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Where Did THAT Saying Come From? Origins of Common Sayings

Updated on May 25, 2012

Our Crazy English Language

The English language is full of phrases and sayings that we hear everyday but where they came from is a mystery. Phrases like "pass the buck" and "throw in the towel", how did they get started? This article is going to look at some common phrases and explore their beginnings.

1. "Axe to grind": This phrase means having a mean or selfish motive, or a grudge against someone. This came from a story by Benjamin Franklin in which he was the main character. In the story, Franklin was approached by a stranger who stopped to admire the family grindstone. The stranger offered Franklin an ax so that he could demonstrate the tool. Once the ax was sharp, the stranger walked off laughing.

2. "No Spring Chicken": New England chicken farmers learned that chickens born in the spring brought better prices at market that older ones that had gone through a winter. Some farmers tried to pass older chickens off as spring chickens, but wise buyers could tell that the older chickens were not spring chickens. The term now refers to birds and people past their prime years.

3. "Break the Ice": Towns that developed along rivers had difficulty during times of extreme cold when the river froze. Ships could not get down the river to do business. Smaller boats were created to go before the bigger ships and were known as "icebreakers". Today this phrase is used to mean anything that starts a project.

4. "Pass the Buck": This phrase is used to mean anyone who avoids making decisions. In the old days when cards were being played, the dealer had a lot of responsibility in determining how the game would be played. A buckshot was placed in front of the player who was noted as the dealer. If a player did not want the responsibility of the deal, the buckshot was passed to the next player.

5. "Throw in the Towel": This term is used when a person can't go on or gives up during an activity. The term comes from the old days of boxing. Boxers would fight until a player was down and often could not get up. Since the player was so weak and often could not get up or signal that he was out, a trainer would often throw a towel or sponge into the ring to signal completion and soak up the blood.

6. "Rub the wrong way": In colonial days, settlers had wooden floors. Once per week, servants were to wet and rub dry the floors to clean them. If the wood was rubbed against the wood grain it looked terrible and the settlers were embarrassed if company came to visit. Today this phrase is used when one person says or does something to offend another person whether on purpose or accidentally.

7. "Spill the beans": In ancient Greece, when there was an election or a vote, it was conducted using black and white beans. The jar was closed and was not clear so no one could see inside. People kept the beans hidden in their hands and dropped them secretely in the jar so no one would know the outcome of the vote until the election was over. Sometimes, however, a clumsy voter would turn over the jar, spilling the beans and revealing the votes. Today it is used to discuss when a secret is revealed.

8. "On cloud nine": The number nine has often signified power and may in fact go back to the Christian concept of the Trinity: 3x3=9. Clouds were often said to have layers, and the highest layer was number 9, so when someone was very happy, they were said to be soaring in the clouds. It was assumed they were on the highest cloud, number 9. Now, when someone is really happy about something or in love, we say the are "on cloud nine".

9. "On the wrong side of the bed": In ancient days, since most everyone and everything was right-handed, the left side of the body or anything on the left was mysterious, sinister, or dangerous. The left side of beds was often pushed up to the wall so that a person often got out of bed on the right side. Today, the term is used to describe a person who is irritable or in a bad mood.

10. "Graveyard shift": This term is used to mean an overnight shift worked by an employee in a company. Contrary to popular belief, one theory states this had nothing to do with graveyards origionally. Any thick liquid was called "gravy", and laughing until you cried was called "gravy-eyed". Sailors who stayed up all night on ships were often bleary-eyed or "gravy-eyed" from being so tired. On land, people did not understand what sailors were talking about when they used this term, and being superstitions, they thought the term had to do with graves and being "dead tired", hence "graveyard shift".

The other possible origin was in early days of burial. Graves were reused after a number of years or cemetaries were destroyed to make way for newer construction, so coffins were dug up. When opened, there were scratch marks on the inside, indicating that some of the people had been buried alive. As a result, when a person died, bells were placed above the ground and a string tied from the bell to the arm of the dead. Someone was assigned the "graveyard watch" to stay awake and listen for the bell to ring so that the person could be saved. Two other phrases derived from this theory included "Saved by the bell" and "Dead ringer".

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    • pmorries profile image

      pmorries 5 years ago from Golden, CO

      I enjoy learning the origin of a saying, and I really enjoyed your Hub. I look forward to reading more Hubs from you in the future.

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      Thank you pmorries. I appreciate you commenting. There are so many more that I may have to do a follow up on this one. I have always been curious about these sayings.

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      Pmorries, I edited the hub to include one other more common idea as to the origin of #10, which also includes 2 more phrases.

    • carter06 profile image

      Mary 5 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      I really enjoyed this, thanks for sharing with us...it's such fun reading about saying's such as these and why they were said originally...and yes please do follow up as there are so many more...looking forward to more great future hubs...

      lot's of votes.

