During my Year Abroad, I often found myself explaining a lot of the phrases I used. And on further reflection, I realised that I honestly had no idea why I used them. Here are some of the most common expressions I looked up the origins to…
It’s surprising how old some of them are!
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”
(Apples are good for you)
According to a study, this aphorism was coined in 1913 but it originally came from a proverb in the 19th century in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
The original Welsh proverb:
‘Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.’
Although an apple is healthy and one of your five-a-day, a report published in JAMA Internal Medicine indicates that there is not enough evidence to support that an apple a day will keep the doctor away; ‘however, the small fraction of US adults who eat an apple a day do appear to use fewer prescription medications.’
“piece of cake”
Websites TheIdioms.com and Bloomsbury International write that this phrase this phrase has ultimately American origin and was invented in the 1870s in America’s southern states when black slaves would compete in “cakewalks,” initially called “prize walks,” organised and judged by their slave owners.
In these dances they would, unbeknownst to the slave owners, ‘subtely mock the elaborate and ostentatious gestures’ of the higher class. As an award, they would be given a cake. The cakewalk came to be associated with “easy” more because the dance steps were “fluid” and “graceful”.
The earlier forms of this saying include variations like: ‘as easy as pie’ and ‘a cake-walk.’ It wasn’t until around 1936 that ‘a piece of cake’ was used.
The site English.StackExchange.com shows the earliest citation of the modern usage to be in American poet and humorist Ogden Nash’s Primrose Path (1936):
‘Her picture’s in the papers now,
And life’s a piece of cake.’
Other sources speculate that this saying actually originated in the Royal Air Force in the late 1930s as a means to say that a mission is as easy as scoffing down a slice of cake.
“Beat around the bush”
(Avoid saying what you mean, usually because it is uncomfortable)
So this idiom surprisingly is said to go back to medieval times when hunters ‘hired men to beat the area around bushes with sticks in order to flush out game.’ They would apparently avoid hitting the bushes themselves since it could prove to be dangerous; i.e. smashing a bees nest would only leave them incapable of continuing the hunt.
A figurative meaning emerged from this literal meaning of going on a preamble of ‘beating about/around the bush’ before getting down to the main event, that is the hunting of the birds.
Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.
The site gingersoftware.com speculates that if this 15th century saying really ‘hath be [said] full long agoo’ then it must be one of the oldest non-biblical phrases in the English language.
The next earliest version that includes the word ‘about’ in the expression is in George Gascoigne’s works (1952):
He bet about the bush, whyles other caught the birds.
Nowadays we now use two versions of the idiom: ‘beat around the bush’ and ‘beat about the bush’. However, from around 1980, the usage of ‘beat around the bush’ became more prevalent.
“Break a leg”
This expression is a bit odd as there are several propositions as to its origins, some rooted in superstition and some not.
It was originally documented in its modern ironic and non-literal sense in the 1920-1930s for actors and musicians before they go on stage.
However, the phrase appears to go as far back as Shakespeare’s time when ‘to break a leg’ meant to ‘take a bow’. Actors would use it as a friendly greeting to wish them a good performance, so good that they would have to bend the knee, or ‘break the leg’ in acknowledgment of the audience’s applause.
The second theory is that the term was used when performers would queue for an opportunity to perform and they would only get paid if they did so. In order to perform, they needed to go on stage which is called ‘breaking the leg line’ in theatre terms (when a performer passes, or ‘breaks’ a type of concealing stage curtain called a ‘leg’ to get on stage).
Another theory links it to the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s theatre when John Wilkes Booth, the actor who carried out the assassination, broke his legs when attempting to escape by leaping on stage. It then led to superstition against wishing an actor ‘good luck”.
Some say that this kind of encouragement was a kind of reverse psychology to simply outsmart the Sprites. It was once quite common to believe in these spirits or ghosts who enjoyed creating trouble and chaos, and it was generally thought that if they overheard ‘you ask for something, they would try to make the opposite happen.’
“Take it with a grain/pinch of salt”
(Don’t take it too seriously)
This saying has origins in ancient Greece when Pliny the Elder ‘translated an old text, which some have suggested was an antidote to poison, with the words:
‘Be taken fasting, plus a small amount of salt.’
It is assumed that this comes from the idea that food is better and easier to swallow if taken with ‘a small amount of salt.’
The usage of the metaphorical meaning, however, only became widespread after the 17th Century. English religious commentator John Trapp wrote a Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (1647):
‘This is to be taken with a grain of salt.’
Whether Trapp means this figuratively is questioned so other scholars also cite when this phrase next appeared in print in the August 1908 edition of the US literary journal The Athenæum:
‘Our reasons for not accepting the author’s pictures of early Ireland without many grains of salt.’
Thus, the metaphorical version of the saying ‘taken with a grain of salt’ is supposed by some to have emerged in early 20th Century America.
More recently though, we use ‘pinch’ instead of ‘grain’ in the saying. This morphing of the saying seems to have happened a little later in the 20th Century. Evidence of this is found in F.R. Cowell’s Cicero & the Roman Republic (1948):
‘A more critical spirit slowly developed, so that Cicero and his friends took more than the proverbial pinch of salt before swallowing everything written by these earlier authors.’
“Cut somebody some slack”
(Don’t be so critical / give me a break)
Back in the 14th Century, “slack” meant the cessation of pain or grief, but TheIdiom.com refers to the true definition as coming from a nautical term of “slack” meaning ‘the loose part of a sail or rope,’ which comes from the late 18th Century and ‘alluded to the docking of ships’.
