The Origin of Words and Phrases: Common Idioms

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Podcast Transcript

Let me cut right to the chase. This episode is going to be a deep dive into the origin of some common idioms. I don’t want to dance around the subject or have to walk on eggshells, so I’m using this introduction to break the ice. 

Whether you’re feeling under the weather or ready to burn the midnight oil I think you’ll learn something.

I will spill the beans on the meanings and origins of these idioms so you can sound smart as a whip.

Learn more about the origins and meaning of common idioms so you don’t bark up the wrong tree on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

An idiom is defined as “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements or in its grammatically atypical use of words.”

If you are a native speaker of a language, idioms come naturally. If you speak a language that isn’t native, even if you are fluent in it, idioms can be one of the most difficult things to understand. 

I found myself using idioms without thinking all the time and often realized that I was confusing the person I was talking to if they spoke English as a second language. 

Moreover, idioms aren’t necessarily even unique to a single language. There can be regional idioms that are only used in some places and might not be understood in other areas even if they speak the same language. 

So, I want to go through some of the common idioms in English and explain their origin and meaning, and a good rule of thumb is to start with the most misunderstood and interesting one, which would be…..the rule of thumb

The reason I’m starting with this one is because there is a good chance that you might have heard about the origin of the idiom, and there is a good chance that what you heard is wrong. 

The common belief is that the phrase “rule of thumb” comes from a medieval law that says a man could beat his wife with a stick so long as it was no thicker than his thumb. 

However, this is an idiom urban legend. Several outlets have extensively researched the rumor, but no one has ever found any truth in it. 

The earliest reference to “rule of thumb” referring to domestic abuse only goes back to the 1970s. 

The first known reference to the phrase “rule of thumb” appeared in the 17th century. The meaning of the term was exactly the same as it is today. It simply refers to an approximate way to do something. 

The width of a human thumb is approximately one inch.

The first appearance in writing of the phrase came from a Scottish preacher named James Durham. In a mid-17th century sermon, he said, “Many profest Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb (as we use to speak), and not by Square and Rule.”

So, where did this modern origin story for this idiom come from? It came from a rumor about a British judge in the late 18th century named Sir Francis Buller. He allegedly said in a ruling, “A husband could thrash his wife with impunity provided that he used a stick no bigger than his thumb.”

In 1782, he was mocked in the press regarding the statement and was called “Judge Thumb.” It isn’t even known if he actually said it, although it was once argued as precedent in a court case, but it was rejected. 

While this does have to do with a thumb, the problem is the phrase “rule of thumb” predated Sir Francis Buller by about two centuries. 

While the origin of the “rule of thumb” is very straightforward, others are not very obvious at all. 

One nonobvious phrase is to “Steal one’s thunder.”

To “steal one’s thunder” means to take attention or praise away from someone by using their ideas or accomplishments to one’s own advantage.

But you obviously can’t steal thunder. So, where did the phrase originate?

The origin of the phrase comes from an English theater in the early 18th century. 

When performing stage productions, there were several methods that were used to simulate the sound of thunder. These usually involved metal bowls with lead balls or shaking thin sheets of metal, a technique that is still used today. 

This particular idiom originated with a playwright named John Dennis in 1709. He supposedly created a new and better technique for simulating the sound of thunder for a performance of his play Appius and Virginia.

The actual technique he created has been lost to history, but what we do know is that Appius and Virginia was unsuccessful and quickly closed. 

Soon afterward, Macbeth was performed at the same theater, and Dennis’s method was used to produce off-stage thunder. 

Dennis was in the audience for the Macbeth performance and was furious when he heard his thunder technique being used. He supposedly stood up and shouted in the middle of the play.

There is some doubt as to what he said. One version has him saying, “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”

In another version, he said, “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder but not my play!”.

What he said in the crowd was passed along and became a part of the English language. 

If you try or say something that isn’t quite right, people will often respond, “Close, but no cigar.”

What do cigars have to do with accuracy?

The first recorded instance of the term came from the 1935 movie Annie Oakley. The origin of the term dates back to early 20th century America, when carnivals and fairs were more oriented towards adults. 

Instead of stuffed animals, one of the common prizes was cigars. There are references to cigars being used as prizes as early as 1902. 

