30 Common, English Idioms and the History Behind Them

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January 30th, 2011

Every language and dialect involves its own complex system of idioms, metaphors and other bits of figurative language that oftentimes perplex non-native speakers. However, even some of the most well-educated individuals don't always know how even the most familiar phrases popped into being. While not a comprehensive list by any definition, the following summaries explore some of the more popular English-language idioms. Be sure to click on the links for more detailed information.

  1. "Read the Riot Act:" While the idiom references "the riot act" in the abstract, such a legal proclamation did, in fact, exist. Under King George I, the real Riot Act was passed in 1714, enforced a year later and read out loud in order to quell gatherings of subjects the throne considered potentially threatening. Once concluded the "rioters" were given one hour to disperse before getting slapped with penal servitude and imprisonment sentences.

  2. "By the skin of my teeth:" This incredibly common, yet bizarre, phrase obviously has no physiological origin, but most English-speaking peoples have access to its very first use. The Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, translated Job 19:20 as such, and the idiom's meaning was used in much the same as it is now. Subsequent English bibles related it as either something very similar or hewing closer to referencing gums rather than literally skinned teeth.

  3. "Paint the town red:" Multiple theories exist regarding the history of the idiom that conjures up images of nocturnal bacchanalian fervor, with one in particular standing out. Around 1837, the infamous troublemaker Marquis de Waterford and his accomplices spent an evening vandalizing the English town Melton Mowbray. Some of the night's raucous festivities included literally painting various buildings — even a tollbooth — a lovely (and obvious) shade of red.

  4. "White elephant:" By this point, "white elephant" has morphed into a phrase associated with intentionally tacky gift swaps, but its original usage still gets thrown about on occasion. It originally stems from literal white elephants, which South Asian royalty oftentimes kept as vanity pets. In contemporary parlance, it broadens the definition to encompassing anything huge and expensive that requires more money than its actual value to maintain.

  5. "Green-eyed monster:" Unsurprisingly, William Shakespeare coined a bounty of idioms and expressions still used by English speakers today. His tragic drama Othello first referenced a "green-eyed monster," alluding to the jealousy and betrayal at the narrative's center. But rather than the expected vision of toothy viridian terror most people conjure up, the Bard actually used a cat seemingly playing with its captured meal before consumption.

  6. "Apple of my eye:" The Book of Deuteronomy first used this phrase in Hebrew, and Shakespeare popularized its English use in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In spite of the millennia between them, both eras believed the human pupil to be a solid, apple-like construct. This idiom was originally used in a literal sense, but over time metamorphosed into a term of endearment.

  7. "Bring home the bacon:" Etymologists remain unsure as to where exactly this particularly tasty idiom came from, though many trace it back to a Great Dunmow tradition that began in 1104. Apparently the Prior of Little Dunmow awarded a particularly dedicated married couple with an entire side of bacon as a reward for their virtue. Such practices continue in the region, occurring every four years, and even found its way into Chaucer's 1395 The Wife of Bath's Tale and Prologue.

  8. "Heard through the grapevine:" The wires utilized in America's first telegraph stations oftentimes swooped and draped in twisted, random patterns. Professionals and onlookers alike believed the tangled masses resembled grapevines somewhat, eventually birthing a common idiom still used today. Especially in catchy songs by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.

  9. "Diddly-squat:" "Diddly-squat" originated amongst carnival professionals, and the meaning largely stayed the same once it hit the mainstream. Workers oftentimes used their own slang in order to communicate with one another in front of visitors without letting them onto what all was going on. The term apparently referred to small amounts of change proffered by gamblers, usually nickels or dimes, and nobody really seems to know how it entered into the common English vernacular.

  10. "Screaming meemies:" At least two possible origins for this bizarre phrase exist, one as 1920s slang term for intoxication, the other an onomatopoeia describing German artillery shells used in World War I. With the latter, soldiers coming home with an unfortunate case of PTSD were often referred to as suffering the "screaming meemies." From there, the idiom eventually swelled to include anyone who felt afraid or traumatized by a scary situation.

  11. "Riding shotgun:" Back when stagecoaches existed as the pinnacle of transport, the seat immediately next to the driver was reserved for individuals holding (of course) a shotgun. Such a strategic spot allowed the protectors to better ward off any bandits attempting to loot passengers. As engineering marched on into motor vehicles, the vernacular designation for the coveted spot stayed the same.

  12. "On cloud nine:" The whos and whats behind the creation of "on cloud nine" remain largely obscured, but it burst onto the scene sometime around the 1950s and spread through its use on a popular radio program. Whenever eponymous protagonist Johnny Dollar wound up unconscious, he found himself floating about the popular atmospheric locale. Although it likely existed in some form or another prior to the show, it caught on as slang for ecstasy induced by intoxicating substances — before undergoing the usual broadening to encompass any sort of profound happiness.

  13. "Skeleton in the closet:" In the United Kingdom, one's shameful secrets are kept in the cupboard rather than the closet, though the origins of the near-identical idioms stem from the same exact same source. Both literal and figurative skeletons factored into its popularity, the former when William Hendry Stowell likened one's wish to hide genetic diseases to shoving bones into closets. In fictional narratives, a murderer hiding corporeal evidence oftentimes utilized out-of-the-way areas, subsequently turning safe, domestic scenes into grisly torrents of terror.

  14. "Talking up a blue streak:" 18th Century America birthed this humorous little phrase used to describe incredibly quick speech patterns. Most etymologists and word geeks tend to think the "blue" refers to lightning tinged with the specific color. So the idiom's original metaphorical intent has stayed pretty much the exact same throughout the centuries.

