We all use and are familiar with certain odd-sounding phrases, such “an arm and a leg,” “one fell swoop,” and “nick of time,” to name a few. Many of the words that comprise these phrases make no literal sense individually, but, nevertheless, most of us comprehend their meaning collectively. I have often been curious as to their derivation and development. In some cases, the origination is fairly clear and logical; in others, it is murky and controversial. Often, the earliest usage could only be confirmed back to when the phrase first appeared in writing, such as in a newspaper, a poem or a novel. Other times, it could be traced back even further by a verbal history, such as oft-repeated legend or superstition. In any event, I have selected 20 of the more interesting ones for your reading pleasure.
1. “An arm and a leg” – A significant and, perhaps, exorbitant amount of money.
This phrase is of US origin coined shortly after WWII. One theory is that it was derived from the fact that during WWII many servicemen lost an arm or a leg on the battlefield, which would amount to a significant and, perhaps, excessive loss for them. Another explanation, which has more credence is that the phrase is descendant from two 19th century phrases: “I would give my right arm for…,” and “even if it takes a leg…”
2. “Bury the hatchet” – Final settlement of differences.
It was a tradition among American Indians that the chiefs of the two tribes would actually bury a hatchet in the ground to seal the resolution of a quarrel or difference of opinion.
3. “Close, but no cigar.” – Falling just short of one’s objective and getting nothing.
The prevailing thought is that this phrase is derived from the early to mid-20th century custom of concessions at fairgrounds to give cigars as prizes. There is no confirmation of this theory.
4. “Dead ringer” – Exact duplicate.
There are two sources. Another meaning for “dead” is exact or precise, such as “dead shot” or “dead heat.” “Ringer” is derived from horse racing whereby an inferior horse that closely resembled another is substituted for a better horse to deceive bettors.
5. “Getting out on the wrong side of the bed.” – Be in a bad mood.
The best theory is that it was derived from an ancient superstition that when first getting out of bed it was bad luck to touch the floor with one’s left foot first.
6. As dead as a doornail” – Finished with, unusable, devoid of life.
Traced back at least to the 14th century. At that time, in order to secure two pieces of wood to each other it was customary for workmen to hammer a doornail through them and then bend the protruding, or pointy, end. In this manner the nail would be rendered unusable, or dead.
7. “Easy as pie” – Very easy to accomplish.
This phrase has been traced back to the 19th century, although the origin is not what one might assume. It is not based on a pie being easy to make, but rather that a pie is easy, or pleasant, to eat. It goes down smoothly and nicely.
8. “Bring home the bacon” – earn money.
The actual origin is not definitive, but it was likely 12th century England. At that time, married couples that exhibited unusual devotion to their union were give a “flitch,” or side of bacon, in recognition. Over time, this phrase evolved to signify success.
9. “Bob’s your uncle” – All’s well.
This expression is used in England and other commonwealth countries, such as Canada. I was exposed to it when I worked for The Bank of Nova Scotia, a Toronto-based company. There are various theories as to its origin, but the most likely one is that it originated with a Lord Salisbury in late 19th century England. His first name was Robert, and he repeatedly used his influence to get his nephew appointed to various government posts. Interestingly, the word “nepotism” is derived from the word “nephew.”
10. “Fair and square” – Honest, straightforward.
This expression is traced back to 16th century England. “Square meant “fair and “honest,” so, over time, the expression evolved into “fair” and “square.”
11. “Once in a blue moon” – A very rare occurrence.
This is one of those murky and controversial ones. There are literary references to blue moons all the way back to medieval England. Also, the moon actually does appear to be blue at certain rare times such as following a volcanic eruption. Supposedly, this was documented following the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa in 1883. Most likely, however, the term blue moon refers to the extra full moon that occurs every three years. Since the lunar cycle differs slightly from the calendar, every three years there is a month with two full moons, making a yearly total of 13 full moons, not 12. This extra full moon is called a blue moon, a rare occurrence indeed. This phenomenon was first described in the Maine Farmers’ Almanac in the late 1800s.
12. “One fell swoop” – Suddenly in a single action.
The individual words do not make sense out of the context of the entire phrase. In this context “fell” is derived from its 13th century meaning of “savage,” “cruel” and “ruthless.” “Swoop” is derived from bird references. In Macbeth Shakespeare referred to a hunting bird’s “fell swoop.” Over the years, the meaning of this phrase has evolved from savagery to suddenness.
13. “To hell in a handbasket”- Rapidly deteriorating, heading for disaster.
This is another murky one. The best guess is that it was derived from when a person was guillotined. The head would be caught in a handbasket. Presumably, this person was going to hell. Any conveyance could have been used instead of handbasket, such as a wagon or wheelbarrow, but handbasket provided alliteration. So the phrase caught on with handbasket.
14. “Nick of time” – Just in time.
In 16th century England the word “nick” meant a notch or small cut in wood, for example, to connote precision. Originally, the phrase was “pudding time,” as pudding was the first course in a meal, and to arrive in “pudding time” was to make it just in time for the beginning of the meal. However, around his time pudding began to be served for dessert, so the wording of the phrase evolved into “nick of time,” or precisely on time.
15. “Keep a stiff upper lip” – To remain resolute and unemotional in the face of adversity.
This phrase is viewed as a personality trait characteristic of Englishmen, but actually it originated in the US in the early 19th century.
16. “Mad as a hatter” – crazy
Mercury, which was used in the manufacture of hats, affects the nervous system. It made people who came in repeated contact with it twitchy and nervous and induced mood swings and erratic behavior. In extreme cases, it drove people insane. Mercury poisoning became known as “mad hatters’ disease.”
17. “Murphy’s Law” – if anything can go wrong, it will.
Murphy was Captain Edward Murphy, an American aerospace engineer. In 1949 he conducted a study that concluded that if something could be done incorrectly, it would be.
18. “Raining cats and dogs” – Raining very heavily.
This is another controversial one. There are many theories and the actual derivation is not certain. There are two that appear to have the most credence. The first is that in medieval times serfs kept their pets on the thatch roofs of their huts. When it rained heavily the pets would literally fall off the roof. The novelist, Ken Follett, described this in one of his historical novels. The other theory is that during the same period the streets were filthy and full of debris, and in a heavy rain this debris as well as small animals, alive and dead, would be swept along. Either or both could be true. You decide.
19. “Wild goose chase” – Hopeless task.
This originated with Shakespeare in the 16th century. It is based on horseracing, not hunting. It refers to a chase in which horses followed a lead horse in formation, akin to geese flying. It evolved into the current meaning by the 19th century.
20. “Whole nine yards” – Everything
Again, there are many theories, none of which is certain. Most likely, the expression originated in the US in the early 20th century. It first appeared in print in 1907. Eventually, it came into colloquial use. The three most popular theories are (1) refers to the length of material used to make a suit, a sari or a kilt; (2) the length of machine gun belts on WWII era aircraft; and (3) the amount of yards on sailing ships. Again, the real answer could be all or none of these. You decide.
I hope you found reading this as interesting as I did researching it. As I said, the origination of many of these expressions is murky, controversial or lost in time. This is especially true for those which preceded the written record. Also, in some cases the expressions evolved in multiple places more or less concurrently.
Do you have any favorite expressions? I’d like to hear your comments.
‘Never judge a book by its cover’ is certainly one all people should keep on mind. We never know why someone looks or acts as he/she does till we know all the facts or background that contributes to their appearances or actions. Got to say that all of these phrases are almost impossible to teach to young deaf children. We used to teach and reteach idioms to our deaf students, because the phrases would be in the everyday reading stories. Good article, Larry.