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10 Common English Idioms and Their Surprising Origins.

Updated on September 9, 2017

The English language is filled with expressions that have been in common usage for so long that their origins have been long since forgotten. Yet, when someone uses one of these phrases, known as idioms, to express a thought or feeling, everybody knows exactly what that person means even though the literal meaning has little or no relationship to the thought or feeling being expressed. If you were to say, for example, that some musical group was just a "flash in the pan" everyone would understand that they came and went very quickly, most likely one hit song and then they're gone, but very few people would actually know what the expression really means and where it comes from. This article takes a look at ten of these common expressions and their surprising origins.

1. Busy as a Bee

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This common expression, used in reference to someone that is very busily engaged in some activity or other or who is working very hard, is one that has really stood the test of time, and is most likely one of the oldest phrases still in use that was originally in the English language, albeit a much different version than that which we speak today.

It was coined by Chaucer in the Squires Tale, from his famous Canterbury Tales (circa 1386 - 1340), and was spoken by the Squire describing how he saw women as keeping themselves very busy devising ways to deceive men.

" Ey! Goddes mercy!” sayd our Hoste tho,
Now such a wyf I pray God keep me fro.
Lo, suche sleightes and subtilitees
In wommen be; for ay as busy as bees
Be thay us seely men for to desceyve,
And from a soth ever a lie thay weyve.
And by this Marchaundes tale it proveth wel."

2. Flash In the Pan

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The Main Parts of a Flintlock.
The Main Parts of a Flintlock. | Source

This popular saying, that basically means something that starts with great promise but fails to deliver, such as a new band that bursts onto the music scene with a number one hit, has no others, and quickly disappears, actually refers to a literal flash in a real pan.

The phrase originated with flintlock pistols and rifles. In order for a flintlock weapon to fire it requires a spark to ignite the gunpowder that is stored in the barrel. This combustion creates the force that projects the musket from the barrel. The spark in this case is created using a flint and steel, much like the way a modern Zippo lighter works, but instead of rotating a steel wheel with your thumb to spark the flint you pull a trigger and the mechanism does the rest.

Pulling the trigger releases a spring that sets the hammer in motion. The flint is attached to the hammer. The rapid downward motion of the hammer causes the flint to strike the frizzen (the steel) this causes the friction that causes the flint to burn producing a spark. This spark then lands in the gunpowder that is stored in the pan, thus igniting it, causing a bright flash as the gunpowder burns, and, hopefully creates the pressure required for the weapon to eject its projectile. This, however, did not always happen, and that is where the expression "flash in the pan" comes from.

If the gunpowder ignited creating a big flash but nothing else happened, the weapon did not fire, then it was just a "flash in the pan". It started out with a big bang and lots of promise but alas came to nothing.

The Symbol of Freemasonry, the Masonic Order.
The Symbol of Freemasonry, the Masonic Order.

3. The Third Degree

It can be said with certainty that most people have heard or used the expression "to give someone the third degree", and that it is understood to mean that someone is being subjected to an intense questioning or interrogation, but few people know where the expression comes from. Most are very surprised when they learn that it comes from a secret society that dates back to the middle ages.

The third degree comes from the Masonic Order and refers to the third level, the third degree, of their thirty-three level hierarchy. A candidate presented for admission to the third degree of Freemasonry must undergo an extreme interrogation as part of the initiation process. He is "given the third degree".

4. Mad as a Hatter

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For most people the term "mad as a hatter" conjurs up an image of the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll's beloved children's book Alice in Wonderland, and for many that image takes the form of the character as portrayed by Johnny Depp, in the popular movie version of this tale. Contrary to popular belief, however, this expression does not come from this book or originate with this character. It actually comes from the profession of hat making and the occupation of hatter, the person who makes hats.

In the 19th century felt hats were all the rage. It was the use of mercury by hatters in the making of these hats that led to the expression "mad as a hatter". To make felt hatters had to remove the fur of small animals from the skin. Mercury nitrate was used in this process, known as carroting because the mercury turned the fur orange, as it made the separation of the fur from the skin much easier. The problem was that during this process the mercury nitrate released a gas that was breathed in by the hatter which caused mercury poisoning. The symptoms of this poisoning included uncontrollable shacking, mood swings, and aggressive and anti-social behavior, causing the sufferer to appear mad. To this day mercury poisoning is known as Mad Hatter Disease.