According to some sources, the game in question where the idiom came from was called highball or hi-striker. This is the game where you take a mallet to hit a level, which causes a ball to go up a pole. If you hit it hard enough, it will go all the way up and ring a bell. 

However, most people never hit the bell and didn’t win the prize. The carnival worker would often shout, “Close, but no cigar.”

If you were lucky enough to ring the bell and win a cigar, and you tried smoking i, you might find yourself “under the weather.”

Under the weather means feeling ill, but why is it put like that? Technically, isn’t everyone underneath the weather?

The idiom comes from sailors. “Under the weather” is actually a truncated version of what sails would say, which is “under the weather bow.”

The weather bow of a ship was the side of the ship that was getting the brunt of a storm. If someone felt seasick, they would be sent below deck, where they would literally be “under the weather bow.”

As sailors went to shore, they kept using their nautical euphemisms and, eventually, “under the weather bow,” an expression for describing someone seasick, just became “under the weather” to describe anyone who was ill. 

If you are sharing the origin of some of these idioms with someone who takes offense easily, you might have to walk on eggshells around them. 

To walk on eggshells means to worry about offending or upsetting someone. 

The origin of this idiom isn’t as clear cut as the others I’ve covered in this episode. 

The idea of walking gingerly on something goes very far back. There are countless examples going back almost as far as the development of English of references to walking on things. There were references to walking on gunpowder, walking amongst snakes and snares, walking on pillows, and walking on ice.

Each of those references was talking about avoiding traps. It would be the equivalent of saying someone stepped on a landmine. 

That, however, has a very different meaning than trying to avoid upsetting someone. 

At least as far back as the 16th century there have been references to walking on eggs. This referred to simply walking carefully. Again, it isn’t known where this came from, but it might have been a reference to avoid walking on a bird’s nest in a field. 

At some point in the 19th century, the phrase morphed into “walking on eggshells.” The origin of this is unclear. Some theories hold it comes from farmers who would enter a chicken coup and would avoid stepping on eggshells. However, this has nothing to do with the modern meaning of the phrase, and that would be not walking on eggshells.

The first written reference to walking on eggshells comes from a novel, The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, written in 1860. It says, “With that woman for my enemy … I walk, in your English phrase, upon egg-shells!”

The Welsh poet Ernest Rhy wrote in his 1913 book Lyric Poetry, “To speak of these things is to walk on egg-shells.”

This was the first reference to walking on eggshells, which refers to speech, not actual walking. 

Most of the Oxford English Dictionary references to the modern usage of “walking on eggshells” were all published after 1960, indicating that the modern usage is a rather new one and not very old at all. 

If someone doesn’t walk on eggshells around you, then perhaps you might give them the cold shoulder. Giving someone the cold shoulder means that you are ignoring or disregarding them.

Most of us do not have hot and cold shoulders, so where does this come from?

As far as we can tell, the term “cold shoulder” is actually the result of a mistranslation from the bible. 

The first person to use the term was the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. In 1816, he was translating a passage from the Bible, in particular, the Book of Nehemiah chapter 9, verse 29, which says, “stubbornly they turned their backs on you.”

The problems stem from the fact that the Greek and Latin versions of the bible use a term that can mean both back and shoulder. 

In 1824, Scott used the phrase again in another one of his books, St. Ronan’s Well, where he says, “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.” 

The phrase began appearing more regularly in newspapers and other publications. 

According to Google word frequency searches, the phrase “cold shoulder” peaked in popularity in print in 1906. 

I’ll conclude with one final idiom. If some of you were upset by this episode, then we should probably try to Bury the hatchet.

The phrase “bury the hatchet” means to make peace with someone or to put your differences aside. 

The phrase bury the hatchet has an extremely literal origin. Many Native American tribes would literally bury a hatchet as a symbol to the tribe they were making peace with 

This tradition was first recorded by the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts. However, there have been dozens of recorded instances of literal hatchet burying between native people and Europeans and between native tribes, mostly along the eastern part of North America. 

So, the idiom is just a metaphorical expression of something that literally happened. 

The are many, many more idioms in the English language beyond those that I covered in this episode. For those of you who want more origin stories of popular idioms, you are just going to have to……hold your horses.