40 Everyday Phrases That Have Old Origin Stories
We have so many nifty little phrases that we use every day, it can be hard to think that they weren’t always there. For example, has anyone ever asked where exactly the phrase “carpe diem” comes from? We know it means “seize the day,” and it can be used to mean things like “grab the bull by the horns.” But how many people know that this Latin phrase came from book one of the Roman poet Horace’s work, Odes? We’re willing to bet not many.
Every language is filled with these little sayings and metaphors. You’ve probably used one very recently, if not today. “Hold your horses” is a super common phrase, but do you know where it originates from? This slideshow will talk about some of the most popular phrases in the English language. Get ready to discover what language these sayings come from, their origin story, and how we use it in everyday language in today’s time.
How many of these popular phrases do you use on a regular basis? It’s pretty normal to hear any of these sayings being quoted at the grocery store, at work, or even among family and friends. If you’ve ever heard these phrases—or used them yourself—let us know in the comments! Keep reading to learn more about 40 everyday phrases that have old origin stories.
“Close, But No Cigar”
Back in the 1800s, you’d hear this phrase if you were a loser at the carnival. Common prizes back then were cigars, so a smug carnie would use the phrase on you if you were close to winning but still lost and won’t be getting a prize.
“Burning the Midnight Oil”
This phrase means that you’re staying up late and working hard on something. Back before electricity, candlelight or lamp oil was used to light up a room. When you stayed up late for work, you were literally burning the oil at midnight.
“Jumping On the Bandwagon”
You would use this phrase to describe someone who is only doing something because everyone else is doing it. In the mid-1800s, circuses would go around town before setting up. Bandwagons would lead the parade and politicians rented them to talk to voters as they passed by. Back then, the phrase was “don’t jump on the opponent’s bandwagon,” meaning you shouldn’t go along with whatever is popular at the time.
“Get Off Your High Horse”
Cars weren’t always around and horses used to be the best form of transportation. Owning a horse was a sign that you were part of the upper class. The phrase “get off your high horse” is asking the uppity horse owner to jump off their horse, humble themselves, and lose the entitlement.
“As Mad as a Hatter”
You remember the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, right? He’s based on a real issue that was common with hatters in the 17th and 18th centuries. A side-effect of making felt hats was often mercury poisoning, which can cause issues that lead you to go insane (or mad).
“Take It With a Grain of Salt”
This phrase has one of the oldest origin stories on the list. Originally seen in 77 A.D., this phrase wasn't made popular until the 17th century. It was thought that a grain of salt would help with digestion and could also be an effective antidote for poison. Nowadays, the phrase means to avoid taking things literally or approach things with skepticism.
“Dressed to the Nines”
In the 18th century, if you wanted a suit then you had to have one made. “Dressed to the nines” refers to the nine yards of fabric it took to make a whole suit, including the vest and jacket. Today, it just means someone is dressed really fancy.
“Time to Face the Music”
This is actually an old military term. Back in the early American colonial era (think the early 1600s), disgraced military officers had to face a drumline when they were discharged. While the bad officers were literally facing the music, today it means to face the consequences of our actions.
Technology has made a lot of these phrases seem old fashioned. “Carbon copy” refers to a time before copier machines. Copies used to be made by sliding carbon paper between the original document and blank paper, which transferred the contents. Today, it means “exact copy.” Fun fact: the little “cc” in e-mails stands for “carbon copy.”
You’d recognize this phrase when it’s used to describe someone who got “blackballed” from Hollywood. It means there was a secret, unanimous vote to reject a particular person from the space. In 18th century social clubs, a committee voted on who could be a member. An anonymous vote using colored balls were used for ballots, so being “blackballed” meant you were completely rejected.
“At the Drop of a Hat”
If you do something at the drop of a hat, it means you acted “without delay or good reason.” However, in the 1800s, it was to signal the start of a race. A hat was thrown in the hair and when it dropped to the ground, that was the sign to take off.
