In case you didn’t know, historical events, legends, important figures, religion, and even advertisements form the basis of many expressions used today. Here are the origins of some of the most interesting idioms!
Origin: In the olden days, when doctors were short on anesthesia or time during a battle, they would ask the patient to bite down on a bullet to distract from the pain. The first recorded use of the phrase was in 1891 in The Light that Failed.
Origin: Back when road transportation was not developed, ships would be the only transportation and means of trade. At times, the ships would get stuck during the winter because of ice formation. The receiving country would send small ships to “break the ice” to clear a way for the trade ships. This gesture showed affiliation and understanding between two territories.
Meaning: To impress someone with flattery
Origin: This was a customary religious act in ancient India. The devout would throw butter balls at the statues of their gods to seek favor and forgiveness.
Origin: No, you didn’t already know this one, because it didn’t originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries — well before Lewis Caroll’s book was published. In 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The “Mad Hatter Disease” was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear “mad.”
Origin: The English Navy used to use a whip called “Cat-o’-nine-tails” for flogging. The pain was so severe that it caused the victim to stay quiet for a long time. Another possible source could be from ancient Egypt, where liars’ and blasphemers’ tongues were cut out and fed to the cats. (What a treat for the cats!)
Origin: This refers to hunting dogs that may have chased their prey up a tree. The dogs bark, assuming that the prey is still in the tree, when the prey is no longer there.
Origin: The British Naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, had one blind eye. Once when the British forces signaled for him to stop attacking a fleet of Danish ships, he held up a telescope to his blind eye and said, “I do not see the signal.” He attacked, nevertheless, and was victorious.
Origins: This one dates back to the early times North America when the Puritans were in conflict with the Native Americans. When negotiating peace, the Native Americans would bury all their hatchets, knives, clubs, and tomahawks. Weapons literally were buried and made inaccessible.
Origin: This originates from an old English law that ordered any person to be punished for butchering an animal that wasn’t his own. The only way the person could be convicted is if he was caught with the animal’s blood still on his hands.
Origin: You won’t believe this one! In the early 1500s, people only bathed once a year. Not only that, but they also bathed in the same water without changing it! The adult males would bath first, then the females, leaving the children and babies to go last. By the time the babies got in, the water was clouded with filth. The poor mothers had to take extra care that their babies were not thrown out with the bathwater.
Origin: In medieval England, it was customary to give a guest a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of mutton, pork, or beef chop when the host felt it was time for the guest to leave. This was a polite way to communicate, “You may leave, now.”
Origin: During World War II, the fighter pilots were equipped with nine yards of ammunition. When they ran out, it meant that they had tried their best at fighting off the target with the entirety of their ammunition.
Origin: In public, the aristocratic women of medieval times were obliged to appear in elegant hair-dos that were usually pulled up. The only time they would “let their hair down” was when they came home and relaxed.
Origin: Early Americans, during the colonial times, would ask their servants to rub their oak floorboards “the right way”. The wrong way (not wiping them with dry fabric after wet fabric) would cause streaks to form and ruin it, leaving the homeowner annoyed. Alternatively, it could have derived from rubbing a cat’s fur the “wrong way,” which annoys them.
What other idioms are confusing for you? Which origin most surprised you?