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You Don't Say? Pt. 2 The Amusing History Behind 10 More English Expressions

Updated on March 8, 2018

Break A Leg

"Go break a leg George!"

According to most traditions this odd saying was first coined in the theater. Most say that this is said to invoke 'good luck' by wishing 'bad luck'. Others say that it is has to do with actors bending a leg to bow.

However during my research I came across this odd, and in my opinion, entirely more interesting explanation of the phrase 'break a leg'.

Story has it that the origin of this phrase dates back to the mid 18th Century when a well known actor by the name of Samuel Foote went on the Royal Hunt in the company of the Duke of York. The Duke, by way of a practical joke, had given Foote a rather difficult horse. Well, the joke went terribly wrong when Foote was thrown from the horse and broke his leg. The break was so bad that Foote's leg had to be amputated! Naturally the Duke of York felt terrible, so to make amends he asked Foote (who was now down a foot) if there was anything he could do. Foote replied that there was one small thing; a Royal Warrant and patent for his theater.

After pulling a few strings, King George the III finally agreed to grant the request with two conditions, 1) it was only for the summer months and 2) it would last only for Foote's lifetime.

Delighted Foote refurbished and opened what became the Theatre Royal on Haymarket. Thus a bad break became Samuel Foote's fortune.

An Engraving of Samuel Foote by Caroline Watson
An Engraving of Samuel Foote by Caroline Watson | Source

Run Amock!

"They're like wild savages run amock!"

This phrase takes it's name from the fierce Malaysian tribe the Amuco!

The Amuco where troubled by a strange and rather violent affliction. Occasionally they would go on random and brutal killing sprees! Captain James Cook, who first coined this phrase, wrote that, "To run Amock is to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amuco, and any other persons that attempt to impede his passage."


Paint The Town Red

"It's Friday night and I'm going to paint the town red!"

There are several different theories as to the origin of this colorful phrase. The most popular is that it is a reference to one wild night out in the 1837 town of Melton Mowbray. According to legend the Marquis of Waterford (who is said to have been a notorious party animal) and a group of friends got so drunk one evening they went into the streets of Melton Mowbray and committed various acts of vandalism. They knocked down flowerpots, pulled knockers right off of doors, broke windows, and before it was all over, even painted a tollgate, several doors, and a swan statue bright red! When morning finally dawned the now sober Marquis compensated the frightened villagers for all damages; but his famed night of drunkenness lives on in the phrase, 'paint the town red'.

The painting "A Spree at Melton Mowbray" is said to be illustrating this event.

In my opinion the above story is the most interesting theory. But there is another common explanation for the beginning of this phrase. It is also said to have originated from the American West. Where in some towns cowboys supposedly behaved as if the entire town was a 'red light' district.


Painting entitled "A Spree at Melton Mowbray"
Painting entitled "A Spree at Melton Mowbray" | Source

Basket Case

"I'm sorry, ever since the incident I've just been a basket case!"

This phrase is said to have come from the U.S. Military and was first used in a statement released by them after WWI. It was a statement made by the Surgeon General denying the existence of any 'basket cases' in our Army and defining a 'basket case' as someone that has lost both arms and legs, and must therefor be carried around in a basket. It is unknown whether anyone with such amputations was actually ever carried in a basket.

This sad and rather horrible phrase wasn't widely used until around WWII. How it came to apply to crazy people? I have no idea!

Dressed to the Nines

"Look at little Freddy! He's dressed to the nines in his little suit!"

This is another phrase that is surrounded by controversy when it comes to it's origins!

There are probably several theories but the three main ones are:

1) One common theory is this. In the days when being well dressed involved lots of velvet, fur, brocade, etc. a tailor would be required to use at least nine yards of material to make so rich an outfit. So supposedly dressed to the nines refers to being dressed in all nine yards of material.

2) Another theory states that this is a reference to the 99th Wiltshire Regiment. In the 19th Century this sharp regiment earned a reputation for always being rather well dressed. So they called them 'the Nines'.

3) The final theory is that this phrase first gained prominence in Scottish writing (especially poetry), particularly the poems of Robert Burns, and is a reference to The Nine Muses of Greek mythology.

Those are the theories! My favorite is probably the regiment one. Which one is the right one? No one really knows!

Close But No Cigar!

"Well, that was close, but no cigar!"

This phrase most likely orginated from the 19th Century fairgrounds of the United States.

