We all use expressions which are part of common parlance, probably learned from family conversations, watching TV and reading.
A good idiom provides useful verbal shorthand, expressing a notion that’s readily understood. But when you think about it, many idioms don’t make much sense. At least, it must seem that way to someone who’s never encountered them before.
Let’s take a look at some old favourites and where they come from.
1. Bite the bullet
If required to bite the bullet, you steel yourself to experience some pain, usually the metaphorical variety. For instance, you might be asked to spend Christmas with relations you can’t stand, or to go to a difficult meeting with a client.
It’s widely understood that this saying relates to soldiers who had to endure surgery without anaesthetics. In such circumstances, they would often be given a bullet to bite down on to help mitigate the pain.
2. Speak of the Devil
We’ve all done it. We’re talking about someone to whom we’re not especially well disposed – and all of a sudden, that very person turns up, prompting the remark, “Speak of the Devil…”, usually in hushed, furtive tones
The idiom derives from ‘Speak of the Devil and he will appear’, an English proverb from the Middle Ages that warned against inadvertently summoning Lucifer by simply invoking his name.
3. Under the weather
The etymology for under the weather isn’t immediately apparent, but it’s an expression that indicates one’s physical state without describing it specifically. You might feel generally a bit tired and low or have a minor ailment such as a headache – or a combination of both.
The origin of the phrase is from the days when sailors or travellers who were feeling sick would be sent below deck, thus protecting them from the worst the weather could throw at them.
4. At the drop of a hat
If somebody asks you to do something to help them at short notice, you might comment that you’re being required to act at the drop of a hat, i.e., without hesitation.
In the early 1800s, the drop of a hat (or the waving of one), often indicated the start of a race or fight, and contestants would be required to start immediately.
5. Costs an arm and a leg
When given a quote for a desired purchase, such as a new car or sofa, we might complain, “That’ll cost me an arm and a leg!” The saying, of course, indicates that the price of the purchase is high, perhaps beyond our means.
One theory suggests that this anatomical idiom relates to American servicemen who lost a limb or two during WWII – as in, it was the price of warfare. Another indicates that it derives from the late 1600s, when Sir Thomas Armstrong and Colonel George Legge were commissioned to produce halfpennies for use in Ireland. From this came the saying, it’ll cost you an Arm(strong) and a Leg(ge).
6. Beat around the bush
To beat around the bush is to prevaricate or stall. It’s typically used to admonish someone who’d rather not tackle a situation head-on.
A hunting term from Medieval times, it was used to describe something that beaters – who were employed to flush out game – would do. They would beat around the bush to scare birds into heading for the skies where they could be shot.
7. Let the cat out of the bag
If we don’t wish to disclose a secret, we might say, “I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag.”
The origin of this idiom is uncertain, but it’s widely assumed that it describes unscrupulous market stall holders who would cheat buyers by charging them for a piglet bound in a sack, and sneak in a cat instead. Only when the buyer arrived home and let the cat out of the bag would they discover they’d been scammed.
8. Pull yourself together
When expected to return to a calmer emotional state, a person might (possibly unkindly) be told to, “Pull yourself together!”
As with many idioms, the phrase’s exact origin isn’t clear, but it’s thought to relate to other idioms, including to fall apart and to be beside oneself. It signals the need to bring your mind back in control of your body and be ‘whole’ again, enabling you to deal with a situation.
9. The last straw
This English proverb dating from the 1750s declares, “It is the last straw that broke the camel’s back.” The implication is that there’s a limit to how much camel can carry, no matter how light the individual items are. In idiomatic terms, it typically refers to an individual who has reached their breaking point.