Common Sayings & Their Origins

Most of us say them.  Idioms that roll off of our tongue during everyday conversations.  We often don’t think twice about using them, but where did they originate and what do they really mean?

I decided to find out!  Let’s get started.

Bite the Bullet

What it Means: Accepting something difficult or unpleasant

Origin: During battles, surgeons didn’t have time to administer anesthesia, and gave soldiers a bullet to bite on to take their mind off of the pain.

Break the Ice

What it Means: To begin a friendship or endeavor

Origin: Before cars or trains, cities relied on boats for trade.  Frozen rivers and waterways brought trade to a standstill so small boats known as “icebreakers” would go out and break up the ice.  It is common in the business world for teams to “break the ice” before beginning a project or initiating a business deal.

Butter Someone Up

What it Means: To flatter someone

Origin: Ancient Indians often threw balls of butter at statues to seek favors from the gods.

Caught Red Handed

What it Means: Caught in the act of doing something wrong

Origin: This phrase was borne out of a law.  A person couldn’t face charges for butchering an animal that didn’t belong to him unless they were caught with the animal’s blood on their hands.

Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water

What it Means: Hang on to valuable things while discarding those less valuable

Origin: Bathing in the 1500s occurred once a year, and the entire family used the same tub of water for the entire family.  Men bathed first followed by sons, wives, daughters, and finally babies.  By the time babies were bathed, the bath water would be quite murky.  Women discarding the water had to take care to not throw out the baby when emptying the tub.

Eat Humble Pie

What it Means: Making an apology, and suffering embarrassment or shame

Origin: After hunts commenced during the Middle Ages, the Lord of the manor would throw a feast.  The Lord would get the best cut of meat while those of lower status would get a pie filled with entrails and innards known a umble pie.  It was an outward showing of one’s status thus causing public embarrassment or shame.

Giving the Cold Shoulder

What it Means: Not so subtly letting someone know they are not welcome

Origin: Today it is considered rude to not make someone feel welcome, but back in medieval England, “giving a cold shoulder” was considered a polite gesture.  Once a feast was done, the host would signal it was time to leave by offering guests a cold piece of shoulder.

Go Cold Turkey

What it Means: To quit something immediately

Origin: Some people used to believe that during withdraw, a person’s skin would become pale, translucent, and full of goosebumps, like that of a turkey’s.

Go the Whole 9 Yards

What it Means: To give something a best shot

Origin: During WWII, pilots were given a 9 yard chain of ammunition.  When a pilot used all their ammunition on one target, they had given the target the “whole 9 yards.”

More Than You Can Shake a Stick At

What it Means: Having more than necessary

Origin: Farmers would shake a stick at a flock of sheep to let them know where to go.  If a farmer had more animals than they could control, they were said to have “more than they could shake a stick at.”

These idioms are just a handful of the sayings many of us use everyday in our conversations.  What’s your favorite go-to phrase?


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