Idioms and the Unbelievable Stories behind Them

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Expressions, idioms, and jargon phrases! We use them every day and we generally know what they mean. But, do you actually know the original use for them? If not, take a look at this list and be enlightened for it holds the secrets to today’s most popular idioms in the English language!

Piece of Cake

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What’s easier than eating a piece of cake? Taking candy from a baby perhaps. It is believed that this idiom originated in the 1870s when tradition was to give away cake as a prize.

Break a Leg

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In 1920s Ireland, it was considered unlucky to wish someone luck. To counteract this, it was believed that wishing them harm would bring them luck, so phrases like, “Break a leg,” became common.

Out of Hand

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The origin of the phrase is traced back to at least the 1800s. It was used to express the importance of keeping control of your horse via the reins; to not drop the reins out of your hands lest you lose control.

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

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The idiom is most likely derived from the fact that back in the days of straw roofs, animals would often get caught in the rooftops and die. When it would rain, often the animals would slip through and land indoors.

Bite the Bullet

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Remember when soldiers and patients in hospitals would bite leather straps to ease pain? A bullet was a simple alternative to the leather.

Arm and a Leg

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Back in the days of hand-painted portraits, artists would charge extra for customers to have their arms and legs painted. So, it literally cost an arm and a leg to have them painted.

Butter Me Up

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The most likely origin of the phrase used to flatter someone dates back to ancient India where they used to throw balls of butter at statues of gods to ask for a favor. Thus, the self-gaining phrase was born.

When Pigs Fly

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While when pigs fly traces back to an old Scottish Proverb from 1962, it is more commonly referenced to 1865’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when the duchess says Alice has just about as much right to thinking ‘as pigs have to fly.’

Chip on Your Shoulder

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This phrase comes from the 1600s Navy. It was an abuse of privilege that resulted in a limit of timber (and wood chips) ships could carry. It was ordered that sailors carry these under their arms, as they were too heavy for the shoulder.

Big Wig

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Obviously! Important people used to wear powdered wigs! It started when one king started to go bald and decided to cover it up! Today, not many VIPs wear wigs… right?

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

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This phrase was popular amongst horse jockeys in the early 1900s. It was used to indicate a tip that was so good that it had to have come from a horse itself!

Cat Got Your Tongue

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Many believe that this is a reference to the cat o’ nine tails and the inability to speak after being punished. But the most reliable sources believe that it was a simply 1800s children’s taunt and nothing more.

Through the Grapevine

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Soon after the Samuel Morse’s telegraph was in use, people often referred to it as a ‘grapevine telegraph’ due to its similarities in appearance to a grapevine coil. But even more so, the term was derived from the way news traveled through the poor people/slaves who worked in the grape fields.

Mind Your P’s and Q’s

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Though unknown, the most likely origin of this phrase is a reference to the 17th century bartender’s duty to pay attention to how many “pints” and ‘quarts” each guest was drinking.

Ride Shotgun

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Back in the old west it was customary, for the passenger next to the driver up front to carry a shotgun to protect the driver and remaining passengers.

Bury the Hatchet

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Simple enough: in the 1600s, Native Americans would bury their weapons (often hatchets) to prove their commitment to peace treaties.

Rub the Wrong Way

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More than likely, this was simply used to refer to petting an animal (especially cats) the wrong way. This is uncomfortable and annoying to say the least.

Pull the Wool

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This is another ‘wiggy’ phrase. It originated in the 16th century during the powdered ‘wool’ wig phase. Politicians would try to deceive each other, and they used the term for pulling the wig down to ‘blind’ others.

Cold Shoulder

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Although believed to be created by Sir Walter Scott, earlier accounts suggest that the term was meant to refer to serving unwanted guest the worst meat, such as “cold shoulder of mutton.”

True Colors

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Another nautical term; this refers to showing your flag when encountering another ship. Pirate ships would cover their flags with fake allegiant flags only to reveal their own when too close for the other ship to get away.

Mind Your Own Beeswax

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Back before modern day cosmetics, beeswax was a common ingredient for women’s makeup. If someone’s beeswax makeup started to peel, others would rudely stare. Thus, the wearer would tell the other woman to, “mind her own beeswax.”

Back in the medieval days, castles would have arrow slits, which were seen as a weak point and a way for enemies to invade the barriers. Most of the time, it was safe to hide behind them and fire due to the small space.

Let Your Hair Down

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Before modern society, it was often seen as improper for a woman to be caught with her hair down in public. For this reason, she was only seen with her hair down in the relaxing atmosphere of her own home.

Under the Weather

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Do sailors create the majority of idioms? It would seem so, as the term under the weather was meant for those who became ill onboard the ship when it rained. They would have to go below deck…or under the weather.

Wrong End of the Stick

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You’re not going to like this. In old Roman bathrooms, instead of toilet paper, they used a sponge on a stick. So, you can imagine what happened when they picked up the wrong end.

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