We all use expressions and idioms in our daily lives, such as “the whole kit and caboodle, “doubting Thomas,” “gung ho,” and many, many more. But, did you ever stop and think about their derivation? After all, when taken literally, most of them do not make any sense. Are they derived from old songs, literature, superstitions, or did they just come into general usage at some point? Well, my research has indicated that the answer is some of each. Below please find a selection of expressions and idioms and their derivations. In addition, for fun, I have added some misquotes, i.e. quotes that are commonly attributed erroneously.
- “Doubting Thomas” – a real oldie, supposedly derived from Apostle Thomas in the New Testament who was always questioning things and needed convincing.
- “An albatross (around one’s neck) – derived from Samuel Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” A mariner kills an albatross, and, thereafter, the ship is plagued with bad luck.
- “Bite the Bullet” – Before the advent of anesthetics a patient would sometimes be required literally to bite on a bullet during an operation in order to withstand the pain and not swallow his tongue.
- “Be careful what you wish for” – According to an ancient superstition the gods might hear your wish and grant it in an unpleasant way.
- “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” – When purchasing a horse it was a common practice to open its mouth and check its teeth to ascertain the horse’s general health.
- “Yankee Doodle” – This well-known song dates back to the 1760’s. Today, it is considered a patriotic song, and it is even the state anthem of Connecticut. Originally, however, it was sung by British troops during the Revolutionary War in derision to mock the colonials, which they considered to be a disheveled, disorganized and rag-tag lot. In defiance, the colonials adopted it as a patriotic song. It is believed the tune was derived from a nursery rhyme entitled Lucy Locket, and it was put to words by a British army surgeon upon observing colonial troops. The word “doodle” is from either the German “dodel,” meaning “fool” or “simpleton” or the German word “dudel,” meaning “playing music badly.” “Macaroni” is a reference to “macaroni” wigs, which were fashionable in the 1770s but became slang for “foppishness.” A “dandy” was a derisive term for a man who wore excessively fancy attire and exhibited feminine traits.
- “Bought the farm” – This is one of many whose derivation is in dispute. I believe it is derived from the US military in the early 20th century. Many returning soldiers would retire to the farm. Therefore, if they were KIA it was said they “bought the farm (early).” Another version holds that if a serviceman were KIA his family would receive a life insurance payout, which could be used to pay off the mortgage on the farm.
- “Bite the dust” – Some claim this originated with the Scottish author, Tobias Smolett in his tale the “Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane” Others claim it was first used by Homer in “Illiad” in 700 BC. Still others reference the Bible, which contains the phrase “lick the dust.” In any event, it was popularized by Hollywood, which often used the phrase in Westerns when someone (usually an outlaw) was killed. There is also the popular song “Another One Bites the Dust,” which refers not to actual death, but to marriage. (No comment, although the inference is clear.)
- “Gee Whiz” – Although it is used now as a bland exclamation of surprise, the word “gee” in its various forms is a shortening of a reference to ” Jesus” as an oath. At one time, it was considered blasphemous to print “Jesus” or “Christ” in the context of an oath. These phrases began to appear in print in the 1870s.
- “The Whole Kit and Caboodle” – Various versions of this expression have appeared in literature for centuries. According to Grose’s “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” (1811) the “whole kit” or “the whole kit and boodle” refers to the entire contents of a soldier’s knapsack. “Caboodle” is not in use anymore, except for in this expression. According to the Dunkirk Observer-Journal (1888) boodle is derived from an Old English word “bottle,” which meant a bunch or a bundle. Boodle is sometimes used to refer to a pile of money on a gaming table, and when a person has “lost his boodle” he has been wiped out.
- “Gung Ho” – This expression is derived from the Chinese words “kung,” which means work and “ho” (together). In the US it was popularized by General Evans Carlson during WWII.
- “Get your goat” – This phrase began to appear in print in the early 20th century as an expression to make one angry. Its origin is murky, but one semi-humorous, unauthenticated version goes like this: At one time, goats were mingled with racehorses to keep them calm. If one wanted to upset a racehorse, perhaps to gain a gambling edge, he would steal or “get,”the goat.
- “Easy as pie” – A US expression derived from the fact that pie was easy to eat (not bake). There are various references in 19th century literature, such as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
- “Loose cannon” – Cannon on 17th, 18th and 19th century ships were secured with ropes to prevent their being tossed about during storms and battles. If one were to get loose it would cause severe and unpredictable damage. Although there is no documented case of this actually happening, this phrase has appeared in literature often beginning with Victor Hugo in the novel “Ninety Three” in 1874.
- “Barking up the wrong tree” – Originally, this expression referred to hunting dogs barking around the bottom of a tree where they thought, mistakenly, their quarry was hiding. It became popular in the US in the 1830s, appearing in newspapers and novels, such as James Kirke Paulding’s “Westward Ho.”
Finally, below please find some widely attributed quotes that were never actually said:
- “Play it again Sam” – What Bogie actually said in “Casablanca” was “you played it for her; you can play it for me! …Play it!” Ingrid Bergman said “Play it Sam.” “It” was “As Time Goes By.”
- “We are not amused.” – Based on what we know about Queen Victoria she might have and could have said that, but there is no evidence that she ever did.
- “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” Close, and not to nit pick, but what Mae West actually said was “Why don’t you come up sometime, and see me?”
- “Elementary my Dear Watson” – Another close but no cigar (another of those expressions). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character, Sherlock Holmes, came close, but never actually said those exact words.
- “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”- Attributable to Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in the early movie versions, but he never said exactly that.
- “Beam me up, Scotty.” – Close again, but Captain Kirk actually said “Beam us up, Mr. Scott.”
- “Come with me to the Casbah.” -The line was attributable to Charles Boyer in the 1938 movie, “Algiers,” but he never said it. The source of the misquote may have been because the line was present in an early trailer, but it never made to the movie.
- “You dirty rat.” – Cagney never said this. What he said in 1932’s “Taxi” was “Come on out and take it you dirty, yellow-bellied rat or I’ll give it to ya through the door!”