Why Do We Say That?

History, Home & Family, Traditions
on October 5, 2008

Did you know when you say "OK" you're making a political statement?

Well, at one time you would have been. Now a staple of our vocabulary, OK only caught on after it was a campaign rallying cry for the 1836 presidential candidate Martin Van Buren, whose nickname was Old Kinderhook.

That's just one of many words and phrases that have evolved over the years, making up an important part of our language and cultureand one of the colorful expressions we use without necessarily knowing what it means.

"There is something really endearing about these expressions, and we want to keep them alive," says Karlen Evins, author of I Didnt Know That: From Ants in the Pants to Wet Behind the Ears—The Unusual Origins of the Things We Say and its upcoming sequel.

"Whether it's a saying thats part of everyday conversation, or a quirky turn of phrase borrowed from our grandparents, our language also provides a connection to our diverse history. Language is a bridge between generations," Evins says. "And I think we all want to be bonded."

"Young or old, red state or blue, Americans are almost universally fascinated with the stories behind everyday expressions. As human beings, we naturally use language. But we just as naturally think and talk and joke about the language we naturally use," says University of Georgia folklorist Charles Doyle.

The next time you find yourself at a loss for words, enlighten your friends with some of these stories behind popular expressions, many of which can be found in Evin's book.

Dressed to the nines
If an attractive person is a 10, why is it fashionable to be dressed only to the nines? Because the expression began as "dressed to the eyes," or dressed stylishly from head to toe. In Old English, the eyes was likely written as "then eynes" or "thyn eyes," so it's easy to see how passing the expression down verbally changed it. "There are a lot of expressions that are phonetic," Evins says. "'Spittin image' is another example. If you looked and acted like someone, you were the 'spirit n image.'"

Beating around the bush
This expression comes from hunters, who occasionally scare game out of their hiding places by rustling trees and brush nearby. Thus, beating the bushes became shorthand for working persistently toward a goal. On the other hand, reluctant hunters, perhaps just along for the camaraderie, might beat halfheartedly around the bushes to avoid having to shoot anything.

Break a leg
Though it's most commonly used in the theater, this phrase has nothing to do with the fact that John Wilkes Booth broke his leg as he fell to the stage after shooting President Abraham Lincoln. Instead, it appears to come from a superstitious German expression one uses to wish friends a broken neck and a broken leg. Why? So as not to tempt fate by wishing them something good. "It's amazing how many expressions come from another culture," Evins says. "It brings to mind how our language is a worldwide thing."

Letting the cat out of the bag
In the Middle Ages, if you weren't careful, it was said, an unscrupulous grocer might cheat you out of the suckling pig you'd purchased for a special dinner. While your back was turned, he'd instead slip a stray cat into your shopping bag. When you returned home and unloaded your groceries, you'd discover an unpleasant secret—by letting a (very angry) cat out of your bag.

Having a screw loose
Like the computer, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 changed modern life—but not without a few bugs. Early on, cotton gins were notorious for breaking down, usually because one of the screws holding the machine together came loose. So that phrase came to mean something wasn't quite right—and a more contemporary version, screwy, has evolved even since. "We don't inherit our language, it inherits us," says Dann Pierce, a professor at the University of Portland (Ore.) "It's here long after we're gone and we just get to play with it for a while."

Caught red-handed
Several hilarious but incorrect explanations exist for this expression, from references to thief-deterring dye bags in bundles of money to an outrageous legend about lower classes being forbidden to eat pistachios. "The intellect is our means of making sense of things," Doyle says. "If we can't discover sense, we will fabricate it." In truth, caught red-handed refers to criminals who were apprehended while they literally still had the blood of their victims on their hands.

Soup to nuts
Americans are fond of eating on the run, but in the 16th and 17th centuries, it wasn't uncommon to enjoy a seven-course meal. Often, they began with soup and ended with wine and nuts. The phrase thus connotes from beginning to end, and often is used by companies advertising their full range of services.

Happy as a clam
Add a few words to this puzzling phrase, and it suddenly makes sense. The original expression was "happy as a clam in high tide," which refers to the fact that clam diggers collect their quarry at low tide. When the high waters hide them from view, clams are blissfully safe.

High on the hog
Since the most appealing pork meat comes from the top of the pig (as opposed to the feet and knuckles below), this expression came to mean eating well or living the good life. It's mainly a Southernism, though, that often stumps visitors from the North. "Our language is rich and varied, and it runs across different regions," Pierce says.

Fly off the handle
Some expressions spring from complicated evolutions of phrase, while others are simple and literal. Anyone who has ever swung an axe knows how dangerous it would be if the head were to detach from the handle in mid-swing; thus, we use the expression to describe a sudden, uncontrollable and threatening burst of temper.

Under the weather
This expression was coined at sea, when passengers on a ship were instructed to go below deck if they weren't feeling well. Sheltered from the wind and waves—or weather—the better surroundings were sure to make them feel better.

Take it with a grain of salt
Like much of our language, this phrase is Latin in origin; it's translated literally from the proverb cum grano salis. Many believe it references a recipe for an antidote to poison that included salt, a naturally occurring dietary element essential for life, as an ingredient. So, to be safe, you should never accept an offering from someone without a grain of salt—or a healthy dose of skepticism.

Mad as a hatter
These days, we expect nervous breakdowns from celebrities, but oddly enough, the cliché once applied specifically to hat makers. Mercury was once used to treat felt, so a disproportionate number of milliners, who worked for years on end with the poisonous substance, ended up in mental institutions with neurological damage. The expression became even more widespread after author Lewis Carroll used it as inspiration for a character in Alice in Wonderland.

Raining cats and dogs
Unfortunately, the story behind this popular expression is far from warm and fuzzy. Back in 17th-century England, poorly designed gutter systems sometimes caused stray dogs and cats to drown during major downpours. After a storm, it wasn't uncommon to see the dead animals in the street, which, Evins says, led some people to conclude they had actually come from the sky, like the rain.