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The Origins of Common Sayings Or Did You REALLY Mean That?

Updated on April 18, 2009

The English language is full of sayings we use all the time. They are as common to us as the alphabet or the specific labels we use to identify objects in our world.  I am sure that most of us, at least I did, think that we know what these sayings were originally meant to convey.  When I did a bit of research I was surprised how far off I was.

The following are some of the common sayings that had very different origins from what I assumed they did. The overall meaning may even have changed a bit, especially as words have come to mean something totally different over the years. I am not claiming that these are the only origins, just relaying the most commonly indicated from the internet.

Rule of Thumb

I thought I knew this one, I really did. Rule of thumb is meant to indicate a general guideline as opposed to some absolute, never changing position. My mistake was to believe that "rule of thumb" originated as a guideline to the size of a switch or stick with which a man could legally hit is wife, which is just horrible to even consider. In reality there was no such rule of thumb law in either England or the United States, although it was occasionally referenced in court proceedings prior to the late 1800's, but not as a case law matter.

In reality it is now believed by scholars that the term rule of thumb was first used to designate a small measurement used by carpenters as a rough approximation of distance. Instead of measuring small spaces they simply and quickly used their thumbs to approximate the space. It may also have dually originated in brewing beer, where the brew master stuck his thumb into the liquid to check the temperature before adding the yeast .If the liquid was too hot he could not keep his thumb in and only when he could would the yeast be added.

Dead Ringer

We have all used this phrase before to indicate something that looks absolutely identical to something else. In reality the term doesn't have anything to do with being dead, rather the term dead refers to something that is very exact, such as in the term "dead" center or "dead" heat in a race.

Ringer is the term first used in the United States and Canada in the racehorse industry in the last century. Before the use of microchipping, DNA testing and mass photography and videography, disreputable horse owners used to switch a look alike horse in for an injured horse or poor runner. This would be a great way to have a horse with very low odds suddenly win a race, providing the owner a lot of unscrupulous betting advantages. Running a ringer therefore meant running a substitute, identical looking horse for the original. Putting the two terms together literally meant an exact duplicate for an original.

Win Hands Down

Seeing as I am on a horseracing theme, why not continue. To win hands down originally started at the track when a horse was winning by a huge margin over the rest of the competition.

In the normal riding position the jockey sits with his or her hands high on the neck of the horse and with the hands up above the elbows to keep the best contact with the horse both through the reins and in a forward position placing the jockey's weigh over the front shoulders. This gives the maximum thrust from the strong hindquarters, allowing the horse to run as fast as possible. When a horse was lengths ahead of the competition the jockey would lower his or her hands down to the horse's shoulder, allowing the horse and rider to cross the finish line first, with hands down.

Hell Bent For Leather

This is, from what I can find, a term that was actually started by the British Army in India. It seems that during their military action in the country they used to ride, oops back to horses again, full gallop across the rather rugged terrain, putting a huge strain on both the leather saddles and the poor horses. It seems that over time the phrase, which was used by Rudyard Kipling and other authors, came to mean traveling distances at a very fast pace, regardless of the mode of transportation.

Your Name Will Be Mud

Anything to do with the words "name" and "mud" have to do with a Dr. Samuel Mudd, a medical doctor that actually provided medical services to John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Historians and others argue if Mudd actually was a co-conspirator or if he was just uniformed when he provided medical aid and mended Booth's broken leg. It seems that the newspapers started using terms such as "his name is like Mudd" to indicate anyone that was unpopular or seen as foolish. Over time the phrase has been shorted to simply "your name will be mud".

Mind Your P's and Q's

This one has nothing to do with horse racing or horses, but it might have something to do with drinking! There are three popular theories as to the origin of this phrase. Theory 1 is that in the British pubs beer was sold in pints and quarts, hence the barkeep would have to mind his p's and q's to get the billing straight and make sure his customers were happy and their thirst was quenched.

Theory 2 is that in the old days print setting was done by hand in newspapers and publishing companies. Typesetters and printers would be warned to watch their p's and q's, meaning the actual lowercase letters, to avoid mistakes and costly misprints. There are a lot of variations on this theory or so it seems when using any search engine.

Theory 3 has to do with teacher's using this as a way to help children remember their letters, however this seems to be rather general. They really aren't common letters in most words, especially the q, so I am honestly not sure about this one.

There are lots of other common sayings in any country that are interesting and rather amazing to research. If you have a few you know of, please leave them below.


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    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      6 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thanks anndavis25, I haven't heard that one but I have heard lots of comments with names that don't ring a bell with me. They must be specific to an area, at least that would be my guess!

    • anndavis25 profile image


      6 years ago from Clearwater, Fl.

      I've heard variations of the meaning of the old sayings. They are delightful, and most of them make good sense. One that always baffled me though, was, 'the dickens and tom walker'. Heard that a lot from my grand father.

      Fun hub.

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      7 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thanks Ruthcurley, I find this stuff fascinating as well!

    • Ruthcurley profile image


      7 years ago from Bozrah, CT

      I love etimology! I really enjoyed reading your Hub. I've added to my list of interesting sayings and knowing where they came from!

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      9 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Hi Chris,

      There are a few books on Amazon when you search for "common sayings" but this website is pretty comprehensive as well. Hope it is helpful:

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I have been looking for a book for years that tells of the origin and meaning of popular sayings such as these. Does anyone know of any book or books that I could fing that would have this information? Thanks.

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      9 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      sirmurdock - from what I can find it is, of course, an old nautical saying. It seems that when waves hit the sides of the old wooden vessels the timbers, which make up the frame of the ship, would actually shake. In some dialects shiver and shake are the same word, so there could have been some mistranslation involved.

      This shivering or shaking was a signal that the conditions were serious and potentially life threatening. The term "shiver me timbers" refers to information or events that are startling, unusual or potentially frightening, like the waves crashing into the boat. The other possibility would include anything that hit the boat including in war, running aground or hitting something in the water.

      It also became common in fiction of the time as an saying for pirates, although it was used by all types of sailors.

      Hope that helps. I am working on another one of these phrases hubs, hope to have it up sometime next week so stay tuned!

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • profile image 

      9 years ago

      please define; "shiver me timbers"

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      9 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thanks James. Language and words are so interesting - I agree!

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      Excellent Hub! I always enjoy reading about the origins of common idioms. Thanks!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      When you finish researching Quilligrapher's "Charlie horse" phrase you will have "gone the whole nine yards."

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      9 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thanks Peggy, Julie-Ann and Quilligrapher. I find the way that phrases and sayings become incorporated into everyday language rather fascinating. Now Quilligrapher has me wondering about the "Charlie horse" phrase, need to look that up!

    • Julie-Ann Amos profile image

      Julie-Ann Amos 

      9 years ago from Gloucestershire, UK

      Fascinating thanks!

    • Quilligrapher profile image


      9 years ago from New York

      Quite entertaining and well researched too.  You gave us the "whole nine yards." With all of your 'horse sense', I thought you might include the origin of a "Charlie horse."

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Mardi,

      There is a Museum of Printing History in Houston and they have the old linotype machines and the block letters. Minding your p's and q's actually makes sense with regard to the old printing methods.

      Interesting article! Thumbs up! LOL


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