Much like the carnivals of today, in the 1920s and 1930s, they where filled with games galore! Unlike today however, rather than handing out over sized stuffed animals or blowup aliens, they commonly awarded success with a cigar!

So when a customer narrowly (or perhaps not so narrowly) missed success the booth keeper would drawl out; "Close, my friend, but no Cigar!"


Show Your True Colors

"Sooner or later I knew he'd show his true colors!"

This phrase is also descended from the sea. In nautical terms your nation's flag is your colors. Colors where flown in order to identify the nationality of the ship. That way in a war your ships would know what ships belonged to the enemy.

That was the way things where supposed to be done. However, a sneaky captain would sometimes run up the colors of a different nation. This way when his enemy saw the flag they would think he was one of them and come close enough for him to attack them and take them by surprise!

Not too surprisingly this rather unscrupulous method was often employed by pirates to lure in their prey.

Always A Bridesmaid Never A Bride

"Well, you know what they say, Always a Bridesmaid Never A Bride!"

No doubt you've heard this saying a time or too. But did you know that we actually have bad breath to thank for it!?

The phrase itself is said to have been taken from the musical tune, Why am I always a Bridesmaid? by Fred W. Leigh.

But it wasn't until 1924 that this phrase enjoyed widespread use. This is when Listerine released a new ad campaign featuring forlorn bridesmaid, Edna. Poor Edna is at a loss as to why she has been unable to secure a fitting mate. But her friends all know, it is her terrible breath that is chasing them all away!

Listerine Ad Featuring Edna, the Perpetual Bridesmaid
Listerine Ad Featuring Edna, the Perpetual Bridesmaid | Source

Under His Thumb

"She has him completely under her thumb!"

The origin of this interesting phrase is under debate but one common explanation is that it comes from falconry. The birds are generally kept on a short leash which is unfastened when the bird is released. However if the master wants his bird to be kept on a short reign he wraps part of the leash, which is called a 'Jess', under his thumb, thus maintaining his control over the bird.

Those who disagree with the falcon theory may say that the phrase is a corruption of the Nottingham phrase, 'thumbing'. Which was used to describe a master that intimidated his servants. Frankly I don't see why it couldn't be a bit of both.



Falconry is the ancient sport of using raptors, such as falcons, to hunt small game.

"Lord White Elephant" Watercolor and Ink by Colesworthey Grant
"Lord White Elephant" Watercolor and Ink by Colesworthey Grant | Source

White Elephant!

"Here you go! My white elephant gift!"

Just about every holiday season is accompanied by the dreaded white elephant gift exchange. But for everyone who has gotten that ugly lamp, or ancient crock pot, just be glad you don't live in Thailand!

Apparently White Elephants are a big deal in Thailand. They even put one on their flag in 1917! But just like that old cock pot, a white elephant may not have been on the top of your wish list!

According to legend if someone had angered the Siamese King he would present them with the gift of a White Elephant. Though this may seem nice it was really a disaster in disguise! Why? White Elephants where very expensive to keep in food and shelter, so caring for one would often lead to finical ruin!

Whether or not the legend is true is debatable! What isn't is that no matter what it is you don't want it, but can't give it back!

Toe the Line

"Come on Jake, Toe the Line!"

The exact origin of this phrase is unsure. Many think that it probably comes from placing ones toe on the line before the beginning of a sporting event such as a race.

While this explanation makes sense I did come across another one that was a lot more interesting.

According to tradition this phrase is actually taken from the British House of Commons. I'm sure that many a heated debate has taken place there over the course of history. But some say that in the times when MPs still carried swords debates grew so heated that it became necessary to scratch two lines, two sword's width apart on the floor. Then when members from each apposing side made speeches they were expected to stay behind the line.

How many of these phrases do you use often?

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    • Sara Copley profile imageAUTHOR

      Sara Copley 

      3 years ago

      Hi Patty Inglish. Thanks for your comment! Yeah, basket case is a sad one, I hope they never actually called anyone that! Break A Leg is my favorite, I'm glad it ended well for him! It was fun hub to research and to write. I am so glad you enjoyed it!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      3 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      I find this Hub most entertaining and specifically like the Break-a-Leg back story. Such a happy ending there!

      "Toe the Line" has always eluded me and I never remember to look it up, so thanks a million for that one, too!

      Basket Case is a sad one, isn't it? Regardless, I appreciated reading every one of these. Kudos!

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