The evolution of language is fascinating. If you look back through history at how people used particular words and phrases, some of it may read like a foreign language. However, as time rolls on, certain phrases lose their literal meaning and take on a definition void of its original intent. Often, these phrases – or idioms – will remain prevalent enough in our lexicon to become so common that we use them but have no idea where the saying originated from.
In this article, and in no particular order, we break down fifteen commonly used phrases which have bizarre or outlandish origin stories. In the comments, let us know how many of these you knew!
15. Bite the bullet
If you’ve ever found yourself in a unpleasant or undesirable situation and can’t find a way out of it, you may have muttered this phrase to yourself: “I guess I’ll just bite the bullet.” It’s a phrase which means to accept an inevitable hardship and endure the consequences with courage.
The first recorded use of the saying dates back to 1891, in Rudyard Kipling’s novel The Light that Failed. However, it’s believed to have derived from the practice of military doctors having their patients bite down on a bullet, or casing, as a way for them to cope with the pain of an expedient surgery without the use of anesthetic when a leather strap was unavailable.
14. The whole nine yards
This is one of those interested phrases where the true origin may be lost in time. It means to “go all the way” or “to finish”. Many people believe the saying became popular in World War II because aircraft gunners were issued belts of ammunition that were 27 feet in length – or nine yards – and if he shot every round of it, he “went the whole nine yards”.
While this sounds like a viable starting point to the popular phrase, there has been recorded use of it going back much earlier in history. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first published use of the saying (as a non-idiom) to the New Albany Daily Ledger, out of New Albany Indiana, with an article titled The Judge’s Big Shirt published on January 30, 1855. In it, the author wrote: “what a silly woman! I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!”
13. Kick the bucket
To kick the bucket is to die. It’s not a fate you’ll likely want to encounter, but what does a bucket have to do with it? Well, there are a few possible explanations.
In 1823, English sporting writer John Badcock wrote a dictionary of slang which explained that the saying comes from the action of someone kicking away the bucket they stand upon as they attempt to commit suicide by hanging.
Another possible origin might come from the religious custom of placing holy-water buckets by the feet of a corpse. It’s a custom practiced by Catholics; when a friend or family member went to pray for the deceased, they would sprinkle water from the bucket over the body. Sometimes, the bucket would be placed before the person expired and, at the moment of death, the person’s leg muscles may stretch or twitch, resulting in the bucket being kicked.
The last credible origin story comes from the slaughter house. In the preparation process for killing an animal, like a pig, it is hung from a beam and a bucket is placed below it in order to collect the blood which drips from its slit neck. In the process of dying, the animal likely flails and could kick the bucket.
12. Give the cold shoulder
To give the cold shoulder is an action meant to show indifference with the intent to harm the recipient. It’s commonly believed that the statement originates from the early 1900s practice of serving cold meat to unwanted guests, but linguists have determined there isn’t any evidence to suggest there’s any truth to this.
Instead, the first documented use of this saying comes from Sir Walter Scott in his 1816 novel The Antiquary and is actually a mistranslation of the Latin phrase dederunt umerum recedentem which he borrowed from the Vulgate bible and literally translates to: “stubbornly they turned their backs to you”.
11. Pleased as Punch
This idiom may (probably) be the most disturbing on the list. To be pleased as Punch is to be overly enthusiastic or delighted. The saying derives from the Punch and Judy puppet shows which were popular throughout Europe between the 1700s and 1800s. Punch is a character who is inherently evil and was often seen killing other characters in the show. Some of those unfortunate enough to cross Punch’s path include his own wife and child.
After each killing, he finds himself extremely delighted and announces to the crowd: “that’s the way to do it.”
10. Saved by the bell
90s kids might look back on their youth and think the origin of this idiom comes from the catchy introduction tune to the high school sitcom by the same name, in which Zack Morris avoids detention by making to class right before the bell rings. Unfortunately, this isn’t he case.
It’s been believed that the saying dates back to a time in history when the fear of being buried alive was very real. It was such a widespread concern, in fact, that special devices known as safety coffins were patented to include a bell which the occupant of the coffin could ring in the event he found himself mistaken as dead and sent to an early grave.
However, the most likely origin of the saying comes from the sport of boxing and would describe the moment when a fighter was about to be defeated but the ringing of the bell, marking the end of the round, would stop the bout.
9. Chew the fat
The earliest citation for this saying comes from the 1885 book Life in the Ranks of the British Army in India by J Brunlees Patterson. In the book, Patterson describes the act as a sort of grumbling or chatter to help alleviate the junior officers’ boredom. However, there are older attributions of the phrase.
Prior to the invention of metal casings for bullets in 1847, ammunition was nothing more than gunpowder and a ball wrapped in paper or cloth before being soaked in animal fat. Soldiers would bite this open prior to pouring it into their muskets and the practice of chewing on these ends to either stave off boredom or reduce their nerves prior to battle became commonplace.
8. Show your true colors
This saying dates back to the 1700s. Nautical vessels would often hoist flags from various countries to trick or confuse potential adversaries. However, according to the rules of nautical warfare at the time, any vessel about to engage in combat was required to raise its true colors – the flag of their nation – prior to firing any shots.