“Pulling Out All the Stops”
This phrase means you’re trying everything you can and giving your best effort. It became popular in the late 19th century after organ players would remove the stops from every pipe on an organ. This would allow the organist to play at the highest possible volume.
“Straight From the Horse’s Mouth”
When someone says this phrase in today’s time, it means that you’re getting information from a reliable source. The original definition isn’t too far off, either. It comes from the early 1900s and describes the practice of examining a horse’s teeth to find out its general age and health. If someone trying to sell you a horse was lying about the quality, you could just look in its mouth and see for yourself.
“Put Your Best Foot Forward”
We know that this phrase means to try your best and show others the best version of yourself. The first recorded use of this phrase comes from 1613. The phrase was originally used to instruct gentleman to put their best foot forward when taking a bow so they wouldn’t fall over.
“In the Nick of Time”
In the 18th century, debtors would use sticks to keep track of how much money and interest was owed. They’d carve a new notch (or nick) on the stick every day for interest. If you paid your debt before a new nick was made, you didn’t have to pay the interest for that day. Today, it just means something was done right before it was too late.
“Bite the Bullet”
In the horrible days before anesthesia and pain killers, surgery was a lot more brutal. It was first recorded being used in the late 19th century and refers to soldiers biting down on bullets to stop from screaming out in pain while being operated on. For us, this phrase means to go through something necessary but unpleasant.
“Hold A Candle To”
You would use this phrase to describe something inferior. For example, Katy Perry can’t hold a candle to Madonna. The modern definition is much different than the original. This phrase originates in the 17th century when apprentices had to hold candles up at night so their teachers could see.
“Fools Rush In”
We can thank Alexander Pope for this saying. In An Essay on Criticism in 1709, Pope said: “For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.” While Pope was only talking about literary critics, the phrase is still used today. Now, the line means that only idiots rush into something without giving it careful thought first.
“A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush”
You’ve probably heard this phrase before and been confused by what it meant. It means that it’s better to be happy with what you have than risk everything by trying to get more. Basically, don’t be greedy. It was first used in the 15th century as a well-loved English proverb.
“Hair of the Dog That Bit You”
This is a popular term for a hangover cure and means that you should try drinking some of what you had last night to get rid of the sick feeling (which is a bad idea!). The original phrase is from medieval times and is actually about rabid dogs. The idea was that applying hair from the dog that bit you to the wound would make it heal quickly.
“Busy as a Bee”
We can blame Chaucer for giving us the phrase “busy as a bee.” He first used it in Squire’s Tale from the 14th century classic Canterbury Tales. Back then, it had the same meaning as it does now. The saying means that someone is working as hard as bees do (and bees are really good workers.)
“Apple of My Eye”
The meaning of this phrase has changed quite a bit. Today, the “apple” is something that you cherish above everything else, whereas it used to just refer to the pupil of your eye. King Aelfred of Wessex used this phrase for the first time in 885 A.D. in Gregory’s Pastoral Care.
“A Stone’s Throw”
Here’s another phrase that kept the same meaning throughout the years. “A stone’s throw” refers to a short distance. It’s not a real measurement, but if you think about how far someone can throw a rock then you’ve got a good idea. It was first used in early versions of the bible from the 16th century.
“Bring Home the Bacon”
This phrase comes from a good, old Lord being a generous man. In 1104, a young couple from Great Dunmow, Essex impressed the leader of Little Dunmow with their love so much that he gave them some bacon. In today’s world, it refers to the primary moneymaker in a household as the person who “brings home the bacon,” or money.
“A Baker’s Dozen”
Did you know a baker’s dozen has 13 units in it instead of 12? This is because of cruel laws that would have bakers be fined or flogged for selling “underweight” bread. To avoid this, bakers would give an extra loaf of bread to avoid being accused of shorting people.
“The Old Ball and Chain”
A ball and chain is the weighted device used to keep prisoners from running away. These tools were common in the early 19th century, which is also when the phrase came about. It’s a rather rude way to refer to someone’s wife and doesn’t actually have anything to do with being in jail.
