13 English Idioms With Crazy Origins Most of Us Would Hardly Ever Guess
Even native English speakers don’t always know where some peculiar idioms of their mother tongue come from. But learning idioms and collocations isn’t just a useful thing for someone who wants to master a language — it can also be lots a fun!
We at Bright Side always try to find ways to make your days more interesting. So we came up with a list of common phrases that can spice up your speech, improve your English, and simply bring some excitement to some of the most ordinary things!
1. “Breakfast of champions”
Forget that boring porridge — it’s time for a breakfast of champions! This one consists of all things tasty — champagne, beer, wine...joking, of course! Porridge is good for you, but the expression “breakfast of champions” actually originated from a Wheaties advertising campaign featuring famous sportsmen. The expression is metaphorical, however, since it means that you would consume unhealthy foods and drinks for your first meal. Winston Churchill, the prominent British Prime Minister, was famous for starting his day with such a breakfast.
Back in the 15th century, not so many people were allowed to eat breakfast or had the time and resources to do so. The Tudors were the first ones to make it a regular practice, so we should be grateful to them for making breakfast something that’s such an important part of our everyday lives.
2. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
We know you wouldn’t do it, but still...
The idiom means to try and look for mistakes that can be avoided, otherwise, you can get rid of good things together with the bad. Let’s find out why people even thought of “throwing the babies out.”
There once was a time when clean water was precious (apparently, it’s come back now), so all members of one household had to wash in one basin. The hygiene hierarchy went as follows: first the Lord, then the men, then the Lady, then the women, and finally the children and babies. Imagine how dirty the water must have become after all those people bathed in it. That’s the reason that it was actually possible for babies to be unnoticed in the dirty water. When the maid would empty out the basin, she would have to check carefully to make sure that there was no one left in the water!
3. “Burning the candle at both ends”
It’s a hectic time we live in. We try to be everywhere and succeed in everything which often leads to stress and health problems. But it’s still better than wasting your days.
In the 17th century, good honest people used to say that such jokers and bon vivants were burning the candle at both ends. At that time, wax candles were a privilege of rich people, so poor families used rushes to make candles. They took a stalk, soaked it in hot fat and as a result got a thin slightly crooked candle that was fixed in a special holder. This homemade candle was burnt at both ends to produce more light. It took 20 minutes for one candle to burn completely, and soon enough, this span became a time-measuring unit.
Now we tend to turn to candles when we need to create a romantic or relaxing atmosphere. We rarely value candles in terms of a source of light.
4. “Wear your heart on your sleeve”
Wearing your heart on your sleeve isn’t too convenient in both cases — either you’re literally doing it or you’re just openly displaying emotions. Psychologists urge us to do so for our mental and physical wellbeing, and we at Bright Side support them.
Middle Age jousting matches were a popular and important social event. Knights had a chance to win the match and reveal their true feelings toward the lady in favor. They did the latter by tying a ribbon or a cloth in the lady’s house colors and thus openly proclaiming their preference.
5. “Let the cat out of the bag”
They say women can keep secrets (in small groups of 10 to 15 people, that is). Sometimes, though, a secret is revealed by mistake. Let us tell you how doing so once became known as “letting the cat out of the bag.”
Fraud has always been a part of social life, and pig sales were a thriving commerce around the 1700s. Those who wanted to cheat took a worthless cat and put it in a bag, thus replacing the valuable pig. The poor pig’s life was saved, though not for long, but the poor man’s money went for nothing.
6. “By hook or by crook”
So, your colleague told you a fascinating piece of news. And however tempting it is, under no circumstances should you let the cat out of the bag. An Englishman would say you should stay silent by hook or by crook, in other words — do whatever it takes to make sure you won’t reveal the secret.
The expression takes its origin from the times of landlords and common people. Sometimes, the landlord gave his subjects permission to walk through his forest. They weren’t allowed to cut the trees but they could collect some firewood and fallen branches. To do that, the peasants used a shepherd’s staff with a hook on its end or a crooked knife shaped like a crescent.
We should definitely acquite this eco-practice from our predecessors.
7. “Fly off the handle”
Imagine the “by hook or by crook” technique didn’t work so well and now this colleague of yours will definitely fly off the handle, and reasonably so. Becoming enraged wouldn’t be such a surprise in this case.
