22 Origins You Might Not Know For Popular Expressions


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22 Origins You Might Not Know For Popular Expressions's Profile

From literary to nautical, these sayings have a rich history!

Most common sayings and expressions have unclear origins, but we can look back to the furthest recorded evidence of them to get an idea of when and where they came from.

That being said, here are 22 sayings that have some interesting origins:


“A sight for sore eyes”

First We Feast

Writer Jonathan Swift, probably most famous for Gulliver’s Travels, used the phrase in the 1700s. The quote: “the sight for you is good for sore eyes” was found in a work titled A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation.


“Bite the bullet”

Warner Bros.

Sometime between the 18th and 19th century, the expression originated from outdated medical practices, especially for soldiers. Back in the day, to distract patients (since anesthesia was not a thing yet), doctors would have them bite down on a bullet.

You think this expression would relate to “fighting through pain” or something, but over time, sayings can take on new meanings.


“Hands down”

Buena Vista Pictures

Dating back to the 19th century, the phrase refers to horse jockeys loosening their grip on the reins when their horse had a strong lead in a race.

Giddy up.


“Crocodile tears”

CBS Television Distribution

This phrase originated from the belief that crocodiles cry, but the tears produced by crocodiles are not emotionally driven.

I assume whoever verbally used this phrase first was a sassy individual.


“Cat got your tongue?”

Warner Bros.

An example of an expression being lost to time, but there are some theories.

With the least clear origins of the bunch on this list, some believe it is related to ancient Egyptians cutting out tongues and feeding them to cats, while others believe it originated from flogging crew members aboard vessels.


“Caught red-handed”

Sting International

A saying with origins dating back to 15th-century Scotland. Caught red-handed is referred to being found with blood on your hands after they have committed a crime. Pretty simple.


“Waking up on the wrong side of the bed”

Warner Bros. Pictures

A Roman superstition… positive forces await on the literal right side of the bed. However, if you get out of bed on the left side, that’s some bad energy right there.


“Running Amok”


The word “amok” comes from the Malay word “mengamok,” which means to make a furious and desperate charge. Captain Cook used the phrase to describe the behavior of Malay tribesmen.


“Can’t hold a candle”

Romolotavani / Getty Images/iStockphoto

This one dates back to the 17th century, and its meaning is related to one’s incompetence. The saying came from talking about an apprentice who was not even skillful enough to hold a candle for his master. In short, they are worthless as an apprentice.


“Break the ice”

Warner Bros.

Dating back to the 17th century, writer Samuel Butler used the expression in the poem Hudibras which read: “…At last broke silence, and the Ice.”


“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”

Filippobacci / Getty Images

This one has gone through a plethora of iterations. As far as the English version, the saying as we know it is found in Interesting Letters of Pope Clement XIV, which read,  “…that when we are at Rome, we should do as the Romans do.”


“Rub the wrong way”


Meow. The origins of this phrase refers to cats, specifically rubbing their fur in the wrong direction as written in Mary Hughes’ Aunt Mary’s Tales in 1819. While the origins of this one are debated, the Americanized version of this expression no doubt came from Mary Hughes.


“Barking up the wrong tree”

DreamWorks Pictures

Dating back to the 1800’s, this common phrase relates to hunting with packs of dogs. Not too much to this one, if a dog was barking up the wrong base of the tree, odds are the prey escaped or the doggo was just incorrect.


“Paint the town red”

Warner Bros.

A lot of controversy about the origins of this one. But people in the UK believe it references the Marquis of Waterford and friends in 1837, who went on a night of drinking through the English town of Melton Mowbray.

Whereas people in the U.S. cite 1884, and the Oxford English Dictionary quotes the Chicago Advance (1897): “The boys painted the town [New York City] red with firecrackers [on Independence Day].”


“Bury the hatchet”

New Line Cinema

There is a Native American origin for this one. When two tribes decided to settle their differences and live in harmony, the chief of each tribe buried a war hatchet in the ground to signify their agreement.  


“Cold feet”


One of the earliest pieces of evidence for the phrase “cold feet” comes from poet Stephen Crane. In 1896, he released Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. In it, Crane wrote, “I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.”

The expression is used most for backing out of engagements, but the origin of the saying refers to simply losing interest in something.


“Show your true colors”


More nautical lingo!

Lowering your colors aboard a ship to hide your nation’s flag is a strategic move. In a naval battle, if you hoist your flag high after hiding it, you are showing your true colors.

As a Master & Commander fan, I love this expression and its origins.


“Put a sock in it”

USA Network

I wish I had a whacky story about a man shoving a sock puppet into the mouth of another man, but this one is pretty basic. It is simply British slang used in the 20th century to request a talkative or noisy person simply “shut their lips.”


“Steal your thunder”


This idiom might have the funniest origin, and came from the 18th century. Dramatist John Dennis created an idea for a thunder machine for his play Appius and Virginia, but it didn’t work.

Fast-forward to the little-known production Macbeth, and alas, his idea was stolen for the play’s production. Oh, the drama!


“Spill the beans”

Disney Television Animation

Okay. Okay. I’ll spill the beans.

Like most on here, it is pretty controversial where exactly the phrase originated, but one explanation dates back to ancient Greece. People would vote anonymously using white and black beans as a simple “yay” or “nay.”


“Rule of thumb”

Warner Bros.

The origin is actually uncertain, but the earliest record is by Scottish preacher James Durham: “Many profest Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb (as we use to speak), and not by Square and Rule.”


“By and large”

Warner Bros.

By and Large Marge? Get it? No?

Anyway, the saying “by and large” actually originated from sailing lingo. Specifically, when the wind is blowing from some compass point behind a ship’s direction of travel then it is said to be “large.”

Are any of these phrase origins new to you? Any origins of sayings not on here that you’d like to share with the rest of the class? Comment below!

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