Many of us use sayings and idioms in our everyday lives when commenting on something, stating an opinion or making an observation. But when you really think about these phrases, they often don’t make a lot of sense — yet they have become part of our every day vernacular.
If you’ve ever wondered where some of the most common — and perhaps some of the more puzzling — sayings come from, you’re in luck. Here are ten favourites, and their origins.
1. Let the Cat Out of the Bag
What it means: To reveal a secret.
Where it came from: This saying dates back to the 18th century, when pigs were often sold to people in bags. A common scam was to replace a piglet with a less-valuable cat and sell it to someone who was none the wiser. Let the cat out of the bag and you give away your secret scheme.
2. Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
What it means: When receiving a gift from someone, don’t be ungrateful
Where it came from: Like humans, horses’ gums recede with age, leading to longer teeth. So one way to inspect a horse’s age and consequent value is to check its mouth and the size of its teeth. Back in the days when horses were given as gifts, if you’d received a horse and immediately inspected its worth, your actions would be considered a little rude. Just like asking about the price tag of that last birthday present you got.
3. Close, but No Cigar
What it means: Coming close to achieving a goal, but falling a bit short.
Where it came from: In the mid-twentieth century, carnivals in the U.S. used to give out cigars as prizes. So ALMOST winning would get you close to achieving a cigar, but not quite. Dang that ring toss!
4. Passing With Flying Colours
What it means: To do extremely well at something.
Where it came from: This term has a nautical history and dates back to the 1600s. When ships would return home victorious from battle, their “colours” (another word for flags) would be flying from all mastheads signifying their success.
5. Spill the Beans
What it means: To reveal secret information or ruin a surprise.
Where it came from: It is believed that this phrase originated in ancient Greece, where people cast secret votes by putting white or black beans in a jar (a white bean indicated a positive vote and a black bean was negative). If someone knocked over the jar — either accidentally or on purpose — the beans would spill out and the secret vote would be revealed early.
6. Wake up on the Wrong Side of the Bed
What it means: To wake up grumpy for no apparent reason.
Where it came from: This phrase dates back to the Roman times, when it was considered bad luck to get out of bed on the left side. If you got out of bed on the “wrong” side (the left side), it was thought that you would have a very bad day.
7. Barking up the Wrong Tree
What it means: To make a wrong decision or follow the wrong course of action.
Where it came from: In early 1800s America, when hunting with packs of dogs was very popular, prey animals would trick dogs into believing they were up a certain tree when in fact they had escaped to the next one.
8. Bite the Bullet
What it means: To endure an unpleasant or painful task.
Where it came from: In the 1800s, before anesthesia was common, patients undergoing surgery would literally bite on a bullet to cope with the pain.
9. Turn a Blind Eye
What it means: To consciously ignore unwanted information.
Where it came from: This saying is said to originate with Admiral Horatio Nelson who allegedly looked through his telescope using his blind eye to avoid signals from his superior telling him to withdraw from battle.
10. Pull Out All the Stops
What it means: To do everything you can to make something successful.
Where it came from: This phrase relates to the practice of playing an organ. When all the stops are pulled out, all the sounds are turned on, thereby making the organ as loud as possible.
So the next time you accidentally spill the beans or wake up on the wrong side of the bed, hope that your friends can turn a blind eye!
Want to learn more common idioms and discover their origins? Check out this list from Grammarly.com. For unique Canadian words and phrases, take a look at this list — perfect for newcomers or visitors to Canada.
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