It was later in 1855, in Frederick Douglas’s book My Bondage & My Freedom, that ‘cut’ was used instead of ‘give’ in the phrase ‘give somebody some slack’.
Basically, to “give/cut somebody some slack” means to loosen a tight restriction.
“Miss the boat”
(It’s too late)
So, this one came into usage in the 20th Century and was obviously meant in its literal sense of “missing the boat” that one was scheduled to board. According to Bloomsbury International, the expression was first employed by sailors and developed from there.
Nowadays we actually replace the word “boat” for other modes of transport like a “bus”, hence the newer expression “they missed the bus”.
“Pull someone’s leg”
(To joke with/playfully deceive someone)
Quite a few sources claim that this expression that used to be common slang in the 20th Century is ‘going out of fashion these days.’ But, I must say that I definitely have still heard it used.
Honestly, the origin of the phrase is unclear, although Phrases.org.uk puts forward two main theories that exist…
The first one which is supposed to have taken place in ‘Victorian London,’ ‘medieval markets,’ or wherever really, where thieves would pull at people’s legs to trip them up, making them look foolish and using this as an opportunity to rob them. The reliability of this explanation is criticised, however, since the storyteller can the location of the story on a whim and so it lacks consistency.
The second theory is one linked to when “hangers on” were hired at Tyburn executions to ‘hand onto the victim’s legs in order to give them a quick end’. This practice was mentioned in The Belfast Commerical Chronicle (6th January 1987), but there is no indication from the many detailed documents recorded of executions that this practice was at all common. Scholars point out the implausibility of this practice being the inspiration for the expression “pulling one’s leg” as we know it today.
Whichever way you look at it, the source of the expression remains ambiguous and many just discount it as folk-etymology.
The earliest record popped up in the diary of James Gallatin (1821):
Mr. Adams is not a man of great force or intelligence, but his own opinion of himself is immense. I really think father, in a covert way, pulls his leg. I know he thinks little of his talents and less of his manners.
“That’s the last straw”
(My patience has run out)
For this idiom, its origin emanates from the old English proverb “it is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back,” which was first seen around 1755. From this time till around 1836 various animals like a horse or an elephant were used, but in general the idea was that if you kept adding straw to the back of the animal then at one point the burden of the pile of straw on its back would be too heavy to bear.
The earlier version of the idiom was actually “the last feather that broke the horse’s back” in the 17th Century. This version was found in Archbishop John Barmhall’s Works (1677) and in Fuller’s Gnomolgia (1732).
Time took its course and gradually the idiom was shortened and it was modified from “feather” to “straw,” and “horse” to “camel”.
“Every cloud has a silver lining”
(Good things come after bad things)
The source of this one is very interesting. It traces back to Poet John Milton’s Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle (1634):
‘Was I deceived or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err; there does a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night,
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.’
From this point onwards in literature, “clouds,” “silver lining,” and frequently “Milton’s clouds” are often cited. Once England entered the Victorian era, we see the more proverbial form of “every cloud has a silver lining”.
“Every cloud has a silver living” is first printed in this form in a literary review (1849), soon gain popularity in newspapers in both the UK and America post-1853.
“On cloud nine”
Generally, this expression it thought to have derived from the fluffy cumulonimbus type of cloud so often considered attractive, one of the classifications of cloud as defined by the US Weather Bureau in the 1950s.
Others theorise that the phrase is influenced by the Cloud Nine which is one of the ten Buddhist stages of the progress to enlightenment of a Bodhisattva.
However, Phrases.org.uk rightfully notes how not everything seems to fit in these explanations as there are many levels above the ninth level in both instances which seems odd when you would expect the “happiest” level to be the highest one.
Rather than the focus being on the number of clouds, it seems it was more the imagery of the clouds that seems important to describing somebody with their “head in the clouds” and in an intoxicated euphoric state of “idyllic happiness”.
Earliest reference of its use come from 1950s America in Albin Pollock’s directory of slang, The Underworld Speaks (1935):
‘Cloud eight, befuddled on account of drinking too much liquor’.
It isn’t until August 1946 that we see “cloud nine” in The Oxnard Press-Courier:
‘I think he has thought of everything, unless the authorities pull something new on his out of cloud nine‘.
Then, in The San Mateo Times (April 1952) we find “seven clouds,” and in Ross’s Hustlers (1956) we see “thirty-nine”. The number “seven” was the preferred number in older texts until around 1980 when “cloud nine” became predominant.
This popularity of “nine” instead of “seven” was likely to have been due to have been impacted by music, notably it was the title to The Temptations’s 1969 album, and later George Harrison’s 1987 album.
More recently, though, there are cases of “cloud ten” being used which might be people feeling so happy that they want to go beyond the “cloud nine” in the idiom.
Hope you enjoyed that. If you’re feeling pumped for some good English idioms then check out the links below!
Recommended further reading :
Featured image : Ana Sobu / Ana A Raisin
- ’28 Classic British Idioms’ in Chapter London, (22 Feb 2017)
- Bobbie Edsor, ’88 Very British Phrases That Will Confuse Anybody Who Didn’t Grow Up in the UK’ in The Independent, (2 jan 2018)
- Jennifer Frost, ‘”Oh So Very British” English Idioms (Part 1)’ in GrammarCheck, (17 Apr 2013)