Where'd They Get That? Origins of Everyday Expressions

Have you ever caught yourself uttering a familiar expression or observing an odd custom, wondering, "Where'd that come from?" Read on. Some expressions are self-evident: "A snowball's chance in hell," "Hell bent," and "Like a bat out of hell" all play on what we believe we know of hell, but consider if the expression instead was "antelope out of hell." Now an antelope is fast, but a bat carries the right tone or connotation needed for the expressions to work. And speaking of bats ... "Blind as a bat" and "batty" seem to imply that bats are blind and crazy. They're not, but the expressions stick anyway. Let's look at some others, less obvious in their origins.DRUNK EXPRESSIONSThe condition of inebriation conjures up some colorful expressions. Somehow, when one is "feeling no pain," "wasted" or "drunk as a skunk," simply saying you've had too much to drink doesn't quite cover it.THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND-If you are three sheets to the wind you certainly don't belong on a sailboat but the expression stems from this very thing. In nautical parlance, sheets are ropes used to control the boat. If three of them were untied and left to flap around at will, the boat would stagger, well, rather like a drunk person.DRUNK AS BLAZES-It has been suggested that blazes is a corruption of braziers -- guildsmen from the Middle Ages who took part in the festivities honoring St.Blaize, the patron saint of woolcombers.THE HAIR OF THE DOG THAT BIT YOU (referring to the morning-after drink given to a hangover victim)-In ancient times, it was customary to cure a person by giving him a second dose of what caused the trouble in the first place. For example, if a dog bit a person, some of the dog's hair would be rubbed into the wound. Similarly, if a person was suffering from a hangover, a drink would be offered. The two ideas are now combined into one. Oh, yes: skunks don't drink, but they sure do smell. What does that communicate about being drunk?DEATH EXPRESSIONS/CUSTOMSSome cultures believe speaking of death directly invokes the dark spirit's attention. Perhaps that is why there are so many expressions and customs that refer to death and dying. "Croaked," "gone to meet his maker" and the genteel "succumbed" or "expired" are all fairly obvious. But, where'd these come from?BOUGHT THE FARM-This phrase probably stems from wartime when the families of soldiers killed in action may have received some life insurance. Also, soldiers from America's rural communities often expressed the desire to return to that lifestyle -- buy a farm, settle down, etc. When one of these soldiers died, this ironic phrase was used to mean that he had returned to his peace. Today the phrase may refer to anyone who has died.WAKES-No one is ever less awake than the center of attention at a wake. So why call it this? From ancient times in many cultures it was believed the recently dead needed guarding until all customs connected with the final passage were completed. Therefore friends and family members would hold a vigil of wakefulness until such time as all could be completed. At times in not-so-ancient history wakes were pragmatic, as thieves would violate dead bodies for everything from the items buried with the dead to the bodies themselves.WEARING BLACK TO SYMBOLIZE MOURNING-Our ancestors began wearing black clothing to make themselves invisible from the ghosts sneaking around a burial site looking for a new body to invade.KICK THE BUCKET-This is used to denote hanging as a means of departure. Kicking away the bucket a suicidal person can stand on for leverage leads to death.FLYING FLAGS AT HALF MAST-After naval battles of old, the victor's flag would fly proudly at top mast on the loser's ship and the loser's flag would fly beneath it. Even when this practice stopped, the lowered flag was equated with respect. In modern times it's used as respect for the dead.COMMON STUFFThe everyday, as well as the profound, spark colorful expressions and customs. Today, when we give someone "the cold shoulder" we're talking about a perceived snub. The origin of that express is thought to have come from a snub of a different sort. In the 19th century you served your honored guests a shoulder of mutton -- hot. If you got your meat cold, you questioned your welcome! Another food expression -- corned beef -- has nothing to do with corn. But the salt used to preserve the beef in this manner was once called salt corns. Now, if someone could just tell us why Grape Nuts is called that when it has neither grapes or nuts in it!THIRTEEN PIECES TO A BAKER'S DOZEN-Once upon a time bakers were notorious for shortchanging their customers. Laws were passed to correct this problem, which meant that bakers had to be mindful of the weight of the bread that they sold. In those days, uniform weight was practically impossible; therefore, they would throw in a thirteenth loaf if someone would request twelve.WHY DO WE DRINK A TOAST?-Ancient Romans would float a piece of burnt toast into a glass of wine to improve its flavor. An eighteenth century English tale called "The Tatler" popularized the custom of drinking in someone's honor. In the story, two men adored the beauty of a lady in a public bath to the point where one of them immersed his glass into her bath water and drank up. The other man said, "Tho I like not the liquor, I will have the toast."DALMATIANS IN FIRE STATIONS-These fast, dramatically-colored dogs were used to run ahead of horse-drawn fire carriages to warn pedestrians of the emergency. Dalmatians became firehouse mascots after the fire trucks became motorized and sirens replaced their barks.WHY ARE CLUBS, DIAMONDS, HEARTS AND SPADES USED ON PLAYING CARDS?-This was standard in fourteenth-century France. It is believed that the suits symbolized the four major social classes during that time, as follows: heart=shield=nobility and the church; clubs=clover=peasant; spades=spear tip=military; diamonds=tiles on merchants' shops=middle class.WHY ARE PIGGY BANKS SHAPED LIKE PIGS? Old-fashioned European cookware used to be made from an orange clay called "pygg." It was a common practice to bank spare change in pygg jars. An English potter in the 1800s misunderstood the term and made a pig-shaped bank when someone requested it. The tradition was born!WHY DO WOMEN'S CLOTHES HAVE BUTTONS ON THE LEFT AND MEN'S CLOTHES HAVE BUTTONS ON THE RIGHT? Since most people are right-handed, it makes sense that men's clothes have buttons on the right. The reason why women's clothes have buttons on the left is because once upon a time buttons were only for wealthy ladies -- and these ladies had maids to dress them. The buttons were on the wearer's left so they could be on the maid's right when the efaced her. Even though these maids are no longer in vogue, the button placement has remained.SUPERSTITIONS-We may be living in the most advanced civilization the world has ever seen. We may travel daily on the information super highway through cyberspace. But we may still toss spilt salt over our shoulders and avoid black cats.WHY IS IT BAD LUCK TO WALK UNDER A LADDER?-Though the answer may seem obvious, and probably has some truth to it, consider this: A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle, which symbolizes the magical number three and the Holy Trinity. To walk under a ladder used to signal a defamation of the Trinity, leaving the perpetrator open to the devil's ploys!WHY DO WE KNOCK ON WOOD?-Pagans used to worship trees because they were believed to house gods. Tapping on a tree was the means by which the spirits would materialize and provide protection from evil for the person doing the tapping.WHY DO LITTLE BOYS WEAR BLUE AND LITTLE GIRLS WEAR PINK?-Hundreds of years ago, it was believed that evil spirits hovered above the crib, anxiously awaiting a child to possess. Blue clothing was put on the boys to repel these spirits because it symbolized the heavens. Boys, of course, were the priority. Many years later, girls were assigned pink (to symbolize a rose). Well, hot damn! Uh, oh, we're back to hell again!

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.