You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘phrases’ tag.

As I didn’t get to include as many idioms as I would have liked in the last post, this is a continuation on the last one.

In other news, getting Freshly Pressed in under 4 weeks of starting this blog was pretty exciting, so I did a bit of re-organising. As you can see on the left, it’s now easier to navigate to the category you’re interested in reading. I’ve made etymology its own category as I plan to go into not just expressions, but weird words and names in the future.

Without further ado, here are a few more idioms (some of these were mentioned in the comments of the previous post, to which I give my thanks and recognition; I have added a bit of research to flesh these out):

Cold Shoulder: To distance oneself from by displaying coldness or indifference.

There is some dispute over the etymology of this expression, with a commonly held belief being that visitors who overstayed their welcome at one’s house were served only a “cold shoulder of mutton”. Whilst appearing in many etymology texts, there is a noticeable lack of supporting evidence for this theory and it is thus considered “folk etymology”. The first example of this term can be found in The Antiquary (Sir Walter Scott, 1816):

The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther.

In his text, Scott uses the term “shouther” (Scottish dialect for shoulder if you were wondering) to refer to exactly that – the shoulder. There is no reference to food anywhere, though plenty of references to shoulders:

… they stood shouther to shouther.

A more compelling evidence for the common day usage of this term can be found in his later work St. Ronan’s Well (1824):

I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.

It is assumed that he coined this term himself and the phrase began appearing frequently after the 1820s.

Raining Cats and Dogs: Raining very heavily.

This one has no definitive origin, though a lot of folk etymology surrounds the phrase. Since I can’t really tell you where this expression came from, I can only speculate based on evidence.

One claim is that in the 16th century, the family pet would crawl into the thatched roof of a house to hide from the rain and would fall through the roof when the rain was heavy enough.

Another claim is that, due to the primitive drainage systems of the 17th century, sewers would spew out their contents during heavy rain, including the corpses of animals that had accumulated in them. Whilst it is unsure that the phrase came from this origin, the phenomenon itself is documented and appears in the poem Description of a City Shower (Jonathan Swift, 1710):

Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,/Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood

Another possibility is the corruption of the Greek word Katadoupoi, referring to waterfalls of the Nile and reflected through the old French word catadoupe, meaning waterfall. It is suggested that there is no logical explanation, and the term simply became popular due to humour, such as other similar phrases like “raining pitchforks”.

As for me, I go by the earliest evidence we can find, found in the comedy The City Wit or the Woman Wears the Breeches (Richard Brome, 1653) where it is said:

It shall raine … Dogs and Polecats

While a polecat is not biologically a cat (feline species), it’s not hard to imagine this fact being overlooked over time. The term itself first appeared word for word in A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation (Jonathan Swift, 1738):

I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.

Based on the fact that Swift mentioned dead animals during heavy rain in his earlier poem, I’m inclined to believe that the phrase originated from this phenomena.

Sleep tight; don’t let the bed bugs bite: Sleep well

Many of you may recognise this from the old nursery rhyme (you can Google this rhyme yourself if you want it), but the meaning of the term is twofold.

First, sleep tight referred to the old beds before mattresses existed. Beds were elevated rectangular frames with ropes tied across in a weave for the sleeper to lie on. Obviously, knowing this, sleep tight refers to not having these ropes sag and drop the occupant to the floor (tight meaning the ropes were tight, in case you missed the nuance). According to historian Dr. Jerry Lee Cross, the “sleep tight” is common knowledge amongst historians as the modern bed is little over a hundred years old.

As for the bed bugs; well they exist. The scientific name for the blood sucking insect is Cimex lectularius. There were some folk practices for sleeping in a way that avoided these bed bugs from feasting on you. As the bugs are wingless, it was common practice to put cans on the bedposts with kerosene (like a moat) so that the bugs wouldn’t climb across. They also had to avoid letting their sheets touch the floor, lest the bugs climb up that way. Curiously enough, this may have programmed the sheet-floor response into us. I’m not sure how many others experience this but as soon as my blankets touch the floor I yank them back up. It’s not that I think my floor is dirty, I just don’t like my blankets on them.

Well this post got longer than I expected and it’s only three idioms but I’ll cut it short here. Tune in later for another instalment!


The English language is full of strange idioms, many of them that we use without understanding how that phrase came to being. I only have time for a few but I might add more later. Let’s take a look at them shall we?

Train of thought: The process and direction of one’s thoughts

From the early 14th century, the word “train” meant a “drawing out or delay” of something. In the mid-15th century, the word evolved to include a “retinue or procession”. The first example of the term “train of thought” was attested in the 1650s whereas the first use of the word “train” in the sense of a locomotive. As a result, the idiom “train of thought” has nothing to do with trains (the transport) and is more likely to derive from a “delay” of a “procession” of “thought” (hence losing your train of thought).

Cup of Joe: Coffee

There are a few theories on this one. I’ll talk about the two most popular ones here.

The first is attributed to Secretary of the US Navy, Josephus Daniels (1862-1948), for banning all US Navy ships from serving alcoholic beverages. As a result, sailors resorted to the next strongest drink: coffee.

The second is a reference to a “cup of jamoke” as coffee is a compound of Java and Mocha. The term jamoke has been used in popular culture before, hence a “cup of joe” being derived from a “cup of jamoke”.

Beat About/Around the Bush: To avoid getting to the point

The earliest example of this term was recorded around 1440 in the poem Generydes – A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas. 

Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.

This anonymous poem exists only as a single handwritten manuscript in the library of the Trinity College and Cambridge. The implication of this was that it was worse to “bete the bussh” than to “take the byrdes”. The next earliest example of the modern day phrasing of the term can be found in George Gascoigne’s Works, 1572.

He bet about the bush, whyles other caught the birds.

Technically, the correct phrase, if you stick to the origins of the word, would be “beat about the bush” but the incorrect US version took over in around 1980 so now most people say “beat around the bush”.

Gung Ho: Over-enthusiastic attitude towards doing something

This word was adapted from the Chinese military motto meaning “work together” (the word being kung ho). Lt. Col. Evans Carlson used this term frequently during World War II, where he would hold gung-ho meetings for his troops. They would discuss their problems and orders at these meetings. The expression became even more popular after the movie Gung Ho! in 1943 depicting a marine who did everything it took to get the job done.

Take the cake: Taking a prize symbolising victory or success

While it is widely believed that the phrase originated from the strutting competition known as the “cake-walk” in which the winner would have been said to have “taken the cake”, where cake was often the prize. This was popular within the black community of Southern USA in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

However, this expression has existed since the early 5th century BC where the Greeks used “take the cake” as a symbol for taking the prize. In 420 BC Aristophanes wrote “The Knights” (a criticism of the powerful Athenian politician Cleon).

If you surpass him in impudence the cake is ours.

The term “take the biscuit” is used the same way.

Early bird (takes the worm): Opportunity goes to those that are prepared

This is a tough one; the first recorded example can be found in John Ray’s A collection of English proverbs 1670, 1678.

The early bird catcheth the worm.

However, this suggests that the word was already in popular usage.

EDIT: I’ve added a part 2 with another three idioms.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 191 other followers

Blog Stats

  • 395,370 hits