Expressions, Sayings & Idioms: Origins

There are so many different sayings, idioms, and expressions that we use in the every day English language. I grew up hearing so many of them that they just became a natural way of expressing something, and I never really stopped to think what it actually meant or how it came to be. So, I thought it might be an interesting post to dive into a few theories {as there are many for each} of the origins of some commonly used expressions, sayings and idioms. Hopefully you’ll find it as interesting as I did.

Balls to the Wall – {all-out effort, full throttle, push the limit} Contrary to what many believe, this is an expression from the aviation world. The handles that control the throttle and fuel mixture on an airplane commonly have ball-shaped grips on their tops. Pilots referred to them as balls. By pushing the balls forward, towards the cockpit wall, they make the airplane go full throttle at the highest speed possible.

Basket Case – {someone made powerless or ineffective, as by nerves, panic or stress} Originated from WWI, it indicated a soldier missing both his arms and legs, who literally required to be carried around in a litter or basket. Nowadays, it refers to a helplessness state similar to the metaphoric removal of the appendages.

Bite the Bullet – {to bravely face up to something unpleasant} Most commonly thought to refer to giving a bullet to a soldier or sailor to clench between their teeth while being amputated on {or during surgery} in the times before anesthetics. While this may have been practiced, a piece of wood or cloth would have been more likely at hand and far more suitable for biting as they were less likely to be swallowed. The more probable explanation is that in battle, soldiers would hold their bullets between their teeth so they could reload more quickly. To bite the bullet was therefore to be ready for battle.

To Blackball – {to exclude someone from a social group or club} A ballot was originally a small ball, and it was used in the secret voting system of placing ballots in a box or urn. A black one was used to express an adverse vote, hence the modern meaning.

Chip on one’s shoulder – {bears a grudge or grievance;} Back in the pioneering days, chips of wood were common litter just as pieces of paper are today. Originating in the USA, there was a custom in which a person who was looking for a fight would carry a chip of wood on his shoulder and invite people to knock it off, with anyone who did so, agreeing to fight.

Clean as a Whistle – {very clean} This was referring to the formerly common tin or penny whistle- a simple musical instrument which doesn’t make notes if its tube or holes are clogged.

Clean Bill of Health – {doctor’s advice that there are no medical problems} This was a nautical term for a certificate {bill} that was given to the captain of a ship sailing from a port that was predisposed to infection. A clean bill declared there was no infection in the port or on the ship at the time of sailing. Before docking would be allowed at the next port of call, the certificate would be required.

Elvis has Left the Building – {the show is over} This would literally be announced at the end of an Elvis Presley concert to encourage the fans to go home.

In the Limelight – {in the center or position of public attention} Before electric lighting, theater stages were lit up by heating lime in an oxyhydrogen flame which caused an intense white light. They called this limelight, as was the mechanism that produced it. Therefore, someone who is said to be in or enjoy the limelight is being compared to an actor on stage.

Let the Cat out of the Bag – {disclose a secret} A farmer who was claiming to be selling a young pig, might dishonestly substitute a cat or some other valueless animal in a tied bag. A cautious buyer would check the purchase on the spot; an unsuspecting buyer would fail to do so until too late. Either way, the cat would then literally be let out of the bag and the truth would be known.

Mad as a Hatter – {some who’s crazy} Mercury was utilized in the treatment of felt which was used in the manufacturing of hats in 18th and 19th century England. The people who worked in the hat factories were exposed to it daily, which accumulated within their bodies over time and caused some workers to develop dementia caused by mercury poisoning. Therefore, mad as a hatter became popular as a way to refer to someone who was perceived as insane.

Make Ends Meet – {live within one’s income} Originally, it was “make both ends meet” – the two ends being the beginning of the year and the end of the year. Meet has its old sense of agree or tally. Thus, the whole phrase means “keep one’s finances, income and expenditure, in balance throughout the year”.

♦ No Holds Barred – {without any rules or constraints} – Originates from all-in wrestling, in which it was forbidden to use a hold, grip, or any method as such of dealing with an opponent.

Not fit to hold a candle to – {person much inferior to or not to be compared with another} Originally from the time when holding a candle to {or for} a person was a servant’s task, and they would light the way for the householder from one part of the residence to another. Thus the modern sense of inferiority.

On a Wing and a Prayer – {hopeful but not likely to succeed} This phrase comes from a WWII song by Harold Adamson, based on the actual words of the pilot of a damaged aircraft who radioed the control tower as he prepared to come in to land. The song runs: “Tho’ there’s one motor gone, we can still carry on / Comin’ in on a wing and prayer”. {It is up for interpretation as to whether the wing that was referred to was the wing of the airplane, or a more celestial being.}

Pipe Dream – {impossible fanciful hope or plans} This was originally a reference to the fantasies caused by the pipe-smoking of opium. Opium once was a legal drug in the form of laudanum.

Sleep Tight – {sleep well} Before we had box springs, old bed frames used ropes pulled tightly between the frame rails to support the mattress. The mattress would sag if the ropes became loose and made for uncomfortable sleeping, therefore tightening the ropes would help one get a good night’s sleep.

Steal someone’s Thunder – {use someone else’s idea without permission or right, especially to their advantage} Born in 1657, John Dennis was known as a critic, but was also an unsuccessful poet and dramatist. He wrote the dismal tragedy called “Appius and Virginia” for which he invented a device for making stage thunder. Dennis’ bitterness at his play’s early closing was made worse when he heard his own thunder-device being used in a subsequent production of someone else’s play. Literary scholar Joseph Spence recorded Dennis’ response which was later quoted in W.S. Walsh’s “Literary Curiosities”: “They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”

Tongue in Cheek – {ironically humorous} This dates back to 1748 when it was fashionable to signal contempt for someone by literally making a bulge in one’s cheek with the tongue. By 1842, the phrase had acquired its modern, ironic sense.

Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve – {be very open in showing one’s feelings} There was an old custom where a young man tied a favor -perhaps a handkerchief or ribbon- to his sleeve that was given to him by a lady as a sign of her affection {her heart}. The expression is now used of one’s own heart {feelings} on one’s own sleeve.

Win hands Down – {win with little to no effort} This comes from horse racing. A jockey who is winning will commonly ride with their hands held loosely down since there’s no need to use them to bring pressure on the horse.

A lot of these are theories {and even then, one of many} but I still found it very interesting. Hopefully you found something interesting, yourself, and perhaps feel a little more enlightened as I did.



Filed under Fun to Know

2 responses to “Expressions, Sayings & Idioms: Origins

  1. These were so much fun to read. It’s always amazing to discover origins. If you don’t mind, my sweet daughter, I would love to print these and use them at school. Great job!

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