The Origins of The World’s Most Iconic Idioms

Dan Hughes
Nov 6, 2019 · 5 min read

Age-old idioms and their various beginnings.

Idioms and their origins
Idioms and their origins

Whether you’ve been bought up in Inner City London or a far-flung Mid-Western ranch, chances are you’ve heard or even spoken an idiom or two in your time.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the wonder that are idioms (or you need your memory refreshing), here’s a formal definition:

In the English language, idioms are woven deep into the fabric of everyday conversation⁠ — so much so, perhaps, that they escape your lips or engage your ear canal, undetected.

Idioms are buoyant forms of verbal communication, featuring in many a work of literature, turns of a musical phrase or onscreen interchanges. And, in my opinion, we should celebrate them in all of their animated, wordy glory.

The idiom sings from the mouth and bounces off the tongue, dancing through the air in a flouncing glory, its figurative nature whistling through the brain as it attaches itself to surrounding words or sentences. Idioms are the Jester and the Nudik; the Covert and the Overt.

In the UK particularly, it’s unlikely you’ll go through the day without coming into contact with at least one idiom (if you contest this, you must be pulling my leg, son).

Lively phrasing and wild imagery might be two of the primary characteristics of the idiom — but, did you know, most of these classic sayings once had a literal meaning?

Yes, everything has an origin and in celebration of the idiom, I’m going to take a look at the rather on the nose beginnings of some of my favourites.

Let’s get started, shall we? It’s time to let the cat out of the bag.

“Straight from the horse’s mouth.”

What does it mean? Gathering your information directly from a reliable source or person. A statement or fact that is nigh on impossible to contest.

Where did it come from? One of the world’s most widely used idioms, straight from the horse’s mouth is a stone-cold conversational classic.

Studies suggest that the phrase derives from the early 1900s, when prospective buyers could identify a horse’s age by performing a closeup examination of its teeth. It seems that by staring deep into the horse’s mouth, there is invaluable information to be found⁠⁠ — case closed.

“Let the cat out of the bag.”

What does it mean? To unleash a secret without meaning to or revealing a truth until an opportune moment. It’s a good job this phrase is more figurative than literal (keeping a cat in a bag would be cruel).

Where did it come from? Both before and during the 1700s, sources claim that a very typical form of street fraud involved replacing valuable pigs with cats (which at the time, in terms of trade, were seen as worthless), and selling them in bags to unwitting consumers. When a cat was let out of a bag, of course, it was game over for the crooked cat salesman.

A street scene that I imagine to be disturbing and epic in equal measures.

“Pulling my leg.”

What does it mean? Teasing or tricking someone, getting them riled up by doing or saying something undesirable or subversive, usually in a jovial manner.

Where did it come from? Yes, I’ve already slipped this into the article and yes, it is one of my favourite idioms.

While it’s something that flips off the tongue seamlessly, the phrase pulling my leg actually has rather sinister origins. Some decades ago, thieves would work in pairs to trip over unsuspecting pedestrians, knocking them to the ground before grabbing and restraining their legs while they beat and robbed them. I’m thankful it’s now used in a more lighthearted manner, that’s for sure.

“Wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

What does it mean? A person who is pretending to be something or someone they are not, often to the detriment of others.

Where did it come from? This idiom is great as its intent is fierce and it conjures up wonderful mental imagery of a wolf sporting a John Motson jacket.

The origins of this most beloved of idioms are biblical. The phrase is actually attributed to (Matthew 7:15) in, you guessed it, The Bible: a publication that also spawned other classics including rise and shine (Isaiah 60:1), and seeing eye to eye (Isaiah 62:8).

“Fly off the handle.”

What does it mean? To become vexed, enraged or angry, quite suddenly and with gusto.

Where did it come from? I like this one as the punchy arrangement of syllables creates a rhythm that represents its meaning⁠ — with force (or gusto!).

A frequently used turn of phrase⁠ — a real gem⁠ — we owe this idiom to poor craftsmanship. Around the 1800s, droves of faulty axes were made, resulting in the sharp axe-head literally flying off the handle when in use (just imagine the accidents…). And, the first known uses of the idiom are found in Thomas C. Haliburton’s The Attaché’ or ‘Sam Slick in England’, 1843 or 4.

“Cost an arm and a leg.”

What does it mean? An extremely expensive or overpriced item, service or commodity.

Where does it come from? As storytelling dictates, the phrase’s roots lie in 18th-Century paintings.

Before the age of men in a portable booth dazzling people with big flashes, Polaroids or DSLR cameras, those with enough social stature would pay for self-portraits.

The likes of George Washington would have their portraits created without certain limbs showing as featuring one’s arms or legs would inflate the cost of the painting, significantly.

While this is a viable story, others believe the phrase stemmed from wartime, where losing your limbs in combat was deemed (and very, very, rightly so) a high cost to pay for your country. Another very plausible theory.

“Bite the bullet.”

What does it mean? To endure something unpleasant or tackle something that might be painful, after you’ve been putting it off for some time.

Where did it come from? Short, sweet, snappy, and one of history’s most accessible idioms, this gem is pocket-sized and applies to so many of life’s trials & tribulations.

During the 1800s, it was common for patients to literally bite down on a bullet to deal with the intense pain of surgery, prior to the invention of anaesthesia. Most patients would opt to be strapped down to the surgeon's table, but when the going got particularly tough, out came the bullet for some teeth chattering pain redirection (I doubt it was that effective).

Idioms are wonderful devices and if delivered at the right moment, they pack a weighty conversational punch.

Listen, I think idioms are great, anyway. And, if you disagree, I might just fly off the handle.

Do you have any favourite idioms that you’d like to share? Bite the bullet and leave a comment —let’s get the conversation started.

The Geist by D I Hughes

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