People condemned to death by beheading in the 1800s had all the more reasons to become enraged. The axes used at the execution were very poorly made, so they would detach from the handle right in the process. One would imagine those poor people deserved a well-accomplished execution at least and not axes flying all over the place.
Luckily, Anne Boleyn had her expensive ax ordered from France in 1536 and didn’t suffer such an unpleasantness.
8. “Cat got your tongue”
If a cat got your tongue, you wouldn’t be walking around telling other people’s secrets, that’s for sure. The reason is quite simple — one who doesn’t have a tongue cannot speak. It’s as literal as that. Though the phrase usually refers to someone being particularly (and suspiciously) quiet.
Rumor has it that the expression goes back to the dark Middle Ages when common people were extremely scared of witches and witchcraft. They believed that coming across a witch with her evil cat would result in the loss of a tongue. The cat supposedly “stole” the tongue so that the poor person wouldn’t be able to tell others about what and who they saw. Awful, isn’t it?
Either the witches’ cats are now less aggressive or they’re more interested in our text messages, but luckily we’re safe and sound and don’t have to worry about losing our tongues!
9. “Cost an arm and a leg”
One more reason for flying off the handle is when something you really want costs an arm and a leg. And that’s a very big price to pay. If you aren’t ready to bargain these precious limbs, you’ll have to settle for less.
People who wanted to have their portrait painted in the 18th century had to make a hard choice too. Painting arms and legs is said to have cost much more than a portrait showing just your upper body or your face and neck. George Washington, for example, was one of those people.
10. “Mind your Ps and Qs”
When you don’t let the cat out of the bag or when you aren’t flying off the handle, that means you are on your best behavior, minding all of your Ps and Qs. The origins of the phrase are dim, but we like at least 2 of them.
First, English lowercase letters “p” and “q” are hard for learners to memorize because they look alike. Doing so is crucial though, be it inside the classroom or at a printing house. Mind your Ps and Qs, editors and pupils!
Second, traditional measurements for beer and ale in England are pints and quarts. Bartenders sometimes had to keep an eye on the number of drinks consumed by their customers, which is to mind their Ps and Qs too.
11. “Turn a blind eye”
A loyal bartender would often turn a blind eye to the number of Ps and Qs their client had. That’s what you would also do if you saw your son kissing a girl in the school’s backyard. Sometimes it’s better to ignore unwanted information and wait until the person decides to share it with you.
A well-known British Navy Admiral, Horatio Nelson, had a blind eye. Once, during the Battle of Copenhagen, he decided to use his blind eye to “look” through the telescope. The purpose of such a useless action was that Admiral was a true hero. He wanted to ensure that he didn’t see any signals from his superiors to withdraw from the battle.
12. “Under the weather”
Admiral Nelson wouldn’t be such a hero if he was constantly feeling under the weather. Being ill or feeling tired can’t help you win a battle. And it’s not good for everyday chores either.
Unfortunately, sailors in the past didn’t have access to Vicks or Lemsip. So they easily fell ill, caught colds and suffered from other diseases while out in the open sea. Soon enough, the space in the log (the ship’s journal) for listing the names of sick sailors ended. The person in charge of the list then had to write the names in the column that was usually filled with information about weather conditions. The poor sailors, who were already feeling bad, ended up “under the weather.”
Another possible explanation is that sick sailors were sent downstairs to recover. This way they stayed “under the weather.”
13. “Night, night, sleep tight!”
Many of us have a certain bedtime ritual which includes slipping into our favorite pajamas or having a cup of caffeine-free tea. What we also do is say to our loved ones: “Night, night, sleep tight!” But why do we say this? The reason is that during the time of the Tudors, a mattress was put on a net made of ropes that were stretched across and along the frame. Due to the people’s weight, the ropes inevitably loosened and needed to be tightened from time to time. So the person wishing you a tight sleep actually hoped that the ropes of your bed were strong.
We, the lucky modern people, don’t have to experience such troubles nowadays. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t still wish someone a good night’s sleep without counting the sheep!
Do you have a favorite idiom? Do you know of any other interesting stories behind commonly used idioms? Share them with us in the comments!
Illustrated by Natalia Breeva for BrightSide.me