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.
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 name is first and foremost one simple thing: a word. But in our modern times the business name ‘Google’ has now become an all-encompassing verb or expression for doing research-if you hunting for spoilers on the upcoming season of Walking Dead can be called ‘research’.

You can take an idiom seriously, just not too literally

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 post there was made mention of animals shaking what their mamas gave them, an expression that was popularized in the early 90s. 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.

The everyday idiom

There are plenty of common idioms that have been around for so long they’ve just been adopted as part of the everyday English language. Estimates are at least 25,000 idioms are in circulation. We all 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 can be traced back to 17th or 18th century England, when heavy rainfall would flush out the numerous small animal carcasses usually scattered around larger hygienically-challenged cities like London and float them down the streets.

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?

In simpler days, urine was collected in a bucket (usually be 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.

You know you’re pissed when…  Photo: Flickr/FlackJacket2010

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’. 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 just pee themselves.

That same person would probably be described as being ‘three sheets to the wind’, a phrase borrowed from nautical terminology describing the ropes attached to a ship’s sails in order 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:

‘Pull someone’s leg’

Pull it. Source: imgur

Everyone loves occasionally being joked with, but to ‘pull someone’s leg’ once referred to being robbed after some scoundrel tripped you on the street so their buddies could then swoop in and grab all your stuff.


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?

‘Meeting a deadline’

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

Today it’s what Interesting Shit writers live their life by, but 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 meant being shot-a much crueler fate than having to deal with an anxious editor.

‘Going to hell in a handbasket’

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 being linked to the vessel used to catch the severed heads falling from a guillotine (and the assumption the beheading casualty would be going to hell for whatever it was that brought them that fate).

‘Heard it through the grapevine’

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 when it’s used ‘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.

Cover image: Reddit u/crispyfriedduck