Language is a curious thing. It’s constantly changing, almost as if it’s alive. For every new word we create, an old word falls out of fashion and fades into obscurity. There are some words and phrases, however, that have stood the test of time — but why? Idioms like “it’s raining cats and dogs,” and “it came straight from the horse’s mouth,” make no sense on their own, and yet, most American English speakers know what they mean. How did these often absurd phrases acquire meaning, and why are they such a big part of our vocabulary? Read on to learn more about the origins of popular idioms. They’re older (and more ridiculous) than you might think.
What is an idiom?
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term “idiom,” you likely know an idiom when you see it. Vocabulary.com defines an idiom as “a form of expression that is particular to a certain … group of people.” The word comes from the Greek “idios,” which means “personal,” indicating that idioms are phrases that acquire meaning through specific, personal, and cultural context (versus literal context). For example, if you heard that someone “bought the farm,” you would know this meant that they had passed away — not that they purchased an actual farm. WordOrigins.org explains that this phrase likely has its roots in US military slang: If someone in the service was to die in the line of duty, the financial payout from the military to the families would be enough to purchase the farm on which they lived.
Different languages have their own idioms, and they’re difficult to interpret without understanding the culture in which they exist. A great example is the German phrase, “Da steppt der Bär,” which translates to English as “the bear is dancing there.” Travel blog The Local explains that Germans use this idiom to describe parties that will be a lot of fun. Of course, they (probably) don’t mean a bear will literally be dancing there. The saying comes from medieval German traveling circuses that featured trained dancing bears as a popular attraction. If you only vaguely understood German, the phrase would make no sense — but to native speakers and those intimately familiar with German culture, the meaning is clear. That’s the power of idioms.
Popular English Idioms and Their Origins
You might now be thinking about the idioms you use and wondering what they mean. For me, “bite the bullet” comes to mind. (This phrase apparently came from the practice of wounded soldiers literally biting down on a bullet to distract them from pain during battlefield surgery.) Wonder no longer — here are some of the more commonly-used idioms in the English language and the stories behind them.
Bury the Hatchet
What it means: To set aside your differences with someone and restore peace to the relationship.
Its origin: According to Grammarly.com, this saying comes from a Native American peace negotiation tactic. In order to make it clear that they wanted peace with a conflicting party, Native Americans would literally bury their weapons and make them inaccessible, proving to their adversaries that they had no intent of fighting or causing harm.
Break the Ice
What it means: To make awkward or strained conversations easier.
Its origin: Before roads and railroads, ships were the primary method of trade between continents, explains Grammarly. In winter, ice would cause ships to get stuck in place, and the country receiving the ship’s trade would dispatch smaller crafts to “break the ice” and clear the ship’s path.
Raining Cats and Dogs
What it means: To be raining really, really hard.
Its origin: Education website Owlcation explains that, according to legend, this phrase came from 16th century England, when most people had slanted, thatched roofs on their homes. The straw and reeds making up those roofs were comfortable places for animals to seek warmth, but became slippery in heavy rain, causing critters to fall off. Their falls, coinciding with the rainfall, made those on the ground humorously remark that it was raining cats and dogs.
Straight from the Horse’s Mouth
What it means: To be undeniably true.
Its origin: Historically, horses were prized livestock that netted high profits for sellers. As such, sellers often scammed customers by claiming that their older and weaker (and therefore less desirable) horses were younger, and assigning them a premium price, explains Owlcation. But a horse’s true age can be determined by looking at its teeth — the cold, hard truth could be discovered straight from the horse’s mouth.
To Give the Cold Shoulder
What it means: To treat someone with indifference or disregard their feelings.
Its origin: In order to passive-aggressively indicate to a guest that they’ve overstayed their welcome, hosts in medieval England would serve them a cut of meat off the shoulder — a less expensive cut — that had gone cold, instead of a warm, freshly cooked one, says Grammarly.
Heard it Through the Grapevine
What it means: To hear gossip from an indirect source.
Its origin: Early telegraph systems necessitated miles of wires suspended above the ground between poles. This system resembled the poles and wires used in vineyards to grow grapes, explains Owlcation, so when people learned something via telegraph, they would say they “heard it through the grapevine.”
To Be Caught Red-Handed
What it means: To be found guilty in the act with evidence of your crime.
Its origin: Killing an animal that wasn’t your own was a crime according to old English law, says Grammarly, and the only surefire way to convict a perpetrator was to find them with the animal’s blood still on their hands.
If you’ve grown weary of hearing about all these idioms, I don’t blame you for wanting to hit the hay. I’d cut you some slack — it’s normal to run out of steam. I won’t beat around the bush. Just don’t wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or you might have to eat a slice of humble pie.