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You Don't Say? The Amusing History Behind 10 Common English Expressions

Updated on March 7, 2018

Have you ever used an expression and then wondered where it came from? In this hub I will discuss the story behind 10 common English expressions. So the next time you call someone a "Goody Two Shoes" you'll know why!

Murphy's Law

"If anything can go wrong it will."

This famous and inevitable law of nature is probably more familiar to you than you would like it be. I know it is with me! But what you may not know is that we actually have the Air Force to thank for it.

Murphy's law was coined at Edward's Air Force base in 1949.

A group of service men where working on developing Air Force Project MX981. Which was a project designed to test how much deceleration a person is able to endure in a crash. One day while working, the engineer, a man named Captain Edward A. Murphy, discovered that a transducer was wired wrong. Frustrated, he exclaimed about the technician , "If there is any way to do it wrong, he'll find it!"

The project manager, kept a little book in which he recorded various laws. He overheard Murphy and added his 'law' to his collection calling it, 'Murphy's Law'.

The test dummy of the decelerator, a Dr. John Paul Strapp, credited the high safety standards of the project to a 'firm belief in Murphy's Law and in the necessity to try and circumvent it.' Murphy's Law was then picked up by Aerospace manufactures and was used in several ad campaigns. It spread from there and has been explaining misfortunes ever since!

Murphy isn't the only airman to coin a law. Dr. Stapp, was the inventor of 'Stapp's Ironical Paradox' which declared, "The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle."

George E. Nichols (the manager of the Northrop project) had a few laws of his own. His Fourth Law is, "Avoid any action with an unacceptable outcome."

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons | Source

An Arm and A Leg

"That'll cost an Arm and a Leg."

If you have ever been to a Starbucks's coffee shop your probably familiar with this phrase. The exact origin of this phrase is unknown. Many believe that it comes from the fact that arms and legs are very precious and not readily parted with.

However there is another explanation to the origin of this phrase that I find a lot more interesting.

Since the camera wasn't invented until 1816, snapshots weren't an option for much of the past. In those bye gone days if you wanted a likeness of yourself you would have to commission an artist to paint it. Now, if you have ever tried to create a portrait you will understand why they can be rather expensive. If you where interested in saving a bit of cash you would opt for a portrait of just the head and shoulders, since it was typically the cheapest option. If you where feeling a bit ritzy you might add the arms. Portraits 'from the legs up' or a full figure portrait, was the most expensive. So to afford one of those you would probably have to be royalty!

There probably isn't much truth to the portrait theory. However it does make for a better story!

Buy the Farm

"Poor Ole George he bought the farm."

This odd saying is said to have come from WWII. There are three main theories as to it's origin.

1) When an American soldier died the insurance money on his life was enough to pay off the mortgage on his family's farm.

2) Soldiers would often wistfully say things like, "when this is all over I'll go back, marry Sally, and we'll buy a farm'. So some think that the phrase 'he bought the farm' meant that he bought the farm he dreamed of figuratively in his death

3) The third, and most sinister in my opinion, is that this phrase had nothing to do with soldier's at all. Instead it came from the fact that farmers where reimbursed for damages made to their land by plane crashes. Since pilots rarely survived such crashes the young pilot bought the farmer's farm with his life.

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

"Pinterest is the best thing since sliced bread!"

To understand the origin of this phrase we need to go back to the way it was before everything was modernized. I'm talking about those dark days, when there was no Google. When looking something up actually meant going to the library, finding the right book, and flipping through the pages. And yes, when you had to slice your own bread.

The year is 1928.Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler turned inventor, has just completed work on what he was convinced would change everyday life for millions. The bread slicer. Thrilled, Rohwedder patents his bread slicer and makes his first sale to his friend and baker, Frank Bench. For the first time ever pre-sliced bread is available for sale!

But there is just one slight problem. Slicing the bread all at once cases some of the slices to dry out. (Unless you ate it all at once, which might lead to obesity!) That was until Gustav Papendick, a baker in St. Louis, re-engineered his Rohwedder bread slicer to wrap the bread after slicing it, keeping all the slices fresh.

In 1930 The Continental Baking Company introduced it's new 'Wonder Bread', the first sliced and packaged commercial bread. And the phrase, "Best thing since sliced Bread" was born.

Interestingly enough the invention of uniform pre-sliced bread lead to the invention of the first toaster ovens!

Quitting Cold Turkey

"That's right I'm quitting cold turkey!"

