The Roots of Common Idioms

Funny idiomSource: Pixabay

The common phrase that you most want to hear when you play at a casino online is, of course, “Congratulations!”. The origin here is pretty obvious; you’ve just won big and deserve to celebrate. But where do other well-known phrases come from?

Often, these sayings are idioms – defined as a figurative saying where knowledge of its prior use is normally necessary. They’re considered an important part of any language, providing a shorthand when you’re trying to make a point. To see what we mean, learn where 20 common English idioms originated below.

Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride

Meaning: A woman who is unlucky in love.

Origin: This is a line from a 1924 advert for Listerine! Nobody ever proposed to the unfortunate “Edna” because of her halitosis – which could have been solved by the mouthwash.

Pull Someone’s Leg

Meaning: To lie jokingly, in order to tease someone.

Origin: Thieves would pull their victims’ legs to trip and then rob them.

Meeting a Deadline

Meaning: Completing a task by a set time.

Origin: During the American Civil War, deadlines were the boundaries for prisoners. If they crossed them, they would be killed. If they met the deadline, they were literally finished.

Basket Case

Meaning: A mentally unstable individual.

Origin: In 1919, the American government officially denied rumours that World War One soldiers who’d lost all their limbs were carried in baskets. In their statement, they used the term “basket case”.

Close, but No Cigar

Meaning: Just missing success.

Origin: Originally fairground attractions used cigars as prizes. Often people came close to winning, but would get no cigar.

Bust Your Balls

Meaning: Being teased, made to work hard, or punished.

Origin: The balls of a calf were literally busted (physically damaged) to turn them from a bull to a steer.

Bark up the Wrong Tree

Meaning: To pursue an incorrect course of action.

Origin: In hunting, a dog would bark at the bottom of a tree that the prey was no longer in, or had never been in at all.

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

Meaning: To get information directly from a trusted source.

Origin: In the 1900s, buyers would check a horse’s age by opening its mouth and looking at its teeth.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag

Meaning: To reveal a secret accidentally.

Origin: Until late into the 1700s pigs, sold in bags, would be replaced by less valuable cats. If the cat came out, the con was up.

A classic idiomSource: Free SVG

Butter Someone Up

Meaning: To gain favour using flattery.

Origin: Ancient Indians would throw butterballs at statues of deities, to curry good fortune.

Hands Down

Meaning: Winning or leading by a long way.

Origin: In horse racing, if a jockey is so far ahead that he’ll definitely win, he can put his hands down and away from the reins.

Riding Shotgun

Meaning: Riding in the front seat of a vehicle.

Origin: Back in the Wild West, front passengers had to be prepared to shoot down frequent highwaymen. They sat in wait, holding a shotgun.

Cost an Arm and a Leg

Meaning: Very expensive

Origin: In the 1700s, crowds were often painted with just a few limbs showing. Including extra arms and legs would cost you.

Turn a Blind Eye

Meaning: To consciously decide to ignore unwanted information.

Origin: Admiral Horatio Nelson was blind in one eye, and used the excuse when he disregarded signals from Admiral Sire Hyde Parker to retreat in the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen.

Pull Out All the Stops

Meaning: To do everything you can to make something happen.

Origin: Organ tuners remove all the stops so that all sounds are played, as loudly as possible, at the same time.

Steal Someone’s Thunder

Meaning: To take credit for someone else’s ideas or work.

Origin: Failed playwright John Dennis developed a way of creating a thunderous sound effect on stage in 1704. He was outraged when, after his production tanked and closed early, his method was stolen and used in a staging of Macbeth.

Once in a Blue Moon

Meaning: Happens very rarely.

Origin: The saying developed from “once in a moon” which means once a month – so quite infrequently. Adding “blue” is thought to be a flight of fancy to emphasise the rarity of an event.

Under the Weather

Meaning: Being ill.

Origin: When sailors felt sick, they would rest in the bow of the boat and would be sheltered from storms, or literally under the (bad) weather.

Beat Around the Bush

Meaning: To circle or avoid the point.

Origin: British hunters would beat around bushes to draw birds out – so that they could get to the main point of the hunt, and capture or kill their targets.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Meaning: You can only see how successful something is after it has been used or enacted in the way

Origin: This is an Americanisation of the old British saying “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. That adage was popular in the 16th century, when “proof” was synonymous with “test” and puddings were often savoury meat dishes rather than sweet desserts. Essentially, you could only tell how good a pudding was when you ate it, because they weren’t really much to look at.


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