13 Commonly Used Idioms, Their Meanings and Origins

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I've lived my entire life hearing phrases and cliches, just taking them at face value and never trying to figure out what originated such a saying.

Now I'm going to dig a little deeper into easily tossed about phrases and find out just what they mean.

And if I ever want to use them again.


  1. Deader Than A Doornail: Since ordinary nails aren't used in making doors, perhaps the 'nail' in this phrase, which can be traced all the way back to 1350, was a small metal plate nailed on a door that visitors pounded with the knockers attached to it when announcing their arrival. Life would eventually be pounded out of the 'nail' in that way.

    Then again the 'nail' could be the heavy-handed decorative nails outer doors were studded with, though why these doornails would be regarded as any 'deader' than say, coffin nails is a mystery.

    It has even been suggested that since nails were ordinarily used for doors, the phrase means 'dead as something that never existed.

  2. A Stick In The Mud: Something that was stuck in the mud, especially a vehicle of some kind, went nowhere fast, just as a person who came to be known as a stick in the mud - he or she was "helpless or unprogressive". The earliest recorded instance of the figurative phrase comes from 1733.

  3. Raining Cats and Dogs: Used in reference to heavy rains.

    The probable source of 'raining cats and dogs' is the prosaic fact that, in the filthy streets of 17th/18th century England, heavy rain would occasionally carry along dead animals and other debris. The animals didn't fall from the sky, but the sight of dead cats and dogs floating by in storms could well have caused the coining of this colourful phrase.

  4. Pull The Wool Over My Eyes: To deceive, hide the truth.

    The natural assumption is that this phrase derives from the wearing of woollen wigs, which were fashionable for both men and women in the 16th and 17th centuries. The phrase itself is of 19th century American origin.

  5. Graveyard Shift: In America, the Graveyard Shift is more commonly known as 3rd shift or the work hours between midnight and sunrise.

    Current popular explanations for the origin of the phrase "graveyard shift" reference the 19th century problem of accidentally burying people who were still alive. To prevent this from happening, the story goes, caskets were equipped with a bell-ringing device enabling a waking "corpse" to notify the world that they were no longer dead. The graveyard attendants who remained vigilant throughout the day and night worked the graveyard shift.

    According to Michael Quinion at World Wide Words the above explanation is merely a story and nothing more. He explains that the "graveyard shift is an evocative term for the night shift between about midnight and eight in the morning, when - no matter how often you've worked it - your skin is clammy, there's sand behind your eyeballs, and the world is creepily silent, like the graveyard. The phrase dates only from the early years of the twentieth century."

  6. Don't Throw The Baby Out With The Bath Water: Meaning not to throw the good out with the baby.

    In the 1500's, a large metal tub was filled with water that had been drawn and heated, then family bath time began.Bath time started with the man of the house, then the sons and any other men in the household. Then the women and children got their turn in the bath water, and lastly the babies were bathed; all in the same water.

    Because baths were only taken once a year, the water was so dirty by the time the babies were bathed, it would have been easy to lose someone in it.Hence the phrase, or saying, 'Don't throw the baby out with the bath water'.

  7. Fall Off The Wagon: This phrases is used in association with an alcoholic that was sober but returned to drinking.

    In the late 1800s, many Americans campaigned for a government ban on liquor (crazy, we know). Those who chose to live the sober life were said to be "on the wagon." Mavens' Word of the Day explains that in this case, the "wagon" was actually a water cart used to hose down dusty roads on hot days.

    Basically, saying that a person was "on the wagon" was shorthand for "they would sooner climb aboard a water cart to quench their thirst" than have a drop of liquor.

  8. Nothing To Shake A Stick At: Shaking a stick at somebody, of course, is a threatening gesture, or at least one of defiance. So to say that you have shaken a stick at somebody is to suggest that person is an opponent, perhaps a worthy one.

    Its recorded history began—at least, so far as the Oxford English Dictionary knows—in the issue of the Lancaster Journal of Pennsylvania dated 5 August 1818: “We have in Lancaster as many Taverns as you can shake a stick at.”

  9. His Name Is Mud: There's an old story that the expression derives from Dr. Samuel Mudd, who unwisely took pity on Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Mudd treated the broken ankle Booth suffered in his leap to the stage of Ford's Theater; for his trouble, he was sentenced to life in a federal prison.

    So, to say that someone's name is mud is to imply that they are no good or worthless.

  10. Waiting For The Other Shoe To Drop: This phrase is commonly used when someone is expecting something to happen following a specific occurrence.

    Some sources indicate that waiting for the other shoe to drop derived from an old tale of a traveler who stayed at an inn. The innkeeper informed the weary traveler that he would be in a room next to a very light sleeper.

    When taking off his shoes, he would drop one on the floor; which, in turn, awakened the light sleeper in the room next door. He then waited 'for the other shoe to drop,' knowing then he could return to his peaceful slumber.

  11. Bent Out Of Shape: The most common context is to tell someone not to get bent out of shape, or upset, over a problem. Getting bent out of shape is the same as getting worked up, aggravated, or overly annoyed at something that usually can't be helped.

    The phrase "bent out of shape" is also common when referring to broken or bent objects, which is where the phrase was originally used. If a nail is bent out of shape, it is useless. That is why the phrase encourages people to not get irrationally upset about small problems.

  12. Shoot From The Hip: This phrase means to act without much forethought. General used in reference to speaking, meaning to be honest.

    It is believed that idiom was derived from the days of the old West where most men carried guns and were quick to react in volatile situations with their weapons; without much thought into other ways or resolution.

  13. Fly By The Seat of Your Pants: To decide a course of action as you go along, using your own initiative and perceptions rather than a pre-determined plan or mechanical aids.

    Aircraft initially had few navigation aids and flying was accomplished by means of the pilot's judgment. The term emerged in the 1930s and was first widely used in reports of Douglas Corrigan's flight from the USA to Ireland in 1938.

    That flight was reported in many US newspapers of the day entitled 'Corrigan Flies By The Seat Of His Pants', in The Edwardsville Intelligencer, 19th July 1938.

    Two days before this report Corrigan had submitted a flight plan to fly from Brooklyn to California. He had previously had a plan for a trans-Atlantic flight rejected (presumably on the grounds that the 'Spirit of $69.60 wasn't considered up to the job). His subsequent 29 hour flight ended in Dublin, Ireland. He claimed that his compasses had failed. He didn't openly admit it but it was widely assumed that he had ignored the rejection of his flight plan and deliberately flown east rather than west.

Find More Fun Lists at Thursday 13!

Kimmie

2 chatted about this topic:

Americanising Desi July 31, 2009 at 3:19 AM  

can i thank you?
i mean really!

wow what a share.!!!

thank you so much :)

have a terrific weekend!

Dear life, 13 things I want today

Anonymous,  December 26, 2010 at 1:03 PM  

So your origin of the on the wagon.. the one I heard goes right along with "One for the road." When men were taken to be hung, the executioner would cart them to the gallows on a wagon. On the way, they would stop at a bar and ask them if they would like to stop for a drink. If they said yes, it would be "one for the road." If no, they would be "on the wagon."

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