It’s been quite a while since I’ve done an etymology post or a language post of any kind. I’m a word nerd and I love knowing the origins of things that spill out of my mouth. This is a list of common sayings in the English language, what they mean, and where they come from.
On the fence/Sitting on the fence
Definition: Avoidance or hesitancy in making a decision or choosing a side.
Example: Get off the fence and make up your mind already.
Origin: This is purely a visual idiom taken from the image of a person straddling a fence, unable to decide whether to jump down to the left or to the right. It has been in common use since the 1800s, especially when discussing political matters.
The ball is in your court
Definition: It is up to you to make the next move.
Example: I’ve done all I can and now the ball’s in your court.
Origin: Late 1800s. Surprising hardly anyone, it comes from tennis, where it means it is the opponent’s turn to serve or return the ball. Though tennis has been played in various forms since the 12th century, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield created the modern game that we know today in 1873. He published the first book of rules that year and took out a patent on his game in 1874.
Spill the beans
Definition: Reveal a secret or disclose something prematurely.
Example: Stanley spilled the beans about Sylvia’s surprise party.
Origin: There are a few different origins for this one. The most likely origin is from the ancient Greek process of voting, where votes were cast by placing one of two different colored beans in a vase. If someone knocked over the vase of the beans, the election results would be revealed. Spill in this idiom means to divulge, which is also where the phrase “spill your guts” comes from.
Pull your leg
Definition: Play a joke on, tease, lead someone on.
Example: I was just pulling your leg when I said aliens invaded New Jersey.
Origin: Late 1800s, British. The exact origin is unknown, but one theory is that it derives from thieves intentionally tripping someone in order to steal their valuables, thereby making a fool of them.
Shake a leg
Definition: Hurry up, get a move on; to dance.
Example: We best shake a leg if we want to catch the train.
Origin: Mid to late 1800s, American and British English. There are a few different versions of this one, too.
- One says it had to do with stretcher bearers in the American Civil War shaking arms or legs of fallen soldiers to see if they were still alive.
- Another says that it’s a nautical term for rousing sleeping sailors.
- Yet another says it originated with dancing. The Dubuque Democratic Herald published an advertisement for a local dance in 1863 which reads: “Nearly every man in town able to shake a leg has purchased a ticket.” In 1904, New York Magazine published the phrase along with the meaning “hurry up.”
Based on the fact that to shake a leg also means to dance, I’m going to go with the third origin.
Through thick and thin
Definition: Through all obstacles.
Example: They’ve been married for 50 years through thick and thin.
Origin: This is one of the oldest idioms in English derived from a hunting expression “through thicket and thin wood.” The first recorded use of the original phrase can be found in the third story told in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340 – 1400). The first recorded usage of the modern version “through thick and thin” is found in a book written in 1662 by Richard Baxter.
The best thing since sliced bread
Definition: An invention or breakthrough that has a significant impact.
Example: The internet is the best thing since sliced bread.
Origin: Mid 1900s, American. Bread is one of the oldest food technologies, going as far back as the Neolithic era, along with beer. While beer had been bottled and sold for centuries, when you bought a loaf of bread, it came whole, so pre-sliced bread was a big deal. The phrase may have originated in the 1930s when the Continental Baking Company introduced the first mass produced pre-sliced loaf of bread, Wonder Bread.
With a pinch/grain of salt
Definition: to view with skepticism, specifically claims that may be misleading or unverified.
Example: Take his directions with a grain of salt, because he’s never been there before.
Origin: The origins of this phrase aren’t clear. Some believe that it originated in ancient times—specifically from Naturalis Historia written by Pliny the Elder in 77 A.D. He used the phrase “take it with a grain of salt” in an antidote for a poison. Threats involving the poison in question were to be taken less seriously, because there was an antidote.
Come rain or shine
Definition: literal: something will happen whether or not it is raining or the sun is shining. figurative: no matter what happens, without fail.
Example: The monster truck rally will happen come rain or shine.
Origin: Recorded as early as 1699 and used regularly since at least the mid-1800s to refer to the weather, the phrase’s metaphorical meaning was made popular by the song Come Rain Or Come Shine written for a 1946 Broadway show called St. Louis Woman by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer.
