The English language is full of very quirky idioms and phrases. Every language has them, and these are just some of the things which make each language unique.
Most native speakers of English may use these idioms and phrases all the time, even though they have no idea where they came from. For people who don’t speak English as their first language, these phrases can often make no sense.
Learn more about the origin of common English words and phrases on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
One of the most common requests I’ve gotten, and something I’ve had on my list to do for quite some time, is an episode on the origins of various words and phrases in the English language.
There are so many words and phrases in English that they couldn’t fit into a single episode, so this will be just the first of many episodes on the subject.
In this episode, I want to focus on idioms in the English language.
An idiom is a common phrase or expression that has a figurative or non-literal meaning which is different from the literal definition of the individual words that make up the phrase. Idioms are often deeply ingrained in a language’s culture and are used to convey a particular idea or message in a concise and memorable way.
Every language has idioms that might not make sense to someone, even if they were able to speak the language. If English is not your first language, understanding these idioms can be difficult to comprehend and use in regular conversation.
Let’s start with one that many of you might be familiar with, and it comes from the stage. Telling someone to break a leg.
This is one that many of you might be familiar with, as it is usually used in conjunction with someone putting on a performance.
In the theater community, it is considered bad luck to wish someone good luck, so you do the opposite and wish them bad luck when you want to wish them good luck.
The origin may come from the German phrase, Hals- und Beinbruch, which literally translates to neck and leg fracture. Its use might have come from the fact that it coincidently sounds very similar to the Yiddish phrase for “success and blessing.”
The term was used by German aviators in the early 20th century, which then made it used in general German society, which then found its way to English after German Jewish performers immigrated to US and England after the First World War.
The first written examples of the term “break a leg” being used in the context of theater date back to the 1930s.
One false attribution for the phrase, which is actually understandable, is given to the assassin who killed Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth. Booth was an actor who broke his leg by jumping onto a stage after shooting the president.
While there is an actor, a stage, and a broken leg involved, it has nothing to do with the origin of the phrase.
The next phrase that is often used in English is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This means that you shouldn’t get rid of something good in the process of getting rid of something bad.
This, too, is something that has a Germanic origin. The earliest known use of the term was a German illustration from 1512 which said das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten, while showing a woman dumping a bucket of water with a baby in it.
In the 17th Century, it was used by Johannes Kepler who used it in such a way that he assumed his audience knew what he meant. The phrase is believed to have traveled to France before being used in English in the 19th century.
The first use in English was by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle who was writing on the subject of the abolition of slavery. He was admonishing his readers that in the process of ending slavery, it was important not to harm peopel who were enslaved in the process.
The literal root of the phrase probably came from the practice in the middle ages of taking a bath. Baths were taken infrequently; taking one usually meant heating water from a stove to fill the bath. The entire family would share the same tub of water, taking turns going from oldest to youngest.
The last person to use the bathwater would be the baby, so you’d want to make sure the baby was out of the water before throwing it away.
Another phrase that doesn’t make any sense when taken literally is raining cats and dogs.
This phrase has origins that are much more obscure.
One explanation is it comes from the drainage systems of cities in the middle ages. During a particularly hard storm, it would dislodge all the dead material accumulated in it.
In Jonathan Swift’s 1710 poem, “Description of a City Shower,” says
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.
So, this could be an explanation, but why cats and dogs instead of rats and pigeons?
Another explanation put forward is that the term “cats and dogs” is a corruption of the term “waterfall” in other languages.
In Greek, the word Katadoupoi was used to describe the cataracts in the Nile River. Catadupe was the word in both Old French and Old English for waterfall.
However, it is entirely possible that neither explanation is true and that it is just a nonsense expression.
Another phrase with a clearer and more concise origin is devil’s advocate.
Playing the devil’s advocate is to take a stance on something you don’t necessarily believe in just to test the validity of something you do believe in or to try and find a weakness in an argument.
