Do you ever catch yourself sounding like your dad when he used to say things like, “It’s raining cats and dogs!” or “He’s mad as a hatter!”? Don’t worry, these phrases have lasted for hundreds of years because they are so weirdly true to life…no matter the generation.
But when…and more importantly, why did they come about?
Here are the origins to some of the most famous idioms out there. While we can’t stop you from turning into your father, we can at least explain why you’re starting to sound like him.
1. Sick as a dog
Meaning: extremely ill.
Origin: No self-respecting writer for the Internet would slander dogs in this way, but back in the 1700s, it was common to refer to something or someone that was ugly as a “dog.” So if you’re as a sick dog, that means you’re VERY ill.
2. Out of hand
Meaning: not under control.
Origin: This phrase may refer to the days of horse travel, where if you let go of the reins, you might find yourself headed in the wrong direction…wherever the horse wanted to go.
3. Above board
Meaning: legitimate, honest, and open.
Origin: Although this is thought of as a legal term, it actually comes from poker. Players are expected to keep their hands above the table, otherwise, it’s possible for them to stack the deck.
4. Break the ice
Meaning: Do or say something to relieve tension, get conversation going at the start of a party, or when you meet people for the first time.
Origin: Some say this phrase was inspired by the steam-powered ice-breaker ships of the 1800s. Once the ice is broken, a new path is open not just to the ice breaker, but ships following the same path.
5. Armed to the teeth
Meaning: formidably armed.
Origin: It’s said that warriors of the medieval era carried so many weapons into battle, that they had to carry one in their teeth.
6. Butter someone up
Meaning: flatter or otherwise ingratiate oneself with someone.
Origin: It could be a simple metaphor describing sweetening up someone with compliments like spreading butter onto bread, but it might also be explained by an ancient Indian practice of throwing balls of butter at statues to win the favor of the gods.
7. Break a leg
Meaning: wishing someone good luck.
Origin: The true origin of this phrase is kind of murky, but it’s commonly believed to have originated in British theater in the 1920s. For whatever reason, it was, (and still is) considered bad luck to wish a performer “good luck,” so “break a leg” does just fine.
8. One fell swoop
Meaning: all at one time.
Origin: There’s a line in “Macbeth” where Macduff hears news of the death of his wife and children and laments, “All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam At one fell swoop?” It’s weird that “hell-kite” didn’t catch on instead…
9. Mad as a hatter
Origin: You can’t blame the Mad Hatter for being the way he is. Back in 18th and 19th century England, mercury was used in the production of felt, so hatmakers would often succumb to mercury poisoning, causing dementia. Who knows what the March Hare’s problem is, though.
10. Under the weather
Meaning: slightly unwell or in low spirits.
Origin: This is most likely another maritime phrase. When a sailor was feeling a little seasick, he would sit below deck, literally underneath the conditions of the outside storms.
11. Bite the bullet
Meaning: decide to do something difficult or unpleasant that one has been putting off or hesitating over.
Origin: It is believed that Rudyard Kipling (author of “The Jungle Book”) first coined this phrase in his book “The Light That Failed.” It is thought that in the old days, doctors would have you bite down on a bullet to cope with the extreme pain of surgical procedures, though there is little evidence that people actually used a bullet, rather that a piece of wood or leather.
12. Balls to the wall
Meaning: maximum effort or committment.
Origin: The levers in old planes had round tops on them, so pushing the throttle all the way up against the wall meant you were going full speed!
13. Beat around the bush
Meaning: To talk about something without mentioning it directly or avoiding getting to the core of a subject.
Origin: When hunting, it’s often customary to shake leaves of plants to see if you can scare any animals out. First-time hunters might focus on this aspect of the sport, but are too gun-shy to actually pull the trigger.
14. Cat got your tongue
Meaning: inexplicably quiet.
Origin: It’s believed that the phrase came from the cat o’ nine tails whip used for flogging in the British Navy. The whipping was so painful that the person who received it would be noticeably quiet for a time afterwards.
15. Raining cats and dogs
Meaning: heavy rain.
Origin: It’s hard to say with this one. A popular email chain going around in 1999 claimed that in the 16th century, people had thatched roofs and small animals would often crawl through them to gain shelter from the rain. But this explanation has never been proven.
16. Between a rock and a hard place
Meaning: in a situation where one is faced with two equally difficult alternatives.
Origin: Perhaps the first example of this phrase’s use was in Homer’s “Odyssey,” in which Odysseus must make the decision to sail by the sea monster Scylla or the whirlpool Charybdis.
17. Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: pursuing a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action.
Origin: This is an allusion to when hunting dogs believe they have chased their prey up one tree when actually it has jumped to another.
18. Get up on the wrong side of the bed
Meaning: to be in a bad mood for no apparent reason.
Origin: The ancient Romans inexplicably dubbed the left side of the bed as the “wrong side,” believing it to be bad luck.