This one has two interesting origin tales, so we’ll just let you pick your favorite. The most likely meaning is a reference to rabid dogs who won’t stop barking in their frenzy. The cooler story originates from the east London suburb, Barking, where an insane asylum was located in medieval times.
This is yet another example of a crude military saying. In today’s time, a basket case is someone who is crazy, stressed out, or unable to cope. During WWI, it referred to soldiers who lost their arms and legs and had to be carried around by others in a litter or “basket.”
“Frog In Your Throat”
You’d recognize this phrase as a way to say you have a sore throat or messed up vocal cords. However, in the late 19th century, it was actually a reference to a cure for sore throats. “Frog In Your Throat” lozenges were simply a branded cough drop that got turned into a well-known phrase.
The origin story for this phrase is a little sad. It was first used by the U.S. military during WWII and was a distasteful slang term for food and came from the Chinese’s reputation for eating dog meat. A Chow is a Chinese breed of dog, so you can see where the term came from. Today, the phrase just means to eat up and enjoy your meal.
“A Man After My Own Heart”
Here’s another phrase with biblical origins. The King James Version Bible, in Samuel 13:14, states that the Lord “sought him a man after his own heart.” In other words, someone who feels and thinks like you, keeps the same opinions, and has similar morals. The meaning hasn’t changed much over the years.
“Fly Off the Handle”
Thomas C. Haliburton was an American writer who coined this phrase in the mid-1800s along with “won’t take no for an answer” and “ginger up.” This phrase comes from the way an ax head will literally fly off the handle if it’s loose and you swing too hard. Today, it means that someone has overreacted, usually in anger.
“Fly By the Seat of Your Pants”
This funny phrase means that you’ve decided to do something without thinking it through, having a good plan, or any useful tools to help you. It was inspired by Douglas Corrigan’s 1938 flight from the USA to Ireland. The aviation term was coined after Corrigan went the wrong way and had to make up his own plan to get home.
“It’s No Use Flogging a Dead Horse”
Luckily this one doesn’t come from animal cruelty traditions. It originated in the 17th century as a reference to a worker who had been paid in advance and spent the money before they even started on their work. It meant that it was useless to try and get that person to work for the money they already spent. Today, it means it’s no use to waste time on an effort that won’t have an outcome.
This phrase originally came out in the late 19th century as a term for “Jesus.” If you’re from the Southern United States, you grew up hearing that you shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain. Creative curses like “Gosh!” or “Golly!” came out as an effort to avoid just saying “God!” “Gee Whiz” is actually another one of those replacement curse words.
This phrase comes from a Christianized retelling of the classic Cinderella story, called The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. In the late 18th century story, a poor orphan only has one shoe and is given two shoes as a reward for her virtue by a rich man. For us in today’s world, a “goody-two-shoes” is someone who’s so nice and well-behaved that it’s annoying.
“Go Down Like A Lead Balloon”
In the present day, this phrase means that something was poorly received and didn’t go over well. The saying came from U.S. newspapers in the early 20th century and was inspired by hot air balloons that were made of lead. These balloons quickly sank, making them pretty useless.
We know this phrase means that someone is full of jealousy when another person has something you want. Did you know Shakespeare coined this term? Shakespeare's early 17th century The Merchant of Venice and Othello, “the green-eyed monster” makes appearances when a character is feeling envious.
“Saved By the Bell”
No, this phrase didn’t come from the amazing ‘90s sitcom. It doesn’t even originally have anything to do with school. This saying came out of the late 19th century as boxing slang. It refers to a boxer who is in danger of losing the round but is “saved” from losing by the bell marking the end of a round.
“Roll Up the Window”
This one isn’t as old as the others (or date back to the 1800s), but a lot of kids today would still be confused by this phrase. It comes from when car windows had the handle to literally roll up the car window. Now it’s as easy as pushing a button to “roll up the window.”