13 English Idioms with Interesting Origins
When we want to tell someone to sleep well, we sometimes say, “sleep tight.” Do you know the story of this expression? As with many idioms, there is an interesting story behind “sleep tight.” Mattresses were supported by ropes in the past, so sleeping tight actually means sleeping with the ropes pulled tight. First, what is an idiom? An idiom is a group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own. Have you ever thought about how the meanings of many English idioms derive from specific historical events? The expressions that we use every day can have surprising origins. Sometimes we use them so frequently that we forget to think about their stories. If you want to learn a new language, we can help you! Here at ReDefiners, we offer Arabic, Spanish, English, and Mandarin classes for students from all levels. You can click here for more information. Idioms are expressions that help us add color to our writing or speech and think outside the box. We can find our sense of humor and dress our talk or writing to impress via idioms. If someone wants to improve their language skills, they must learn the most used idioms because they strengthen the way we express ourselves. Howard R. Pollio and his colleagues analyzed approximately 200,000 words from political debates, taped psychotherapy sessions, and compositions written by students. They found out that individuals included in the study used idioms at an average rate of 4.08 per minute. Likewise, Thomas C. Cooper analyzed dialogues from three hours of taped television programs. As a result, he found that people use about three idioms per minute. If we use them so frequently, we should know their origins. It is crucial to learn about the origin and culture of that language, especially for our personal development. Let’s learn about the following 13 idioms and the stories behind them.
1. Spill the beans
Meaning: to let secret information become known
Most researchers believe that spilling the beans comes from an Ancient Greek voting process, where people voted with beans. White beans (meaning yes) and black or brown beans (meaning no) were put into a jar by citizens during elections. This idiom means that if someone spills the beans, the secret results would be revealed too soon. This is why spilling the beans is associated with disclosing a secret indiscreetly. You can remember this by thinking about how beans spill if you knock over the container. Try to remember in that way and visualize it.
Example sentence: You can’t keep a secret – you always spill the beans.
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2. Break the ice Meaning: to do or say something that makes people who do not know each other feel more comfortable This idiom originates from the 1580s. It refers to the carving of ice to create passages for ships on trade routes. When the ships got stuck in the ice during the winter, the receiving country would send small ships to break the ice. In the 17th century, people began to use this idiom. Example sentence: To break the ice, the RA (residential assistant; dorm leader) asked us to tell the group what our favorite home-cooked meal was. 3. Pull out all the stops Meaning: to make a lot of effort to do something well
This expression refers to the stops inside a pipe organ. They control the loudness and the tones of the instrument. Without them, one can play louder. When the stops are pulled out, it allows the organ to play all sounds at once and be as loud as possible. Example sentence: The hospital staff pulled out all the stops to make sure the children had a wonderful day.
4. Eat humble pie/to eat crow (US)
Meaning: to admit that you were wrong
Around the 14th century, there would be a huge feast after a hunt. While the lord of the manor would get the finest cuts of meat, other people with lower status would eat a pie filled with heart, liver, innards, and entrails of animals, which were also known as umbles. Those who would eat the umble pie were humiliated since it symbolized their lower status.
Example sentence 1: After vehemently arguing, he discovered his mistake and had to eat humble pie before his associates.
Example sentence 2: Our neighbor had to eat crow yesterday. He’s been telling us what a good tennis player he is. Well, he took my 12-year-old son out to play, and the kid beat him three straight sets.
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5. To sell someone down the river
Meaning: to put someone in a difficult or dangerous situation by not acting as you had promised to act, usually in order to win an advantage for yourself
This saying comes from the 19th century in the American South. During these times, importing slaves was already illegal. However, there were internal trades where people would ship slaves down the Mississippi river and sell them at the market. Thus comes the expression “to sell someone down the river,” symbolizing betraying someone and using them for your good.
Example sentence: The workers were promised that they would not lose their jobs because of the merger. Later they found out that they had been sold down the river.
