Well-Known Facts: Cliché Edition

A money tree growing on a top secret U.S. military base in Canada.

Have you ever found yourself saying a cliché and wondered how the hell did that come out of my mouth and what does that even mean? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Today, we’re going to discuss the etymology of some well-known idioms.

Money doesn’t grow on trees.

Meaning: You have to work to earn money; it doesn’t come easily or without effort.

Origin: This saying was invented so that people didn’t think that money grew on trees, which it actually does. Here’s a money tree:

A money tree growing on a top secret U.S. military base in Canada.

The reason that nobody knows that money grows on trees is that the government has kept it top secret. If people knew that money actually did grow on trees, it would be bedlam. Nobody would work, nothing would get done, and most likely, there would be rioting on a grand scale.

Etymology: The government knew that outlawing the phrase altogether would be suspicious, so they simply changed it from money grows on trees to money doesn’t grow on trees.

Play favorites.

Meaning: To have a preference for one person or thing over another.

LEFT: Favorites Board Game c 1894. RIGHT: Monopoly Board Game c 1904.

Origin: In the late 1800s, there was a popular board game called Favorites where players would make their way around a board by rolling dice, buying up property, railroads and utilities. As you can see in the image above, the Monopoly game was very similar to Favorites, except that Monopoly had given names to the properties and railroads, and it had player pieces shaped like shoes, top hats and thimbles. Eventually, Hasbro, the makers of Monopoly, bought Favorites, ironically, creating its own monopoly on Favorites board games.

Etymology: Some people still preferred to play the old Favorites game over the new Monopoly and the expression was born.

Many hands make light work.

Meaning: Large tasks are easier when divided among several people.

Origin: Thomas Alva Edison had three or more arms. If it hadn’t been for his extra hand, he might not have perfected the light bulb. Most people assume that he had the standard number of arms since he was very careful not to show the extra in portraits. Below is an extremely rare print of Thomas A. Edison accidentally scratching his head and revealing his third arm.

An extremely rare outtake of Edison showing three arms.

As this is the only known photograph in existence of Edison’s extra arm, we are unsure whether he had only three arms. Some theorize that it is possible that he actually had four arms due to the human body’s propensity for symmetry, but there is no evidence to support it.

Etymology: Originally, the word “light” in the phrase didn’t mean the adjectival sense of easy or requiring little effort, but light as in the noun for a source of illumination, e.g. the light bulb; and “work” didn’t mean labor, but work as in operate or function correctly, i.e. Thomas Edison’s “many hands” made the “light” bulb “work.” Eventually, due to the limited knowledge of Edison’s extra arm(s), the phrase shifted to the meaning we know today.

Like a bull in a china shop.

Meaning: To be clumsy and careless. Out of place.

Origin: In early 1700s France, there was a fine china manufacturer. The original manufacturing facility was just a building on a farm. When the owner’s wife opened a shop in the farmhouse to sell their wares, she put the farm’s bull, Haviland, in charge of sales. Haviland was a very skilled sales-bull and people came from miles around to buy the china. Eventually, due to the popularity of Haviland, the china was shipped all over the world and was considered some of the best fine porcelain that the country had to offer.

Etymology: Contrary to popular belief, Haviland was not clumsy and never once in his more than ten years of service did he ever break anything. This phrase originally meant “delightfully out of place,” but it lost this meaning over time since people assumed that you couldn’t possibly have a bull running china shop without it breaking something.

It’s raining cats and dogs.

Meaning: Pouring rain. A severe storm.

Origin: Contrary to popular lunacy, it has never actually rained cats and dogs. This is complete hogwash. It has, however, rained birds and fish. In Wales in 1654, people from a twenty mile area had irrefutable proof that it had rained birds and ocean fish. For decades, this baffled scientists until Dr. Charles Meteor theorized that what had caused fish and fowl to fall from the sky was not mother nature, but was actually something called the tornado effect.

What a funnel cloud near Wales carrying fish and fowl towards land might look like.

As an intense storm, which he called a funnel cloud, travels through the sky, it has the effect of sucking in anything nearby and indiscriminately ejecting it back out again. Dr. Meteor had invented the tornado, which completely explained the presence of fish and fowl in the skies over Wales. The study of meteorology was born.

Etymology: Nobody quite knows how the saying turned from birds and fish into cats and dogs, but the effect is nearly the same.

This post is part of The Well-Known Facts Series.