image of man hands on table

Meaning: Easily and decisively; without question.

Origin: Hands down is an idiom born from the world of horse racing. Think about it. You are so far ahead of the chasing pack that you, as the jockey, can sit back, relax, and still win the race even without your hands on the reins. Winning ‘at a canter’ is a similar expression also from the track, but this one is better, hands down.

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Alhareth Almulhim
Community Member
3 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

I remember when Jim Halpert was asked, in the Office Series, who would you do? He answered: Keven, hands down!—avoiding saying: Pam. I love this show.

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#45

Take The Piss

Image of Manneken Pis sculpture

Meaning: Mock someone or something.

Origin: Back in the day, when clothes were dyed with natural dye, stale urine was used as a mordant, which stops the natural dye from leaching out of the cloth. The textile industry needed all the urine it could get, so workers would go around and collect specially designated chamber pots full of urine from people’s houses. It was probably the least desirable job at the time, so people who did it would often lie about their profession. And so the question was born from those in doubt: “Really? Are taking the piss?

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Dilly Millandry
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5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Sorry, it is true. Taking the mickey or mick also came from micturation which is another word for urination or taking a p**s.

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#46

Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

Image of Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

Meaning: A person or thing that appears friendly or harmless but is really hostile.

Origin: The warning that you can’t necessarily trust someone who appears kind and friendly on the outside is centuries old, dating back to the bible. In the English language, The King James Version of the Bible, from 1611, has this passage in Matthew 7:15: Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

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Mimis Nachbarin
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

That is in all languages from the Bible, Gospel of Matthew (Matthaeus/Ματθαῖος/Matthieu/Matthäus/Matteo/Mateo etc...) 7:15. That means it goes back at least to the second century.

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#47

Pulling Someone’s Leg

Man taking care of athlete

Meaning: Deceive someone playfully; tease someone.

Origin:
While there is no evidence to back up these claims, there are two popular theories for the origins of this playful expression, neither of them particularly playful. The first relates to thieves in medieval times, who apparently pulled on the legs of their victims to trip them, and swiftly make off with their booty. The second theory comes from the Tyburn, the principal place of execution in Ye Olde England. It referred to the so-called ‘hangers-on’ who tugged at the legs of people being hanged to give them a mercifully swift death. Neither of these theories are really plausible however, so the search for the true origin continues.

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Thomas O'Keefe
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Truth is, having your leg pulled relates to the days of swashbucklers. A young sailor on watch had to go down below and quietly wake the other sailors whose turn it was to take the next watch. They would do this by pulling their leg. As part of their initiation, new, young sailors would sometimes get their leg pulled, even though it was not their turn on watch. Once topside, the boy would show up ready for a watch he did not have. "But someone pulled my leg", he would complain, to the joy of the others on watch. The officer of the watch would often join in the laughter and then chastise the boy for not having known the watch schedule the night before. Usually, he was forced to stand the watch anyway as a means of teaching him to know the duty schedule. It usually worked too.

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#48

Let Your Hair Down

Image of woman's hair

Meaning: Behave uninhibitedly.

Origin: It was an important rule between Parisian nobles to wear elaborate hairdos while in public, and some of the looks required hours of long work. Clearly, a moment of taking your hair down after a long day became associated with a relaxing ritual.

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Pepper Sergent
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

French Parisian speaking here. Never heard that saying in French. Maybe in originated in a "noble" environment but I don't think it was a French one since we don't have that saying.

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#49

To Sell Someone Down The River

Boat full of people sailing on the river

Meaning: Betray someone, especially so as to benefit oneself.

Origin: This idiom comes from 19th century, in the Southern states of America. During this period it was already illegal to import slaves, so there would be internal trades where people would ship slaves down the Mississippi river and sell them at the market. For this reason, ‘selling someone down the river’ symbolizes betraying someone and using them for your own good.

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Great Panda Mamu
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

This specifically refers to kidnapping free black people in the north and taking them down the river to sell them into slavery.

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#50

Read The Riot Act

Page from the book

Meaning: Give someone a strong warning that they must improve their behavior.

Origin: In 18th century England the Riot Act was a legal document, that was read aloud in front of a crowd bigger than 12 people that were considered a threat to the peace. A public official would read a small part of the Act and order people to leave peacefully within an hour, anyone that remained after one hour was subject to arrest or removal by force.

