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20 English Idioms with Surprising Origins


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Have you ever wondered why we ride shotgun or bite the bullet? Find out with this explanation of the origins of 20 common English idioms!

Published in: Entertainment & Humor
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20 English Idioms with Surprising Origins

  2. 2. An idiom is a figure of speech that has become fixed in a language. Usually, an idiom is figurative in modern contexts but once had a literal meaning. These literal meanings, or idiom origins, can help a learner of English understand where a phrase originated. What is an Idiom?
  3. 3. Straight from the horse’s mouth1. Meaning: getting information directly from the most reliable source Origin: This one is said to come from the 1900s, when buyers could determine a horse’s age by examining its teeth. It’s also why you shouldn’t “look a gift horse in the mouth,” as inspecting a gift is considered bad etiquette.
  4. 4. Let the cat out of the bag 2. Meaning: to mistakenly reveal a secret Origin: Up to and including in the 1700s, a common street fraud included replacing valuable pigs with less valuable cats and selling them in bags. When a cat was let out of a bag, the jig was up.
  5. 5. Butter someone up 3. Meaning: to praise or flatter someone, usually to gain a favor Origin: A customary religious act in ancient India included throwing butter balls at the statues of gods to seek good fortune and their favor.
  6. 6. Pulling someone’s leg Meaning: teasing someone, usually by lying in a joking manner Origin: Although pulling someone’s leg is all in good fun nowadays, it originally described the way in which thieves tripped their victims to rob them. 4.
  7. 7. Wolf in sheep’s clothing 5. Meaning: someone who is pretending to be something they are not, usually to the detriment of others Origin: This one’s attributed to the Bible (Matthew 7:15). The Bible also gave us “rise and shine” (Isaiah 60:1), “seeing eye to eye” (Isaiah 62:8), and “broken heart” (Psalm 69:20).
  8. 8. Hands down6. Meaning: without a lot of effort; by far Origin: Winning “hands down” once referred to 19th-century horseracing, when a jockey could remove his hands from the reins and still win the race because he was so far ahead.
  9. 9. Riding shotgun 7. 7. Meaning: riding in the front seat of a vehicle next to the driver Origin: In the Wild West, the person who sat next to the driver was often equipped with a shotgun to kill any robbers that might happen upon the coach.
  10. 10. 8. Barking up the wrong tree Meaning: pursuing a misguided course of action Origin: Likely referring to hunting, this saying explains when a dog would literally bark at the bottom of the wrong tree after the prey in question moved to the next branch.
  11. 11. Flying off the handle Meaning: suddenly becoming enraged Origin: This one is said to come from poorly made axes of the 1800s that would literally detach from the handle. Yikes! 9.
  12. 12. Cost an arm and a leg 10. Meaning: extremely expensive Origin: The story goes that this phrase originated from 18th- century paintings, as famous people like George Washington would have their portraits done without certain limbs showing. Having limbs showing is said to have cost more.
  13. 13. Sleep tight11. Meaning: used to tell someone to sleep well Origin: One possible origin of this phrase dates back to when mattresses were supported by ropes; sleeping tight meant sleeping with the ropes pulled tight, which would provide a well-sprung bed.
  14. 14. Bite the bullet12. Meaning: to perform a painful task or endure an unpleasant situation Origin: In the 1800s, patients would literally bite on a bullet to cope with the pain of having surgery before anesthesia was common.
  15. 15. Meaning: look for avoidable errors so you don’t remove something good with the bad Origin: This idiom allegedly comes from a time when the household bathed in the same water; first, the lord would bathe, then the men, the lady, the women, the children, and the babies last. The bath water is said to have been so dirty that there was a risk of throwing the baby out with the water once everyone was done bathing! 13. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water
  16. 16. Meaning: the moment when a form of entertainment reaches a decline in quality by including gimmicks to maintain interest Jump the shark14. Origin: In the show Happy Days, the character Fonzie literally jumps over a shark while water skiing; afterward, radio personality Jon Hein popularized the phrase “jump the shark” to describe the decline of the show.
  17. 17. Minding your Ps and Qs 15. Meaning: being on your best behavior Origin: There are many origin stories for this one, but perhaps the one that is most fun is that bartenders would keep track of the pints and quarts consumed by their patrons with the letters “P” and “Q.”
  18. 18. Turn a blind eye 16. Meaning: to consciously ignore unwanted information Origin: The phrase “to turn a blind eye” is said to originate with Admiral Horatio Nelson, who allegedly looked through his telescope using his blind eye to avoid signals from his superior telling him to withdraw from battle.
  19. 19. Armed to the teeth 17. Meaning: to be extremely well equipped Origin: The idea behind being “armed to the teeth” is that the weapon wielder would carry the maximum number of weapons, so many that he or she would be forced to carry some between his or her teeth.
  20. 20. Get one’s goat Meaning: to irritate or annoy someone Origin: This one also comes from horseracing. Jockeys placed goats in the stables with their horses as this was said to relax the horses. However, competitors would remove the goats of their rivals to spook their competitors’ horses, hoping they would consequently lose the race. 18.
  21. 21. Pull out all the stops Meaning: to do everything you can to make something successful Origin: Alluding to the piano-like instrument the organ, this phrase refers to when the stops are pulled out to turn on all the sounds in an organ, allowing it to play all the sounds at once and, therefore, be as loud as possible. 19.
  22. 22. Dish fit for the gods 20. Meaning: a very scrumptious or delectable meal Origin: We can thank Shakespeare for this expression (found in "Julius Caesar"), but we can also thank him for “foaming at the mouth” ("Julius Caesar"), “hot blooded” ("The Merry Wives of Windsor"), “wearing your heart on your sleeve” ("Othello"), and “one fell swoop” ("Macbeth").
  23. 23. Thank You! Do you know of any idioms in other languages that you think are interesting or funny? Share them with us on Facebook or Twitter!
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