  15. "Up to snuff:" Chewing tobacco once enjoyed immense popularity, but owing to its great expense was only afforded by the upper castes. Its original meaning shares similarities with today's, referring to one's financial and intellectual status. A man who was considered "up to snuff" possessed the money, smarts and sophistication necessary to fully enjoy and appreciate fine tobacco and tobacco products.

  16. "Lowbrow," "Middlebrow" and "Highbrow:" Despite these idioms' vastly different meanings, all of them share the same pseudo-scientific roots. The once-accepted field of phrenology, which enjoyed popularity in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, wrongly posited that the size of one's forehead indicated the size of one's brain. "Highbrow," of course, was thought to indicate the most intelligence, and 1875 marked its first appearance in English vernacular.

  17. "Bitter end:" English speakers with a fondness for military vocabulary know that a "bitter" is the term for a line wound around an iron or wooden pike on a seafaring vessel's deck (also known as a "bit"). These days, Navy professionals refer to the final portions of lines as "the bitter end" regardless of whether or not it's attached to the eponymous post. And sailors and mainstream speakers alike all use the term to mean extreme loyalty to an individual, event or cause.

  18. "Blacklist:" To blacklist someone always held the same definition and connotation, though modern parlance does not usually mean a literal black list. During King Charles II's reign, however, it involved black books where he kept the names of those involved with his father's murder. "Black book" can be used interchangeably with "blacklist," but the latter is far more popular.

  19. "Flash in the pan:" Like plenty of other idioms out there, "flash in the pan" could have easily stemmed from multiple sources. The most commonly accepted history, however, involves flintlock rifles and their occasional failures to light powder and send a bullet flying. Quick-burning fads have plenty in common with the bright, burning sparks the guns created, lasting only seconds before dispersing back into nothingness.

  20. "Selling like hotcakes:" Around 1839, this tasty term likened anything that sold out quickly to one of America's most popular foodstuffs. Hotcakes and pancakes have always enjoyed a beloved spot in the nation's culinary heart, and serve as some of the best metaphors for anything that flies off the shelves. They never blew up as one major "flash in the pan" fad, but rather endured as a classic, reliable comfort food.

  21. "Funny bone:" Here, "funny" actually refers to the word's "strange" rather than "hilarious" connotation. The ulnar nerve in the elbow creates a very bizarre, tingling sensation when the surrounding bone experiences a strike. Considering the fact that it does (appropriately enough) run past the humerus in the upper arm, this idiom could still compellingly hail from elsewhere.

  22. "Let the cat out of the bag:" The most reasonable of the two historical explanations for this phrase actually ties into another one involving mammals and bagging — "a pig in a poke." Dating back to around 1530, cats often served as sneaky substitutes for their porcine peers when shady businesspeople tricked their customers. Clever consumers who exposed their deception eventually spawned the familiar idiom, which retains a similar, albeit broader, meaning today.

  23. "Fly off the handle:" Handmade axes in the United States' pioneer days weren't always the crowning achievements of technology and craftsmanship. Occasionally, a particularly poor design would result in the head unexpectedly zooming off its handle. Many people found this an apt metaphor for passionate bursts of rage, eventually birthing the phrase still in use centuries later.

  24. "Ballpark estimate:" Etymologists and word junkies alike attribute America's allegedly favorite pastime to the creation of this idiom. Similar to "in the same ballpark," it means an approximation rather than a definitive answer. The phrase refers to an outdated newspaper strategy used to gauge the number of attendants at a baseball game when nothing existed to measure it exactly.

  25. "Kick the bucket:" One of the more bizarre metaphors in the English language likens death to a bucket understandably confuses even the most eloquent and learned speakers. Probably the most likely explanation refers to a now-obsolete method of slaughtering animals for food. A "bucket" consisted of a wooden frame, from which the pigs or sheep or other livestock were hung, and the "kicking" element comes in when the expected neurological struggles ensue after death.

  26. "Lunatic fringe:" During the Roman Empire, moon goddess Luna was thought to influence one's mental health with her moody tendencies. Millennia later, President Teddy Roosevelt allegedly co-opted the word in order to best describe his opinions regarding Anarchists on the outer edges of the political spectrum. Although still largely used when referring to one's opinions on government systems, like many other idioms this one gradually expanded to include other subjects as well.

  27. "Bite the bullet:" "Bite the bullet" boasts a literal, straightforward history. As with its later metaphorical use, chomping down on ammunition meant one needed to face down his or her physical turmoil. Prior to the invention of anesthesia, the only respite surgeons could offer was a bit of liquor (usually whisky) and a lead bullet or stick to chew.

  28. "Back to square one:" Several different possible histories of this curious idiom exist, though only one from 1952 seems the most likely. Snakes and Ladders, known as Chutes and Ladders in the United States, may not have sent unlucky players straight to the first square. But this did not stop an Economic Journal article from wielding it as a metaphor for having to start over from the very beginning.

  29. "Extend the olive branch:" Many "Western" idioms come straight from the Bible, and the one referencing a familiar Genesis tale remains one of the most popular and easily recognizable. When Noah allegedly sent a dove to check for dry land, she eventually returned with a sprig from an olive tree. The association with the cross-cultural avian symbol of peace imbued the plant with an identical association.

  30. "Out of line:" Another simple idiom with a simple history. In the military, falling out of line meant compromising the unit's integrity and efficiency. The specialized terminology eventually entered into the mainstream lexicon, retaining the same connotations.

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