Brownielocks and The 3 Bears 

Who Came Up With That One?

Brownie blowing bubbles animation
Origins of Commonly Spoken Words, Phrases and Sayings


Thomas Drummond in 1816 devised a lighting source for theatres.  It was a cylinder of lime heated by an incandescence flame and placed behind a lens or in front of a reflector. These "lime lights" were very bright. Thus the star performer was very visible as long as he stood in it. Soon, actors were competing to be in the easily seen limelight. And so any location where many can see you today is called being in the limelight.


Karl Capek, a Czech playwright was a pioneer in science fiction.  He wrote a play during WWI called "R.U.R., which was a group of mechanized monsters revolting against their maker.  The Czech term for work or drudgery was robota, and so Capek shortened his characters to be robots.


Axe to Grind

Benjamin Franklin published a lot of stories, one of which he was the central character. Franklin was approached by a stranger who stopped to admire the family grindstone.  He asked to be shown how it worked and offered Ben Franklin an ax to demonstrate. Once his ax was sharp the stranger walked off laughing.  Today "having an ax to grind" means that someone has a selfish or mean motive behind their actions.  It also means to have a grudge or dispute with someone in which that person seeks some confrontation, justice or  reciprocated action. This can be openly known or a hidden agenda, also.



Jay Birds who ventured out of their rural forests and into the urban areas often got confused. They often endangered their lives walking anywhere where they wanted, including into traffic.  Sophisticated city people laughed at their erratic behavior. So, now anyone who crosses the street in a reckless or illegal way is called a Jay Walker (and sometimes fined).

No Spring Chicken

New England chicken farmers discovered that chickens born in the Spring bought better prices, rather than old birds that had gone through the winter etc. Sometimes farmers tried to sell the old birds as a new spring born chicken. Smart buyers often complained that a tough fowl was "no spring chicken" and so the term now is used to represent birds (and even people) past their plump and tender years.

Break the Ice

All cities that grew as a result of being on rivers (for trade) suffered during bitter cold times when the river froze.  Even large ships got stuck, making them icebound for weeks.  Little small sturdy ships known as "icebreakers" were develop to precede the ships breaking ice and making a path. This was important for the ships to get the goods to market. And so every boatman knew that in order to get down to business, you first had to break the ice.  Today it represents any sort of start to a project.

Hands Down

This basically means to score a victory without much work.
One version is with horse racing the jockey doesn't even have to lift his hands to guide his horse if he's way out in front. Another one is for boxing in which the opponent is a pushover and so the winner doesn't even have to raise his hands to protect himself.

Pass the Buck

Anyone who avoids making decisions or accepting responsibility is said to pass the buck. This all starts from the old days of card playing in which piece of buckshot  is placed before someone who has the deal.  The dealer has a lot of responsibility on determining the game's format. If a cautious player doesn't want to take on this responsibility, he's allowed to "pass the buck" to the next player who will be the dealer.


In 1882 a Pecos, Texas rancher offered $100 prizes for bronco riding, bulldogging and roping.  A promoter in 1916 suddenly decided to use the Spanish term for roundup - 'rodeo' to sell tickets to the competition. As the popularity grew, so has the prize money and the crowds.

Throw in the Towel

In old boxing days many bruised fighters couldn't get to their feet when the bell for the new round began. Their managers new they could do nothing but give up since they were took weak to continue. As a signal, one of them would toss in  an article used to soak up blood -- a towel or sponge.  Today's boxing regulations are meant to limit the brutality of the past. But the saying today meaning when you are forced to give up of "throwing in the towel" still remains.


The first teensy weensy swimsuit known as the "bikini" went on sale in 1947.  But how did it get its name?  The male reaction to this was often described to be like an atomic bomb.  Since a year prior, 1946, the Marshall Islands were used for the atomic bomb test.  167 natives were moved to Rongerik under "Operation Crossroads" by William H.R. Blandy. Later more commonly referred to as "Bikini Island Bomb Tests."  Since this skimpy swimsuit created about the same earth shattering reactions as the bomb, it was explosively named the Bikini. After a few years, it was no longer capitalized and became bikini to represent a fashion style that showed a lot of skin, not necessarily for swimwear.  I.E. A bikini-style top.


When you are totally exhausted you are often say you are "bushed."  The term came from the Dutch settlers for the wilderness, but modified by the English to "bush."  Clearing away forests was hard work and they often proclaimed after carving out a trail that they were bushed (exhausted).  Today the word means to be exhausted from anything and not just physical outdoor labor.

Lock, Stock and Barrel

In old days, a rifle (or musket) had 3 major parts: A lock, a stock of wood and a metal barrel. Each part was totally useless without the other one.  They had to all work together or well, you got nothing.  But when they were all in sync, what a BLAST!  Thus, when a person chose to put everything 100% into an decision, action or commitment and not just half-heartedly, he is said to be doing it "lock, stock and barrel."

Alternate origin: lock stock and barrel also referred to when you bought a farm. Lock meant the house , stock was all the animals and barrel was the rain barrel meaning all the trivial junk, so that it was absolutely everything at the time of sale that was on the land that was sold. If the previous owner left something valuable behind it was yours (too bad for them) as it had all been sold lock stock and barrel.


Rub The Wrong Way

This saying means to deal with someone insensitively, whether on purpose or by accident.  The term goes back to colonial times and wide oak-board floors.  Once a week, servants had to wet-rub and then dry-rub these floors.  Seems simple? Well, if it wasn't done with the grain, it looked awful because streaks were made.  To the owner, this was worse than not doing it at all!  And a real embarrassment to any company that came. So a servant was called clumsy or inept by their employer. Today the term means anyone (floors or not) who irritates others by a clumsy word or action.

Another version:   To "Rub [someone] the wrong way" also refers to animals. Take a cat for instance: if you rub it along the way its fur grows (head to tail), it's fine, but if you rub it the wrong way (from tail to head), it gets extraordinarily angry and irritated.

(Submitted by Jade Tibbals)


Blue Jeans

Many years ago a heavy cloth was created in Janua (modernly known as Genoa today) and shortened to the term "jean."  In 1495, King Henry VIII of England bought 262 bolts it because it didn't wear out quickly and was very prized.   It remained its natural shade for years and years until one day a batch was dyed blue and turned over to tailors.  For many years, the pants made from this fabric was for men only.  Only until women wearing pants became socially acceptable (around WWII?) and later in the 50's and 60's have jeans become a fashion garment for women as well as men.  They are no longer worn for their durability, since today mean blue jeans are promoted for being softer and even include spandex for stretch blue jeans.

Spill the Beans

In ancient Greece, voting for membership into some of their organizations was done via beans.  White beans were dropped into a container who favored the candidate and brown or black beans if you didn't.  Apparently the jar was not clear and (I assume) when you went to vote you kept your hands folded so no one knew if you dropped a white or black bean?  Only the officials knew the actual vote results of black vs. white beans.  However....on a few occasions a clumsy voter would knock over the jar and revealed all the beans! This is how the phrase got to refer to someone who reveals the truth or hidden secrets.

Beat Around the Bush

This comes from boar hunting in which the noblemen hired workers to walk through the woods beating the branches and making noises to get the animals to run towards the hunters.  Boars were dangerous animals with razor-sharp teeth (you really did not want to meet one-to-one, esp. with no weapon).  So the unarmed workers workers avoided the dense undergrowth where the boar might be and beat around it, rather than going into it.  Thus, this evasive technique was termed "beating around the bush" and today represents anyone who avoids approaching anything directly.


Along the lines of voting by dropping beans into a jar (See above), many exclusive clubs voted on their new members by dropping white or black balls into a hat or box.  A white means Yes and a black means No.  After all the votes were cast, if a candidate had so much as one more black ball than white, well he wasn't accepted and the term "he got black balled" came into being.

Lay an Egg

Unlike when a chicken lays and egg and is praised for such a wonderful accomplishment, in the human world that's not the case at all.  The term goes back to the game of Cricket in which "a duck's egg" if you had no runs, because a ZERO looked like an EGG.  So rather than saying a team had no score, they would say, "They laid an egg." Today, any type of failure in any adventure (sports or not) means to lay an egg.

