What Does That Really Mean? The Origin of Common Idioms

on August 23, 2013
Courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek/Wikimedia Commons

Blow off steam

Boilers were commonly used in steam engines and heating systems. However, if the steam created too much pressure in the engines, there was a danger of the boiler exploding. To alleviate pressure, the boilers were equipped with safety valves called ‘blow off valves.’ Thus, to blow off steam was to prevent explosions by relieving the pressure in the boiler.

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Break a leg

In medieval times Sprites were believed by the superstitious to wreak havoc by causing the exact opposite of what was asked. