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Origins of Common Idioms – Classic Common Sayings


At one time or another, we’ve all uttered these common expressions. After looking into it, the history of some of these common phrases might surprise you. Let’s take a look at the origins of common idioms.


Idiom –  a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words



“Person, Woman, Man, Camara, TV…  Person, Woman, Man, Camara, TV…” 

An idiom in the making – Donald Trump



Origins of common idioms


Get on Your Soapbox

Meaning: Make a speech, proclamation, sales pitch

E.g. “He got on his soapbox to help promote wearing masks!”

 “Without a massive convention, he’ll just have to get on his soapbox to convince the voters.”

From the 1800’s. Standing upon old soapbox crates, politicians, pitchmen & the like used the improvised podium to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or ranting on a particular topic.


Read the Riot Act

Meaning: Giving a stern warning or reprimand

E.g. When the group wasn’t socially distancing, she read them the riot act!”

A British law passed in 1714,  the riot act was enacted to literally prevent riots. If too many people were gathering & looking for trouble, an officer would let them know (by reading the “riot act” aloud), that if they didn’t disperse they would face punishment or imprisonment.



Hands Down

Origins of common idioms Hands down

Meaning: An easy win or clear outcome

E.g. “This is, hands down, the most unusual year of my life!”

This one comes from horse racing. If the jockey is winning the race and clearly out front, he can relax the grip on the reins, letting his hands down.


Barking up the Wrong Tree

Origins of common idioms barking up the wrong tree

Meaning: Pursuing a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action.

E.g. “By spreading all those conspiracy theories, he was barking up the wrong tree.”

This one refers to hunting dogs chasing their prey up a tree. Once the animal was cornered in the tree the dogs barked at them. Unfortunately, sometimes the dogs would continue barking long after their prey was no longer there.


The Silver Lining

Origins of common idioms Silver lining

Meaning: Finding glimmers of optimism during gloomy or troubled times. Recognizing positive aspects of a difficult situation.

E.g. “The silver lining is at least live sports are back on TV!”

This one comes from literature in the mid 1800’s. A line from Milton discussed a dark cloud revealing a silver lining or a halo of sunshine, behind the gloom.  It eventually became the popular proverb “every cloud has a silver lining”


Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

Meaning: Credible information derived from a very reliable source

E.g. “I got this intel straight from the horse’s mouth”

When shopping for a horse in the early 1900’s a potential buyer could more accurately determine a horse’s age by examining its teeth. This one also ties into the idiom “you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth”  (inspecting a gift too closely is considered tacky).


Push the Envelope

Courtesy of Warner Bros “The Right Stuff”

Meaning: Taking something up to the limits of its capability. Testing it’s boundaries.

E.g. “Taking a car from 0 to 60 in 2 seconds is pushing the envelope.”

Anyone who’s seen the movie “The Right Stuff” will appreciate this one. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of an aircraft. The envelope can be described in mathematical terms factoring in things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. Test pilots pushed new aircraft to “the edge of the envelope” to determine its limits.



Cat Got Your Tongue

Meaning: Asked of someone whose silent or seemingly caught off guard, when they’re expected to speak.

E.g. “What’s a matter… cat got your tongue?”

Two brutal legends on this one:

  • 1st, it could have come from a whip called the “Cat-o’-nine-tails” that was used by the English Navy for flogging and left the victims speechless.
  • 2nd, in ancient Egypt liars’ tongues were cut out as punishment and fed to the cats.



Bury the Hatchet

Meaning: To bring an ongoing quarrel or conflict to an end. To resume friendship.

E.g. “Hey, we’ve been arguing for days about which old candidate is the least senile… let’s just bury the hatchet and start over!”

From colonial times:  Negotiations between the Puritans & Native Americans would begin by the men burying all of their weapons. This made them inaccessible, facilitating more peaceful discussions


Big Wigs

Origins of common idioms Big Wigs

Meaning: Referring to an important person or pompous indivduals

E.g. “He might be a big wig for now, but come this November… we’ll see.”

Seems odd to me that his fashion statement came to symbolize high standing. Back in the 18th century, the well to do & most influential political figures would wear the largest, most ornate wigs… hence the term “big wigs.”


Caught Red Handed

Meaning: Someone caught in the act of doing something wrong or illegal.

E.g. Even though they were caught red handed, Russia continued to deny they interfered in the US election.

This one stems from old school justice in a farming community. If someone butchered a farm animal that wasn’t their property, they would be punished if they were caught with blood on their hands.

