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:

‘Eating humble pie’

Photo Source: Wiki Commons

It has been known to happen that an individual overstates the importance of an achievement or makes a huge mistake they swore would never happen. While their friends and family point their fingers and laugh at said individual, it is common to hear that person will be eating humble pie as a result of their error.

The original ‘humble’ in question dates back to the 1400s, when the innards, entrails and internal organs of a deer (called numbles) would be set aside for the lowly servants of a wealthy household to eat. While the aristocrats of the house feasted on venison, the staff would make do with numble pie. Over time, the ‘n’ was dropped and ‘umble’ was born. Umble naturally lent itself to being pronounced ‘humble,’ and from there, an idiom was born.

‘Pull someone’s leg’

Pull it. Source: imgur

Everyone loves the occasional practical joke, but to ‘pull someone’s leg’ is thought to have derived from being robbed after some scoundrel tripped you on the street so their scandalous buddies could then swoop in and grab all your stuff. It’s a theory of the saying that some go so far as to pin a date and location to for its first use: Victorian London, 1882.

Others think it has more to do with beggars of the time tugging on trousers to get the attention of passersby when asking for money. A much more morbid explanation involves individuals executed slowly and quite painfully by suspension hanging (instead of being dropped from the gallows, a much quicker demise) needing someone to ‘pull their legs’ to speed up the process. Speaking of slow deaths…


Photo Source: Wiki Commons

We all know that someone who loves a band, film (say like Diehard?) or an actor (Bruce Willis, anyone?) a little too much. But this word had its beginnings in the 1700s when men condemned to hang literally would not die when it was their turn on the gallows and the process went on for an excruciatingly long time. Much like the Die Hard film franchise you say?

‘Cat got your tongue?’

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At a loss for words? Literally speechless? Wondering why household pets and idioms seem to be so frequently intertwined? The Oxford English Dictionary first recognized this phrase in 1911, although with cats being the mysterious creatures they are (thanks in part to how they’re portrayed in mythological stories over the centuries) it is thought it could be based on events that happened as far back as the Middle Ages.

It was then that if a witch was caught mid-spell or practicing the dark arts in general that practitioner’s cat would then be sent to steal the witness’ voice, therefore making it impossible to report the event. Thank goodness for the high illiteracy rates at the time, at least if you loved standing over bubbling cauldrons while cackling.

In more recent (but still distant) history, it is thought the British Navy’s use of the cat-o’-nine-tails whip as a torture device might be the source. The process hurt, obviously. So much that the lashee was often temporarily rendered mute from the pain.

‘As cool as a cucumber’

Photo Source: Wiki Commons

Calm and in control despite chaos — those are the qualities you’ll find with someone who is cool as a cucumber. So what is it with cucumbers and temperature, and how does that somehow become a compliment in today’s society? First off, a 1970 study confirmed that a cucumber’s internal temperature can be as much as 11 degrees Celsius (20 degrees Fahrenheit) chillier than the air temperature surrounding the potential pickle-to-be.

The wording ‘cool as a cucumber’ was first used by English poet John Gay (1685-1732) in his work “A New Song of New Similes.” After that, being cool as a cucumber was slowly embraced as a good thing. Before that, references made to cucumbers and temperature were taken as an insult, as demonstrated in the line “Young Maids were as cold as Cowcumbers” from the earlier play “Cupid’s Revenge.”

‘Meeting a deadline’

Photo Source: The Capture, the Prison Pen, and the Escape, by Willard Glazier, page 319. Engraving by H. C. Curtis.

Today it’s what INSH writers live their life by. During the Civil War, prisoners were given certain physical boundaries within the walls of prison camps marked by a line on the ground. Crossing that line (or should we be saying deadline) meant being shot — a much crueler fate than having to deal with an anxious editor.

Deadline is linked initially back to an Andersonville, Georgia, prison camp. There Confederate Inspector-General, Colonel D.T. Chandler, filed a report in 1864 that featured the term while describing the camp’s horrific conditions.

‘Going to hell in a handbasket’

Photo Source: Wiki Commons

Usually heard today either uttered angrily under the breath of a frustrated parent after the kids ingest too much sugar or loudly declared by someone watching a similarly dire situation deteriorate before their eyes, it is thought to harken back to 1865 when it was used during a written account of events during the American Civil War.

A slightly more spooky theory has the handbasket portion of the saying linked to the vessel used to catch the severed heads falling from a guillotine. Along with that went the assumption the beheading casualty would be going to hell for whatever it was that brought them that fate.

‘Heard it through the grapevine’

I bet you’re wonderin’ how I knew, ’bout your plans to make me blue…

Yes, it’s a Marvin Gaye song, but hearing something through the grapevine can be traced back to the advent of Samuel Morse’s telegraph system in the 1840s and the term ‘grapevine telegraph’ used to describe the new technology’s coiled wires. Others think the ‘grapevine’ reference comes from the poles and wires erected to hang the thousands of miles of telegraph lines resembling the rig needed to train growing vines.

Today, ‘heard it through the grapevine’ generally means the forwarding of unconfirmed news or details, as was the case back in the 1860s when the same thing happened as people literally spread the word about the goings-on during the Civil War via telegraph.

Watch: 5 Common Terms and Where They Came From