There are phrases we use everyday, common sayings that we don’t think twice about using when setting up an answering service.
There are phrases we use everyday, common sayings that we don’t think twice about using when setting up an answering service. But if we did, we might often ask ourselves, “What does that mean?” A phrase such as, ‘A dime a dozen’ or ‘It’s raining Cat’s and Dog’s’ may seem common in our daily language, but we may have no idea where the phrases originate. Such sayings are called clichés or idioms.
A cliché is just an idiom that has become boring or overused. They have been passed down from generation to generation and often have very interesting origins. For instance: A dime a dozen originated in 1976, when there was heavy minting of the dime (10 cents) in the U.S. They became common and were not really worth a lot of money, thus things that were common became ‘a dime a dozen’.
There are many clichés or idioms we use regularly and many more that we don’t. The idioms used a lot in one area may be cliché in another area.
A bee in your bonnet – Concerned or obsessed with something. Bee’s sting and you wouldn’t want one in your bonnet, (hat) just as a beekeeper might get bees in his protective hood. In the 16th century, it was referred to as bees in your head.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – Phrase was used in the late 1700’s, but it may have been used as early as the 1300’s in various forms. Meaning it is better to have a small real advantage than only a chance of a greater one. A hunter has caught a bird, which is more valuable than the two he knows are in the bush.
A bun in the oven – To be pregnant. A 20th century phrase from a book called the Cruel Sea, written in 1951. The term may be older.
A dead ringer – A person who looks just like another. Originally referred to looking exactly like someone who was already dead.
Baker’s dozen - Bakers' once (and rarely still do) gave thirteen rolls when twelve were requested. They worried that they would be accused of going light on the order.
Balls to the wall – To go all the way. A Pilot’s term for accelerating quickly by pushing the throttle (ball) all the way to the panel.
Baptism by fire – Doing something the hard way. In English since 1822, French for baptême du feu, refers to the first time a soldier was in battle. But used before that by the Greeks meaning being baptized by the Holy Spirit or ‘fire’.
Chip on his shoulder – The saying is from nineteenth century United States. People wanting to fist fight would put a chip of wood on their shoulder, daring others to knock it off.
Come hell or high water – Doing something no matter what happens, even if it means death or flood. No challenge is too much.
Dog days – Hot sultry stagnant summer days. A Greek and Roman saying who called such days this after the Dog Star Sirius. Romans went so far as to sacrifice a brown dog to Sirius, thinking it might stop the long hot humid days.
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth – To be grateful. When someone wants to buy a horse they usually check the teeth of the animal to see how old it is and if there is any evidence of illness. When one checks the mouth of a horse gifted to them they are insulting the giver.
Eighty-six, to – To remove something or someone. Thought to originate in the 1940’s when Article 86 of the NY Liquor Code was began. It described the circumstances in which liquor should be withheld from a customer.
Excuse my French – Said to excuse someone’s use of swear words. Often used around children when an adult used offensive language and wanted to make them think it was merely another language.
Face the music – To accept the consequences of a deed. While there are documented uses of this phrase the origins are unknown, one thought is that it was referring to musical theatre or concert tryouts. One would have to ‘face the music’ when attempting to get a part.
Fly by the seat of your pants – To do things as you go without direction. An old aviation saying that spoke to the fact that there were few navigation tools and the flying was done according to the pilot’s judgment.
Gad zooks – Mild or ironic oath. It seems it may be an alteration of God’s hooks. The nails used in Christ’s crucifixion.
Go to hell in a hand basket – in a terrible state, gone from bad to worse. Also in a handcart or handbag is often used. 20th century U.S. phrase meaning something in a basket goes wherever it is taken without resistance. It is thought it originally was uses as heaven instead of hell.
He who can does. He who cannot, teaches – Critical of teachers. From a 1903 play called Man and Superman.
Hocus-pocus – A word used by magicians and also by jugglers when they were about to make some sort of a change.
In a pickle – To be in a difficult situation. Someone in a pickle is mixed up in something or just plain mixed up in the mind the same way vegetables were mixed up when being pickled.
Indian giver – To give a gift and take back. Today an offensive saying, it was when an Indian gave anything to someone and wanted something equal in return or they would return the item.
Just deserts – To be awarded for something done well. In the 13th century, deserts (pronounced desserts) was a common word for ‘things deserved’, but just was added in 1599 when used in Warning Faire Woman.
Jerry built – Shoddy building. A nautical term also including to 'jerry rig', when something was fixed or built on a ship in a speedy fashion without the right tools and/or equipment to fix it properly.
