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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey

Exploring the Fascinating Origins of Idioms, Part II

Updated: Jun 20


Language is a living, breathing entity that constantly evolves and adapts over time. One of the most intriguing aspects of any language is its idioms—phrases or expressions that convey meanings not immediately apparent from the individual words themselves. English is particularly rich in idioms, many of which have strange and fascinating origins. In this post, we'll delve into the stories behind some of these idioms, revealing the historical, cultural, and sometimes whimsical roots of these common expressions.

 

26. "Fit as a Fiddle"


To be "fit as a fiddle" means to be in excellent health. The origin of this phrase lies in the world of music. Fiddles (or violins) were considered finely-tuned and perfectly crafted instruments. Being "fit as a fiddle" implied being in peak condition, just like a well-maintained and tuned instrument.

 

27. "Go Cold Turkey"


When someone "goes cold turkey," they abruptly and completely stop a bad habit, especially an addiction. This phrase likely comes from the physical symptoms of withdrawal, which can include cold sweats and goosebumps, resembling a cold, plucked turkey. The term started gaining popularity in the early 20th century, particularly in reference to quitting drugs or alcohol suddenly.

 

28. "Head Over Heels"


To be "head over heels" in love means to be completely smitten or infatuated. Originally, this phrase was used to describe someone doing a somersault, literally turning head over heels. However, by the 19th century, it evolved to describe the topsy-turvy feeling of being madly in love.

 

29. "Hit the Sack"


To "hit the sack" means to go to bed. This idiom comes from early 20th-century America, where mattresses were often sacks stuffed with hay or straw. Going to bed involved literally hitting or falling onto these sacks, giving rise to the expression.

 

30. "In the Nick of Time"


To do something "in the nick of time" means to do it just in time or at the last possible moment. This phrase dates back to the 16th century, where "nick" referred to a precise moment or point. It likely comes from the practice of carving notches (or nicks) into tally sticks or other recording tools to mark specific points in time.

 

 31. "Kick the Can Down the Road"


This idiom means to postpone dealing with an issue or making a decision. Its origin is relatively modern and comes from a children's game where players would kick a can down the road. The act of kicking the can symbolizes delaying action, just as the players delay dealing with the can by kicking it further away.

 

32. "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie"


To "let sleeping dogs lie" means to avoid stirring up trouble or revisiting an old conflict. This phrase dates back to the medieval period, reflecting the idea that waking a sleeping dog could lead to unexpected trouble. It was first recorded in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer in his work "Troilus and Criseyde."

 

33. "Method to the Madness"


When someone says there is a "method to the madness," they mean that despite apparent chaos, there is actually a plan or purpose behind it. This idiom originates from Shakespeare's "Hamlet." In the play, Polonius observes Hamlet's seemingly insane behavior and says, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." This phrase has since been used to describe situations where apparent disorder conceals a rational plan.

 

34. "Once in a Blue Moon"


To do something "once in a blue moon" means to do it very rarely. A "blue moon" is a rare astronomical event that occurs when there are two full moons in a single calendar month. This happens approximately once every two to three years, making it an apt metaphor for rare occurrences.

 

35. "Piece of Cake"


To describe something as a "piece of cake" means it is very easy. The origin of this phrase is believed to be tied to the practice of awarding cakes as prizes in competitions, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The idea that winning a cake was easy led to the modern usage of the phrase to describe anything that is simple to accomplish.

 

36. "Rain on Someone's Parade"


To "rain on someone's parade" means to spoil their plans or dampen their enthusiasm. This idiom likely comes from the literal experience of rain ruining outdoor parades and celebrations. The disappointment of an anticipated event being disrupted by bad weather serves as a metaphor for any situation where one's plans are unexpectedly thwarted.

 

37. "Raining Cats and Dogs"


When it's "raining cats and dogs," it means it's raining very heavily. The exact origin of this phrase is uncertain, but one theory suggests it comes from 17th-century England, where heavy rains would wash debris, including dead animals, into the streets. Another theory ties it to Norse mythology, where cats were associated with storms and dogs with the wind.

 

38. "Read the Riot Act"


To "read the riot act" means to issue a stern warning or reprimand. This idiom originates from an actual law passed in Britain in 1714 called the Riot Act. When a crowd gathered unlawfully, authorities would read the Riot Act aloud, ordering them to disperse. Failure to comply could result in arrest and severe punishment.