Red Letter Day

Back in the old days, calendars were only made (or seen) by monks and made by hand in monasteries or convents.  Scribes often emphasized days of Saints or other important events by using a reddish ink made from ocher (a mineral of oxide of iron).  A quick look at the calendar instantly showed all there red marks from the black, so that preparation or anticipation of those days could be acted upon.  Today, we consider a "red letter day" as any important day to us in our lives such as birthdays, weddings, anniversaries or the beginning of vacations or ending of school years. Some even have them mark special emotional times such as first dates,  births of babies, pay raises, etc.

Old Stamping Ground

The prairie chicken was often observed by early settlers dancing around at dawn with their fancy mating steps, making noises and strutting as part of their courtship with the females.  They were so intense on this, they actually wore some areas of the ground bare!  Soon, settlers could just tell by looking at some bare land that it was the mating spots for those frisky prairie chickens, and soon got called their "old stomping grounds."  Today the term is used both for areas when males and females gather to meet each other, or for any place in which a group of people just go to have fun and kick  up their heels etc.

On Cloud Nine 

For some odd reason, the number 9 has always been considered by mathematicians to have some super power? Some say it goes back to the Holy Trinity since 3 x 3 = 9.  And later in Victorian times, a person who was all dressed up was said to be "dressed to the nines." So what does this have to do with clouds?

It was believed that clouds existed on a successive level of layers, and the ultimate high layer was 9. So anyone who is suddenly super happy was said to be soaring in the clouds and naturally the level of the cloud they were assumed to be on was the highest...level 9.  Today another way of saying you are very happy and even in some cases, in love, is to say that you are on cloud 9.



To be a redneck isn't because anger makes your neck red at all.  The term comes from the South, but it refers to anyone who works outdoors, especially in the farm fields, where after a while all that sun exposure gives you a very red neck (from bending over a lot in the fields).  Since many wore hats that sheltered their faces, that left them all with red necks.  After years of having sun-burned necks, skin just got darker, reddish and more crusty.  So the term today, although termed for Southern farmers, can be another who works outdoors rather than in an office.

PS: Along this line, there is a term called a "farmer's tan" which means you have a sun tan from your elbows down, since being outdoors in a T-shirt covers the rest of your body.  It's a common phrase in California to tease outsiders (esp. from the Midwest) that they have a "farmer's tan" when in California people pride themselves on having overall tans.

Another version is said that the term originated in the coal mines of Kentucky and West Virginia at The Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the largest civil uprising in US history.  In 1921 WVa miners clashed with lawmen and hired hands of the coal companies when they tried to stop the miners from forming a union.  Approximately, 13,000 miners with red bandanas tied around their necks (to identify them as a separate group from the others) marched on Logan county.  This uprising helped showcase the conditions faced by the minors and helped shape the way unions operated.  It also turned union tactics into political battles to get the law on the side of labor.  All these  miners with red bandanas on their necks is said to be the origin of "red necks."

Submitted 5/19/12

 There is also a different version of the origin of this word from a Scottish website.
(They also explain the phrase Hillbilly and Gringo at this Link.)



Biologist W.C. Allee gained fame when he discovered the pecking order of hens, and the female's habit of using her beak as a weapon among other females. The hens never peck the male roosters.  And yet the term today is often referred to represent the verbal attacks females put upon males.  Go figure!

Know Beans

This phrase comes from an old riddle often told in old rural country stores.  The question:  How many blue beans does it take to make 7 white beans? Do you know?  If you don't then you are said to "not know beans."  The answer is: 7 blue make 7 white. Why? When you peel 7 blue you get 7 white.  The term today about "you don't know beans" refers to anyone who doesn't know anything that should be common sense or general knowledge.


Illiteracy was common in the old days and so when a person was asked to sign his name to a document, he would put an "X" or a cross and it was perfectly legal. Now, many times this was done under pressure and the party making the "X" had no intention of observing the terms of the contract.  Oral lore stated that if a cross was doubled =  one was written over the other one, then the second one voided out the first.  The contract was then null.  So a double-cross was often referred to someone who promised in word or writing, but changed their minds, or never even intended to obey the rules they agreed to.

Graveyard Shift

All companies that work around the clock have a graveyard shift.   It really has nothing to do with graveyards or burial places.  Actually, any thick liquid was termed "gravy."  So if you laughed till you cried you were called "gravy-eyed."  And lack of sleep lead to bleary eyes, and sailors who had to stay up on deck all night were often "gravy-eyed" from weariness.  When the term was said in pubs and other places on land, these people did not quite get it.  Because superstitions were so rampid  in those days, they assumed it had to do with graves, being dead tired, etc.  So the seafaring phrase go reformed by the landlubbers to mean "graveyard shift."

Another version: The "Graveyard Shift" is actually tied to the term "Saved by the Bell." First, to explain "Saved by the Bell": at one point, being buried alive was a common occurrence, so some people who were paranoid about such a fate were buried in special coffins that had a rope to pull from the inside that attached to a bell above ground. At night a guard was set to watch the graveyard and to listen for any bells to ring, and thereby dig up the living person from underground, saving them "by the bell." The guard that sat watch overnight was said to work the "Graveyard Shift": the night shift at a graveyard.
(Submitted by Jade Tibbals)



In 1748, the fourth Earl of Sandwich was John Montagu who loved to gamble.  Anytime he could get a game in, he would.  Since his time was limited, and he couldn't formally eat, he told his servants to give him a slice of roast beef between two pieces of bread, so he could eat at the table (did not need utensils).  He might not be the first to come up with this, but he was the first to do it in public and often.  As a result, this concoction of meat between two slices of bread soon became known as 'the sandwich.'


The term goes back to sailors who brought it to land. The stern of a boat is called the poop.  During strong winds and storms, smashed against it repeatedly. Any ship's stern that showed damage from all of this was called "pooped" and lucky to still be floating after days of battering waves.  So when the sailors got ashore, in their descriptive way they would often say that they felt as tired and battered and as "pooped" as their ship.  People took hold of this phrase and soon used it to describe themselves even when on land as being totally pooped out when they were really tired, fatigued and exhausted from anything.


The term comes from the days of notorious pickpocket activities in London.  They had their own language for different pockets that were the style of the day.  For example: Jerve as a vest pocket.  And Kick was a pocket on the side in a pair of pants.  And the Pratt was the back pocket.  Of all the pockets, the most difficult to pick was the KICK, because it was close to the victim's leg and was always moving.  After a while, smart people discovered that the safest spot to keep your money was in his "side kick" or side pocket of his pants.  Today the term now means a faithful partner or pet that is by ones side, often even helpful and protective.

To go GaGa

The French painter Paul Gauguin is the source for this saying.  Rumor has it that admirers loved his painting but had problems pronouncing his name. So they shortened their admiration to saying that they were just "Ga Ga."  Others claim that's just nonsense.  And that the word comes from the French origin for "fool" and so the word represents the sounds a mindless person makes.

Alternate: The word 'gaga' originates from the French word  'gateux' (with a circumflex accent on the 'a'). 'Se gater'  which means to spoil or go rotten. Soo 'gateux' or 'gaga' could translate as ' soft in the head' as in senile.

(Submitted by: Harry Globus)



There are two versions of where this word began in American culture. (1) One of the most notorious criminals of the Barbary Coast was Muldoon, who had so much muscle he was hard to arrest.  The San Franciso newspaper led a campaign to help clean up the town.  But rather than printing his name they put it in backwards = Noodlum.  A bit obvious, the reported then changed the N to H = Hoodlum.  So every time this criminal's activities were written up, it was as Hoodlum.  Soon the name was synonymous with crime and illegal activities.  (2) Another theory is it is a derivative of the German word 'huddellump' which means miserable fellow, wretch, and scoundrel."


Once upon a time, some king came upon an inn and was served beef not quite like he'd ever eaten before. He was also drinking alot with this meal and after a while (being a bit drunk) he pulled out his sword and knighted the meat "Sir Loin."  And so in today's society a good sir loin steak is sold in the fine restaurants only fit for kings! Or...the word smiths feel that it really comes from the word 'surlonge' in French which means beef just above the loin.

Dead as a Doornail

Before the days of the electric or mechanical doorbells, anyone coming to your house just had to pound a metal knocker that was nailed to the front door.  Sometimes it took a lot of heavy smacks to get attention.  This meant that the nails holding this metal plate on the door got a lot of wear, eventually having the life pounded out of it and it fell out.  Today anything that is totally withered or a failed project or situation that is hopeless is considered to be as dead as a doornail.