A devil’s advocate was a literal position in the Catholic Church in the process of determining someone’s sainthood.
In the middle ages, the church developed a much more rigorous system for creating saints. For someone to be declared a saint is actually a lengthy process that can take years or even centuries.
A case has to be presented as to why a person should be declared a saint.
In 1587 Pope Sixtus V created the position of advocatus diaboli, which in Latin literally means devil’s advocate. The devil’s advocate was to serve as a counter to those advocating for sainthood. It is believed that any candidate for sainthood who was able to withstand this adversarial process was worthy of being declared a saint.
The position was abolished in 1983, but its use as a phrase in English still exists today.
Something which many people do is turn a blind eye toward something.
To turn a blind eye means to ignore something which is inconvenient.
In this case, the phrase has a false origin, which is far more interesting than the actual origin.
The story which is usually given is that the phrase came from British Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Nelson was blind in one eye. At the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the British fleet was led by Admiral Hyde Parker. He sent a message to Nelson by semaphore ordering him to break off an attack.
Nelson, being much more aggressive, put the telescope up to his blind eye and said, “I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal.”
His aggressiveness won the day, and he was appointed commander of the fleet the next day.
While it is a great story, the problem is the term was being used before 1801.
The earliest use of the phrase was in 1698. Church of England clergyman John Norris said, “To be Crucify’d to the World, and to have the World Crucify’d to us; to be dead to its Pleasures, and insensible of its Charms, to turn the deaf Ear, and the blind Eye to all those Pomps and Vanities of the World which we renounc’d at our Baptism; and to have it no longer in our Hearts, but under our Feet.”
The original phrase was “to turn a blind eye and deaf ear,” but by the 19th century, this seems to have just been shorted to, “to turn a blind eye.” The exact origin isn’t known, but it could be quite literal.
One of the greatest mysteries in English is the origin of the phrase, to go the whole nine yards. The phrase means to go all the way.
In 1982, New York Times language columnist William Safire appeared on Larry King’s radio show and made a request to the public to help him solve a mystery as to the origin of this phrase. What were the nine yards measuring, and why were there nine of them?
Many people sent explanations that had to do with dressmaking, that for a fine dress, you had to use the whole nine yards of cloth.
Another explanation was that it was a nautical term. A ‘yard’ was a wooden rod connecting a sailing ship’s masts to support its sails. On a square-rigged, three-masted ship, there were three yards each, so the ‘whole nine yards’ meant that all the sails were out.
As part of his request, the Oxford English Dictionary pushed a supplement to the phrase, which put its origin only in the 1960s and 1970s.
The earliest use of the phrases was in an American military context, and it was thought that it might have to do with the amount of ammunition used in fighter aircraft during World War II. Each plane was equipped with nine yards of belt ammunition.
If a plane went out and used all its ammunition, they used the whole nine yards.
The problem with this origin story is that people began to discover older references to “going the whole six yards.”
These were appearing as early as the mid-19th century. So, what were the whole six yards measuring?
The current theory is that they weren’t measuring anything. The number is wholly random.
Just like living on cloud nine, the phrase actually used to be living on cloud seven. The whole nine yards could just be an example of idiom inflation.
Furthermore, the key isn’t the number nine, it is the word “whole.” Once you say “whole,” it doesn’t matter what comes next. It could be the whole ball of wax, the whole enchilada, the whole shebang, or the whole nine yards.
That being said, there still isn’t any definitive proof one way or the other as to the origin of “the whole nine yards.”
This just “scratches the surface” of the number of phrases in English that have unique or mysterious origins. If you have suggestions for other phrases, don’t feel afraid to throw your hat into the ring.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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Super good da best….followed by 51 thumbs up emojis and one thumbs down emoji.
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Word Origins I thought maybe this podcast would mostly be about word origins which is what attracted it to me in the first place. So far, I am anxious waiting for the next podcast.
Thanks, Deana! I think you should be pleased with this episode.
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