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English Language Learning Challenges - Odd Origins of Idioms

Updated on January 30, 2020
CrossCreations profile image

Former teacher who once helped a Russian lady to learn English. No surprise she found idioms to be VERY difficult to understand. They ARE.

Origins of English Idioms and Funny Phrases

Where did that idiom COME from?
"Once in a blue moon' or "It is raining cats and dogs" are examples of icommon idioms.

Enjoy these amazing idiom stories below, especially some of those that are NOT so common. I'll bet you might end up re-telling a few of them.

Those learning English as a Second Language (ESL) will benefit from fun ways of learning about English idioms.

These strange idiom words and phrases we use everyday in the US have no direct translation. They just make no sense at all when taken literally. No wonder ESL students scratch their heads at these crazy phrases we call idioms. Let's ease some confusion and have fun with idioms.

Who SAYS that history is boring?

True Story!
True Story!

Idiom #1 - 'Ship High In Transport'

During the 16th and 17th centuries, everything had to be transported by ship. This was before commercial fertilizers were invented, so large shipments of manure were common. It was shipped dry, because in dry form it weighed a lot less than when wet.

However once water (at sea) hit it, it not only became heavier, but the process of fermentation began again, of which a by product is methane gas. As the stuff was stored below decks in bundles you can see what could (and did) happen.

Methane began to build up below decks and the first time someone came below at night with a lantern, BOOOOM! Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was determined just what was happening.

After that, the bundles of manure were always stamped with the term "Ship High In Transit" on them, which meant for the sailors to stow it high off the lower decks.

Any water that came into the hold would not touch this volatile cargo and

avoid starting start the production of methane while in transport.

'Ship High In Transport' was later shortened to bags labeled S.H.I.T... Really!

The familiar term (originally for huge bags of manure) has evolved through the centuries and is common today. Betcha never knew jack about that sh*t!

Technically this term (SH*T) would be an acronym rather than an idiom. Still it gets included on idiom lists, and is an interesting story so it gets included here anyway.

Idiom #2 - 'Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls off a Brass Monkey'

In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired round iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon. However, how to prevent them from rolling about the deck?

The best storage method devised was a square-based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one to prevent the bottom layer from sliding or rolling from under the others.

The solution was a metal plate called a 'Monkey' with 16 round indentations. However, if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make 'Brass Monkeys.'

Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. So... when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannonballs would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.' (All this time, you thought that was an improper expression, didn't you.)

Idiom #3 - 'Don't Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water'

During the 1500s, taking a bath meant sitting in a big tub filled with hot water. The tub was filled once and ONLY once - for the entire family!

The man of the house had the privilege of the first tub and the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. (Perish the THOUGHT, yet true.)

By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Idiom #4 - 'It Will Cost You an Arm and a Leg'

In George Washington's day, there were no cameras. A personal image was either sculpted or else painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both legs and both arms.

Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and legs are 'limbs,' therefore painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence the expression, 'Okay, but it'll cost you an arm and a leg.' (Artists know hands and arms are more difficult to paint)

Idiom #5 - 'Big Wig'

As incredible as it sounds, long ago men and women took baths only twice a year! (in May and October). Women kept their hair covered, while men shaved their heads (because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs made from wool.

They couldn't wash the wigs, so to clean them they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell, and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term 'big wig.' Today we often use the term 'here comes the Big Wig' because someone appears to be or is powerful and wealthy.

Idiom #6 - 'Mind Your Own Bees Wax'

Personal hygiene left much room for improvement in early days. As a result, many women and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread bee's wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions.

When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman's face she was told, 'mind your own bee's wax.'

Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term 'crack a smile'.
Also, sitting too close to the fire can make wax melt, hence the expression 'losing face.'

Idiom #7 - 'Playing with a Full Deck'

Long ago, playing cards was very common entertainment. However, there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards that was only applicable to the 'Ace of Spades.'

To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren't 'playing with a full deck.'

Idiom #8 - Straight-Laced

Long ago ladies wore corsets, which would lace up in the front.