Alternate origin: Nails were in short supply and high demand in colonial times. People would go out in the night and steal the nails from their neighbors doors. To prevent this from happening, the ends of the nails inside, were bent and hammered down to prevent them from being pulled out, from the outside. The nail was said to be dead and the act was deadening the nail. It could not be removed and all other uses were of that nail were eliminated....i.e. the nail was dead.

(Submitted by David Salls)


Nip it in the Bud

Horticulturist learnt years ago that in order to produce good fruit, a plant had to have a lot of buds snipped off.  This improved garden produce, but was disastrous to individual buds.  It became proverbial that when a bud was nipped off, it would definitely no longer produce any fruit.  Today the word is used to refer to a sudden halt in any plans or project in which no further progress will result.

Bring Home The Bacon

The term comes from the prize money a contestant would win at many county fairs for catching the greased pig.  Since it was a pig that was the target, the winner then "brought home the bacon" or the winnings. Today the term is used to mean bringing home money that's earned by having done a difficult task or after a lot of running around.


Early jugglers altered a Latin phrase used during Holy Communion.  They took the word "hocus" which means "here is the body..." and just formed a rhyming word go to with it for their magical presentations resulting in "hocus-pocus."  The pocus added to it assumedly meant to play close attention to the object.

Alternate origin: In the Middle Ages, most people were illiterate and certainly didn't understand Latin, the language of the Catholic mass.  During the Eucharist in the mass, the priest would turn away from the congregation and look at the cross, making his words hard to hear and/or understand.  When he raised the host (bread), he uttered the words "Hoc est corpus mei......", or "This is my body....", in Latin.  The congregation didn't understand the meaning of the words, but they did know that, somehow through some magic, these words turned the bread into the actual body of Christ, the fantastic magical event of transubstantiation.  So, words that sounded like "hocus pocus" to the illiterate and uneducated masses would enable a magical and miraculous event to transpire, and, presumably, these words were a facilitator or enabler of a magical act or event.   

(Submitted by Jon Dill )



Maggie Valley, North Carolina is the Square Dance capital of the world.  And the term comes from the fact that many rookies who try to square dance end up swinging their foot wildly, often digging into the shins of their partners or other dancers.  So naturally any dancing event that marks on its participants became known as a shindig.

Cracked Up

The general store often had a cracker barrel in which citizens of the town would gather to play games, and tell stories.  Often listeners did not crack a smile at all. At other times, a lot of laughter was created.  If a teller of a tall tail evoked a lot of laughter it was like hitting a bulls eye and so faces with cracked smiles mean "first class."  Today the term now signifies anything that isn't first class is well..."not what it is cracked up to be."

Another version:     "Cracked Up" also refers to a Civil War time makeup. At this time the makeup mostly consisted of beeswax, ladies had to partially melt the makeup beside the fire before applying it, and after application it would harden. If the lady laughed or smiled it would crack the makeup, and thereby look like her face was "Cracking Up."

(Submitted by Jade Tibbals)


Over a barrel

Punishment in the old days often meant that a person often deserved more than just tar and feathers, and deserved a public whipping.  In order to prevent him from escaping during this whip lashing, he was tied over-turned barrel (top body bent to the curve of the barrel while feet remained on the ground.)  Thus there was no way this person could escape his punishment. Today the term "to have over a barrel" means that someone is in a position in which there is just no way for them to escape their punishment or whatever other dreadful outcome is coming to them.


In the old days the pumping action of the heart was considered to be the seat of a person's personality. Doctors knew little else about our circulatory system back then. So figurative words often were attached to the heart regarding people's personalities, like hard-hearted, soft-hearted, heavy-hearted, light-hearted, and cold-hearted. Since love makes us all giddy, often our hearts beat faster. So the term "swete hert" meant a fast beating heart.  The term slowly grew into the term "sweetheart" and is today referred to as someone who makes your heart throb.

Wrong Side of the Bed

We live in  a right-handed world, let's face it.   In the ancient world, the left-side of the body or anything "left" was considered sinister, mysterious, dangerous or evil.   So, innkeepers pushed the left sides of the bed against the walls so that a guest HAD to get up on the right side.  Today, with queen and king side beds, most people get up on either side and don't bother to think about it.  But the term today of "getting up on the wrong side of the bed" refers to when someone is irritable or clumsy.


The origin is from WWII and refers to a bomb that could level an entire block. When the boys came home, the phrase caught on to represent anything that made a real impact.


This is an old-fashion phrase for nudity (or almost nude) women in photos or film. The phrase comes from the fact that a woman's skin appears to be the same creamy color as that of cream cheese.

Double Take

It's a phrase from the movie makers in which the director wants to take another look at the scene in order to make sure it's like he wants it. The term caught on in society to mean anything that deserves to be looked at twice, or looked at more closely.

Flip Side

Its origin goes back to the days of music being put on records (remember those?).  Each record had one side that had the main recording (hit song) and then there was always another song on the back, which often was completely different than the front song. This song on the back became known as the "flip side." In society it caught on as every argument or situation can have something on the other side totally different from what's being shown on the front.

Green-eyed Monster

We all know it as jealousy.  But how? It goes back to the Shakespearean play, "Othello" in Act III.  Shakespeare used at cat's green eyes to represent jealousy and referred to it as "the green-eyed monster" in his play.  The phrase just caught on.

The Handwriting on the Wall

We know it today as a sign of some upcoming doom. But the origin goes back to the bible when Belshazzar, the successor to King Nebuchadnezzar got drunk one night and drank from  sacred vessels from the temple of Jerusalem. Afterwards, it is said that a mysterious hand appeared and wrote 4 strange words on the banquet room wall.  Only Daniel (the prophet) could interpret this writing, which he said was ominous. So, any warning today is referred to "the handwriting on the wall."

Pageant In earlier times, they lacked stages. So, biblical performances were held outdoors, using wagons equipped with stages on them. These wagons were called pageants. Soon, the name of the wagons that brought the entertainment became the name of the entertainment itself.

Prima Donna This is an Italian phrase that means "first lady" and is associated with the lead singer in an opera. And, like all stars, they got special treatment (and a lot of applause) which created a woman who was vain, temperamental, fussy, etc. Soon, the phrase slipped into social talk to mean any woman who is egotistical, and wanting special treatment.

To Pull Strings This is used today to mean someone who has influence to make things happen.  The term goes back to a puppeteer,  who everyone knew was the man behind-the-scenes manipulating things that made the show happen.
To be the Top Banana or Second Banana The term goes back to burlesque where the showgirls in the finale formed what appeared to resemble a bunch of bananas. Of course the star was usually on center top and was referred to "the top banana." In many vaudeville comedy acts, the straight man to the comedian was often referred to then as the "second banana." So, this banana ranking comes from the theatre, not the jungle.

Don Juan It refers to a man who is a real woman-chaser. The name is based on a real Spaniard  named Don Juan Ternoario, who is rumored to have had over 2, 594 mistresses. Then for some reason, the man joined a monastery! (Probably to hide from all the irritated boyfriends or husbands?) But, the monks didn't like him and killed him.
Put Up Your Dukes! This is a challenge to fight. But, the origin goes back to Frederick Augustus, the 2nd son of King George III. Fred had many titles, one of which was Duke of York. Because Fred loved to duel, fighters nicknamed their fists, "dukes of York." The phrase then got shorted to just "dukes."
A Freudian Slip We all know that when when slip and say something we didn't mean to say, is called a "Freudian slip." This goes back to Dr. Sigmund Freud who seemed to find sexual innuendos and overtones in everything. So, when he would interview people, he was always going, "Ah!" as if they were suddenly revealing something their mind was suppressing. Today, it refers to any slip of the tongue, not just sexual.
Hanky-Panky Refers to anyone fooling around, either sexual or some underhanded business deal, etc. The phrase originates back to magicians who would wave hankies around to misdirect the attention of the audience from what was really going on. Just like magicians would rhyme words like "hocus pocus", the "panky" got added to just make a rhyme.
To Let Your Hair Down Back in Napoleonic days, the nobility of Paris were highly condemned if they appeared in public without a hairdo that was pretty elaborate. This mean hours of work and a lot of hairpins. It was only when they got home could they take all those pins out and relax. Of course when the pins came out, the hair fell down. Thus, letting your hair down soon became a phrase to represent being relaxed.
The Life of Riley This is not just an old television show from the 1950's. Back in the 1880's an Irish comic/singer named Patrick Rooney created a song about Mr. Reilly, who imagined what his life would be like if he hit it rich in California. The song describes his wonderful life of leisure. Soon, many who heard it identified with how nice it would be and would repeat the song, making the phrase represent having a real easy life.
Nicotine Ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot talked with sailors a lot. In 1560 he got some seeds from these sailors that he planted. And, so the first tobacco plants in France grew. When scientist later discovered that tobacco had a potent substance, they named it nicotine after Jean Nicot.
O.K. When all know it means that everything is fine. But, the phrase originated with President Martin Van Buren, when he was running for his second term as president.  He was born in Kinderhook, NY.  And his nickname was "Old Kinderhook." So, his fans formed a campaign committee called the "Democratic O.K. (old kinderhood) Club."The campaign slogan spread from then on.

