10 Common English Idioms and Their Weird Historical Origins

10 Common English Idioms and Their Weird Historical Origins
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If there’s one thing most people take for granted, it’s the language they grew up speaking. The words we use and their respective meanings are the product of centuries of linguistic evolution that we rarely consider. Today, much of our social interaction is characterised by turns of phrase that would seem completely nonsensical if not for their widespread use — we call them idioms (and if you’re wondering where that term came from, it’s Greek, and means “personal.”)

For example, if you’re shocked or surprised by a big revelation, you might scream “the cat’s out of the bag!” But you’re not, in actuality, referring to any cat that was previously hiding inside a bag. When a friend addresses the glaring issue you’ve both danced around for months, you’re finally recognising the “elephant in the room,” though there isn’t a literal elephant anywhere nearby, probably.

It turns out, these idioms didn’t materialise at random. Here’s a look at the origins of 10 silly things we say.

Paint the town red

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An evening of debauchery and petty vandalism in 19th century England is the likely origin of this phrase, used to describe a festive night on the town.

Per the History channel:

In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford — a known lush and mischief maker — led a group of friends on a night of drinking through the English town of Melton Mowbray. The bender culminated in vandalism after Waterford and his fellow revelers knocked over flowerpots, pulled knockers off of doors and broke the windows of some of the town’s buildings. To top it all off, the mob literally painted a tollgate, the doors of several homes and a swan statue with red paint.

A taste of your own medicine

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You’ve probably wished someone who has wronged you could suffer in kind, sure they’d reconsider their actions if only they had a taste of their own — OK, let’s just get down to it.

The phrase has its roots in the works of the Greek fabulist Aesop, who in The Cobbler Turned Doctor, coined the idea way back in 600 B.C..

From Grammarist:

In the fable The Cobbler Turned Doctor, a cobbler concocts a potion that he claims will cure someone of any type of poisoning. When the mayor of a town decides to challenge the cobbler to drink a poison and then take a dose of his own medicine, the cobbler admits his fraud. The moral of this fable is: Beware of those not trained in their craft.

The cat’s out of the bag

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Why is the cat out of the bag, you ask? Why was it in there in the first place? According to Mental Floss, this one might stem from an old-time swindle in livestock markets centuries ago:

Supposedly, merchants would sell customers live piglets and, after putting a pig in a sack for easier transport, would sometimes swap the pig for a cat when the customer looked away. The buyer wouldn’t discover they’d been cheated until they got home and literally let the cat out of the bag.

This one probably deserves an asterisk, however, given the logistics of switching pigs for cats, and how unlikely a caper this is to succeed.

Giving you the cold shoulder

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You have to go back to the dinner parties of yore to locate the earliest givings of a cold shoulder — which was, in fact, a dish served with maximum insult.

From the Phrase Finder:

The origin of this expression which is often repeated is that visitors to a house who were welcome were given a hot meal, but those who weren’t were offered only ‘ cold shoulder of mutton’.

The elephant in the room

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Why we must we dance around the topic of the elephant that has somehow barreled its way into the room (and also this slideshow)?

Here’s where the term likely comes from, per the Phrase Finder:

The expression is of US origin, although the precise source isn’t known. The meaning, if not the exact wording, dates from at least the 1950s and is possibly some years older than that. The first reference to the phrase that I have found is in The Charleston Gazette, July 1952.

The usage of the term in this 1952 newspaper article was kind of strange, and probably speaks to questionable editorial decision making. The author apparently wrote: “Chicago, that’s an old Indian word meaning get that elephant out of your room.” That usage of the phrase in this context is unclear, yet an enduring idiom was born from it (allegedly).

I’ve got a bone to pick with you

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You got a bone to pick? Dogs gnawing bones clean is a universal theme in theories about this phrase’s roots, though it’s unclear exactly when it was first used.

From Writing Explained:

Most sources state that this expression comes from a dog trying to pick off the meat from a bone, and one connotation of this idiom is trying to solve a difficult time-consuming problem.

This is likely related to the fact that dogs often gnaw on a bone for very long periods of time, even when most of the meat is gone. This type of usage dates back to the 1500s.

Pardon my French

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You’re not speaking French when you say “pardon my French,” so why are you pretending otherwise when you’re about to say something rude or crude?

From Concise Writing:

The phrase was originally used in England when someone used a French word when speaking to a person who may not have understood French. Due to the history of conflict between France and England, ‘pardon my French’ came to be a dig against the French.

The wrong side of the bed

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You either wake up on the right side of the bed or the wrong side, but which side is the correct side? This ancient debacle stems back to Roman times, when the arbiters of civilisation decreed that you must always exit your bed on the right-hand side, lest you be plagued with bad juju the rest of the day.

Per Grammarist:

Ancient philosophers equated the right side of anything as the positive side, and the left side of anything as the sinister or negative side. The story says that Romans always exited the bed on the right side in order to start the day in contact with positive forces. If one rose on the left side of the bed, he started the day in contact with negative forces.

Hold your horses

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Slow down champ, take it easy, or better yet, hold those damn horses that you’re raring to let go. This one seems pretty obvious, and the varied explanations for its origins date as far back as ancient Greece. In the literal sense, it refers to keeping a mount calm and still, as opposed to closing the stable door to keep it penned in.

As for the phrase’s use in American English, The Phrase Finder says:

In keeping with its American origin, it originally was written as ‘hold your hosses’ and it appears in print that way many times from 1844 onwards. In Picayune (New Orleans) September 1844, we have:

“Oh, hold your hosses, Squire. There’s no use gettin’ riled, no how.”

Resting on your laurels

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If you rest on your laurels, you probably like to reference all of your past accomplishments in spite of your present day mistakes and or foibles. This phrase’s origins stems from the days of Ancient Greece, when festooning someone’s head in leaves was a way to recognise their achievements in a particular activity, from a sport to commanding an army.

From History:

Victorious athletes at the ancient Pythian Games received wreaths made of laurel branches, and the Romans later adopted the practice and presented wreaths to generals who won important battles. Venerable Greeks and Romans, or “laureates,” were thus able to “rest on their laurels” by basking in the glory of past achievements.

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