Woe be the 'lady' whose corset was laced up in a loose and sloppy fashion.

A proper and dignified woman, as in 'straight laced' . . .that lady wore a tightly laced and tied corset.

Idiom #9 - 'Gossip'

Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what the people considered important. Since there were no telephones, TV's or radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars. They were told to 'go sip some ale' and listen to people's conversations and political concerns.

Many assistants were dispatched at different times. 'You go sip here' and 'You go sip there.' The two words 'go sip' were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion and so we now have the term 'gossip.'

A quote about gossip: "Beware of those who will gossip, for those who gossip WITH you will also gossip ABOUT you." Source unknown. Do you believe that's true? Hmmm... Kinda makes one think twice about gossip. Of ANY kind.

Idiom #10 - 'Minding Your Ps and Qs'

At local taverns and pubs, people drank from pint and quart-sized containers. A bar maid's job was to keep an eye on the customers and keep the drinks coming.

Bar maids had to pay close attention and remember who was drinking in 'pints' and who was drinking in 'quarts,' hence the term 'minding your 'P's and Q's '

Idiom #11 - 'It's Raining Cats & Dogs'

Houses in the 1500s had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof.

When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying ... "It's raining cats and dogs."

Idiom #12 - 'The Graveyard Shift' and 'A Dead Ringer'

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. (!!!)

So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, saved by the bell or was considered a ...dead ringer..

Idiom #13 - 'Dirt Poor' and 'Threshold'

In most houses centuries ago, floors were simply dirt. Only the very wealthy had something other than a dirt floor, hence the saying, 'dirt poor'.

The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing.

As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway...hence the saying ...a thresh hold.

POLL: Your Favorite Idiom? - Idiom Poll Added August 2012

So if you were to choose just ONE favorite of all the idioms described above, which would you choose?

See results

Idiom #14 - 'Once in a Blue Moon'

A 'blue moon' happens whenever there's a full moon TWICE in the same month.

There was a blue moon on New Year's Eve 2009, since there had already been a full moon in early December.

We had another blue moon on August 31, 2012. If you missed it, you will have to wait a few years to see another blue moon.

This is quite rare, even though the moon is not actually blue...usually.

The idiom 'blue moon' originated because a few times that HAS happened, the moon actually DID appear with a tint of blue. However that only happens when certain atmospheric conditions exist.

Still a 'blue moon' refers to the rare times there is a full moon twice in the same month, even though it rarely actually LOOKS blue.

So maybe 'once in a blue moon' might have more than one literal meaning. Either way it means very very very RARE!

About ESL and TESOL and TEFL and TESL

Many acronyms are now used referring to the study of English for non English speakers. These titles differ in various countries and regions.

  1. ESL = English as a Second Language
  2. TESOL = Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
  3. TEFL = Teaching English as a First Language
  4. TESL = Teaching English as a Second Language
  5. ESOL = English for Speakers of Other Languages

Idioms Board Game - They won't be bored learning idioms with this board game! ESL classes love Befudium!

Rave reviews for this game as an enjoyable way to learn idioms, especially rated highly for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Webster's Befudiom® word game includes wacky everyday phrases - fun for the whole family! Kids of all ages will have a blast solving clues. Each clue is an idiom, one of those crazy phrases we use everyday that doesn't really make much sense when taken literally.

Divide into teams of two or more and roll the dice to pick your idiom and how you'll express it. Get creative as you act out "chip off the old block" or show off your artistic side when you draw "wolf in sheep's clothing".

Describing "asleep at the wheel" might seem easy, but can your team guess with just a few letters as clues? It's all part of the fun! FUN game of mixed-up meanings where everything is easier said than done!

Befuium is like Charades, but not quite. Players take turn acting out, drawing, or hinting in some other way at an idiom word or phrase -- which their teammates must guess.

There are several kinds of play in each game. The role of a specially-designed die determines what kind of "clue-making" the player will perform like either charades, a drawing or written clues. This game is highly recommended for fans of Charades, Pictionary, Celebrities, Scattergories, and Taboo Board Games.