Kick the bucket – To die. Originally was thought to mean the act of suicide. You stood on a bucket with a noose around your neck and kicked away the bucket.
Kit and caboodle – Total and complete. Caboodle a.k.a. Kaboodle means a collection of items or people. Originally, the word was boodle, which meant illegally gotten funds and the K section was added for emphasis. Kit was often used in phrases like ‘whole kit’, but in the U.S., it was accepted as a two-word phrase probably because of the ring to the K sound in both words.
Learn the ropes - There is some debate over the origin of this phrase, also known as know the ropes. It may have been nautical, which is the preferred explanation. Sailors had to learn which rope raised which sail and also had to learn to tie different knots. The captain or other mates ‘knew the ropes’ and would teach others.
Let the cat out of the bag – To tell a secret. In open market places of the 1500’s, a live piglet might be purchased and a cheating salesman might substitute a cat. If you ‘let the cat out of the bag’, you exposed their dishonesty.
Like a moth to a flame – Drawn in easily. A moth always flies towards the moon. Any light source, including a candle flame will attract the moth, which will fly right into it unaware it will die.
Make no bones about – To give an honest answer or have no objection. From England in the 15th century, when a person was dissatisfied they would ‘find bones in it’ bones in soup were bad because you could swallow them. Making bones was a negative expression. To make no bones than was a good thing.
McCoy, the real – Meaning it’s the real thing. Kid McCoy, was an American boxer, and was called 'the real McCoy' to distinguish him from another boxer with the same name.
No rest for the wicked – Meaning the wicked will be punished. Biblical saying from the book of Isaiah, from verses 48:22 and 57:20-21.
Not worth a plugged nickel – Not worth anything. A plug would be put in a coin and then filled with a cheaper metal. If discovered they were pulled, no longer useful as legal tender.
Once in a blue moon – A rare event. A blue moon is a second full moon occurring in one month.
Over the top – Over done or over achieved. Originally, this was a reference to WWI. A soldier would run next to an open trench where the enemy may lie in wait. It was a dangerous thing to do and was thought to be very brave.
Paint the town red – Usually to go out for an evening and act poorly and/or drunk. An 1800’s story of the Marquis of Waterford (a known trouble maker) and his friends painted several buildings red in the town of Leicestershire in Melton Mowbray.
Peeping tom – Lady Godiva was wife to the Earl of Mercia. Legend has it that she rode naked through the streets of Coventry so her husband would reduce the peasant’s taxes. Thomas looked at her as she passed.
Quid pro quo – An equal exchange. Latin for 'something for something'.
Raining cats and dogs - comes from the days of thatched roofs. These roofs often slanted down to almost ground level. Animals like cats and dogs often climbed up to sleep on the roof and when it rained hard enough the roofs became slippery and the animals would slide off, appearing to rain cats and dogs.
Read the riot act – To speak angrily. The riot act was a law from the year 1715 that explained how to deal with twelve or more people who were causing trouble.
Red tape – To slow progress, usually due to government. Originating from the color of tape the government in England used to tie up bundles of documents.
Scot-free – To get away with something. English origin meaning to get out of paying tax on property.
Shake a leg – To get up out of bed or be speedy. From the early 1800’s meaning to dance, but also to hurry up.
Take with a pinch of salt – To be skeptical. In regards to the discovery of a recipe for an antidote to a poison, this listed one of the ingredients as a grain of salt. If taken with a pinch or grain of salt, it would be less serious.
Taken aback – To be shocked. Based on the literal meaning backward, aback was not used in modern English.
Up a blind alley – A dead end. An alley that has no outlet or opening like a cul-de-sac.
Vanish into thin air – To disappear. 17th century - Shakespeare originally use the term thin air, which was common to use, then in 1671 authors began to use it with the word vanish or disappear.
Veg out – To relax to the extreme. It refers to when people were mentally incapacitated and called vegetables.
Wear your heart on your sleeve – To have allowed your emotions to show. A Shakespeare line from Othello in 1604.
Wet behind the ears – Gullible or a rookie. New babies are wet and even when dried off they are wet in places like the behind the ears. Still too new to understand how to do things.
Your name is mud – In trouble or disliked. 1823 slang - Mud meaning, a stupid twaddling fellow. ‘And his name is mud!’ Later attributed to Dr. Samuel Mudd, who mended John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, after the murder of Abraham Lincoln.
Zero tolerance – To automatically punish for breaking rules. Origins lead back to the police and giving them total autonomy in the law over minor offences.
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