13 Common Idioms You Say and Probably Don’t Understand

13 Common Idioms You Say and Probably Don’t Understand

So many of our everyday sayings are based on descriptions or metaphors that everybody understands — or at least that’s what we assume. But when you use idioms that refer to old technology, we might not necessarily know what we’re actually talking about.

Sounding like a broken record

I saw another parent comment about this on reddit, but then I asked my kid: do you know what a broken record sounds like? “Bad,” he said. Scratchy? Maybe distorted?

Nope. A “broken record” is one with a scratch that causes the needle to repeat the same section of the track. In other words, if you sound like a broken record, that means you’re saying the same thing over and over.

“Oh, so that’s why you said I sounded like a broken record when I was practicing my viola solo!” I was talking about the way he kept repeating the same short phrase of music over and over. He thought I meant he was playing badly. Aw.

Hanging up the phone

Why do we “hang up” the phone? Because in the olden days, your landline phone would often be mounted on the wall. You’d literally hang up the receiver on the little hook. (Before that, older styles of phone would sit on the table but in an upright post that the receiver was hung on — same idea.)

In books, characters will often slam the phone down in anger. In this case, you’re using a phone on your desk or nightstand, where the receiver sits on top. Goodbye! Slam. Unfortunately for today’s moody teens, it’s really hard to end a cell phone call in a huff. (Good thing they don’t talk on the phone.)

Staying tuned

The announcer on the television used to tell you to “stay tuned” when they wanted you to keep watching. That’s because in the days of broadcast TV, you would have to tune your TV (or radio) antennae to the specific frequency that carried the channel you wanted. You’d do that by turning a dial until the picture and sound became clear. So you “tuned in” to your favourite show. And if the announcer really wanted you to stay tuned, they might even tell you: “Don’t touch that dial!”

Going through the wringer

If somebody has “been through the wringer,” they have endured something difficult. The term sometimes specifically means being questioned by authorities, but it can also refer to any prolonged, stressful experience.

A wringer is a device for squeezing the water out of laundry. If you didn’t have a clothes dryer, you might send your soaking wet clothes through the wringer; they would come out mildly damp, and then you could hang them on a clothesline to dry. You could also use the wringer to remove soapy water before a rinse, and then use it again when it was time to dry.

If you’re being questioned, they want to squeeze information out of you. And, yes, you’re going through the wringer, not ringer.

On the flip side

There are two sides to every issue, right? Instead of saying “on the other hand,” you might also say “on the flip side.” Or you might say to a friend, “catch ya on the flip side!”

This phrase also comes from the era of records. Unlike CDs and DVDs, which usually only have data on one side of the disc, records usually had grooves on both sides. A single would have the more popular song on the “A” side, and a second, usually ultimately lesser-known song on the “B” side. The B side was also known as the “flip side,” that is, the side where you had to flip the record to listen to it.

Turning a device on or off

Photo: Stokkete, Shutterstock
Photo: Stokkete, Shutterstock

When you “turn off” your iPad, kids, you just hit a button. Where’s the turning in that? In my day, when it was time to stop watching cartoons, we would literally turn the knob to the “off” position. Televisions, radios, and other devices would use the lowest setting on the volume knob as an off switch. You turned the volume all the way down until you heard a click, and then silence.

These knobs are also why grownups will yell “Turn it down!” when the volume is too loud.

Phones and alarm clocks “ringing”

Your alarm clock “goes off” in the morning, but it’s also common to say that the alarm clock “rings.” Same for phone calls — your phone rings, and you can even set a ringtone if you don’t always have it on silent.

That’s because there used to be an actual bell inside phones and alarm clocks. When a call came in, or when the clock reached your wake-up time, a spring rattled a tiny hammer against the bell.

Cc somebody on an email

If you want to send an email to more than one person, you might put the main recipient in the “To:” field, and then someone else under “Cc” — for example, you might cc your boss on a work email, or cc your partner when writing to your kid’s teacher.

CC stands for “carbon copy,” and it comes from the days of typewriters. When you typed a letter, you could put a sheet of carbon paper under the paper paper, and a second sheet of paper under that. With every keystroke, the carbon paper would transfer a lighter but still legible impression to the bottom sheet of paper. The top sheet was the real document, and the sheet underneath a lower-resolution copy you could share with someone else or file away for future reference.

Film footage

Photo: Fer Gregory, Shutterstock
Photo: Fer Gregory, Shutterstock

These days we use the words “film” and “video” interchangeably, but film is properly the long, shiny strips that cameras use to capture an image. The film is exposed to light while it’s in the camera, and must be developed with chemicals before you can see the images. You may have seen film cameras, or the negatives from film cameras.

Movies were also filmed with, well, film. With one image for each frame, and 24 frames per second of footage, the strips of film used were very long, and would be spooled to and from reels. (You’d also “wrap” the film when it was done; hence, “that’s a wrap” when you’re done shooting.)

How much film would you end up with? Well, with each frame a bit shorter than an inch, a single second of film at 16 frames per second (common in the silent movie days) would measure about a foot. And so the term “footage” was used to talk about how much exposed film you had made.


Why is the sound “cha-ching” associated with money? Because of mechanical cash registers. Whenever the drawer opened to let you add or remove cash, a bell would ring. This made it really obvious if you’re opening the drawer when there wasn’t a sale going on. This bell feature is also why we say a cashier is “ringing up” our groceries.

Rolling up the windows

When you want the car windows to go up or down, you roll them up or down, don’t you? That’s because, in older cars, the windows would be controlled by a crank lower down on the door. You’d roll it around to make the windows go the direction you wanted. Even after a system was invented to do the job with a switch and a motor, a lot of cheaper cars still used the hand crank.

Taping something to watch later

Photo: TurboYoda, Shutterstock
Photo: TurboYoda, Shutterstock

“Will the meeting be taped?” a member of my book club asked recently, when we were scheduling a meeting via video call. My parents, who have a TiVo, told my daughter that they had “taped” some episodes of a show she likes. Where is the tape? Nowhere, anymore.

But magnetic tape used to be a common way of recording video and audio. A record was something you had to buy from the store, but you could buy a blank cassette tape and record your own voice, or a song from the radio. The “tape” was inside the cassette, on two spools that the machine would wind from one to the other. VHS cassettes could do video, if you had a VCR: if you were going to miss your favourite show, you could ask a friend to tape it. And if you wanted to record a bunch of different songs from the radio, you could thank that friend by making them a mix tape.

That “save” icon

What is that weird square icon that all the kids recognise as the button that saves your half-finished work? It’s a floppy disk, kiddos! There were a few iterations of the floppy, with the most modern version being a 3-1/2″ rigid square of plastic that had a little metal door you could snap back and forth when you fidget with it. But inside that plastic case was a circle — a literal disc — of flexible material that could record data in much the same way as the magnetic tape inside an audio or VHS cassette. This inner part was what was actually floppy.

Computers at the time didn’t have much storage space; some didn’t have any. And there wasn’t always an easy way to send a whole document’s worth of data to another computer, except by physically walking over there with a disk. When you clicked the “save” button, the computer would encode your English essay or your MS Paint masterpiece onto your floppy disk.

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