What makes idioms different from other common phrases is that usually, you cannot understand the given expression by its literal meaning. For example, imagine you're learning a new language and hear someone saying 'it's raining cats or dogs' or tells 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, he might just be able to explain it to you, but 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 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 a couple of different sources, thus making it harder to determine which one's the right one. Nevertheless, the stories behind the 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!
Cat Got Your Tongue
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.
The Walls Have Ears
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.
Bury The Hatchet
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Blood Is Thicker Than Water
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.
Don't Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth
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.
Barking Up The Wrong 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.
Turn A Blind Eye
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.
Bite The Bullet
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.
One For The Road
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.
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
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.
Break A Leg
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!
Give The Cold Shoulder
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.
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.
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.
Kick The Bucket
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.
Show Your True Colors
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.
Close But No 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’.
Waking Up On The Wrong Side Of The Bed
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.
Butter Someone Up
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.
Put A Sock In It
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.
Sun Of A 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’.
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’.
Born With A Silver Spoon In Your Mouth
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.
Steal One's Thunder
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!
Get One's Goat
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.
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, Thethis 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.
My Ears Are Burning
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.
Let The Cat Out Of The 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.
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.
Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining
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.
The Whole 9 Yards
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.”
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.
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’.
Spill The Beans
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.
Pull Out All The Stops
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.
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.
Resting On Laurels
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.
Eat Humble 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.
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.
Take The Piss
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?
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.
Pulling Someone’s Leg
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.
Let Your Hair Down
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.
To Sell Someone Down 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.
Read The Riot Act
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.
Rule 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.
Paint The Town Red
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.
Beat About The Bush
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.
Break The Ice
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."
More Than You Can Shake A Stick At
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.
Minding Your Ps And Qs
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.
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!
Pleased As Punch
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.
Called On The Carpet
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.
Show A Leg
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.
Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater
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.
No Spring 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.
By And Large
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.
Go Cold 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.
Once In A 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.
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.