5. Kick the Bucket

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The expression "kick the bucket", referring to someone having died, as in "old Ralph kicked the bucket", has been a part of the English lexicon for a long time. It has even given rise to another common expression, the "bucket list", which refers to a list of things that one wishes to accomplish before he or she "kicks the bucket". But what does kicking a bucket have to do with death?

The origin of this saying is actually quite dark and refers to suicide by hanging. In order to commit suicide by hanging it is necessary to elevate one's self above the ground so that one can swing freely from the end of a rope. It was a common practice, relatively speaking, back in the day to use a bucket for this purpose as they were readily available. The person committing suicide would place the bucket upside down on the ground, stand on it, and slip the noose around his or her neck. When ready he or she would simply kick the bucket over.

6. Hair Of the Dog

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Anyone who has ever suffered the agonies of a hangover is most likely familiar with the expression "hair of the dog", which refers to the practice of using alcohol to cure the illness, (hangover), that was created by the alcohol in the first place.

The long form of this expression is " the hair of the dog that bit you", and comes from the outdated, and very much mistaken, belief that rabies contracted by a human from the bite of a rabid dog could be cured by applying a few hairs from that same dog to the bite wound. We know now that this bizarre treatment has absolutely no affect on the disease. However, the hangover cure does seem to work, at least temporarily. The problem is that eventually you have to sober up.

7. Bring Home the Bacon

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To "bring home the bacon" is to earn a living and bring home one's wages to support one's family, or to be financially successful. There are many purported origins for this particular saying, attributing it to periods as far back as the 12th century, and to supposed customs such as carrying around a side of bacon as a sign of ones wealth, all of which are completely false.

This particular phrase has its origins in the 20th century and the sport of boxing. In a 1906 news story about a lightweight fight between Joe Gans and Oliver Nelson the Post-Standard, a New York Newspaper, reported that before the fight Gans had received a telegram from his mother, a line from which read, "Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon." The newspaper went on to report that after Gans won the fight he sent a reply telegram to his mother telling her "I have not only the bacon, but the gravy".

Following this story "bringing home the bacon" was used regularly in association with winning a prize fight. Over time, and with common usage, it came to be understood the way we commonly accept it today.

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8. Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water

Loosely understood to mean don't through out the good with the bad, this expression has to be one of the most misunderstood and wrongly attributed idioms in the English language. A complete falsehood based on a complete falsehood. Yet, for some bizarre reason, this crazy story has become the commonly accepted explanation for the origin of this phrase, showing up on website after website and multitudes of social media posts. Though there may be slight variations from one telling to another they all go basically this same way. Back in the middle ages people only bathed once a year (this mistaken belief has been attributed as the origin of a number of idioms and common social conventions). When it was time for the annual bath the family tub was filled and each family member took their wash in the order prescribe by the accepted family hierarchy: father first then mother, followed by the children, who bathed in order based on their ages, from oldest to youngest. By the time it came to the baby's turn the water was so filthy that the child could get lost in it, hence one had to take precautions when throwing out the bath water not to toss the baby with it. What a pile of nonsense.

We can be fairly certain that the middle ages had its share of less than hygienic people, just as we do today, but the myth of the annual bath is just that, a myth. It is not clear where this idea of people being so backward and filthy in the middle ages originated but it is far past time that it ended.

The middle ages were a time of cleanliness and hygiene. Soap was prevalent and people washed regularly. It was also the age of faith and the church taught that "cleanliness was next to Godliness", and people obeyed the church. Regular bathing was considered one of the great pleasures of life. In addition, then just as now, babies were bathed in their own small tubs built and sized for this purpose, and not in the large family tub.

That being said, where does this expression originate? it is actually derived from a German proverb believed to be from the early 1600's that, translated into English goes "You must empty out the bathing-tub but not the baby along with it". Which means that one must exercise caution when getting rid of unwanted things that one does not lose something valuable in the process.

9. Beat Around the Bush

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If it is said that someone is "beating around the bush", it is understood that this person is speaking indirectly about an issue, failing to get to the main topic or point. The expression "beat around the bush" is the American form of the British expression "beat about the bush", which refers to the practice by bird hunters of having someone beat the bushes so that the birds will take flight and the hunt, "cutting to the chase", can begin.

