We all use sayings and phrases on a daily basis – but do we know their origins? Here are a few fun facts about our strange language and where certain sayings come from.
Bite the bullet…
There was no time to administer anaesthesia before emergency surgery during battle. The surgeon made patients bite down on a bullet.
Dutch courage … The Dutch used to drink gin before a battle to gain extra courage.
Round the bend … Victorians did not like the idea of seeing mental asylums, so they were all built behind a wood and/or wall. But you had to drive around a bend to get to them, so they were difficult to see.
Piss poor … The poor used to sell their urine to the tannery, so they could stain the leather with it.
Don’t have a pot to piss in … If someone was so poor, they could not even afford the pot to urinate in to take it to the tannery.
Break the ice … Before the days of trains or cars, port cities that thrived on trade suffered during the winter because frozen rivers prevented commercial ships from entering the city. Small ships known as ‘icebreakers’ would rescue the icebound ships by breaking the ice and creating a path for them to follow.
Go the whole nine yards … World War II fighter pilots received a 9-yard chain of ammunition. Therefore, when a pilot used all of his ammunition on one target, he gave it ‘the whole 9 yards’.
Butter somebody up … An ancient Indian custom involved throwing balls of clarified butter at statues of the gods to seek favour.
Caught red handed … If someone butchered an animal that didn’t belong to him; he had to be caught with the animal’s blood on his hands to be convicted.
Eat humble pie … During the Middle Ages the lord of a manor would hold a feast after hunting. He would receive the finest cut of meat at the feast, but those of a lower standing were served a pie filled with the entrails and innards, known as ‘umbles’. Therefore, receiving ‘umble pie’ was considered humiliating because it informed others in attendance of the guest’s lower status.
Sleep tight … During Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. In order to make the bed firmer, one had to pull the ropes to tighten the mattress.
Go cold turkey … People believed that during withdrawal, the skin of drug addicts became translucent, hard to the touch, and covered with goose bumps – like the skin of a plucked turkey.
Give the cold shoulder … Although giving someone the cold shoulder is considered rude today, it was actually regarded as a polite gesture in medieval England. After a feast, the host would let his guests know it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton or pork.
Kick the bucket … When a cow was killed at a slaughterhouse, a bucket was placed under it while it was positioned on a pulley. Sometimes the animal’s legs would kick during the adjustment of the rope and it would literally kick the bucket before being killed.
Let your hair down … Parisian nobles risked condemnation from their peers if they appeared in public without an elaborate hairdo. Some of the more intricate styles required hours of work, so of course it was a relaxing ritual for these aristocrats to come home at the end of a long day and let their hair down.
More than you can shake a stick at … Farmers controlled their sheep by shaking their staffs to indicate where the animals should go. When farmers had more sheep than they could control, it was said they had ‘more than you can shake a stick at’.
Saved by the bell … As scary as it sounds, being buried alive was once a common occurrence. People who feared succumbing to such a fate were buried in special coffins that connected to a bell above ground. At night, guards listened for any bells in case they had to dig up a living person and save them ‘by the bell’.
Show your true colours … Warships used to fly multiple flags to confuse their enemies. However, the rules of warfare stated that a ship had to hoist its true flag before firing and hence, display its country’s true colours.
Spill the beans … In Ancient Greece, beans were used to vote for candidates entering various organisations. One container for each candidate was set out before the group members, who would place a white bean in the container if they approved of the candidate and a black bean if they did not. Sometimes a clumsy voter would accidentally knock over the jar, revealing all of the beans and allowing everyone to see the otherwise confidential votes.
No mark …
When people signed with an ‘X’ as they could not write. Some people could not even do that.
Rule of thumb …
In Shakespearian times it was illegal to hit your wife with a piece of wood wider than your thumb.