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Where Did THAT Saying Come From? Origins of Common Sayings
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".