To Read Someone The Riot Act It's real! Back in 1716, King George I of England issued a proclamation that if 12 or more people engaged in a demonstration, his officers were told to read these people this specific Act and send those rioters home. Only a few continued once the edict was read because you could be sent to prison for life. So, once this Riot Act got read, people calmed down rather quickly.
A Bigwig Normal  British citizens didn't even own a wig, let alone wear one.  But, all lawyers and members of court did. So, they stuck out in a crowd. Of course, the judge was clearly obvious because he wore a large, powdered wig, and also had a lot of authority. So, today, anyone who has any kind of power or authority is called "a big wig."
Chicken Feed As far as farming goes, chicken feed is the poor quality wheat or corn given to chickens.  Soon, city folks used the phrase in regards to our lower denominations of coins. And, the phrase soon became really popular among riverboat gamblers to mean a small amount of money, and it stuck.
Goose Bumps This is a phrase used to describe visible small bumps on our skin because of fear, shivering, etc.  The phrase is based on the fact that geese were plucked of their feathers every couple of months, leaving the birds pretty bare. So, when they'd get a chill from the cold air, their skin would shrink and create these large pimples.
A gift horse in the mouth or straight from the horse's mouth When you get information straight from the horse's mouth, it means you are suppose to be getting honest, correct information.  The phrase comes from the old days when determining how old a horse was was done by looking at his teeth. So, before betting on a horse, people wanting to check its teeth to see how old this horse was. Therefore, anyone who worked around the horse (stable hand?) knew how old the horse was and could let the others know. Therefore, the information was acquired, 'straight from the horse's mouth' and not the owner of the horse.

On the other hand, if someone gave you a horse for free, it was considered rude to look in its mouth and check to see how old it was.  Therefore, you were not to "look a gift horse in the mouth."  Today, this means not to question the quality or motive a gift you get from someone.


Lick Into Shape The phrase means to make something presentable; or, to take a problem and make it do-able. The origin comes from bears. When bear cubs are born, apparently they have no shape. So the mother and father lick the newborns into shape with their tongues. I'm not sure if this is true or not, but this is the source of the saying.
Raining Cats and Dogs A colorful expression that means it is raining very hard, with lightning, thunder and probably a lot of high winds.  There are two ideas of how this phrase developed. One is simple: A storm sounds a lot like cats and dogs fighting. The other goes back to Norse mythology.  It is believed that witches caused storms and rode the winds in the shape of back cats. And, the God of Storms is described in Norse Mythology being surrounded by wild dogs and wolves. So, add the witchy cat-shaped winds and the wild dogs and you get "it's raining cats and dogs."
To smell a rat! The saying means to feel that someone or something is suspicious in nature. The source goes back to the use of dogs in large mansions and palaces to warn of rats. Apparently, it's believed that a dog who suddenly stirred could smell a rat.  (No one considered maybe the dog had a keen sense of hearing too and could hear the scratching?) Anyway, whenever a dog suddenly jerked from lying on the carpet or whatever, people would say that "he smelled a rat." Soon, society used the phrase anytime someone got suspicious.
Wet Behind The Ears This refers to someone who has absolutely no knowledge or skill in some craft or job assignment. It goes beyond being a beginner. It means to know zip, nada, nothing! The origin is simple. I refers to newborn animals, who are wet from the womb when born. They dry slowly and often behind their ears stays wet the longest. Newborns are pretty helpless and know nothing, just like someone who has to do something that they don't know how to do.
AWOL "Absent Without Official Leave" is the acronym for AWOL. This is a military term that filtered into civilian talk to mean anytime anyone just up and leaves without telling someone first, whether in written form or verbally.
Bats in the Belfry A person who is a bit bewildered, confused, (even considered nuts or crazy) is said to have "bats in their belfry." The term goes back to the days when the tallest building in town was the church due to its tall bell tower and steeple.  Because this wasn't enclosed, bats loved these towers; and, at night they'd fly all around swirling as if in confusion.  Whenever someone was confused, the symbolism too shape of the bats flying all which way around the belfry.
Bite The Bullet The phrase today means to just accept whatever situation you are in and push through it the best you can. I believe the kids today say to just "suck it up." Well, the phrase originates from the days of the Civil War in which battlefield doctors had little pain killers or alcohol. Sometimes, all they could do was to offer a solder a bullet to bit on while they did what they had to do (often painful) to deal with his injuries.
Caught Red-handed The phrase today means simply to be caught doing something wrong, usually while you are doing it so there's no doubt you are doing something wrong. In the old days, it simply meant to be caught with the red blood of an animal on your hands as a result of butchering an animal that didn't belong to you. According to the laws back then, just having freshly cut meat didn't make you guilty. You had to be caught with the fresh blood of the animal to be convicted.
It's as easy as falling off a log When something requires no skill at all, it is said to be as easy as falling off a log. Well, we all know how easy it is to fall off a log, right? Apparently, back in the old logging days, when city folks saw the loggers walk on the logs while they were in the water, they thought it was pretty easy, until they tried it. Then PLUNK!  It required no skill at all to fall off those logs. (The skill was staying on them!) This is how the phrase came to be.
To be at the end of your rope Today it means that you have used up all possible resources, solutions, ideas, etc. in order to surmount a problem you have.  It originated from the tethering of horses to eat (but not allowing them to run free). So, horse would eat in the area his rope allowed. When the horse ate all the grass that was easy, he then was stretching and eating in the area that was "at the end of his rope."
To GumUp the Works
Someone (or something) that suddenly stops a project from running smoothly is "gumming up the works." The phrase originates in old lumbering days when the men had to deal with the Sweet Gum tree. This is sap gummed up their saws. They hated that. But, they discovered that the gum was fun to chew. So, they'd go collecting it and as a result, oftentimes returned all sticky from head to foot. And, it was hard to wash off! So, a person was all gummed up and stuck (lacking freedom of movement.)
To Make Things Hum Hmmmm!  Hmmm!  That's the happy sounds of cotton mills working! What you didn't want to hear was silence (when the machines broke down). So, it took a lot of mechanical skills and management wisdom to make the cotton mill hum with productivity.  Later, the phrase "to make things hum" slipped into common language to represent anytime someone made a project run efficiently.
Pull One's Leg London's street crime included thieves who had an elaborate scam to mug people. They'd work in pairs, with one person tripping another person (in an alley). Once they were on the ground, they'd strip them of their valuables. In the process of tripping, many times their pants were pulled also.  Soon, this type of action that caused people to stumble was called, "pulling one's leg." Today, it isn't related to stealing. It has to do with tripping someone up mentally and making them look stupid or dumb.  Thus, the only thing they might lose is their temper.
To Rack One's Brains Tanners stretched leather out on racks, which later caught on in  as an idea as a form of torture to stretch a person out and get information from him.  Eventually, this method to get information became illegal; but, the phrase became known in society as an expression to trying to find some answer or solution that was mentally torturous on one's brain or mind.
To Read Between the Lines Writing in code has been around for centuries. And, many rulers and military leaders did it. In fact, Charles I of England's papers were so coded that they didn't get understood until 1850. People couldn't understand any coded document soon figured out that the meaning wasn't in the lines that were readable, but the message was written in invisible ink between the lines showing. Soon, society just adapted the phrase "reading between the lines" to mean that any document had hidden information that wasn't obvious when reading what was seen on the paper and to analyze it better
Sponge-off someone or to be a Sponge We all know that this means anyone who is very cheap and doesn't pay for things. The origin goes back to when sponges were used in Britain to clean the slates of chalkboards by scholars. They noticed how well they soaked up water. This then became associated with anyone who was a boozer in the taverns drinking a lot.  These boozers usually had no money and begged for free drinks, money etc. from others. They soon were called sponges because they soaked up booze and money from others and never paid.
Up To Snuff Today the phrase means anything or anyone who isn't up to some sort of standard of quality. The origin in a way goes back to that also. Snuff is tobacco. And, in the old days men carried around pouches of it, with spoons and graters. Soon, commercial mixes got into the mainstream and so the  real connoisseurs of smoking prided themselves on being able to tell the real, pure grade snuff from the commercial stuff. Someone who couldn't tell the difference between pure quality tobacco and the mixture was said to be "not up to snuff."
Ballyhoo Although the word isn't used a lot today, it was a few years ago. Basically it mean a big fuss over something in public, usually by political candidates. But, it could mean a new product on the market as well.  The term comes from Ballyhooly, Ireland where the residents became well-known for arguing over everything to the degree as if the world depended on it. Soon, the British Parliament used Ballyhooly as a way of criticizing their arguments saying that they were as bad as Ballyhooly.  Somehow, in America the "ly" got dropped and the term Ballyhoo became associated with exaggerated fuss over nothing.
Blue Ribbon We all know that getting the Blue Ribbon is getting the top honor. This goes back to when dyes were expensive.  Blue dye was scarce and costly.  So, if one wore blue, they were considered prominent in society. British Monarchs gave The Order of the Garter to its knights, which was a bright blue ribbon.  In France, the society of the Holy Ghost gave blue scarves to honor their knights of the highest order. So, it just evolved in society that the top honor was to give a blue ribbon as a reward for being the best.
Character This is so common, most of us don't even think about its origin. We all know that a person's character simply means their ethics and moral conduct. But the origin goes back to when metal workers literally had an instrument called a "character" in which they'd mark things. This was usually a simple letter. Later on, Medieval courts would use this character to brand criminals not given a death sentence. They'd brand them with an "M" for murder, "A" for arson. As in book, "The Scarlet Letter" the "A" meant adultery.  Today, branding someone's character is done verbally, and not literally. Sometimes, it's done erroneously also.
Gung Ho The origin goes back to the Chinese who worked on the Great Wall.  It was noted that their foreman would yell "Gung Ho" and then they'd all get busy in unison.  This phrase caught on with the Marines when General E. Carlson in WWII when he began using it. Soon it became a signal for enthusiastically working (together or single).
Gyp Joint This term is associated with any place that will cheat you in some way (usually money). The phrase goes back to when Gypsies arrived in England around the 16th century. When someone was swindled by one of them, the phrase "I was gypted" was said.  They called them Gypsies because they thought they came from Egypt (shorted to Gypt-sie) see?  Some were honest, hard-working people. But, any business that they had was called a gyp joint. Later on, in some areas, the referenced came to be a "clip joint" instead because one lost their money to people who were not Gypsies.
High Muckety-Muck This is just another way of defining the person on top, the most important person or the one in authority. The source isn't exactly that meaning. It originates from the Native American word "muck-a-muck"which meant a person who has plenty to eat.  In a tribe, it was usually the chief (and his family) who had enough to eat. The settlers sort of messed up the pronunciation as well as the meaning in translation apparently.