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Gayle Proctor
Community Member
3 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

We have all just been read the riot act again in 2020 with the Corona Virus and Isolation Orders.

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#51

Rule Of Thumb

Image of thumb

Meaning: A broadly accurate guide or principle, based on experience or practice rather than theory.

Origin: It is believed that the rule of thumb comes from 17th century England, where Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled that husbands can beat their wives with a stick if it is no wider than his thumb.

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Laugh Fan
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

This is most likely untrue. Buller was known to be notoriously harsh in his punishments but there's no evidence that he ever made the ruling that he is infamous for. Or that the Rule Of Thumb existed in English Law. Edward Foss, in his authoritative work The Judges of England, 1870, wrote that, despite a searching investigation, "no substantial evidence has been found that he ever expressed so ungallant an opinion". The origin of the phrase remains unknown. Thumbs have often been used to estimate things - the temperature of brews of beer, measurement of an inch etc.

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#52

Paint The Town Red

Image of town with red buildings

Meaning: Go out and enjoy oneself flamboyantly.

Origin: There are two versions on how this idiom came to use. First, it is believed that back in 1837 a famous mischief maker known as the ‘Marquis of Waterford’ had a wild night out with his group of friends, during which they knocked over flower pots, pulled knockers off of doors and even broke windows. One of their biggest acts of vandalism was painting the doors of several homes with red paint. The other version of the story says that the origin of this idiom might have originated from the brothels of the American West, where they referred to drunk men behaving as if the whole town was a red-light district.

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#53

Beat About The Bush

Image of bird in the tree

Meaning: Discuss a matter without coming to the point.

Origin: Beating about the bush is actually an action performed while hunting, driving birds and other animals out into the open. After this was done others would than catch the animals.

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#54

Break The Ice

Couple eating and drinking in restaurant

Meaning: Do or say something to relieve tension or get conversation going in a strained situation or when strangers meet.

Origin: In the old days, commercial ships would often get stuck in frozen rivers during winter time, so smaller ships called “icebreakers” would come to clear a path to shore by breaking the ice. In the 17th century, people began to use the phrase to mean "to reduce tension in a social situation."

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#55

More Than You Can Shake A Stick At

Kid playing with a stick

Meaning: A large amount or quantity of something.

Origin: This idiom was born when farmers, who waved sticks to herd sheep, would have more sheep than they could control.

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#56

Minding Your Ps And Qs

Image of pub interior

Meaning: Be careful to behave well and avoid giving offence.

Origin: This expression has quite a few theories as to its origin, but our favorite refers to the practice of chalking up a ‘tab’ of drinks for later payment. The P refers to pints, and the Q is quarts. You would do well to correctly tally up the right amount as not to cause offense, especially a customer with a few beers under their belt! Again, there is little to support this theory other than the correct lettering, but we like it nonetheless.

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Dilly Millandry
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Another one where no-one is exactly sure of the origin. An early rhyme by Charles Churchill, published in 1700s: “On all occasions next the chair / He stands for service of the Mayor, / And to instruct him how to use / His A’s and B’s, and P’s and Q’s. Doesn't mean that is the origin of the expression to 'mind them'. Others explain as 'Please and Thank-You' as latter sounds like ThanQ and these words are vital for manners - so mind your Ps and Qs = mind your manners.

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#57

Go Bananas

Photo of woman with black fake eyebrows and moustache

Meaning: Insane or extremely silly.

Origin: The word ‘banana’ is an inherently funny word. The expression to ‘go bananas’ has no conclusive origin, but it may be linked to ‘go ape’ which became popular in the 1950’s when monkeys were being launched on rockets and were a popular subject in films and TV. The link between monkeys, bananas and crazy behaviour may have been the catalyst for the popularization of the expression. Bananas have often been central to slapstick comedy in general, with somebody slipping on a banana peel a timeless classic. Early in the 20th century people used to say ‘that’s banana oil’ when referring to a nonsense, and the expression ‘banana republic’ was pejoratively used to refer to a chaotic, backward little country that wasn’t to be taken seriously. Bananas!

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Jeff Christensen
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Some say the original "banana republic" was Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) shortly after independence, when the President was (seriously!) Rev. Canaan Banana. A law was passed prohibiting jokes about it.

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#58

Pleased As Punch

Image of Puppet+Man

Meaning: Feeling great delight or pride.

