Common idioms like “bite the bullet” and “bury the hatchet” add color to our everyday conversations, but do you know where those expressions come from or why we say them?
Many of these expressions have their roots in history, legends, and old traditions. Learning the stories behind them will certainly give you a new perspective each time you use them!
What Is an Idiom?
An idiom is a phrase that comes to mean something totally different from its literal meaning. This meaning typically comes from the context in which it was first used, and later evolves to be used in other situations.
23 Common Idioms
Below are 23 common idioms that you’ve probably used at least once but never realized their origins.
1. Armed to the teeth
Definition: Being overly prepared or too well equipped.
Origin: A possible origin is 17th century pirates who wanted to make sure they never ran out of ammunition, and held a gun in each hand. In order to be prepared, they tended to keep another gun in their pocket and held a knife in their teeth.
2. Barking up the wrong tree
Definition: Following a false lead or having misguided thoughts about a situation or event.
Origin: The phrase may have stemmed from the use of hunting dogs, who would bark up the trees into which they’d seen their prey run. Even if the prey has somehow escaped to a different tree, the dogs may still continue “barking at the wrong tree.”
3. Basket case
Definition: A thing or person considered useless or not able to cope.
Origin: The phrase initially referred to soldiers who lost their limbs, and possibly originated in 1919, when rumors circulated that limbs of decapitated soldiers arrived in baskets at a hospital.
Major General M.W. Ireland was the first to refer to these as “basket cases” in his bulletin to express that they had not seen the said baskets.
4. Bite the bullet
Definition: To accept something unpleasant or difficult.
Origin: During a war or in times when doctors did not have anesthesia, they would distract the patient from pain by asking them to bite hard down on a bullet. The first recorded written use of this phrase was in The Light that Failed in 1891.
5. Break the ice
Definition: To make a group feel comfortable so as to cultivate friendship; alternatively means to stop a conflict between friends.
Origin: During the time when roads were not yet fully developed, ships were the main means of transportation and trade. During the winter, these ships might get stuck on ice that formed on lakes and other bodies of water.
The receiving country would then send smaller ships and help the trade ships pass by breaking the ice for them. This gesture has come to mean an invitation of friendship between the sending and receiving countries.
6. Bury the hatchet
Definition: To forget an offense and be reconciled.
Origin: Long ago, when the Puritans were fighting with the Native Americans, the Native Americans had a tradition of burying their hatchets, clubs, tomahawks, and knives during peace negotiations. The act of burying weapons and making them inaccessible was their sign for peace.
7. Butter him up
Definition: To flatter someone.
Origin: In ancient India, a customary religious act involved devotees throwing balls of butter at the statues of their gods. This was meant to ask for the gods’ forgiveness and favor.
8. Cat got your tongue?
Definition: A question thrown to a person when he doesn’t seem to know what to say.
Origin: One of the possible sources for this phrase is the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip used for flogging in the English Navy.
Being whipped caused severe pain that the victim would stay mute for an extended time. A second possible origin is ancient Egypt: people would cut out blasphemers’ and liars’ tongues and feed them to the cats!
9. Caught red-handed
Definition: To catch someone in the act of doing something wrong.
Origin: An old English law stipulated that anyone who butchered another person’s animal would be punished.
The condition was that he would be found guilty if the accusers caught him while he still had the blood of the slain animal on his hands.
10. Fly off the handle
Definition: To become suddenly enraged.
Origin: The phrase comes from the 1800s, when some axes were so poorly made that when swung, the ax heads would fly off the handle.
11. Giving someone the cold shoulder
Definition: To treat someone in a hostile or unwelcoming manner
Origin: Back in medieval times, whenever someone had a guest over, it was considered impolite to ask the guest outright to leave.
Instead, they had a custom: when the host gave the guest a piece of meat from the shoulder of pork, beef, or mutton already cold, it signaled that the dinner was over and the guest should get ready to leave.
12. Go the whole nine yards
Definition: To give your all toward something.
Origin: Fighter pilots during World War II had nine yards’ worth of ammunition. When they gave their all to the battle, they would run out of this whole nine yards of ammunition.
13. Kick the bucket
Definition: To die.
Origin: During the 16th century, butchers would slaughter animals by hanging them on a wooden beam, which was called a “bucket” at that time. When the animals were killed, many of them would have a sudden convulsion, causing them to kick violently into the “bucket.”
14. Let the cat out of the bag
Definition: To accidentally reveal a secret.
Origin: Around the 1700s, sellers would trick buyers by putting pigs, considered valuable, in bags together with cats, which were not valuable. If a cat got out of the bag, their fraud would be unveiled.
15. Let your hair down
Definition: To be comfortable with someone
Origin: During medieval times, women in the aristocracy were required to appear in public with their hair done up in elegant buns. When they arrived back home, that was when they could relax and “let their hair down”—literally!
16. Mad as a hatter
Definition: To be totally crazy.
Origin: Although the term often reminds us of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, the true origin of this phrase goes back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
In 17th century France, hat makers used mercury on the hat felt, which resulted in poisoning. The poisoning resulted in irritability, shyness, and tremors, all of which reminded observers of a person going mad; hence, it was called the “Mad Hatter Disease.”
17. Red herring
Definition: A clue that is meant to mislead or distract someone.
Origin: During the 17th century, hunters would train their dogs to follow the correct scent. They would do this by placing pungent smoked fish in trees to distract the dogs, so they would become used to ignoring irrelevant scents.
18. Riding shotgun
Definition: To ride in the front seat of a vehicle.
Origin: When driving a coach in the Wild West, whoever sat next to the driver in the front seat often needed to have a shotgun in order to kill any robbers that might come upon them.
19. Rub someone the wrong way
Definition: To annoy or bother another person
Origin: During colonial times, some Americans would have their servants rub the floorboards in a specific way.
Rubbing the oak slabs the wrong way would result in the formation of streaks, which ruined the floorboards and annoyed the homeowner.
20. Skeleton in the closet
Definition: A secret that someone is embarrassed about.
Origin: Before the UK passed its 1832 Anatomy Act, grave robbers supplied skeletons for medical schools. When a raid occurred, the teachers tended to hide these skeletons in the closet so as not to have them confiscated.
21. Straight from the horse’s mouth
Definition: To get information directly from a reliable source.
Origin: During the 1900s, in order to determine the age of a horse, a buyer would examine its teeth. This would confirm or dispute the age that the seller claimed.
22. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater
Definition: Getting rid of something valuable in the process of eliminating the unnecessary.
Origin: During the early 1500s, families bathed only once a year, and they also used the same water for every person in the family. The adult males had the first turn, followed by the females, and the children would go last. By that time, the water would have been filthy from everyone who had already bathed.
Because the babies were the last in the tub, which was now very dirty, there was a risk of accidentally throwing the bathwater out with the baby still in it!
23. Turn a blind eye
Definition: To ignore facts or situations deliberately.
Origin: Admiral Horatio Nelson was a British Naval hero with one blind eye. One time, the British forces sent him signals to stop their attack on the Danish fleet.
But Nelson raised the telescope to his blind eye, and claimed he did not see any signal. He went on the attack anyway and won over the Danes.
Understanding Common Expressions
Now that you are familiar with these idioms and their crazy origins, you can use them to make your writing more interesting and colorful.
And who knows? You may even pen a few of your own that end up sticking for centuries!
Do you know any other phrases with unusual origins? Share them with us in the comments below!