Much like today, washing your hands early and often is always a good idea 🙂


Giving the Cold Shoulder

Meaning:  To dismiss or be deliberately unkind to someone

E. g. “She gave me the cold shoulder at the party (six months ago, when parties were a thing).”

This idiom was actually considered a courtesy back in medieval England. Following a big feast, the host would give his guests a parting gift of  a cold piece of the beef/pork shoulder, which let the guest know it was time for the party to come to  a close.  Perhaps over time getting the cold shoulder felt more like “hey, you’ve overstayed your welcome …get the hell out of my house”


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Origins of common idioms – continued


Show Your True Colors

Meaning: Letting someone know your actual intentions or how you really feel regarding something. Unmasking honest intentions after having been less honest from the outset.

E.g. “I know what he said on TV, but his actions always show his true colors.”

Circa 1700’s:  To throw off the enemy, warships would fly the colors of another country. But, as the rules of engagement dictated then, warships were required to raise and fly their actual flag before firing upon the enemy, thus showing their true colors.


Wake Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed

Meaning: Starting your day a little grumpier than usual.

E.g. “Wow, someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed!”

Being a lefty, I take umbrage with this one. History has considered left handedness or the left side as the “evil” side. Along those lines, waking up on the left side of the bed was considered bad luck. To avoid the curse of the left, homeowners would push the left side of the bed against the wall, so you’d naturally wake up on the right side of the bed.


Son of a Gun

Meaning: A casually affectionate way of referring to someone.

E.g. “Well,  you old son of a gun!”

Long ago, sailors would occasionally  take their wives on long ocean voyages. During the journey, if the woman went into labor on board, they were escorted to a more secluded spot, between the canons, for privacy. Hence, a child born on the ship was nicknamed a “son of a gun.”


Get Your Goat

Origins of common idioms Get your goat

Meaning: Getting under someone’s skin, gradually Irritating someone.

E.g. “Every time I hear him speak, he gets my goat.”

During horse racing some horses would get anxious, so owners would place goats in the stalls with them to calm them down. Rival horse owners would sometimes steal these goats therefore upsetting the horse and making it more likely to lose.


Run Amok

Meaning: Acting out of control, highly erratic.

Run Amok comes from the Malaysian word amoq. Amoq was used to describe the erratic behaviour of tribesmen who, under the influence of opium, might go crazy & attack people.


Break the Ice

Meaning: Say something or act in such a way to create a more relaxed atmosphere, generating conversation among strangers. To begin a friendship.

E. g. On their 1st date, her humorous story helped break the ice (again, when dates were a thing).

The expression caught on in the 17th century – Back in the day, commercial ships would often get stuck in the ice on frozen rivers. Smaller ships, called “ice breakers” would assist by clearing a path to shore by breaking up the ice.


Hair of the Dog

Meaning: After a night of partying, a little more of the same the next day, will relieve hangover symptoms.

E.g. “After a night in a Vegas, a little hair of the dog at brunch might be in order” (when going to Vegas was a good idea).

Dates back to medieval times. Based upon the belief that if you’re bitten by a rabid dog, using the same dogs hair on the wound would be the cure. The expression was 1st referenced in 1546 in a book by John Heywood.


Die Hard

Meaning: Tremendous resilience under extremely difficult conditions.

E.g. “His die hard efforts led the team to victory.”

Nope, Bruce Willis doesn’t get credit for this one. In the 1700’s the expression described condemned men who lingered the longest during an execution by hanging. The phrase was popularized again during the 1800’s Napoleonic wars. British Officer William Inglis was quoted as saying  “Stand your ground and die hard … make the enemy pay dear for each of us!”


Go the Whole Nine Yards

Meaning: Giving your best effort and staying on task, to the bitter end

E.g. “She went the whole nine yards to close the dea.l”

This one dates back to World War II.  Fighter pilots were equipped with nine yards of ammunition. When they had spent all of their ammunition, it was a symbol that they had tried their best to challenge & fend off the enemy .


Fly Off the Handle

Meaning: To lose control and react in a excessively volatile or frustrated  manner.

E.g. “One mention of politics & he just flew off the handle!”

Prior to the days of quality control, poorly designed axe heads had a tendency to literally fly off the handle. The result immediately created a volatile, dangerous situation with an unpredictable outcome.


Jump the Shark

Courtesy of the Archive of American Television

Meaning: Yep… Happy Days gets the credit for this one. The expression suggests that a show or any form of entertainment has reached the outer limits of its creativity. They have perhaps run out of ideas & moved into decline.

E. g. “After 7 years on Netflix, the show has finally jumped the shark.”


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