 

39. "Show Your True Colors"


To "show your true colors" means to reveal your true nature or intentions. This idiom has nautical origins, where "colors" refer to the flags or pennants displayed by ships to identify themselves. Pirates and naval ships often flew false flags to deceive their enemies, only revealing their true colors when they were close enough to attack. Thus, showing true colors became a metaphor for revealing one's genuine self.

 

40. "Skeleton in the Closet"


When someone has a "skeleton in the closet," they have a hidden and potentially embarrassing secret. This phrase dates back to the 19th century, referring to the practice of doctors and scientists who kept human skeletons for research purposes. These skeletons were often hidden away, as it was considered macabre or scandalous to possess them.

 

41. "Take with a Grain of Salt"


To "take something with a grain of salt" means to view it with skepticism or not take it too seriously. This idiom originates from ancient Rome, where Pliny the Elder suggested that consuming a small amount of salt could counteract poison. Over time, the phrase evolved to mean taking statements or claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.

 

42. "The Ball Is in Your Court"


When "the ball is in your court," it means it is your turn to take action or make a decision. This idiom comes from tennis, where once the ball is hit into the opponent's side of the court, it is their responsibility to return it. The phrase has since been adopted to describe any situation where one party is waiting for the other to respond or act.

 

43. "Throw in the Towel"


To "throw in the towel" means to give up or admit defeat. This idiom comes from the sport of boxing, where a trainer or cornerman throws a towel into the ring to signal that their fighter can no longer continue the match, thereby conceding defeat.

 

44. "Turn a Blind Eye"


To "turn a blind eye" means to deliberately ignore something. The phrase originates from a story about British Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was blinded in one eye. During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, when signaled to stop attacking, he reportedly put his telescope to his blind eye and claimed he did not see the signal, thereby continuing the attack and securing victory. This act of willful ignorance led to the idiom we use today.

 

45. "Under the Weather"


Feeling "under the weather" means feeling ill. This idiom comes from maritime language. Sailors who felt seasick or unwell were often sent below deck to protect them from the harsh weather conditions above. Being below deck, they were literally "under the weather."

 

46. "Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve"


To "wear your heart on your sleeve" means to openly show your emotions. This phrase dates back to medieval jousting tournaments, where knights would wear a token of their lady's favor, such as a handkerchief or scarf, tied to their sleeves. This public display of affection indicated their romantic attachment, hence the modern meaning of openly displaying one's feelings.

 

47. "White Elephant"


A "white elephant" refers to a possession that is more trouble than it is worth, often because of its cost of upkeep. This idiom originates from Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, where rare white elephants were considered sacred. They were so revered that they could not be put to work, yet they were extremely expensive to maintain. Receiving a white elephant from a monarch was both an honor and a financial burden.

 

48. "Wild Goose Chase"


A "wild goose chase" describes a futile or hopeless pursuit. This idiom dates back to Shakespeare's time and originally referred to a type of horse race where the leading horse was chased by other horses, mimicking the unpredictable flight path of wild geese. Over time, it evolved to mean any pursuit that is unlikely to be successful.

 

49. "Wing It"


To "wing it" means to improvise or do something without preparation. This phrase comes from the theater world, where actors who had not memorized their lines would rely on prompts whispered from the wings (the sides of the stage). They were said to be "winging it," thus creating the modern usage of doing something spontaneously or without preparation.

 

50. "You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too"


This idiom means you can't have two incompatible things at the same time. Its origins can be traced back to the 16th century. The original phrasing was, "You can't eat your cake and have it too," which makes the meaning clearer: once you've eaten your cake, you no longer have it. It underscores the idea of having to choose between two desirable but mutually exclusive options.

 

Conclusion


Idioms are more than just colorful expressions; they are windows into the history, culture, and imagination of the people who use them. Each idiom carries with it a story—sometimes amusing, sometimes grim, but always fascinating. By exploring the origins of these phrases, we gain a deeper appreciation for the richness and complexity of the English language. So the next time you use an idiom, take a moment to consider the journey it has taken from its origins to your everyday speech. Understanding these strange and wonderful origins not only enhances our vocabulary but also connects us to the shared

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