7. The whole shebang
This is a phrase that means “everything” or “the whole thing”, but what, exactly is a shebang? The truth is: no one really knows. The first documented use of the saying was found in Walt Whitman’s 1862 poem entitled After First Fredericksburg from his collection of poetry known as Specimen Days and Collect:
Besides the hospitals, I also go occasionally on long tours through the camps, talking with the men, &c. Sometimes at night among the groups around the fires, in their shebang enclosures of bushes.
In this poem, Whitman was most likely referring to a kind of shanty, shack, or temporary dwelling. Whitman, or perhaps a contemporary, may have derived the word from the Irish, shebeen, which means “an unlicensed establishment or private house selling alcoholic liquor and typically regarded as slightly disreputable,” however, there’s no specific evidence to prove this.
Mark Twain later used the word to describe an automobile in his 1872 semi-autobiographical travel memoir Roughing it:
Take back your money, madam. We can't allow it. You're welcome to ride here as long as you please, but this shebang's chartered, and we can't let you pay a cent.
In this story, Twain may have used shebang as a reference to the early form of sightseeing bus from the United Kingdom called a charabanc (pronounced sharra-bang), but again, there’s no physical evidence to suggest this.
At the end of the day, no one’s exactly sure where the term the whole shebang originated. However, there are a number of American turns-of-phrase which begin with “the whole” (see #14: the whole nine yards) which basically mean the same thing. So, the likeliest explanation is that Americans simply tack on a random inanimate object to the words the whole to create a catchy phrase.
6. Blood is thicker than water
This is a medieval English proverb which means that the bonds of family are stronger than than those of friendship or love and dates back to the 17th century.
The first known use of the saying was discovered in a German manuscript of Heinrich der Glîchezære’s beast epic Reinhart Fuchs (Reynard the Fox), which is translated to:
"I also hear it said, kin-blood is not spoiled by water."
The first use of the proverb in its modern phrasing was found in John Ray’s collection of proverbs in 1670 and the first time it was attributed in America was in the 1821 edition of the Journal of Athabasca Department.
5. Butter someone up
To butter someone up means to impress someone with flattery. The origins of the idiom originate from an Indian religious act in which the devout would throw balls of butter at statues and idols of their gods in order to win over their favor and seek forgiveness.
4. Break the Ice
We all know ice breakers are the absolute worst part of any event or function that brings together strangers. Sure, they’re good for giving people an easy step into introductions, but they’re often very cheesy and sometimes embarrassing. But where does this idiom come from? What does ice have to do with anything about getting to know someone?
One of the earliest documented uses of the phrase comes from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of noble Grecians and Romanes, in 1579: “To be the first to break the Ice of the Enterprize.” In this context, the phrase was used in reference to breaking ice for the passage of boats down a frozen waterway.
It wasn’t until late in the 17th century when the saying transitioned into its contemporary definition of establishing a relaxed relationship in socially awkward situations. In 1883, Mark Twain used the phrase in his novel Life on the Mississippi:
"They closed up the inundation with a few words - having used it, evidently, as a mere ice-breaker and acquaintanceship-breeder - then they dropped into business."
3. Caught red handed
to be caught red handed implies you’ve been discovered while in the process of committing an act, often in the illegal sense. The phrase derives from Scotland in the 15th century. The term redhand was first used in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I and most likely referenced an accused criminal of being found with blood still on his hands.
The term redhand was used in many subsequent Scottish legal proceedings before going through a transformative process into the term we use today. In 1819, Sir Walter Scott wrote the novel, Ivanhoe, in which he said: “I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.”
It evolved again into the phrase caught red handed when it first appeared in George Alfred Lawrence’s Guy Livingstone:
My companion picked up the object; and we had just time to make out that it was a bell-handle and name-plate, when the pursuers came up – six or seven “peelers” and specials, with a ruck of men and boys. We were collared on the instant. The fact of the property being found in our possession constituted a ‘flagrans delictum’ – we were caught red-handed.
2. No spring chicken
This is an interesting idiom for the simple fact that the figure of speech derives from a very literal thing. It means no longer youthful or old, which is exactly what you didn’t want when buying chickens in the 1700s.
Back then, farmers discovered that chickens born in the spring were more sought after than those born later in the year and could fetch a better price. To try and turn a better profit, many would label their older chickens as ‘spring born’. If you weren’t a chicken connoisseur, you may not have been able to tell the difference, but those who knew what to look for weren’t afraid to call ‘fowl’ and complain that the bird they were being sold was ‘no spring chicken.”
1. Between a rock and a hard place
If you find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place, it means you’re faced with making a decision where none of the potential outcomes are desirable. It is definitely not a place you want to find yourself. But how did this turn-of-phrase become commonplace?
In the early 1900s, a series of disputes broke out between copper miners and their employers around Bisbee, Arizona. As you can imagine, working in a mine at the turn of the 20th century wasn’t what you might consider a safe profession. Fed up with their poor working conditions, the miners demanded they be improved. But improvements cost money and spending money means lower profits, so the mining companies refused.
These disputes occurred decades before any fair labor laws or federal workplace safety guidelines were developed, so the miners were forced to make a difficult decision: go back to working the in mines with the same inadequate working conditions (a rock) or face unemployment (a hard place).
What do you think of our list? Are there any other common phrases you use that have odd origins? Let us know in the comments!