Check This Out – The Origin of Expressions


The English language is chock full of expressions. Some of them are straightforward and easy to understand, such as “don’t kill the messenger.” Others are a bit more complicated and don’t seem to make much sense, such as “no room to swing a cat.” It’s likely that you’ve heard plenty of expressions in your lifetime, but have you ever wondered where they all come from?

Several years ago, I received a board game called The Origin of Expressions. I can’t say I quite appreciated it as much as I should have back then, but I’ve begun to see how interesting it is as I’ve gotten older. The game includes a deck of cards with different expressions written on them. Each card explains what the expression means and where it originates from. I decided to look through the cards to see what I could learn about our many different expressions.

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What’s the Scuttle Butt?

The first thing I learned while looking through the cards was that a lot of our expressions revolve around sailing and sailors. At least a quarter of the deck contains sayings that have nautical origins. There are a few familiar phrases among them, but some are less common.

  • Pipe down – a command to be quietSailing Ship
    • Each night, a signal was sounded on a pipe to tell sailors it was time to go below decks to sleep.
  • No room to swing a cat – tight quarters
    • A ship’s crew had to watch anytime a crew member was punished. They would crowd around so closely that there wouldn’t be enough room for the cat o’ nine tails whip to be swung.
  • Under the weather – feeling ill or unwell
    • A sick sailor would be sent below deck and away from the weather to help speed along his recovery.
  • Raining cats and dogs – very heavy rain
    • During the Dark Ages, sailors believed cats symbolized rain and dogs symbolized wind.
  • Hand over fist – accumulate quickly
    • Sailors would put one hand over the other as fast as possible while they hauled in a rope. This allowed them to quickly hoist a sail.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

Quite a few expressions are based upon our interactions with and the behaviors of animals. Although the meanings behind these utterances involve several types of animals, horses are by and large the highest represented group.

  • Long in the tooth – getting old
    • As horses age, their gums begin to recede. The longer the teeth, the older the horse.Horse's Mouth
  • Touch and go – a narrow escape or shaky endeavor
    • When horse-drawn carriages passed each other, their wheels would sometimes briefly touch. They were able to do so without any damage being done, so both carriages could continue on their way.
  • Dead ringer – exact duplicate
    • In 19th century horse racing, a ringer was a horse that was substituted for a similar one to defraud bookies.
  • Get off your high horse – quit acting arrogantly
    • During the 14th century English royalty would lead parades on horseback to signify their importance.
  • Wild goose chase – chasing after something fruitlessly
    • During the 16th century, certain horse races in Britain began with the lead horse running in any direction the rider chose. The remaining riders had to follow the lead in the same way that wild geese follow a lead goose.

It’s All Greek to Me

The Ancient Greeks seem to be another source of inspiration for expressions. Some of them come from mythology, and some of them come from strange beliefs that were held by the Greeks. A few of them also come from historical events.

  • Green with envy – deeply jealousAncient Greece
    • The Greeks believed that excessive bile production was caused by jealousy. The excess would cause skin to take on a green tint.
  • Between a rock and a hard place – having no good alternatives
    • In Greek mythology, Odysseus was faced with the dilemma of passing between two dangerous sea monsters.
  • Pyrrhic victory – a win at such heavy costs that it may as well be a defeat
    • A Greek king named Pyrrhus defeated the Romans but suffered heavy losses, which made the victory seem like a complete failure.
  • Strike a bargain – agree on terms
    • Important deals in Ancient Greece were sealed by a sacrifice. They would call the gods to witness, then strike and kill a victim.
  • Siren song – deceptively enticing
    • In Greek mythology, sirens would sing to lure sailors to their island. The song would drive sailors insane with the need to find the source, causing them to crash into the rocks.

Express Yourself

If I learned anything while looking through the card deck, it would be that there’s an expression for just about everything. I also learned that expressions often come out of the oddest places. Of course, now that I know many of their origins, I’m more inclined to use them. The English language may be complicated, but it’s also very interesting.

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