Lunatic Fringe It simply means a person who is teetering on the edge of sanity.  The origin is pretty simple. It goes back to the Roman  belief that the moon (Luna) influenced sanity.
Pipe Dream Any idea that is really unique or bizarre is called a "pipe dream" by those who think it is pretty silly. The term originates from the use of opium by smoking it through a pipe.  It is said that opium produces a dream-like state of mind, where things aren't realistic.  (Whether these are hallucinations or not is debatable.)  So, smoking opium in a pipe creates a "pipe dream" sensation.

Scapegoat On the Day of Atonement (Hebrews) the priests would take a black goat as the representative of all the sins of the people. During this ceremony he would lay the sins of the people on the goat's head. Afterwards, the goat was let go (escape). Later on, anyone who was made to take the blame for the actions of someone else was called a "scapegoat" just like the ceremonial goat did for the sins of the people.

Spill The Beans In today's society it means to let a secret or private information be revealed. This is based on an old voting system by the Greeks where they had a voting bag.  Members of the group would drop either a white bean (yes) or a dark bean (no) into a bag to vote on a new member. When a clumsy person accidentally dropped the bag, showing all the beans (votes) it was said that he "spilled the beans" thus revealing the secret votes to all.

White Elephant Today it means a gift that you get that you either don't want, can't use, is ugly, but you can't give it away and are stuck with it. The origin goes back to Siam when white elephants were considered sacred. Royal families usually took care of them. But, if this family got mad at a commoner, he would give him a white elephant that he was forced to feed and take care of (at his own expense) and couldn't get rid of because it was sacred. Thus, the gift was really meant as a  burden.

The Bottom Dollar To be down to your bottom dollar, means to be down to your last finances. But, the origin doesn't mean dollar bills, it means gold coins. The US in its early days only minted about 8 million silver coins and 19 million gold coins. So, most wealth wasn't in money but in raw materials. Therefore, a person's wealth as a stack of coins wasn't very much and pretty noticeable. It was obvious when he was down to his last dollar (silver or gold).

Diddly-Squat This is another way of saying nothing! It can mean apathy (no opinions) or low monetary value.  The origin is from the carnival people who created the word: Diddle-E-Squat to mean low-valued currency of nickels and dimes.  Maybe because the town folk didn't understand, and the prizes were rather tacky, they brought the term into society to mean "worthless" or to have "little value."
To Go Haywire Logically, this phrase has to do with bailing hay.  Back in 1828, Moses P. Bliss patented a machine that bailed hay. It worked pretty good, but there were times when the wire used on the machine would get stuck in the machine, wrap around the horse's legs, etc. When the men cut it to untangle the mess, it often snapped, causing injuries. The situation soon slipped into social talk to represent anytime anything gets all messed up and can't work properly (machines, projects, ideas etc.).

Loophole This is a phrase today that means a way to get out of some contract. The origin goes back to the Middle Ages and defending a castle. Up at the top, designers put in small, oval windows that were tapered to be wider inside and narrower from the outside. This made the window difficult to hit (from over the moat) by the enemies, but a good spot to defend the castle from w/o much chance of getting hurt themselves. The window was called the loophole and later the term came to represent any opening that gave an advantage to one side in an argument or contract.
To Make Ends Meet Today it often refers to money and having the ability to stretch your income to pay all your bills. The origin goes back to sailing ships with a lot of masts. Some were attached by ropes that moved. Some were hung by ropes that were permanent. When the lower ropes broke, the captain would tell the men to pull the ropes together, splice them to get the ends to meet again, pull and tug on the canvas,  so that the masts would be productive for sailing again.

On the cuff or Off the cuff As odd as this seems, back in the old days most people weren't allowed credit. But, when someone did borrow, the records were often kept on the shirt cuff of the lender.  When men traveled from town to town, the livery stableman often let them put what they owed on credit. There was no formal contract. But, it was written on the stable owner's cuff. So, guys who had debt owed to stables in different towns were said to live "off the cuff." Today, the phrase just means a casual business deal w/o formal, legal documentation based on a man's word or trust only.

To Paint The Town Red Isn't it rather obvious that the term goes back to red light districts in towns, because that was the area where the men found most of their well...excitement?  ;)   Today, we refer to it as having a good time in a place, period. And doesn't have to mean visiting prostitutes.
Pig in a poke


Let the Cat out of The Bag

A poke is just a heavy, thick bag  attached to a stick in which pigs were carried to market. Many times, a defective pig, or not even a pig at all was in the bag. And, the sellers would offer a great "bargain" for the poke.  Why didn't the buyer take a peek inside first? Because pigs were hard to catch once they got loose, the sellers often refused to let the buyers take a peek before paying. So, many times, the buyers were cheated and ended up paying for either a bad pig or not pig at all once they peeked inside the bag they just bought. Later on, the phrase soon represented anything purchased that seemed to be a good deal and was just a waste of money.

