Picture this: You’re trying to get the “upper hand” in a discussion, but your friend tells you to “hold your horses.” And just when you think you’ve “hit the nail on the head,” someone exclaims, “break a leg!” Idioms and sayings permeate our daily conversations, but have you ever stopped to wonder where these peculiar phrases originated? Let’s dive deep into the fascinating history of some everyday sayings.
Biting the Bullet
Long before anesthetics, soldiers would bite on a bullet to cope with the pain during surgeries. This expression came to signify enduring a painful or challenging situation.
Let the Cat Out of the Bag
Centuries ago, deceitful market sellers would hand customers bags claiming they held pigs. Imagine the surprise when a cat would leap out! Today, it means revealing a secret.
Kick the Bucket
Originating from English farms, this phrase is grimly derived from the way a slaughtered pig’s legs would twitch, making it kick a placed bucket beneath it. Now, it’s a lighthearted way to reference death.
Saved by the Bell
No, not the TV show! Before modern medicine, it wasn’t uncommon for people to be buried alive by accident. Coffins were equipped with bells. If someone awoke, they’d ring the bell, hence being “saved” from a premature burial.
Break a Leg
Theatrical folks are a superstitious bunch. Wishing someone “good luck” was believed to jinx performances. Instead, actors adopted “break a leg” as a covert way to wish each other well without tempting fate.
Buttering Someone Up
This slippery compliment has roots in ancient India. Devotees would throw butterballs at statues of gods to seek favor. Today, it means to flatter someone, usually with an ulterior motive.
Mad as a Hatter
Long before Alice’s Wonderland adventures, hat-makers used mercury which, over time, affected their nervous systems causing tremors or madness. Hence, the term came to describe someone acting irrationally.
Pulling Someone’s Leg
While it may sound like a jovial jest, its origins are darker. In old London, thieves would pull victims’ legs to trip them, making it easier to rob them. Now, it’s synonymous with teasing or joking.
Flying off the Handle
An unsecured axe head flying off its handle could be lethal. This idiom came to describe someone losing their temper unexpectedly, akin to the unpredictable flight of an axe.
Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater
In medieval times, shared bathwater would go from the head of the household down to the baby. By the time it got to the youngest, the water was so dirty one might risk throwing out the baby with it! Now, it means avoiding disposing of something valuable while getting rid of the unnecessary.
In the tapestry of language, idioms add a splash of color, history, and humor. They connect us to the past, making the mundane magical. Next time you use one, you’ll be armed with a story as colorful as the phrase itself.
By Stanislav Kondrashov