The English language is full of weird and wonderful expressions. Some are regional, others are nautical, while many became well known courtesy of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Here are some of the interesting and unusual origins behind our most common phrases:
As happy as a sandboy
Meaning – to be happy or content
Origin – This one has nothing to do with the beach. The origin of this term can in fact be found in the 18th and 19th century. At this time, the floors of pubs and public theatres were covered in sand to absorb any spilled drinks. The sand was delivered by sandboys – not children, but men referred to as ‘boys’. They were partly or fully paid for their labour in drink, which made them merry indeed.
As cool as a cucumber
Meaning – unflappable and in control
Origin – It’s quite simple and scientific really. Cucumbers are cool to the touch. In fact, the inside of a cucumber can remain approximately 11.1 degrees cooler than the external atmospheric temperature due to its high water content.
Armed to the teeth
Meaning – being in possession of a lot of weapons
Origin – There are a couple of possible explanations for this idiom. The first is that in the 14th century, knights wore armour from head to toe, with only their teeth visible. The second is that pirates, when attacking, would have a gun in each hand and a knife between their teeth. Either possibility sounds good. Which do you prefer?
Balls to the wall
Meaning – an extreme effort
Origin – This sounds a little rude, but the origin is altogether innocent. The balls in question are at the top of the throttle lever on a plane. When the throttle is pushed to its extreme, it touches the wall. Pushing the throttle all the way back indicates extreme effort.
Between a rock and a hard place
Meaning – facing two equally difficult or impossible options
Origin – There are two very different possible explanations for this. One is that it originates from the ancient Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla was a monster identified with a huge rock and Charybdis a mighty whirlpool. Odysseus had to choose which he preferred to confront – hence the origin of the phrase’s use for a dilemma. Phrases.org.uk has another, different, explanation related to Depression-era Arizona. People were faced with the choice between exhausting work copper mining (which involved shifting a lot of rock) or being unemployed – two equally unenviable options.
Butter someone up
Meaning – flatter someone
Origin – The ancient Indian custom of throwing balls of ghee – clarified butter – at statues of gods to ask for favours is the origin of this phrase.
Cat got your tongue?
Meaning – asked when someone is silent or speechless
Origin – Another common phrase with several possible origins. If you’d been in the British Navy and whipped with the cat o’nine tails, you’d be pretty speechless afterwards from the pain. That’s one possibility. Alternatively, perhaps the origin is in the ancient Middle Eastern practice of cutting out liars’ tongues and feeding them to cats.
Chance one’s arm
Meaning – to push something as far as you can
Origin – The two most likely origins for this phrase lie in the military and in boxing. In military terms, ‘arm’ can mean the stripes on the sleeve of a uniform which denote rank. Therefore, ‘chancing your arm’ meant taking a risk which could either result in promotion or demotion. A completely different explanation could come from the sport of boxing. When a boxer extends his arm to strike, he leaves himself momentarily unprotected and open to attack.
Hair of the dog
Meaning – a hangover remedy
Origin – If, in days long past, you were bitten by a rabid dog then you were very unlucky. That’s because the treatment mainly consisted of either drinking something containing some of the dog’s hair or placing a hair from the dog in the wound. Neither of those is going to stop you foaming at the mouth. The phrase seems to be Scottish in origin, although it also exists in other languages and cultures.
Let the cat out of the bag
Meaning – to give away a secret
Origin – In the Middle Ages there was a common trick at the market. If you wanted to buy a piglet, it was often sold in a sack. Some unscrupulous dealers would actually put a cat in the bag instead of a pig. Therefore letting the cat out of the bag revealed the fraud. The phrases ‘a pig in a poke’ and ‘selling a pup’ have the same origin.
Mad as a hatter
Meaning – insane
Origin – There’s a reason the hatter in Alice in Wonderland is mad. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the chemical mercury was commonly used in the manufacturing of hats. Mercury is actually poisonous and one of the symptoms of long-term poisoning is dementia, hence the rather sad origin of this everyday phrase.
Nineteen to the dozen
Meaning – going very fast or flat out
Origin – Deriving from 18th century Cornish tin mining terminology, to ‘go nineteen to the dozen’ refers to the time when pumps were used to clear flood water from the mines. The pumps were driven by beam engines and could clear 19,000 gallons of water for every 12 bushels of coal burnt by the engine.
Pull out all the stops
Meaning – to do everything you can
Origin – The ‘stops’ here are the stops on the pipe organ – the levers that control how much air is admitted to each pipe, and thus the sound volume of each pipe. Pulling out the stops increases the volume of the music to its maximum level.
Put a sock in it
Meaning – stop talking
Origin – There may be another musical origin for this phrase – gramophones in this case. Pre-electric gramophones didn’t have volume controls and could be quite loud. So, people stuffed a rolled up sock into the copper horn of the gramophone to help deaden the sound. However, others prefer a World War I origin and the simple idea that putting a sock in someone’s mouth certainly stops them from making a sound (and perhaps attracting the attention of the enemy, for example).
Raining cats and dogs
Meaning – pouring with rain
Origin – The origins of this idiom are certainly complex. Many possibilities have been suggested – from dogs and cats being the attendants of the Nordic storm god Odin to mysterious storms dropping cats and dogs from the sky, or the Greek phrase ‘cata doxa’ meaning ‘beyond belief’. The most likely, if unpleasant, explanation is that the phrase refers to the fact that in pre-Victorian times heavy rain would wash the corpses of dead cats and dogs through the streets.
Steal one’s thunder
Meaning – take the credit or attention away from someone else
Origin – In 1704 London playwright John Dennis invented a new way of producing a thunder sound effect for his play. The play was not a success. However, sitting in the audience of another play at the same theatre, Dennis realised that they were using his sound effect without his permission. He is quoted as shouting, “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder”.
The cat’s pyjamas
Meaning – the best thing ever
Origin - This phrase has its origins in the 1920s, along with other fauna-related terms like ‘the bee’s knees’ and ‘the cat’s meow’. One possible explanation is that a 20s-era word for flappers was ‘cats’. Women’s pyjamas were a bit of a novelty at the time and flappers were seen as trendsetters. So the ‘cat’s pyjamas’ would be the latest, best thing that everybody wanted to try. In 1926 there was even a Hollywood film called The Cat’s Pajamas.
Wild goose chase
Meaning – a pointless errand
Origin – Ever been sent on a wild goose chase? This phrase comes from a type of 16th century horse race where riders had to follow and mimic the course of the lead horse. Fiendishly difficult, as well as being quite annoying, it’s easy to see why it didn’t catch on.
What are some of your favourite phrases? Do you know the origin of an unusual saying? Let us know in the Comments section below