The origin of this interesting phrase is deeply American. In the annals of American History, the humble Turkey plays a rather distinguished role. It is after all the bird upon which our noble pilgrim fathers nourished at the first Thanksgiving. (At least that's the way the story goes)

So because of that fact when an American says "It's time to talk Turkey." You better take them seriously. To them turkey means 'no nonsense' or 'this is the real deal'. Why? I have no idea.

One theory for this phrase is that when an addict is going off a drug their skin is white and covered in goosebumps. Perhaps resembling the skin of our favorite foul, the Turkey.

Benjamin Franklin thought so much of the Turkey that he wanted to make it our national bird, but he lost out to the more regal eagle.

Goody Two Shoes

"Oh, don't be such a Goody Two Shoes!"

If your anything like me you have probably heard this phrase a time or two.

This phrase is taken from a nursery rhyme entitled, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. Attributed to Oliver Goldsmith and published in 1765. Goody Two Shoes is the story of a good little girl, named Margery Meanwell. Margery was a poor orphan, who because of her poverty, had only one shoe. In the story she meets a rich old man who, becuase of her goodness, rewards her with a pair of shoes. For the rest of the story Margery excitedly declares that she is the proud possessor of "two shoes!" to everyone she meets!

We have been using her name to describe do-gooders ever since!

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons | Source

Eaten Out of House and Home

Here is a phrase that anyone with a large family is probably familiar with!

This phrase was coined by the famous playwright William Shakespeare, in his play Henry IV, in which Mistress Quickly, distraught, exclaims, "He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his!"

Shake A Leg

"Come on! We got to go! Shake a Leg!"

The origin of this phrase is unclear. But there are a few funny and fascinating theories.

My favorite is that this phrase is a corruption of another phrase 'Show a leg!". Which comes from the Royal Navy. The phrase 'show a leg' is supposed to have been the wake up call given to sailors to get out of bed. The sailor would have to get out of bed or at least put a leg out in order to be left alone.

Another explanation is. Women where often allowed aboard Royal Navy ships in the 19th Century. The ladies where permitted to sleep in. When someone would give the call 'Show a leg' you where to stick out your dainty feminine leg so that they would know that you where a lady and not a mangy sailor!

Every cloud has a silver lining

"You just have to look for the silver lining!"

We all know that all clouds have a silver lining. The only problem is this makes them very heavy, so watch out for falling clouds!

The poet John Milton was the first to link the clouds and silver linings together in his masque Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle which was written way back in 1634.

Clouds and silver linings where referred to in literature thereafter. However it wasn't until the Victorian Era that the actual phrasing, 'there's a silver lining to every cloud' came about.

A 'masque' was a popular form of European court entertainment in the 16th and early 17th centuries. It was sort of an a elaborate musical play.

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons | Source

At The Drop Of A Hat

"He get's mad at the drop of a hat."

Well, perhaps he doesn't want the hat to get dirty? The history behind hat dropping is said to come from the American West.

In medieval times the dropping of a glove signified the challenge to a fight. It is storied that in the American West the signal to begin a fight was the dropping of a hat.

Which was your favorite saying history?

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    • Greg Heffley profile image

      Siddharth Ramsundar 

      3 years ago from Chennai,Tamil Nadu,India

      Y.W mmmm!

    • Sara Copley profile imageAUTHOR

      Sara Copley 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for your comment Greg!

    • Sara Copley profile imageAUTHOR

      Sara Copley 

      3 years ago

      Thank you Phoebe! I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

    • Greg Heffley profile image

      Siddharth Ramsundar 

      3 years ago from Chennai,Tamil Nadu,India

      Yeah they pour outta your mouth without you knowing?!!! All English use it! If YOU are fro another part of the world,you might burst a vein or drop your jaw! Dude if they mean to ask,'what's your name fella?' ,they won't mean it! They might mean 'Have you lost your brain man?!' because there when I went to Yorkshire(though I'm Indian and born in US), I knew when they ask for your name, sometimes they mean you've lost your brain cause' that's why they ask your nae to check if you've regained your brain!

      Well Said Phoebe!

    • Phoebe Garner profile image

      Phoebe Garner 

      3 years ago from Doncaster, England

      This made my day. I never knew about the origins of most of these phrases, but the one about the arm and a leg cracked me up! Good article my dear!

      What makes this better is that I'm from Yorkshire in England, and all of these phrases are actually commonplace in every sentence in our speech.


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