Origin: A puppet show in the 17th century called ‘Punch and Judy’ featured a puppet named Punch, who killed people and took great joy in doing so. He would feel pleased with himself afterwards, from which the saying ‘pleased as Punch’ was born.

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#59

Called On The Carpet

Woman's legs in red heels

Meaning: Being severely reprimanded by someone in authority.

Origin: Like many idioms, the precise origin of this one is not entirely certain. While nowadays the expression is used to refer to a reprimand, originating from the days when a servant was called from their bare-floored quarters to get an ear-bashing from the boss in carpeted opulence, there is an alternative theory to its true origins. The word ‘carpet’ used to refer to a thick cloth that could be placed anywhere, often on a table. Therefore ‘on the carpet’ used to mean that an issue was on the table, or up for discussion.

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#60

Show A Leg

Woman;s leg in heels

Meaning: Get out of bed; get up.

Origin: Just before the ships were about to leave port, sailors would try to sneak in a lady and hide them in their hammock. Before leaving, officers would ask anyone in a hammock to ‘show a leg.’ If a hairless leg appeared, the woman was asked to leave the ship quickly.

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Maia Haraldsen
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

This is b******t. Women didn’t shave their legs until the mid 20th century.

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#61

Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

Baby sitting in bath

Meaning: Discard something valuable along with other things that are undesirable.

Origin: In the 16th century most people would bathe only once a year. And even when they did that, the entire family would bathe in the same water. Usually, it was men of the house that bathed first, followed by other males, females and finally babies. At the end of this yearly routine the water would be so dirty and cloudy that mothers would have to be careful not to throw their infants out with the water.

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Maia Haraldsen
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

No wonder infant mortality was so high, if they bathed babies in the filth from their entire families...

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#62

No Spring Chicken

Image of chicken

Meaning: Someone who is no longer young, past his prime.

Origin: In New England farmers would sell their chickens in the spring, and so the young chickens that were born in springtime would sell better than those who survived during the winter. Some farmers would try to sell their older chickens for the same price as spring chickens, which is why the saying ‘no spring chicken’ came into use to describe someone past their prime.

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#63

By And Large

Image of An American clipper ship

Meaning: On the whole; everything considered.

Origin: A phrase that is usually used as a synonym for ‘all things considered’ originates from the 16th century, where the word ‘large’ meant that a ship was sailing with the wind at its back. Meanwhile the word ‘by’ meant the opposite, that the ship was sailing into the wind. The mariners used the phrase ‘by and large’ to refer to sailing in any and all directions, relative to the wind.

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#64

Go Cold Turkey

Image of turkey

Meaning: To quit something abruptly.

Origin: It is believed that during drug withdrawal the skin of addicts turns hard to the touch, covered with goosebumps and even translucent, similar to the skin of a plucked turkey.

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Fred Burrows
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

They get goosebumps from fever and chills as they shiver while sweating profusely and projectile barfing . Their muscles cramp up and they scream like someone possessed . Then they have some breakfast and go looking to score some more drugs .

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#65

Once In A Blue Moon

Image of blue moon

Meaning: Very rarely.

Origin: This one is rather obvious since a ‘blue moon’ is an astronomical phenomenon that is visible once every 2.7 years. Even though the moon actually looks more gray than blue, according to NASA, it might appear to be blue when it’s affected by volcanic eruptions or forest fires due to the oils in smoke.

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Amy Carr
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

a blue moon is just when the moon is full twice in one month; it has nothing to do with the color

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#66

Jaywalker

Image of man crossing street

Meaning: One who crosses or walks in the street or road unlawfully or without regard for approaching traffic.

Origin: Jay birds would often become disorientated in urban areas after flying in from the forest. Dangers in the city, like traffic for example, would leave them confused and cause erratic behaviour. Due to this, people started using the term “jaywalker” to describe someone walking the streets irresponsibly.

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Neurotic_Octopus
Community Member
5 years ago DotsCreated by potrace 1.15, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2017

Not true, I read a different origin where, during the days when cars were first becoming more popular, people and even children were being killed by the cars driving too fast down populated areas. Instead of raising awareness in the drivers, auto industries started advertising that people who walked in the road (previously perfectly normal) were just a bunch of Jays, in that era a derogatory slur. Parents wouldn't want their kids to be considered a filthy Jay Walker, so they began to use sidewalks and footpaths instead.

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