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Where Do Sayings Come From: The Funny Stories Behind Idioms

Updated on April 28, 2014

Our English language is colourful to say the least. We have many sayings we use everyday and know what they mean, but how on earth did we start using some of these strange idioms? Why do we call someone who is crazy, mad as a March hare? Why do we say the cat's got your tongue? Read on to find out, and learn a little about our society’s bizarre history.

Always a bridesmaid and never a bride.

This is rather self explanatory. It is derogatory statement insinuating that a rather desperate woman is always participating in her friend’s weddings as a bridesmaid but can’t seem to find a husband of her own. If she doesn’t do something, she may become an old maid. Oh, horrors!

This popular phrase comes from an ad campaign run in the 1920s to sell Listerine mouthwash.Here is the ad.

“Poor Edna was getting on for thirty and most of her friends were either married or about to tie the knot. How she wished that instead of being a bridesmaid she could be the bride! However any romance of hers invariably ended quickly. There was a reason for this. Unbeknownst to her, she suffered from bad breath, and no one, not even her best friends would tell her.”

The ad was a huge success and the sales of Listerine skyrocketed. An interesting fact about Listerine is, it was also sold as a floor wash, in a distilled form. So now, lucky Edna could catch a husband with Listerine and then wash his floors with it. Ah, the good old days!

Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need. Will Rogers

Advertising is legalized lying. H.G. Wells

Always a brides maid never a bride. Always a godfather never a god. Gregory Maguire

Mad As A March Hare

This means someone who is certifiably nuts, crazy and unpredictable. Hares act very oddly in March. The leap and jump and the males box with one another and in general, they indulge in a very much ‘look at me” behaviour. The reason is clear, love is in the air and their hormones are off the chart. Their mating season can actually last several months, but in Europe, where the saying originated, they are at their maddest in March. Although the phrase has been around since the sixteenth century Lewis Carol’s famous book, Alice in Wonderland, made it popular in more recent times.

You are only given a little spark of madness. Don’t lose it. Robin Williams

Indoors or out, no-one relaxes in March, that month of wind and taxes. The wind will presently disappear, but the taxes stay with us all year. Ogden Nash

I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people. Isaac Newton

Between a rock and a hard place

Being between a rock and hard place means having to make a decision between two things that both have negative outcomes. Think Tiger Woods…should he indulge in a cheating ,hanky panky affair and risk getting caught or stay faithful to his drop dead gorgeous wife? Fun frisk and potential disaster or bored, been there done that. Poor Tiger!

Here is the less than risqué, but still interesting story. In 1917 miners in Arizona went on strike because of low pay and poor working conditions. Phelps Dodge, the man in charge was angry at the audacity of the miners and arranged to have them deported to be rid of them. So the miners had to choose between striking and deportation or accepting the dangerous, lousy job. A reporter described them as being between a rock and a hard place. And who could disagree with that?

If you want to read an incredible true story, try '127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place' by Aaron Ralston. His ordeal began while out hiking in a remote area of Utah and a huge bolder tumbled down and pinsed his arm against the canyon wall. After days of being pinned he finally realizes the only way to escape alive is to cut off his own arm, which he does. That makes Tigers tough choice seem...lame?

Civilization began the first time an angry person cast a word instead of a rock. Sigmund Freud

Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat. Jean Paul Sartie

I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I still had my daughter, an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. J.K. Rowling

In A New York Minute

A New York minute means very fast, an instant and takes up much less time than the sixty seconds it takes for a minute to pass in most of the world. This saying is fairly recent in English language history. It showed up first in Texas in the 1960’s, where a minute may take two or three real minutes, due to the relaxed and slow paced life style they enjoy down there. Apparently it was coined by a Texas tourist who was overwhelmed by the frantic pace and constant hustle and bustle of the city. Ah, New York, New York, The City That Never Sleeps, The Big Apple, The City of Dreams, if I can make it there…..

New York is, no surprise, a remarkably busy town. As of 2012 it had a population of 8,336,697 people and over fifty million visitors each year. It has 12,467 intersections controlled by traffic lights and over eight hundred languages are spoken there.

I don’t like Los Angeles. The people there are awful and terribly shallow, and everybody wants to be famous but nobody wants to play the game. I am from New York. I will kill to get what I need. Lady Gaga

Better to be three hours too early than a minute to late. William Shakespeare

The minute you are not learning I believe you are dead. Jack Nicholson

He is not worth his salt!

How did saying someone is not worth his salt come to mean someone who is lazy, inefficient and not worth his pay or keep? This is kind of interesting.

