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Most of us are familiar with common sayings that  are used like “love is blind,” “time flies” and “quiet as a mouse.”  What is remarkable is the origin of the original sayings and where they came from. Some of them go back centuries. There are many more of these common expressions than the ones in this article, but we selected the ones where the history was interesting.  

To use just another one: “Will history repeat itself?”  The curious part will be if the next generation continues to use these Idioms or will they fade with our generation. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we found researching their backgrounds.  “Only time will tell,” yet another one! 

THE ORINGS OF SAYINGS

Love Is Blind seems to have first appeared in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale around 1405 and wasn’t found again until it surfaced in Shakespeare’s writings. It became quite a favorite line of his and appears in several of his plays, including Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry V, and The Merchant of Venice.

What is Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander simply means that whatever is good for a man is equally as good for a woman.  It may stem from an early proverb to the effect that “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

It Takes Two to Tango can be used in several contexts but usually means that it takes two people to participate in an argument.  The phrase originated in a song, Takes Two to Tango, which was written and composed in 1952 by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning.  The lyrics and melody were popularized by singer Pearl Bailey’s 1952 recording.

Dog Eat Dog originally was written Dogs Do Not Eat Dogs to suggest that only those moved by primal survival instincts would resort to such behavior.  This version is confirmed in the second Oxford English Dictionary which contains a quote from 1858 referring to an old proverb that states “Dog does not eat dog.”  The modern expression apparently appeared in 1931.

Time Flies may first have been uttered around 1800, and by Shakespeare in the phrase “the swiftest hours, as they flew” or by Alexander Pope when he used the phrase “swift by the years.”

It’s A Dog’s Life is attributed to sometime in the sixteenth century implying that the animal’s life is one of misery.

Quiet As A Mouse was used in the 1500s and 1600s and the phrase Still As A Mouse dated back before then in the 1300s.  Either expression describes how a mouse avoids a predator by being as still as possible.

The Early Bird Gets The Worm seems to have been used as early as 1605 which makes it over 400 years old, and it is used fairly often in today’s speech as well to refer to success being achieved by those with ambition and a willingness to work hard.

Crazy Like A Fox has more meaning to those who have hunted these crafty creatures, and seems to have been used as the title of a book in 1944 written by S.J. Perelman.

Dog Tired emanates from an old English tale about the sons of Alfred the Great who were rewarded for catching the most hunting dogs by being seated at Alfred’s right hand at dinner, where they were tired from their day’s efforts but delighted to have been rewarded for their work.

Sick As A Dog seems to first have appeared around 1705 and probably refers to the condition of the village dogs that had to forage for themselves and generally looked sick and undernourished.

A Shoe In actually began as a phrase indicating that a race would be won by a horse designated to win despite its lack of speed and which would have to be “shooed in” to the finish line.

Bite The Bullet unfortunately described the manner in which a physician attempted to blunt a soldier’s pain during battle when there was no time to get anesthesia.

Blood Is Thicker Than Water refers to the bonds said to be developed between warriors in the Middle Eastern culture which were alleged to be stronger than the bonds of biological brothers.

Break The Ice was what icebreaking ships had to do during the winter months to permit commercial ships to enter the harbors; today, people Break The Ice by developing a pathway to get to know someone.

Butter Someone Up is said to have been first used to describe an Indian tradition of tossing balls of butter at representations of their Gods when trying to seek their favor.

Cat Got Your Tongue research indicates that the saying comes from one or two practices.  The first is that it comes from the cat-o’-nine-tails whip used for flogging which caused so much pain the victims could not talk.  The other is from the practice of cutting the tongues from liars and those who blasphemed.

Caught Red Handed refers to having to find blood on the hands of someone who butchered someone else’s animal to convict them.  It was not sufficient to catch them with fresh meat but no blood on their hands.

Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Water comes from the practice of families bathing infrequently, with males going first, then females, then babies, who going last would have the dirtiest water and might not be noticed when throwing out the water.

Eat Humble Pie developed from manor lords in the Middle Ages holding a feast after hunting during which those of inferior social standing would not be served the best cuts of meat but rather were served a pie containing the innards of the slaughtered animals, known as “umbles,” thereby giving rise to the phrase “eating umble pie,” which was humiliating because it identified those so served as being of lesser social status.

Give The Cold Shoulder is an expression that comes from addicts whose skin during withdrawal became cold, translucent, hard and covered with bumps like that of a plucked turkey, so the addicts were giving others around them The Cold Shoulder during such times.

Kick The Bucket is actually what occurred at slaughterhouses when a bucket was placed under a cow being put on a pulley to be killed and sometimes the animal’s legs would kick the bucket while it was being prepared for death.

Let Your Hair Down was what occurred to women at the end of a day when they had to appear in public with elegant hairdos that required hours of work and relished being able to relax at home when they could let their hair down out of the “do.”

No Spring Chicken commented on the practice of some chicken farmers trying to sell their chickens that survived the winter at the higher spring chicken prices; the buyers would complain that the winter fowl were past their primes and no spring chickens.

Pleased as Punch comes from a 17th century puppet show for kids, Punch & Judy, that featured Punch the puppet who killed people for pleasure, so he felt pleased as Punch.

Rub The Wrong Way refers to the practice of wet and dry-rubbing oak floors where to rub against the grain resulted in streaks causing the wood to look terrible.

Rule of Thumb is a legal term from the 17th century created by English Judge Sir Francis Buller who found it no crime for a husband to beat his wife with a stick if the stick was no wider than the man’s thumb.

Saved By The Bell was an invention developed to assuage people afraid of being buried alive by burying them in coffins that had a connected bell above ground so that guards at night could listen to see if someone had been buried alive and needed to be saved by the bell.

Get Up On The Right Side is a reference to the times when anything having to do with the left or left side was thought to be evil, so innkeepers pushed the left side of the beds against the wall so guests had go get up on the right side.

Clean As A Whistle has several possible originations: 

  • The sound of a sword as it swishes through the air to decapitate someone, causing the head to be removed as clean as a whistle
  • The sound made on the slippery smooth surface of a willow stick debarked to make a whistle

Spilling The Beans refers to a practice in ancient Greece when beans were used to vote for candidates for various positions.  Voters would place a white bean in a candidate’s container if they wanted to vote for the candidate or a black bean if they did not.  At times, a clumsy voter would kick over a container so everyone could see the votes which were supposed to be confidential, thereby spilling the beans.

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