The English language is full of funny little sayings and phrases that are so often used, we rarely stop to think about what they actually *mean*. Just like everything else in this crazy world, all of these phrases have a history. We’ve compiled some of the more popular ones and outlined them for your conversational pleasure. **You’ll *definitely* be surprised by #16**.Meaning: Having a grudge. Origin: In the Royal Navy Dockyards of Britain in the 1600’s and 1700’s, worker were entitled to take timber home. However, realizing that this was costing too much money, the rules changed: Instead of the workers being allowed to carry wood on their shoulders, they could only carry wood with their hands. This meant that they all left work with a little less wood – and little bit more resentment.
Meaning: To do something difficult. Origin: In past wars, there was no time for doctors to give soldiers drugs before performing an operation. Soldiers were often given a bullet to bite down on in order to take their focus away from the pain.
Meaning: To be finished or completed abruptly. Origin: This one came from a story about an American soldier in World War II who received a letter from his girlfriend that only said “Dear John.” When his fellow soldiers asked him to read further, the soldier said “That’s all she wrote” – meaning that the woman had broken up with him. Ouch.
Meaning: To begin a conversation. Origin: Long ago, small ships known as “icebreakers” would rescue larger ships that were caught in ice. The smaller ships did so by breaking through the solid ice and creating a path by which the larger ship could exit.
Meaning: To flatter someone Origin: This phrase comes from an ancient Indian custom that involved throwing butter at statues of the gods. This was supposed to be an act of humility and people did so in the hopes that the gods would look upon them favorably.
Meaning: Something said when a person is at a loss for words. Origin: The English Navy used to have a weapon called the “cat-o-nine” tails. It was used for flogging. The weapon caused so much pain that it often left the victims speechless.
Meaning: Abstaining from alcohol. Origin: This phrase was a product of Prohibition times, when water wagons (used for street cleaning) were a common thing in the United States. People who swore not to drink alcohol would joke that they would drink from the water wagon than imbibe.
Meaning: To be caught doing something bad. Origin: This phrase comes from a law that stated that if you butchered an animal that didn’t belong to you, you had to be caught with the animal’s blood on your hands to be prosecuted.
Meaning: Don’t get rid of valuable things when you’re getting rid of unnecessary things. Origin: During the 1500s, most people bathed once a year, and everyone used the same bathwater. First, the men would bathe, followed by the women, and finally, the children. By the time baby could get the bath, the water was usually thick and cloudy – mother’s had to be careful not to lose or empty their baby out with the tub!
Meaning: To indicate that someone isn’t welcome. Origin: Now it’s considered rude, but it wasn’t always. In medieval England, a host let his guests know that it was time to leave by offering a piece of cold meat from the shoulder of mutton, beef, or pork.
Meaning: To reveal one’s true nature. Origin: This is an old wartime reference, when ships used multiple flags to confuse enemies. However, according to the rules of warfare, a ship had to show its real flag- or colors- before firing a shot.
Meaning: To start the day in a bad mood. Origin: In Roman times, it was bad luck to get out of bed on the left side. If you did, you were bound to have a bad day.
Meaning: To tell a secret. Origin: This expression is said to have origins in ancient Greece. From Phrases.org: “The story goes that white beans indicated positive votes and black beans negative. Votes had to be unanimous, so if the collector ‘spilled the beans’ before the vote was complete and a black bean was seen, the vote was halted.” Seems reasonable.
Meaning: Saved by a last minute intervention. Origin: This is 19th century boxing slang. A boxer who is losing a fight is essentially saved by the bell that marks the end of a round.
Meaning: Everything, or the full story. Origin: There’s not one great definition for this, but the widely accepted origin is that “yards” simply refers to “stuff.”
Meaning: To apologize, especially when you’ve made an error. Origin: In the 14th century, the heart, liver and entrails of an animal were called the “numbles.” Eventually, this changed to “umbles.” A common thing to bake into pies, people referenced “umble pie” literally, but there’s no way of knowing when it changed into a figure of speech. However, it’s an excellent play on words.
Meaning: To die. Origin: One theory about this phrase is a little sinister: The idea is that when people hanged themselves, they did so by standing on a bucket with a noose around their neck. To complete the act, they had to “kick the bucket” out of the way. There are not many sources to confirm this theory, though it somehow makes a twisted amount of sense.
Meaning: More than you need. Origin: This phrase was inspired by shepherds, especially those who were fortunate enough to have massive flocks of animals that could be controlled with a wave of their wooden staff.
Meaning: A basic rule that you stand by and use frequently. Origin: This phrase has a disturbing origin. In the 1700s, British men were allowed to beat their wives – but only with a stick that was no thicker than his thumb. We’re glad the rules of thumb are totally different today.
Meaning: Sleep comfortably and well. Origin: Long ago, mattresses had to be tightened to the bed frame to nightly, in order to become more comfortable. It is said the phrase derives from this practice.
Meaning: More for your money. Origin: Most sources credit US Defense Secretary Charles Wilson as the source of the expression. He used the phrase in 1954. Now, we use the phrase “more bang for your buck.” ‘
Meaning: Having to start back at the beginning. Origin: This phrase is both literal and figurative – people started saying it in reference to playing board games, where there was an actual “square one” to return to.
Meaning: Being allowed to do whatever you want. Origin: This derives from French, and means “blank paper.” Writers used the phrase to describe someone who was allowed to do something on their terms, or to fill the paper however they wanted to.
Meaning: Be quick; hurry up. Origin: This term originated in China and is similar to the Chinese phrase “k’wâi-k’wâi.” It was quickly adopted by English sailors, who used the term to indicate that it was time to hurry up and work.
Meaning: The team is only as strong as the weakest person on it. Origin: The person responsible for giving this phrase a figurative meaning was Thomas Reid. In his essays, he wrote, “In every chain of reasoning, the evidence of the last conclusion can be no greater than that of the weakest link of the chain, whatever may be the strength of the rest.”
Meaning: Similar to your parent or parents. Origin: The simplest way to describe the meaning of this phrase is to think about it literally: That is, a chip that is broken out of a stone. This phrase has Biblical origins that refer to all of mankind being “chipped” off of Adam.
Meaning: To forget something. Origin: This phrase has roots in the lottery held by Elizabeth I during the time of the Tudors. The crown held a national lottery to recoup money for the throne (which was broke). The lottery consisted of contestants’ names written onto tickets. If you won, the back of your ticket had a prize written on it. If not, it was blank.
Meaning: Dying or becoming ill in large numbers. Origin: Though the exact origin of this phrase isn’t known, it’s easy to deduce – flies are plentiful, and they have extremely short lifespans.
Meaning: An interjection or exclamation of surprise. Origin: This phrase is actually a euphemism for Jesus, meant to be slightly crass. The first record of it appearing in print is from 1876.
Meaning: To get down to business or reality. Origin: This phrase was first used in Texas newspaper in the 1860’s. The original writer meant for it to be an expression that indicated it was time to get down to the very basic structure of an argument.