Back before we had modern ways of preserving our food, such as freezing or canning, one of the main methods of preserving meat and fish was using salt because most bacteria and moulds cannot survive a salty environment. Consequently, salt was highly valued and very expensive. Although there is some debate over this, some scholars say Roman soldiers were paid in part, or full with salt. This is also where the word salary comes from. Sal was the word for salt, and salarium was the word for salary. Today salt is so inexpensive only six percent of salt produced is used in food. The highest percentage of salt use today is to de-ice our streets and highways.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Nelson Mendela

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work. Stephen King

Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to it. Robert A. Hienlien

In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this. Terry Pratchet

In nine times out of ten the slanderous tongue belongs to a disappointed person. George Bancroft

Cat Got Your Tongue?

Cat got your tongue? We use this to describe someone who being unusually quiet. But what do cats have to do with the lack of chit chat? There are three theories and all are of them gruesome.

Theory one: In the Middle East, liars had their tongues ripped out and fed to cats.

Theory two: Being flogged with a cat of nine tails was a common punishment in the middle ages and the pain of the whipping was so severe, the very threat of it could paralyze someone into complete silence.

Theory three: Again from the charming era of the Middle Ages. People were very superstitious about witches and it was said if a witches’ cat looked at you, it could somehow steal your tongue so you couldn’t report her to the authorities and she therefore avoided being burned alive.


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    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks dannd

    • profile image

      dannd 4 years ago

      What fun information Sheri…I'd love to read some more of them. I can see that the research would have been fun. Love all your posts.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks was so much fun to research this! We humans have a very strange history!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Quite interesting to finally know where these old sayings came from and what they really mean. There are so many people who use idioms that are fractured versions of the originals, perhaps, from years of being misconstrued. It cracks me up. Wouldn't you know, I can't think of a single one at the moment. Fiddle de dee.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks Darrlymdavis. Our language can be strange for sure!

    • Darrylmdavis profile image

      Darrylmdavis 4 years ago from Brussels, Belgium

      I do enjoy scratching the surface of language to find the neat stuff beneath...nice :-)

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Hi writer, yes I saw that movie too...redefines the word "tough". Thanks for reading and commenting and the follow and right back at you.

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 4 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      I enjoyed this. It certainly changes the perception to know where these expressions originated. By the way, '127 Hours' was also made into a movie and it is stellar!

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thank you dwachira,

      It found the research on this hub lots of fun.Thank you for commenting and sharing!

    • dwachira profile image

      [ Danson Wachira ] 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Hi Sheri Faye,

      These are interesting sources of Idioms. The saying keep us thinking while they deliver intended message. I often use [Between a rock and a hard place] saying but i never knew its source, now i know. Great article, voted up and shared with followers.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks Careermommy, it was fun to learn about this.

    • Careermommy profile image

      Tirralan Watkins 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Sheri, this is a very nice hub. I love your comedic overtones too. Good writing and good information. Now I have history behind the phrases I use.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Yes Midget, I am grateful to be born in a less barbaric time. Human history has been horrific at times. Thanks for reading and commenting, I appreciate it!

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Wow. Fascinating, Sheri. I was particularly fascinated by the history of the phrase "cat got your tongue." A little extreme, the way they did things in olden days!

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks for reading and commenting travmaj. I had a lot of fun researching and writing this.

    • travmaj profile image

      travmaj 4 years ago from australia

      Great hub - so enjoyed reading all your information and quotes. It's fun whilst being informative - thank you Sheri.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks Mrs. I found the listerine thing so fun! Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Very interesting! I also really liked the quotes. :-)

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Yes, some are really quite weird. It has been interesting writing these and I plan to make a series about it. Thanks for reading bravewarrior!

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 4 years ago from Central Florida

      This is interesting, Sheri. We utter coloquialisms without a second thought of the origin. When you think about it, most of them make no sense when you think of the literal meaning of each word.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks Dave. It was fun to do the research. I appreciate your reading and commenting.

    • profile image

      Dave 4 years ago

      Like the quotes that augment the information!

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      @ Petra Vlah. I will read your Hub. These idoms are perplexing even to those of us who have english as a native language. It has been fun to do the research.

      @Billybuc. Thanks as usual for your support and it is fun to write these because I get to learn something new too.

      @tnderhrt23 Thank you for reading and I appreciate your support.

    • tnderhrt23 profile image

      tnderhrt23 4 years ago

      Well written interesting read!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I like this series and I hope there are more. I always learn something new from you. Thanks for filling in some blanks.

    • Petra Vlah profile image

      Petra Vlah 4 years ago from Los Angeles

      Very interesting, informative and fun read.

      As a person who learned English late in life I always wonder where some of those idiomatic expressions are coming from. They do give a lot of color and make the language vibrant, but most of the time they are perplexing to say the least. I wrote a hub "The never ending challenge of English" and some of the examples were referring precisely to this fascinating and hallucinating "problem"