Many times cats were put into the poke instead of a pig. When a buyer insisted on seeing what was inside the bag and found a cat instead of a pig, he confirmed that he was being cheated and the truth was revealed. Today, "to let the cat out of the bag" means to let secret or hidden information be revealed to others. It doesn't have to do with business, it could simply be telling what a Christmas present is.


Slush Fund Back in sailing days, a ship's food supply was stored in a lot of salt pork. After frying or boiling, a lot of fat (aka slush)  was left over. Some of it was used to grease timbers. But, they had LOTS of this stuff! So, a lot was just put into storage. When they got back to port, they sold it. (I'm not sure who buys this stuff and why?) Anyway, the money from selling their slush was used to buy extras for the crew.  Soon, the term "slush fund" was used to represent money that was taken from a normal budget and used for extras. More commonly, the extras meant to pay bribes for corrupt purposes, etc.

By the skin of your teeth This is a phrase that means to barely escape a disaster. But, we don't have skin on our teeth (we have enamel). The origin is from the bible, the Book of Job 19:20 where Job says he's escaped by the skin of his teeth. And, as with a lot of bible verses, they slip into everyday speech. This was one.
Get the Sack Today it means to get laid-off, probably with severance pay and even an explanation? But, in the old days, artisans came with their own tools for the job (usually in a sack). When an employer wanted to fire someone, all he did was hand him his sack and tell him to take his tools and go! No justification was needed. Since the 17th century, the phrase has remained as an expression of losing your job (whether fired or laid-off).

Kick the Bucket This is an expression meaning death. The phase originates from slaughter houses.  When a cow was to be killed, a bucket was placed under him, while he was being positioned on a hoist. Sometimes, while adjusting the hoist, it made the animals legs jerk and he'd kick the bucket before he was killed.

Slipshod If something (or someone) is slipshod, it means it's poor quality or sloppy.  The terms has to do with 15th century hardwood floors and shoes that were made w/o heels or any fasteners to scratch these floors. Obviously, they were more comfy than the normal shoes; and, soon people began to wear them outside the house, and (Oh Lord!) even to church!! Such people were considered sloppy in their appearance when they wore slippers on their feet (aka slipshod).
Ballpark Estimate This is just a guess.  It goes back to early baseball days when the game was played in open stadiums while the sun shined only. The newspapers wanted to know how many came to the game. But, it was hard to get an exact count (and the owners/managers didn't want to tell them, especially if it was low.) So, they'd just give an estimate - give or take a few hundred.  Soon, any so-so count is called a "ballpark figure" or estimate.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree Settlers hunted raccoons, possums and squirrels. Most hunting dogs would chase them up a tree and then bark until their masters came and shot the animals. Sometimes, the animal managed to sneak across to another tree w/o the dog seeing. So, the dog would continue to bark up a tree that didn't have any prey.  Soon, the phrase became known in social circles to mean anyone who is wrong about something and/or is being mislead.

To Build a Fire Under Someone We all know that mules are pretty stubborn. Sometimes they just firmly set their legs and well... So, farmers decided that building a small fire under the mule's belly would get him moving.  There's no proof this was really done a lot by muleskinners. But, the idea and imagery was such that people started using the phrase to mean "trying to get someone to move or take some action."

Hook, Line & Sinker Many rookies of the outdoors from the East went West.  And, they were apparently pretty gullible to stories that were told by fishermen about the big one that got away with not only the hook, but the line and the sinker.  When the Eastern newbie believed it, he was joked as having fallen for the fish tale, "hook, line and sinker."  Later on, the phrase came to mean in every day talk anyone who is just plain gullible about anything.
On the Skids Ramps and platforms made of heavy logs were called skids, and were often used for rolling logs and barrels; but, a lot of other things were rolled on them also. Once you put something on these timbers (which were often not perfect in circumference) and pushed, they'd roll down the hill, often out of control. The term today simply means anything that is heading in a downward direction, often out-of-control as well.

Skid Row We all know that skid row is the part of a city where the lowlifes live.  The term skids are what I described above by the lumbermen.  During the heyday of lumbering, a lot of the workers lived in shacks all in a row near the camp. This row was often compared to the skid of the camp.   As lumbering declined, the homes did also. Soon, "skid row" represented any group of homes that were in poor condition and where the lowlifes lived.

Play Hookey Isaak Walton was a fisherman and author about it. He'd stress how important it was to get that hook stuck in the fish's mouth. To do that you needed to do a sudden jerk! Therefore, to "hook" got associated with the action of "a jerk." Now, we get to schools. When the teacher's back was turned, a kid would bolt off! If he got away with it, he'd hide and not show up for role call.  Soon, this represented a "jerk of defiance" similar to like a jerk to hook on a  fishing pole. So, it was called "hookey" rather than  simply being defiant to mean skipping school.
Talk Turkey It means to talk clearly, upfront, and directly. The rumor is that it started with the settlers and the Indians over a discussion about who gets what after a hunting expedition. Another is just based on old hunters calling turkey sounds so skillfully that the birds came very clear of firing distance (upfront, direct?) of them.

Through the Grapevine Information that is received as unconfirmed and more like gossip is said to had come through the grapevine.  The phrase simply goes back to all the wires that were strung between poles for  Morse Code messages. During the Civil War many messages were received either erroneously (due to transmission) or on purpose to spread false gossip and thus unreliable no matter how you looked at it.

The Fifth Wheel Long ago, there was a device on cars that was a horizontal wheel attached to the front axle. This wheel wasn't really used much, except maybe as support for a sharp turn? But for the most part, it was useless. Being a fifth wheel soon came to represent anyone who was without a partner in a group that was paired-off. Just like the car had 4 wheels (2 pairs) and the 5th was just along for the ride, so-to-speak!

Lowbrows and Highbrows It has nothing to do with plucking your brows! The phrase has to do with phrenologists in the early 19th century who claimed they could tell how intelligent someone was by reading the lumps on their head, primarily the brow bones.
They claimed that the higher the brow bone, the smarter a person was. The lower the brow, the more of an idiot you were. Although phrenology isn't widely accepted as valid, the terms have come to mean that a lowbrow meant you were more ape-like, unrefined and stupid. And, a highbrow meant a refined, intelligent person.

Poppycock This is  just a name for barnyard excrements from chickens. The phrase first appeared in stories written by Charles F. Brown (aka Artemis Ward) in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1858. He used the phrase to described the political talk he was hearing from candidates. It seemed to then catch on as a way of expressing any talk that was worthless and stupid, whether political or not.
Putting on the Dog After the Civil War, lap dogs were a social status among the wealthy. Even today, look at how Paris Hilton goes around with Tinkerbell all dressed up? Back then, French Poodles were the symbol of wealth. So, anyone who was being flashy was jokingly said to be "putting on the dog."
A Stuffed Shirt Anyone who is rather immobile (rather in actions or in ideas) is said to be a stuffed shirt. The phrase comes from scarecrows in which shirts and pants were stuffed with hay, supported by a stiff pole to create a figure to scare away pesky crows. It didn't really move, it just stood there.

The Black List To be blacklisted means that you are banned or not allowed entrance.  The list of people who are banned is called "the black list." The name goes back to British colleges where the deans had black leather bound books with the names of boys who had disciplinary issues and misdeeds.

Bribe A piece of bread broken from a loaf was called a 'bribe.'  (Today we call it a slice or a piece.) Itinerant holy men were often given a bribe. In return they promised to pray for the person. Soon, people gave bribes to the holy men more for the prayer factor and not just to be generous. Later on, the word became connected to anything (money, property, etc.)  given in exchange for a favor by someone.

Easy Street The phrase appeared in a 1902 novel called, "It's Up to You" where a prosperous character in the book was said to easily walk up and down Easy Street.  Today, it simply means anyone who lives comfortably, no matter what their address may be.

