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What’s in a phrase? A look at the origins of some of the every day phrases we use.

Updated on March 3, 2012
Why do we say what we say?
Why do we say what we say?

Phrases, sayings and idioms...

The English language is full of odd phrases, sayings and idioms which many of us employ on a regular basis. I often catch myself saying something and then wonder to myself where the phrase came from. It's fun to guess sometimes, but often times the true origin is surprising.

Here are a dozen common phrases that I know I have used and I'm sure you have too. Have a look at where they came from so that next time you use them you can understand why you are saying what you are saying.

"Saved by the bell"

This phrase is most commonly used when something unwanted is avoided at the last minute. It is often applied to a boxing match when one boxer is hemmed on the ropes under constant attack only to be “saved by the bell” ringing to denote the end of that round. The origin actually comes from many years ago when it was not uncommon for people, who were presumed dead, to actually be buried alive. This common and costly error led to the tying of a string with a bell on the end to a “dead” person’s hand before they were buried. The string was long enough for the bell end to be tied to a nearby branch. If the person revived and the bell was heard to ring, they would be dug up – thereby being “saved by the bell”

"Turn the tables on them"

This phrase is used when we are changing the complexion of a situation as viewed by another party. A clever act in war that catches the other army by surprise could be said to have “turned the tables” on the enemy. The phrase goes back to the days when a family would have a dining table that had a top that was finished nicely on one side, but the underneath was rough and unfinished. When they had guests, they would have the polished side showing, but once the guests left, they would “turn the tables” on them and use the rough side for everyday meals.

"Saving face" & "Losing face"

These phrases relate to keeping or losing your reputation in the eyes of others. The origin of their use dates back to the 1700’s when it was the custom for ladies and gentlemen to wear face make up to impress one another and hide blemishes. Because they didn’t wash regularly, this make up would get thicker with time as more was applied. The problem with that was that with all homes having open fireplaces, if you sat too close to the fire, your face would start to melt! When that happened a servant would move a screen in front of the heat to stop you from “losing face”.

As mad as a hatter"

This is a phrase used to describe someone who is acting crazily or irrationally. It is oftentimes attributed to the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, but he is just an example of its earlier use having been adopted. The true origin goes back to England in the 1800’s when everybody wore hats. These hats were often made with felt, which was treated with chemicals that were toxic. The side effects on the hat makers included confused speech and thinking, as well as some physical symptoms akin to palsy. Hence, people who were a little odd, would be said to be as “mad as a hatter”.

"It's raining cats and dogs"

We use this phrase to describe a very heavy downfall of rain but it has an interesting origin. Old English houses usually had thatched roofs, which comprised of thick straw piled high on wooden beams. This thatching provided a nice warm place for small animals, cats, dogs and also bugs to hide for protection and warmth. When it rained, the thatching became slippery and it was quite common for animals to literally fall from the roof into the house, causing it to be “raining cats and dogs”.

"Buy it on the black market"

This is a phrase used to signify an illegal or underground network of vendors and buyers providing cheaper or unlawful purchases. In medieval England apart from the sworn knights, there were wandering mercenaries who would sell their services to the highest bidder. These men lived in the wild and as a result their armour tarnished over time until it was no longer shiny. Instead it took on a blackened look. They were known as “Black Knights”. Victors in jousts were usually awarded the opponents armour for their win, and these black knights would then in turn sell the armour back to the losing knight, who would have no option but to “buy it on the black market”.

"Going to pot"

This is used to mean something that has gone from splendor to ruin. It originates from the Middle Ages when after a large meal, leftovers were re-used again for a second meal, but after that, anything remaining was put in a large stew pot and made into an inferior meal of leftover stew. Hence, what was once part of a tasty meal but not eaten, would end up “going to pot”.

"Don't throw the baby out with the bath water"

This is a phrase meaning not to dismiss all aspects of a subject because there just might be something of use in the small details. It originates again in the Middle Ages when families took a bath only once a year. They would fill a large tub with clean, hot water and the man of the house would bathe, followed by the other sons and men. After that would follow the women, children and finally the babies. By the time the babies were bathed, the water was dirty and thick meaning it would not be possible to see if an infant was still in the bath. Hence, they would say to whomever was emptying the tub not to “throw the baby out with the bath water”.

"Pull the wool over someone's eyes"

This phrase is used to imply that we have fooled someone into thinking one thing when something else is true. The origin goes to back to when men wore powdered wigs of the kind that judges still do. The word “wool” was most commonly used to describe someone’s hair. If someone didn’t want someone else to see something that was happening, they would push the person’s wig forward over their eyes, thereby “pulling the wool over someone’s eyes”.

"Let the cat out of the bag"

This is said when someone reveals a hidden truth. It dates back to the markets and fairs of old England when a con-man would attempt to sell someone a burlap bag that contained a cat on the pretext that it really contained a pig (much more useful). If the suspicious patron questioned the transaction and insisted on seeing the pig, the seller would have to “let the cat out of the bag”.

"Hang on to the bitter end"

This is when you extend your efforts without giving up even if it means you try but still fail. It’s not quitting. It originates from a nautical term. The posts around an old ship upon which ropes are tied were called bitts. A bitter is a cable tied once around the bitt, and the bitter end is the very last loop of that cable. If a cable is let out to the bitter end, there is no more slack and the ship is in danger of damage in the event of a storm, as it has nowhere to move. It has reached the “bitter end”.

"Son of a gun"

People use this phrase in both a congratulatory and derogatory way. It’s origin comes from when British sailors who had travelled a long distance and had just conquered a new land, would take the native women onto their ship and have sex with them amongst the cannons on the lower decks. The result was sons left behind after the sailors moved on who were called “sons of the gun”.

Well there you have it - twelve sayings and their origins. There are hundreds of these that we use without giving any thought to their origins. I find it fascinating that we still use phrases today that date back hundreds of years and that those phrases usually have evolved into a new meaning, albeit often not unlinked to the original. The currents meanings are more generic rather than being literal when created.


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    • petenali profile image

      Pete 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks SantaCruz. That thing about the annual bath kinda grossed me out too! Appreciate the comment.

    • SantaCruz profile image

      SantaCruz 5 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA

      Those poor dirty/bathed babies! Thanks for a super-informative & amusing contribution. I'll give you a link from my "Fun English Words" hub :-).