It is unclear exactly how old this expression is but it may rival Chaucer's "busy as a bee", for one of the oldest in the English language. The phrase first appears in writing in an anonymous 15th century poem, Generydes - A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas, and was referred to as an old saying then,

"Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take."

10. The Cut of Your Jib

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To tell someone that you like the cut of their jib is to say that you approve of that person, perhaps their looks, the way they think, their demeanor, or the person in general. Or you may hear someone say, "I can tell by the cut of his/her jib that he/she is a good person", or a honest person, kind person, what have you.

The cut of a jib is actually an old nautical term that goes back to the days of sailing vessels. The jib sail is a triangular shaped sail at the front of a sailing vessel. In the days when sail was the method of transport on the seas each country had its own style of jib sail, thus sailors could determine the nationality of the vessel by how this sail looked, "the cut of the jib".

The first written example of this phrase being used in an idiomatic way is from a 19th century novel by Sir Walter Scott, Saint Ronan's Well,

"...if they had come to Saint Ronan's because the house at the well was full-or if she disliked what the sailor calls the cut of their jib..".

It is clear from this passage that by the early 1800's this expression was already in use, by seagoing men at least, for quite some time.


To Turn a Phrase

These are but a few of the estimated twenty-five thousand plus idioms in the English language. We like these turns of phrase because they are familiar, and make expressing ourselves to others, in a way that most will instantly understand, easy. There is, however, much to be learned from the study of idioms. A single phrase such as "busy as a bee", can lead us into Old English Literature, to Geoffrey Chaucer, to life in 14th century England, and so on. It is both interesting and entertaining to take a closer look at these common, everyday expressions, and discover just how much we can glean from them.

© 2017 Stephen Barnes

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    • Stephen C Barnes profile image
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      Stephen Barnes 4 months ago from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

      Thank you, glad you loved the article. I agree with you concerning our misconceptions of the past and its views on modesty. Those of us from my generation were raised with some version of Victorian modesty and Puritan morality, neither of which reflect the truth of daily life throughout the centuries.

      We remember the 60's and early 70's as a kind of "sexual renaissance", the era of "free love", but there were practices in ancient Rome that make Woodstock look like a Victorian tea party.

      No, history is not dull at all. It is actually very interesting and exciting. It is the way that we were taught history in school that is dull. History is so much more than just a collection of dates, and a litany of battles won and lost. It is real people and real life.

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      S Maree 4 months ago

      Love it! And Martha, you made an interesting point, too. Many assume everyone in the past adhered to greater modesty than which is displayed today. The Middle Ages were rife with modesty issues that really bent the rules. Even bundling, popular even into the American Revolution in some of the 13 American colonies, seems unbelievable today.

      The thing was that there were rules agreed upon by various societies, social ranks, religions, etc. Lots of things were allowed until too many decided to IGNORE the rules! The interesting thing about bundling (mentioned in "The Canterbury Tales") is when outsiders are invited to do it, the risk is high that lines will be crossed. Bundling lost steam rapidly in America when British Redcoats (some were foreign mercenaries) didn't know the rules & made up their own. The death knell was the The Great Awakening, when religion fevers helped usher in what is considered "Victorianism". It become so abhorred it was deliberately forgotten about by most histories.

      Don't you just love the way history, often gilded, whitewashed or smeared with vitriol, can be uncovered with some good, deep digging? Who says history is dull?

    • Stephen C Barnes profile image
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      Stephen Barnes 5 months ago from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

      Thank you Martha, I am glad you enjoyed it. That's an interesting custom with the veil, a rather slight nod to modesty, and one I had not heard of. Of course most of us are unfamiliar with the many aspects of daily life in the middle ages, and in fact, for most periods in history. The history books we had in school concentrated mainly on the big picture; wars, world leaders, scientific breakthroughs, etc. To learn about daily life required a much more focused study. The big problem though is the constant flow of misinformation from sources such as Hollywood movies, and the greatest offender, the internet. People can put just about any foolishness they want online and people will believe it, in some cases millions of people.

    • Martha Bienert profile image

      Martha Bienert 5 months ago from Tempe, Arizona, USA

      Interesting and entertaining information. I agree with you about bathing in the Middle Ages. My Master's degree was on the veil, and an interesting custom in Europe in the 15th century was communal bathing where both sexes sat in the same (big) tubs, but the women modestly veiled in (very fancy) veils. This was for rich folks, mostly, of course.