Face The Music When you've got some unpleasant situation, you simply just grin and bear it and deal with it. This is what a soldier who was being discharged dishonorably had to do. He was given his walking papers, then forced to walk through the ranks of his fellow comrades while instruments played some march for ousted soldiers. The ritual wasn't fun, but the soldier had to deal with it directly. Thus, he had to face the music (instruments playing) and his fellow soldiers.  This didn't mean he was guilty. Just like today, someone might have to face a bad situation that he had no cause in.

Left-handed Compliment If a nobleman married beneath himself, custom said that the man would give the bride his left hand, rather than his right. This type of "left-handed wedding" was not really worth much because the man's wife or children could never gain his property. So, the marriage wasn't really valid, but just for social appearances. By the 16th century, these were no longer performed. But, society still referred to anything that on the surface appeared to be something that it wasn't as "left-handed." Today, sometimes a compliment is really meant as an insult (or a snide remark) and is referred to as a left-handed compliment because it's not really sincere.

Moron The playwright, Moliere, created a stupid character named Moron. When the American Association for the Study of the Feeble Minded assembled in 1910, they said that they didn't even have a name for the type of people they worked with. So, someone suggested Moron after the character in the play. It stuck.  Someone who thinks that another person is not too bright will call them a moron.

Alternate origin:
MORON really does mean an idiot, in ancient Greek!
It comes from the word μωρός which means someone whole can't
understand that much, and in contemporary Greek is the word μωρό
which means baby. So basically a moron is someone that has the mind of a baby.

Submitted by: Lisa Slitas

Nag Anyone who constantly annoys someone is called a nag. The origin has nothing to do with horses. The source comes from the fact that rats gnawed away at things and you could hear them constantly and couldn't stop it. The Germans took the Scandinavian word for gnawing and turned it into nag. Soon, the word turned into mean something that was constantly irritating. As far as a person, it means someone who just gnaws at someone verbally.

Nothing to be Sneezed At The upper class years ago had a craze for sneezing.  All the elite would carry snuff boxes with herbs, which made them sneeze when they put a pinch into their noses.  It was said that a good sneeze was  a way to clear one's mind. Soon, a sneeze was a way of expressing boredom. They'd hear something and if they weren't impressed, they'd sneeze afterwards. Therefore, if something wasn't sneezed at, it meant that it was important or interesting. Today it simply means it is worth taking notice of.
Shoot the Bull It has nothing to do with killing of bulls. The meaning has to do with talking. When a group (of men mostly) get together and they just make a lot of loud noise and talk senselessly it's called "a bull session."  To participate in such a discussion means "to shoot the bull." The origin is simply based on how bulls act when they are in a pen. They just have a tendency to snort and made loud noises at each other, but none of it is threatening or means anything.
Three Sheets to the wind Basically it means to be drunk.  The origin comes from sailors.  Ships sailed best when all 4 sets of sails and all 4 masts were working. Sometimes, the 4th set didn't work or didn't get set up in time. When a ship was using 3 sets of sails and masts, the ship was in trouble if a gale hit them. A tossing and turning ship was similar to a drunk. So, someone who was drunk and walking rather wobbly soon was called "3 sheets (sails) to the wind." 

Alternate origin: On a boat, a "sheet" is a rope used to adjust the sails. An old square-rigged boat used one sheet to control each of the 4 corners of every sail. If a sail had 3 sheets (ropes) untied, it would merely flap around  wildly in the wind and be useless. 

(Submitted by: Paul Heitkemper)


Go to Pot When something is said to "go to pot" it means it is declining or going downhill, maybe even rotting. The phrase originated with roasts back in 15th century England. Squires ate much more than was on the roasts (beef, pork, lamb) and the leftovers (lesser good cuts of meat)  were put in a pot for stew.
Gravy Train This is not about drippy juice running all over. The phrase means anyone who has an easy task or job that pays a lot but doesn't really work for it as "being on the gravy train" or "riding the gravy train." The phrase originates with (1) the fact that gravy is an automatic by-product when you cook a roast. The juices to make gravy are just there when the roast is done. (2) Train travel was very popular, esp. during the 1920's. Guys who worked on the railroad used the phrase "gravy train" to mean any job they did that paid well, but wasn't hard. The term then slipped into society.

To Live High on The Hog or To Eat High on The Hog The origin is pretty simple. It comes from the fact that the best part of meat on a hog is cut high on the thigh. The lesser quality meat comes from the lower thigh (has lots of fat). So, the meaning of the phrase is basically when you are eating (or living) the very best that is available to you; and, are not having second best or lower quality.

Fork Over or Fork It Over "Fork over the dough!" is often heard on old 1940's gangster movies. The term originates from England where peasants had to pay their landlords (Noblemen) rent in silver. When they didn't have any silver, then they had to pay their rent from their crops. Shrewd rent collectors would decrease the market value of the crops to get more. In the meantime, the peasant was paying his rent via his pitchfork as he shoveled his crop into a wagon and grumbled.   Rather than a pitchfork, today we just use our hands and "hand  over" whatever is asked.

Gibberish Sounds or words that can't be understood are said to be gibberish. Back in England, people any foreigner with dark hair and olive skin was assumed to be from Egypt and  were nicknamed, "Gypts." Later the word became "Gypsies." Their talk wasn't very understandable to the British so they would say they were talking "gibberish" (the "g" is pronounced like a "j"). Other phrases used to describe their talk was "gibber" and then "jabber."
To Go Off Half-Cocked The origin has nothing to do with roosters with their heads cut off.  It has to do with guns. Muskets were rather clumsy to load and took time.  And, they wouldn't fire until they were cocked.  To save time (but to still be safe) hunters  would load their muskets but keep them only half-cocked until ready. However, they'd be some real hyper guys who forgot about their guns and just fired when they saw their game! Of course the gun wouldn't fire when it was only half-cocked.  The phrase then slipped into society to mean anyone who was trying to do something without first checking that everything was in order for the project.

To Keep A Stiff Upper Lip The phrase means to show no emotion in times of great emotional distress, or to have a lot of self-control. The origin is pretty simple. It has to do with British soldiers and their mustaches. Even when trimmed and waxed, moustaches sort of moved when standing at attention. This was considered undisciplined! So, a soldier was ordered to control his mustache's movements and keep a stiff upper lip!
On the House "The drinks are on the house!" We all have heard this in a bar.  The origin actually comes from British pubs, where the owner would invite their customers to taste their stock (pubs made their own beer back then.) Their hope was to give them a desire to have more and create sales. Today, anything that is given free (whether by a business or a person) is said to be "on the house."

To Put The Screws To To pressure someone in order to get something out of them (information, money, etc.) is what it means. The term originates back to a method of torture called thumbscrews where jailers would slowly tighten the screws and create a lot of pain until the prisoner confessed or gave him the information they wanted. Examples of thumbscrew torture are seen in some museums today. But, they are no longer used.

Rigmarole Edward I of England forced all noblemen to sign their allegiance to him. This list of those that did was called a "ragman's roll."  Once the list was done, couriers were sent all over to publicly read this list. Well, doing this over and over was a bit tiring.  So, at times the speech probably got muffled and hard to understand by those listening.  So, the incoherency of hearing this list was called "the ragman's roll" which slurred turned into "rigmarole."  And, the word eventually got used in society to mean a slurring of a lot of words that couldn't be understood, whether a list or just speech.
Skeleton in The Closet Back in the 1800's, doctors had a real problem getting dead bodies in order to study them. So, a doctor probably only got to get one in his entire life. Because of that, he treasured it. But, society frowned on just hanging these things around. So, the doctor usually kept it in his closet.  However, many of his patients probably just assumed he had one hidden away. So, the phrase soon came to be used for anything (rather shocking)  that was hidden away from general public knowledge.

Stigmatize A stigma was a branding iron in Britain. For criminals that weren't given the death penalty, they were branded with their crime on their foreheads.
For example: "A" meant adultery  "T" was for thief. So, to put this label on a person with a stigma was to stigmatize them. Later on, society used the word when it verbally would label someone, causing disgrace to that person, whether it was accurate or not.

Stool Pigeon This is  not about pigeons in the park sitting on stools. The origin goes back to when pigeons were eaten as a good meat source.  In order to get one, many hunters took a tame pigeon, tied it to a stool in order to attract the wild pigeons to shoot at. Because the pigeon that was tied to the stool was used to trap the other birds, the name "stool pigeon" soon was used to represent anyone to tells (betrays) on his friends.

