The English language is full of colorful phrases and idioms. There’s the classic “beating a dead horse,” used to describe someone who is belaboring a point. Then there’s “Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” which is a warning not to question something you’re getting for free. And of course there’s “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” which is what you say about someone who refuses to behave sensibly, no matter how many times you try to help them.
There are even phrases that don’t involve horses!
We all use phrases like this every day without questioning them. That’s because these phrases have been around for so long that their original meaning is no longer relevant to our lives. We all know what “beating a dead horse” means, even if most of us don’t interact with horses very often.
Well, today we’re going to be exploring exactly where these old chestnuts came from. Quite often the origin is just as weird as the phrase themselves. (via Bored Panda).
1. Big wig.
A big wig meaning “a person of quality” originates with King Louis XIII of France (1601-1643), who started wearing wigs to hide his baldness. Wigs used to be much more expensive to buy and maintain, so they became status symbols of the time. (source: phrases.org.uk)
2. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
This comes from the practice of determining a horse’s age by looking at its teeth. As horses age, they grow more teeth and their existing teeth change shape and push forwards. So, when receiving a free horse, it could be considered rude to inspect its mouth. Like getting a free car and immediately checking the odometer.
Horse’s teeth also provide the origin of the phrase “long in the tooth.” (source: phrases.org.uk)
3. Biting the bullet.
Like a lot of phrases, the exact origin of this one is unknown–many of these phrases have been around for centuries, long before modern record-keeping. The leading theory for the origin of “biting a bullet” is that it harkens back to a time when wounded soldiers had no access to pain killers. Instead, they were given a bullet to bite on to keep from biting through their tongues. (source: phrases.org.uk)
4. White elephant
A “white elephant” is a possession that’s more trouble than it’s worth. In Thailand and other Asian countries, white (i.e. albino) elephants were considered holy because of their rarity, but they were also expensive to take care of–the owner would have been obligated to give their white elephant special food, and put it on display for worshipers. When a Thai king would become displeased with one of his subjects, he’d gift them a white elephant with the intention of ruining their finances. Which is amazingly petty. (source: phrases.org.uk)
5. Break the ice.
“Break the ice” literally comes from sailing, when ice would need to be broken for ships to navigate through it. This usage dates back to 1579. The modern usage, meaning “to establish a relaxed social atmosphere” first shows up in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, in 1678. But it only became popular in 1883 thanks to Mark Twain’s Life on Mississippi. A former riverboat pilot, Twain wrote: “They closed up the inundation with a few words – having used it, evidently, as a mere ice-breaker and acquaintanceship-breeder – then they dropped into business.” (source: phrases.org.uk)
6. Bury the hatchet.
This phrase meaning “to put aside grievances” originates from a Native American tradition. The first English-language written description of the practice is found in Thwaites’ Jesuit Relations, published in 1644: “Proclaim that they wish to unite all the nations of the earth and to hurl the hatchet so far into the depths of the earth that it shall never again be seen in the future.” (source: phrases.org.uk)
7. Caught red-handed.
The term “caught red-handed” started as a literal reference to having blood on one’s hands as a result of doing something illegal, like murder or poaching. The phrase comes from Scotland, and its first appearance is in The Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I, in 1432. (source: phrases.org.uk)
8. Break a leg.
This is a superstitious phrase, a way of wishing someone “good luck” by literally wishing them the opposite. It’s most commonly used in a theatrical context, but it only begins showing up in American English in 1948. Before that, it most likely came from a World War II. Luftwaffe pilots would tell each other to “Hals und Beinbruch,” meaning “break your leg and neck.” Which itself might be a corruption of a Yiddish saying, “hatzlakha u-brakha,” meaning “success and blessing.” (source: phrases.org.uk)
9. Cat got your tongue.
The real origin is unknown, but there are two theories.
One, it’s a reference to the “cat o’ nine tails,” a nine-pronged whip the Royal Navy used to flog misbehaving sailors. Two, it dates back to Ancient Egypt, when cats were revered as gods and were fed human tongues. (source: phrases.org.uk)
10. Blood is thicker than water.
This proverb meaning that family bonds are stronger than that of friends is ancient. It probably goes back to the Middle Ages, so its precise origin is unknown. But it appears in its modern form in Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering; or the astrologer, from 1815: “Weel, blude’s thicker than water; she’s welcome to the cheeses and the hams just the same.” (source: phrases.org.uk)
11. Barking up the wrong tree.
This one’s a reference to hunting dogs, which would pursue their prey by chasing them into a tree, then barking at the base of that tree ’til their owner arrived. A dog barking up the wrong tree is a dog that’s mistaken about where its prey is. (source: phrases.org.uk)
12. Raining cats and dogs.
The origin is unknown, but there’s a theory. The phrase’s first appearance in its modern form comes from Jonathan Swift’s A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation, published in 1732: “I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.”
Swift had previously written a satirical poem in 1710 called A Description of a City Shower, which describes a city flooded with the bodies of dead animals, so the phrase could have originally been a reference to the poor sanitation of his time.
The phrase could also simply be a metaphor for stormy weather, invoking dogs’ and cats’ legendary dislike of each other. (source: phrases.org.uk)
13. Giving the cold shoulder.
When you give someone the cold shoulder, you’re acting indifferently towards them with the intent to insult. It most likely has its origins in hospitality. A welcome visitor would have been given a hot meal, while an unwelcome one would have only been given a “cold shoulder of mutton.” (source: phrases.org.uk)
14. Crocodile tears.
When someone cries crocodile tears, they’re making an insincere show of emotion. Crocodiles do cry, but it’s not emotional. They have lachrymal glands that secrete moisture to lubricate their eyes.
15. Riding shotgun.
Riding shotgun, meaning “riding in the seat next to the driver,” comes from the Old West, when an armed stage coach guard would sit next to the driver for protection. However, there’s actually no historical evidence that stage coaches had guards armed with shotguns. That was just a trope of Hollywood westerns. (source: phrases.org.uk)
h/t: Bored Panda