6. Run amok/amuck
Meaning: to behave without control in a wild or dangerous way
The expression “running amok/amuck” comes from the Malaysian word amoq. When translated literally, amoq describes the bizarre behaviours of tribesmen who were under the influence of opium. They became wild and attacked anybody in their path. During the 17th century, this saying became popular in England when travelers would want to impress others with their knowledge of foreign cultures.
Example sentence: They worry that agents sound a bit too much like computer viruses, which instead of running errands, may run amok.
7. Turn a blind eye
Meaning: to ignore something that you know is wrong
Turning a blind eye comes from a comment made by British Admiral Horatio Nelson. During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, he received signals to stop attacking a fleet of Danish ships using a system of signal flags from the commander of British forces, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Nelson used his blind eye to look through his telescope. By doing so, he avoided signals from his superior, who wanted him to withdraw from battle. Nevertheless, he continued attacking. After his success, Nelson became the new commander.
Example sentence: They say some cafes have illegal direct satellite links to the Internet, to which the authorities often turn a blind eye.
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8. A bigwig
Meaning: an important or powerful person
In the 17th century, wig-wearing was extremely popular. Most people had to keep their hair short or shave their heads to wear a wig. Naturally growing hair was not very fashionable. The prices of wigs were pretty high, so only rich people could afford to buy hair. While the wealthier upper class could buy large wigs consisting of thousands of strands of hair, the lower class wore wigs with only several strands of hair. Later on, wearing a big wig was associated with being a rich person.
Example sentence: I felt awful because I was late for a meeting with a bigwig client.
9. Steal somebody’s thunder
Meaning: to do what someone else was going to do before they do it, especially if this takes success or praise away from them
John Dennis, an English playwright, invented the thunder machine that could mimic the sounds of thunder during plays. Rivals copied his machine for the production of Macbeth. When it was successfully used and popularized by them, Dennis accused them of stealing his thunder.
Example sentence: When Dennis knew of this, he cried foul play and exclaimed, “…they will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!”
10. Flying off the handle
Meaning: to suddenly become very angry
This saying traces its origin to the Bible to that of an ax blade flying off its handle while cutting a tree log.
As per Deuteronomy 19:5, “For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbour to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbour and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life.”
According to another belief, it is just derived from the poorly made axes of the 1800s, which nearly resulted in the blades detaching from the handles.
Example sentence: My daughter feels very bad and is easily upset. If anything goes wrong, she will fly off the handle.
11. Cost someone an arm and a leg
Meaning: to be very expensive
The price of portraits in the 18th century was determined not by the number of people but by the number of limbs. Famous people like George Washington would have their portraits done without certain limbs showing. The cheapest way was to have only your head and shoulders painted. The price increased as the portrait became larger with the inclusion of arms and legs.
Example sentence: He’s fresh out of dental school and trying to set up a practise. But he does good work, and he won’t charge you an arm and a leg for it like most other dentists.
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12. Let one’s hair down
Meaning: to allow yourself to behave much more freely than usual and enjoy yourself
This idiom was first referenced in John Cotgrave’s “The English Treasury of Wit and Language” published in 1655. In the 17th century, aristocratic women always kept their hair in a bun while in public. And some of these looks required long hours. When women came home and relaxed after a long day, they would let their hair down.
Example sentence: Just let your hair down for once and say what you think.
13. Beat around the bush/beat about the bush (UK)
Meaning: to talk about lots of unimportant things because you want to avoid talking about what is really important.
Beating about the bush is an action performed in hunting. In medieval times, hunters hired men to make noise around bushes to draw out the animals. Therefore, they were beating around the bush before getting to the main point of the hunt. At the same time, they needed to avoid hitting the bushes directly as it involved the risk of animal attacks.
Example sentence 1: I wish you would say what he really means and not always beat around the bush.
Example sentence 2: If there’s anything you want to say, don’t beat about to bush and just say it out.
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