white elephant meaning explained

15 English Idioms and their Interesting Origins

Written by: Colton Radford, Content Marketing Strategist

Idioms, expressions, sayings, phrases – whatever you call them, they’re proof that words are weird.

Okay, to be fair, a lot of words in the English language can prove this. The word “set” for example, has 430 different definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. It doesn’t get much weirder than that.

Let’s also consider some of the more recent additions to the English dictionary. Newly appointed words like bingeable, bromance, chillax, fave, adorbs, marg, whatevs, and unfriend have all officially made 1st-grade spelling class just a bit more interesting.

But nothing baffles students of the English language quite like idioms and their unusual ability to mean something so specific, even when they sound like complete nonsense.

Think about it. I mean, short of Thor, who is even capable of “stealing someone’s thunder?” And if people are always “letting the cat out of the bag,” who’s the cruel person stuffing cats into bags in the first place!?

The craziest part about idioms is that they can all be explained and, in many cases, their origin can be traced back to one particular point in time. So, before I fly off the handle ranting about the oddness of idioms I’ll just bite the bullet and cut to the chase. Here are 15 commonly used English idioms and the origins behind them.

1. White elephant

Meaning:

Term referring to something not particularly useful that often has a very high cost of upkeep.

Origin:

In the ancient kingdom of Siam (modern day Thailand) the Siamese King would give live white elephants to people who he didn’t like. While seemingly kind, having a white elephant is extremely expensive and difficult to keep (or re-gift). They eat about 400 pounds of food a day!

2. Fly off the handle

Meaning:

To lose one’s temper suddenly and unexpectedly.

Origin:

The first trace of this phrase came in a book from the early 1800s. It refers to the uncontrolled way a loose axehead would often fly off of its handle while being swung.

3. Close but no cigar

Meaning:

To have fallen just short of a successful outcome.

Origin:

Believe it or not, the carnival games at American fairgrounds used to have cigars as prizes. When someone lost a game by a narrow margin, they would be close but get no cigar.

4. Give the cold shoulder

Meaning:

Ignoring someone or making it clear that they aren’t welcome.

Origin:

In medieval England, it was customary for the dinner host to give his guests a cold piece of shoulder meat (from whatever dish they were eating) as a polite way of saying it was time to leave.

5. Let the cat out of the bag

Meaning:

Reveal a secret.

Origin:

So, it turns out people actually did put cats in bags. Centuries ago it was common for street vendors to sell piglets in bags. Sometimes these vendors were deceitful and put a cat in the bag hoping the buyer wouldn’t notice. If the cat got out of the bag before the purchase was complete, the secret was out.

6. Heard it through the grapevine

Meaning:

To hear or learn of something new.

Origin:

No, Marvin Gaye didn’t come up with this one. It actually dates back to the time of telegraphs. Many people thought the telegraph wiring resembled grapevines so when they received a new message they would say they heard it through the grapevine.

7. An arm and a leg

Meaning:

A large expense or amount of money.

Origin:

There’s some disagreement about whether this originated around the time soldiers were losing limbs fighting for their country in WWI and WWII, or if it dates back to the time when oil painting portraits were a popular thing. Since oil painters would charge based on the size of the painting, it was more expensive to have your arms and legs included in the painting, compared to just your head and shoulders.

8. Hands down

Meaning:

Easily and decisively; without question.

Origin:

This one comes from horse racing and refers to the grip a jockey has on the horse’s reins. If the horse is in first and far ahead of the rest, the jockey can drop his hands down to loosen the reins and win “hands down.”

9. Riding shotgun

Meaning:

If you’ve ever yelled out “Shotgun!” as you’ve approached a car, you already know what this one means. It’s the coveted front passenger seat of a vehicle, next to the driver. But the origin is a little less than lighthearted.

Origin:

In the Wild West era, the spot next to a stagecoach driver was for the guard who would be armed with a shotgun in order to ward off bandits.

10. Bite the bullet

Meaning:

Decide to do something difficult or unpleasant that you’ve been putting off.

Origin:

Before advances in medicine and anesthetics, injured soldiers would literally bite a metal bullet to take their mind off the impending pain of amputation or surgery and to keep themselves from biting their tongues.

11. Cut to the chase

Meaning:

Get to the point.

Origin:

In the early days of silent film, the most interesting parts were often the depiction of some sort of chase, whether on foot, horseback or in a stagecoach. Cut to the chase became a phrase filmmakers would use when they wanted to see or hear about the more interesting parts of a film.

12. Pass with flying colors

Meaning:

To succeed at something difficult with ease.

Origin:

In the 1600s, warships would fly their colored flags (usually signifying their country) after a victory. If you saw a ship pass with colored flags flying, you could assume they just won a battle at sea.

13. Learn the ropes

Meaning:

Learning or being trained on how to do a task or job.

Origin:

Another nautical-related phrase, this one refers to the job new recruits had on 17th century ships – learning how to tie knots and move the sails using rope.

14. Barking up the wrong tree

Meaning:

To be pursuing a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action.

Origin:

In the early 1800s, hunting with packs of dogs was very common. The dogs would often chase animals up trees but then not realize that the animal had jumped over to another tree. Thus, they often found themselves barking up the wrong tree.

15. Steal someone’s thunder

Meaning:

To upstage someone and take the attention or praise from them.

Origin:

John Dennis was a playwriter in the early 1700s who invented a new method for replicating the sound of thunder for his new production. Something about metal balls being rolled around in a wooden mustard bowl. Anyway, after his play failed and was canceled Dennis was outraged when he found out his “patented” thunder sound was being used in a production of Macbeth. Dennis was quoted saying “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”

What other idioms do you know of with interesting origins? Share your favorites in the comments below.

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