Befudium is a popular learning resource game for all sorts of students, particularly those learning English as a Second Language (ESL).

More Idiom Resources for You - Amazon has a wide assortment of fun games to have fun leanring more about idioms.

English Language Trivia

Word Play

1) What is the longest English word without a vowel?

2) Of all the words in the English language, which one has the most definitions in the dictionary?

3) What word is still pronounced the same way when the last four letters are removed?

4) What is the longest word in the English language with all the letters in alphabetical order?

1) rhythm 2) set 3) queue 4) almost

English Oddities - Idioms are not the ONLY oddities of the English language.

Comments About IDIOMS

Penny for your thoughts! Cat got your tongue? Go ahead, make my day.

Join the idioms discussion below.

Comments about these Idioms - Got an idiom or fun word play to add?

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    • manar moussa profile image

      Manar Moussa 

      23 months ago from Egypt

      great job! thanks alot for sharing these information with us.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      What are the origins of " Next lady for a shave" ?

    • CrossCreations profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolan Ross 

      6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      @anonymous: Sorry but I have yet to figure that one out...pending....

    • CrossCreations profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolan Ross 

      6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      @TanoCalvenoa: I didn't either, but what FUN research it was! I add new ones every now and then.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      What a great list, I didn't know the explanations behind a lot of these.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      PLEASE someone tell me what the meaning is of " next lady for a shave" where did it originate and why?

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I've always liked reading about the origins of words and expressions. Idioms are so difficult to explain to people who do not have English as their mother-tongue. I once tried to explain an expression, and could do it: 'You got me.'

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This was a great read. Extremely enjoyable. Keep up the good work.

    • Teddi14 LM profile image

      Teddi14 LM 

      7 years ago

      I was just teaching Idioms this past week. I wish I would have visited here first! Great lens!

    • dotpattern profile image

      Pat Moire 

      7 years ago from West Village, New York City

      Idioms make language so much fun to learn. Now I know where they come from.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very entertaining, and informative, lens. Now I know where S.H.I.T. comes from. Blessed.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I never would have guessed where some of these idioms came from. "Big Wig" -- loaf of bread -- hilarious!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      8 years ago from Colorado

      Very interesting history of idioms. Really enjoyed learning the origins of these phrases. The students in our literacy and ESL programs used to really shake their heads in wonder and amazement when discussing idioms.

    • Chris-H LM profile image

      Chris-H LM 

      8 years ago

      I had fun reading these. It's a lot of fun discovering the origins of phrases we use without a second thought.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      8 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      I love idioms and your explanations are great!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very good lens. I could guess only about "deck of cards", other idioms were a mystery to me. If you want to read something else funny, take a look at my "Russian For Dummies".

    • howdoyouspellst profile image


      9 years ago

      Fascinating!! Thanks for the spare knowledge!!

    • profile image

      Pete Schultz 

      9 years ago

      interesting, and educational too, I enjoyed the visit.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 

      9 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Oh these are fun! I have to admit, the raining cats and dogs makes me laugh - poor creatures falling off the wet roof!

    • jolou profile image


      10 years ago

      Very interesting lens. Can't imagine babies being bathed in such dirty water, and people only bathing twice a year. Yikes!

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      10 years ago from UK

      Well I learned a lot here! Loved finding out the origins of these well-known words and phrases.

    • norma-holt profile image


      10 years ago

      The dead ringer, that caused me to have a laugh. Imagine being buried alive and having to remember to ring the bell. Great lens, very informative and well presented. 5* fave and lens rolled

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Great idea for a lens and very interesting... But the one about The baby in the bath water was a little shocking... is that real...??? Anyway i fived you and fanned you, great job

    • CrossCreations profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolan Ross 

      11 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      most shocking? 'graveyard shift' and 'dead ringer'

      funniest? Ship High In Transport

      most unbelievable? 'Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.'

      ... did they REALLY bath tiny babies in filthy water??? oh my!


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