Hogwash Two origins: First, male pigs are called swines. When they are castrated they are called hogs. The castration process required that the hogs be washed afterwards. The water was tossed out as worthless.'s just the name of the swill fed to swines which really has no nutritional value at all. Today, if something is said to be hogwash, it just means talk that is stupid, invalid or illogical. In other words, it has about as much value as the nutrition in hogwash.

Posh It means elegant in today's chat. But, the origin is really a sailing acronym.  Port. Out. Starboard. Home.  Portside rooms were most liked. Starboard quarters were the most expensive (not facing the sun and less hot when heading home.)  The 1952 New Yorker magazine first used the acronym to describe such a room.

Pull Up Stakes When you leave a place where you've been and go to a new spot, you are said to "pull up stakes." The origin goes back to homesteaders, were stakes were put in the ground to mark survey lines. But, sneaky settlers would go out at night and move the stakes of other people  to their benefit.
Tell It To The Marines! When someone tries to tell you a far out tale that you are not going to fall for, you usually tell them to "Go tell it to the Marines."  Why?  The origin goes back to 1800's when British sailors (professionals) thought the marines were greenhorns.  Apparently, the British sailors were told some outlandish tale, they'd tell the person to go tell it to the marines, who were gullible. So, it has nothing to do with the U.S. Marine Corp. It has to do with sailing and mariners.

Clean As A Whistle A whistle (wood) has to be clean to make a good, pure sound. Any little particles in it, will cause it to sound funny.  A brand new whistle is the cleanest and best! So, when someone is said to be clean as a whistle, it simple means he's got no imperfections or is not guilty.

Fishy Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of England wrote in his novel, Coningsby in which he has the phrase "the most fishy thing I ever saw." to describe a suspicious political deal.  He observed that both fish and politicians could be slippery.  Today, if something is said to be fishy, it means there is something suspicious about it.

Fit As A Fiddle When one is in good health, they are said to be fit as a fiddle. The origin is simple. We all know that when a fiddle's strings are not taunt enough or if the fiddle is warped, you don't get a good sound.  Only a fiddle that was in top shape was good enough to be heard by an audience.

Flak It just means to be criticized or to be blamed.  The term originates from WWI and a German gun called a Fliegerabwehrkanone. The gun just shot bullets  to high-altitudes at our aircraft like crazy!  The pilots shortened the name of this annoying gun to "flak." And, therefore to be the target of flying bullets meant to be "taking some flak."  Later on, society changed the bullets to verbal criticism, when someone had to take flak.
Narrow-minded The phrase was created by Ben Johnson in his book, The Staple of the News in 1625.  In it he describes a prejudiced person whose thoughts were dwelling all in lane. He then used the phrase "narrow-minded."
Soon, the sophisticated people took on this phrase to mean anyone who seemed to have a limited view on something.

Pull In Your Horns The phrase means to back off, but it has nothing to do with bulls.  The origin has to do with the fact that snails will pull in their horns and hide inside their shells when they want no activity.

Sleazy Years ago, there was a linen cloth that didn't hold up well sold in the German Silesian area and purchased by London merchants and sold for a very low price to buyers.  Soon, they realized that this cloth didn't really hold up and they called it "Sleasie." The name soon became synonymous with anything that was of low-quality, didn't hold up, was grungy-looking or inferior.

Called on The Carpet When you are called on the carpet it means that you are being scolded.  The origin goes back to earlier times when carpeting was extremely rare.  Many companies had only one office that was carpeted and that was usually the boss's office! A worker who the boss wanted to talk to (usually bad news) was called into his carpeted office. Thus, the phrase grew to mean anytime someone in authority wants to scold you, whether a boss, or someone else.

Gimmick Anything that is used to hook someone into a transaction (whether honest or not) is called a gimmick. The word originates from the carnival where conmen or grifters would compete for attention with the public.  The little prize that you won was called a gimcrack.  A little hidden control that would stop a wheel when the carnie wanted was called a gimmick.  So, eventually the gimmick controlled what gimcrack someone got.
Panic Button This is a real button! B-24 and B-17 bomber  planes had panic buttons! When the pilot hit it, a bell sounded that could be heard throughout the plane. This told the crew to stop what they were doing and get ready to jump out of the plane because it was damaged to much to fly anymore. When the phrase got moved into civilian life, it was meant as a warning (written or oral) for fast action, whether a situation might be dangerous, illegal or embarrassing.
Wisdom Teeth Why are our third molars called wisdom teeth? In ancient Greece they believed that no child would become a man until he got his 3rd molars. Because this rule was made by adults, they were considered smarter than kids. And, since molars became a signifier for a rite of passage into adulthood, this meant wisdom came along with the teeth.

Hell on Wheels Primarily this is  used today to mean a really reckless driver. But the origin goes back to the days of the wild West and has nothing to do with cars. When the transcontinental railroad got started, there was a lot of open land between towns. Opportunists after the money of those laboring on working on the railroad in these open spaces,  simply rented flatcars and turned them into  mobile brothels and gambling casinos.  Religious zealots considered such activities the work of the devil and anyone who participated doomed for hell. So, these flatcars with prostitutes, gambling, drinking etc. were called hell on wheels.  Other meanings today can be as a compliment that someone is very energetic, a real go-getter, or just very fast-moving.

Know The Ropes Anyone who knows what they're doing is said to know the ropes. The origin goes back to sailing where sailing ships with all those sails and masts also had a lot of ropes, which were confusing to a new hire. It took a while to learn how to handle the ship, its sails and thus its ropes.  So, old sailors taught the new ones.

True Blue Dyes for cloth came from berries, flowers and bark mostly. The color blue was particularly rare and if it could be done, it often faded.  In Coventry, England they discovered a formula that made a blue dye color that didn't fade after several washings.  This color soon was called "true blue."  For years, this true blue was the best color dye there was of all the dyes. Later on, the phrase came to represent honesty, reliability, faithfulness whether from a person or pet.

Bitter End This is the end of the anchor line that is suppose to be tied the ship.  If you forgot to tie it down, your entire anchor would be lost overboard. Thus, you would have "met the bitter end.

(Submitted by: Paul Heitkemper)


Cold Enough to Freeze The Balls Off A Brass Monkey On a ship, they'd stack their cannon balls in a pyramid shape.  The base where they'd stack them was made of brass.  This base was called a "monkey." When it got cold, the brass base contract, causing the stacked balls to fall off their base.

(Submitted by: Paul Heitkemper)


To Show Your True Colors Warships often carried flags from many countries in order to elude or fool their enemies. The rules of warfare stated that ships were to hoist their true national ensigns before firing.  So, someone who "shows his true colors" is acting like a warship that hailed another ship by falsely flying one flag; but, then as soon as they got within firing range, hoisted their real flag!

(Submitted by: Paul Heitkemper)


To Get The Lead Out It means to work or move faster. When car racing became popular Bondo hadn't been invented yet. When cars needed body work, lead was used to patch and repair holes in the body. Lead was very heavy and added weight to the car, thus making it drive slower in races. It was said that if you could get all the lead out of your car it would go faster.

(Submitted by: Amanda Hurst)


To Go The Whole 9 Yards This term comes from WWII era where a fighter pilots chain of ammo was 27 feet long = 9 yards. So, when the pilot unloaded all of his ammo on the target, he said " I gave it the whole 9 yards" meaning..." I gave it all I had"
(Submitted by: Joe Horrigan)

There is also another version to the origin of this phrase based on making a Scottish kilt, which basically takes 9 yards if it's a quality kilt. The Link for the entire story is HERE:


For more word fun, visit our other pages:

spoonerism link

anagroms link

malapropisms link

limerick link

seldom used words link
Enjoy some very strange words from our past; or, ones very seldom used today.

Minnesota talk link
This is part of our Minnesota Section.
 It's not really English.
But then again....

Source for information:
"Why You Say It" by Webb Garrison
Rutledge Hill Press © 1992

Note: There are 600+ words in this book.
I gave you those I found interesting and useful.
I also reworded a lot of the answers to shorten them down.
My goal is  to stir your interest to learn more. 
Buy the book to know more  about the other words and their backgrounds.

Also some visitors have written me with their input on some of the origins!

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