    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 5 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      Excellent Hub, TripleAMom. I particularly liked the Graveyard Shift explanation. Voted up + two.

      p.s. Now I'll have to delete the hub draft I have for 'meanings of sayings.' Ah well, as long as I don't 'kick the bucket.'

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      @Carter06-thanks for reading. This was fun to research. There are so many more with explanations and sometimes there are conflicts, like "graveyard shift". I'll have to do #2. @John MacNab-thanks for your comments. I'm sure there are plenty of sayings for both of us, I found SO many. But please don't "kick the bucket", gotta read more from you :)

    • diamond1mo profile image

      KE Morgan 5 years ago from Arizona

      I would think that "saved by the bell" is an idiom from the sport of boxing. Fighters could not be counted out if the bell rang. Interesting.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Thanks for posting this hub, I found it a most enjoyable read. Now I know where many of the sayings I hear come from, especially the "spring chicken".

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      @diamond1mo-I heard that too, but the one I wrote was the most common I found. Teaches 12345, you are welcome. It was definitely fun to write. I didn't know these either. Like I said, there are so many, I have to write another. Thanks to both for reading.

    • vox vocis profile image

      Jasmine 5 years ago

      An interesting read! Glad to have learned about the origins of these sayings :) There are so many sayings, proverbs and idioms we use in everyday speech and never wonder how they came into existence. Great work!

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      vox voxis-thanks for reading and commenting. I agree these are very interesing to read about.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I love hubs like this one; I learn so much about the common things that have always been a part of our culture. Thanks for shedding light on these. Great hub!

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 4 years ago from Florida

      Thanks billybuc. I love these tidbits too. About to do another one since there are so many sayings out there. Stay tuned :)

    • Petra Vlah profile image

      Petra Vlah 4 years ago from Los Angeles

      As a foreigner, always intrigued by "crazy" English, I liked this hub a lot. Idiomatic expressions give any language more color and makes it more alive, so I love them even if in the beginning they make no sense. I had my share of challenges trying to understand some of them, so I would be more than grateful if you can explain some other sayings like "pulling my leg" or "wrap your head around this", " hitting the road", "all that and a bag of chips" etc.

      I do know the meaning of those expressions by now, but I would love to find out how did they come into the language in the first place.

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 4 years ago from Florida

      Petra, thanks for reading and commenting. I just published another yesterday on 10 more. Enjoy those. I like the ones you mentioned and will have to do Part 3. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • Levertis Steele profile image

      Levertis Steele 4 years ago from Southern Clime

      I enjoyed learning the interesting origins these familiar sayings. Thanks for sharing.

    • J.S.Matthew profile image

      JS Matthew 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I love learning about words and phrases and their origins. I actually wrote a Hub about interesting words and their origins (etymology). I always find it so interesting. You have shared some really interesting phrases here and it was nice to know where they came from! Voted up and shared! Thanks for the edification!

      JSMatthew~

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 4 years ago from Florida

      Thanks J.S. Matthew, reading some of your stuff too. Love your Father's Day hub. Appreciate the share.

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Very interesting. I didn't realize the origins of many of these sayings! I love learning new things. :)

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 4 years ago from Australia

      Hello, TripleAMom. Voted up. :)

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 4 years ago from Florida

      Thanks for reading and commenting!!!

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York

      TripleAMom,

      Ahh, I loved this. We use these sayings on a daily basis, we know what they are intended to mean but we don't stop to think about why. I particularly enjoyed "rub the wrong way" and "the wrong side of the bed". I have something interesting to talk about over coffee this morning other than how much drool is on my pillow :-)

      Loved it, voted up and interesting!

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 4 years ago from Florida

      Thank you so much for commenting. This was really fun to research and write. :)

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York

      TripleAMom,

      Hey, I knew I recognized you from somewhere! Well I really liked this... I still need to investigate what other things you've been up to! :-)

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 3 years ago from Florida

      Hey Cantuhearmescream, where did you recognize me from?

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 3 years ago from New York

      TripleAMom,

      Now I feel like an idiot because I don't know what I was referring to! I'm guessing you made a comment on one of my hubs and I hadn't realized it until the second time I came here? I dunno... I'm sorry. Gee, looking back now, I don't think I lived up to my words! I'll have to stop by another hub of yours! :D

      Cat

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 3 years ago from New York

      My comment didn't show up... then it did twice, this is my replacement so you don't have to wonder why it says "Comment Deleted"

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 3 years ago from Florida

      Cant--very funny. You sound like me. No worries. Thanks for reading.

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 3 years ago from New York

      Ha ha... I'm glad you're not offended by it... and I still owe you another visit!

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 3 years ago from london

      Cool, Triple mom.

      There are lots more as you know. Noble effort.

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