Go/shot down in flames
Definition: to fail, especially in a spectacular way; to be utterly destroyed.
Example: Stanley went down in flames when he hit on Sylvia.
Origin: Fighter planes. It’s thought to have originated in World War I (though WWI started in 1914, the first fighter plane was in 1915), but the phrase really took root as an idiom during World War II (1939-1945).
See eye to eye
Definition: to come to an agreement with; to have similar opinions or viewpoints as another person.
Example: After talking it out, they now see eye to eye.
Origin: The Bible. Specifically Isaiah, 52:8: “Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion.” Other translations from the original text have it as “see it with their own eyes,” “before their very eyes they see,” and so on, but the idiom stays as eye to eye.
Right as rain
Definition: in good order or health; satisfactory.
Example: After a good night’s sleep, I feel right as rain.
Origin: British, as far back as the 1870s where rainy weather is commonplace. In 1894, the American author and scholar William Lyon Phelps wrote, “The expression ‘right as rain’ must have been invented by an Englishman.”
Hit the hay/sack
Definition: to go to bed or sleep.
Example: I’ve got to hit the hay early tonight since I have a meeting first thing tomorrow.
Origin: Late 1800s to early 1900s, American. Old-timey mattresses were just sacks filled with hay. The phrase comes from the practice of fluffing up the hay inside the sack before lying down to sleep like one would fluff a pillow.
Miss the boat
Definition: arriving too late; missing out an something, particularly an opportunity.
Example: Stanley missed the boat on cryptocurrency.
Origin: 1700s, British. Originally, it was used in a very literal way meaning arriving too late to take a scheduled voyage by boat/ship as this was the main form of long-distance transportation.
By the skin of your teeth
Definition: a situation where someone barely manages to escape or to achieve something.
Example: I passed that test by the skin of my teeth.
Origin: The Bible again. Specifically from Job describing an illness that has made him so sick that he barely has anything left of his body in verse 19:20: “My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.”
Break the ice
Definition: to prepare the way for others; to break down social formality.
Example: Stanley broke the ice with a joke.
Origin: The original meaning was to prepare the way for a new endeavor. There are printed uses of the phrase with that meaning dating back to the 1500s. It shifted to the more social aspect in the 1800s due to the invention of steam powered icebreaker ships that cleared a path for other vessels. Humans were creating paths in ice long before steam powered icebreaker ships existed though, so that is the origin.
On cloud nine
Definition: in a state of bliss, completely happy, perfectly satisfied.
Example: Stanley was on cloud nine when Sylvia agreed to go on a date with him.
Origin: 1900s, American. It’s easy here to focus on the number nine when the number itself has little to do with it. Originally, there were lots of different numbers. Eight, seven, and even thirty-nine are used in early printed versions. Prior to 1960, “cloud seven” was the preferred phrase, which could be where the phrase “seventh heaven” originated. Sometime in the 1980s, the number nine stuck.
Fit as a fiddle
Definition: in good order or health.
Example: My doctor said I’m fit as a fiddle.
Origin: Early 1600s, British. “Fit” in this phrase didn’t originally mean healthy; it meant suitable, as in “fit for purpose.” It evolved to the meaning we know it today perhaps because of the maintenance involved in keeping a musical instrument in good condition, but the origin of this meaning is unknown.
Cut some slack
Definition: Give additional freedom or allowances to someone, reduce pressure, give a break.
Example: My boss won’t cut me some slack on this project.
Origin: 1700s nautical term. The literal meaning is to to loosen a rope attaching a ship to a dock. A similar phrase, with a similar meaning but slightly different form – “cut slack for” – was used in 1855 by Frederick Douglas in his book My Bondage and My Freedom.
At the drop of a hat
Definition: to do something immediately at the slightest provocation.
Example: Stanley takes offense at the drop of a hat.
Origin: 1800s, American; possibly the old west, but it may have been imported from Ireland. It was common to signal the beginning of a fight or a race with either dropping a hat or sweeping it in a downward motion.
Find more weird things: