The Fascinating Origins of Idioms

So you’ve found yourself enjoying a morning bowl of your favourite bran-based breakfast cereal and you have a sudden urge to find out exactly what an idiom is. You Google it, and now here you are.
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Heavy rain, basically. Source:

The very act you were required to do-closing that tab on the nerdy rapping Uber driver and opening whatever search engine you happen to favor (be it Yahoo, Bing or if you’re more into communication through looped images of animals shaking what their mamas gave them, Giphy)-chances are good you’ll probably relate the story during a later conversation with an elderly neighbour by saying, “I know what you’re thinking, Howard; how did I even find anything on idioms? I just googled it!”

What is ‘google’ exactly, though? Of course it’s the name of a search engine that some of us have been known to lean heavily on when we’re stumped by a crossword clue or Trivial Pursuit question. That slightly goofy-sounding moniker is first and foremost one simple thing: a word. But in our modern times, the business name ‘Google’ has become an all-encompassing verb or expression for doing research. Providing you hunting for spoilers on the upcoming season of Walking Dead can be classified as ‘research.’

You can take an idiom seriously, just not too literally

Photo Source: Wiki Commons

Idioms can generally be summarized as words being put together to form a phrase that is best not to be taken literally.

Earlier in this article there was made mention of animals shaking what their mamas gave them, an expression popularized starting back in 1992 when the song ‘Shake Whatcha’ Momma Gave Ya’ by hip-hop group Southern Clan was released.

The key here is: what exactly did your mama just give you to shake? When it comes to the human side of this story here’s hoping you aren’t given that command when you’ve just come from visiting mom and you’re still holding the two bottles of cola she handed you on your way out the door. Of course, it does have all the ingredients for a viral video sensation of anyone happens to capture the moment with their cell phone.

The everyday idiom

Photo Source: Wiki Commons

There are plenty of familiar idioms that have been around for so long they’ve been adopted as part of the everyday English language. Estimates are at least 25,000 idioms are in circulation. They are one of the reasons why someone learning English as a second language wants to slam their aching noggin against the wall when they realize how many words in the dictionary technically mean one thing but have also been hijacked to say something else entirely.

If you’re raised speaking English, you know that when there is heavy precipitation and someone exclaims that it’s ‘raining cats and dogs’ we aren’t expecting to see furry critters plummeting to the Earth.

This saying’s exact origin story is difficult to trace since it has been in use in various forms and wordings for centuries. In his 1710 poem, ‘A Description of a City Shower,’ satirist Jonathan Swift alludes to heavy rainfall flushing out numerous small animal carcasses usually scattered around larger, hygienically-challenged urban centers like London and floating them down the city’s streets.

In 1738, Swift published ‘A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation,’ in which the line “I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.” can be found. What is unclear is whether Swift was tying this into his earlier reference to soggy animal carcasses in the streets, or if over time Swift’s two works were combined and adapted to build the foundation of the phrase as we know it today.

Those that find themselves in desperate shape on the financial front are sometimes described as being both ‘piss poor’ or not having a ‘pot to piss in.’ What does pee have to do with financial stability, though?

Photo Source: Wiki Commons

In simpler days, urine was collected in a bucket (usually by those that had little-to-no money or income; in other words piss poor) and then sold to tanneries to soak animal hides in to help remove hair and soften the skin. If you were so broke you couldn’t even afford the bucket, you officially did not have a pot to piss in.

In more recent times ‘pissed’ has also been the label attached to anyone who has imbibed one too many pints at the pub and become ‘piss drunk’. A patron leaves their drinking establishment of choice and staggers to the nearest alley (or street corner, phone booth, fire hydrant…you get the point) and proceeds to pee, regardless of whether there’s an animal hide underfoot or not. In some instances, they might simply pee themselves.

That same person now potentially sporting piddle pants would probably be described as being ‘three sheets to the wind.’ This phrase borrowed from nautical terminology describing the ropes attached to a ship’s sails to keep them in place becoming loose in the wind and fluttering about causing the vessel to teeter back and forth like an inebriated crew member.

Idioms are global

English is not the only language to have idioms, of course. If you’re in Sweden and you’ve been caught red handed you might hear the phrase ‘skägget i brevladån’ being directed your way.

Translation? Being caught with your beard in the mailbox-a much less gruesome visual than the backstory to ‘red handed’ that originated in 15th century Scotland and centers around messy animal poachers and murderers who had to have been so piss poor they couldn’t afford a bucket to clean up after themselves and wash their blood-stained hands.

Yes, we made mention of 25,000 idioms being in existence, but here’s just a sampling of other popular sayings: