Excuse My French: Ten Idioms And Their Strange Origins

Idioms. Loosely defined, an idiom is a “word, phrase or saying that is used, but not interpreted logically or literally.”

I’m a native English speaker and I still get all tangled up in these. (I’m still stuck on “Bob’s your uncle.” I’ll never understand that one!)

Here are a few everyday idioms, their meaning, and origin.

To Turn A Blind Eye

Definition: To purposefully ignore undesirable information

Example: “I can’t believe you can turn a blind eye to the corruption in the world.”

This expression is rumored to have arisen after the English Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, in which naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, is said to have purposely raised his spyglass to his blind eye, thus making sure that he would not see any sign from his commanding officer, giving him option to withdraw from the battle.

On The Ball

Definition: Someone who is sharp, in control, and alert.

Example: “I like the new commissioner, he’s really on the ball!”

This is believed to have originated with sports, however there are a few theories to where it first began. One theory is that “on the ball” refers to runners getting ready for a race, up on the balls of their feet on the starting line. It may also be derived from the earlier expression “keep your eye on the ball” (used in many sports.)

This could possibly have originated from a saying during the early days of baseball. When the pitcher couldn’t get a good pitch, it was said that he had “nothing on the ball.” Therefore the opposite would be “on the ball,” meaning he or she has control of a situation.

Hit The Sack/Hit The Hay

Definition: To go to bed

Example: “I’m so tired after that party, it’s time for me to hit the hay / hit the sack.”

This most likely originated due to the fact that in the late 19th century, mattresses often were made out of old sacks, which were generally stuffed full of hay or straw.

Cut From The Same Cloth

Definition: Similar, of the same nature

Example: “Your father and husband sure are cut from the same cloth!”

This expression is supposedly derived from tailoring. If you’re making a suit, you would want the jacket and pants to be cut from the same piece of material, thus ensuring a perfect match in color, weave, etc. There are many differences that can occur in material from batch to batch, so the only way to ensure a perfect match in fabric is to have the whole outfit cut from the same cloth.

Down To The Wire

Definition: Undecided until the last minute

Example: “That election was really down to the wire!”

This phrase supposedly came from races, such as horse races and foot races, where the winner was determined by whomever crossed the finish line first. A string, tape or paper banner was stretched across the finish line to help the judges see clearly who crossed first in a close race. That banner over the finish line was called the “wire,” and the winner is the one who broke the “wire” first.

Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

Definition: Taking on more than you can handle

Example: “I bit off more than I could chew by picking a fight with that guy!”

This idiom dates back to the 1800s, when people chewed tobacco regularly. Sometimes the greedier people would bite off too large of a chunk, which made for the warning, “not to bite off more than you could chew.”

Bite The Bullet

Definition: Deciding to do something hard and get it over with

Example: “I really just need to bite the bullet on this project.”

This idiom is believed to have been derived historically, from the practice of having a patient chew a bullet as a way to cope with the extreme pain of a surgical procedure without anesthesia, however, this is disputed. This may have been done simply as a last resort with battlefield medics, and in the old west where there were few resources. This phrase was first recorded by Rudyard Kipling in his book The Light That Failed.

Riding Shotgun

Definition: Sitting in the front seat

Example: “I’m riding shotgun on the way to the mall!”

When stagecoaches were used as the main means of transport, the seat next to the driver was reserved for an individual holding a firearm, traditionally a shotgun. This front-seat position was strategic for the guard to be able to see and ward off any bandits or animals that would attempt to loot or endanger the passengers riding in the carriage.

Dressed To The Nines

Definition: Dressed very elaborately

Example: “Lets get dressed to the nines and go out tonight.”

This idiom may have originated in one of these two places. One possible origin is that the saying was inspired after the exquisitely crafted uniforms of the 99th infantry regiment of the British army, formed in 1824.

It also may have come from tailoring. When a tailor makes a high quality suit, it uses more fabric. It takes nine yards to make a perfect suit, because a good suit has the fabric cut all the same direction. This causes a great amount of waste, but if you want to show that you’re fancy, you pay for such waste.

Raining Cats And Dogs

Definition: Raining very large, heavy raindrops

Example: “Look outside at those raindrops! It’s raining cats and dogs!”

This strange phrase was first recorded in 1651 in the poet Henry Vaughan’s collection Olor Iscanus. Its origins are left up to speculation, with the ideas ranges from medieval superstition to Norse mythology. The most probable source of the phrase, however, is that dead animals and other debris were sometimes washed up in the streets after heavy rainfall, which could make it appear that it had “rained cats and dogs.”

If you liked this post, be sure to check out part one, Dont Want To Be An American Idiom.

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “Excuse My French: Ten Idioms And Their Strange Origins

  1. Here’s another idiom:

    “The Whole Nine Yards.”

    From what I’ve read, this is where it comes from:

    During WWII, belts of ammo on machine gun emplacements were nine yards long. When a person had shot all of their ammo at attacking planes, it was said that those planes had gotten “The whole nine yards.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. These are some interesting ones (especially “turn a blind eye”.
    You may like a book called Easy As Pi which has a lot of these expressions (they tend to be ones that contain a number in some way) and their origins.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the follow, hope you get as much enjoyment from it as I have from having a quick browse through yours, very informative, your head of books is similar to the one on the cover of my book of poetry and short stories Same Train, Different Track. Maybe you have covered this one at some point if not – Another nail in the coffin might be of interest??

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s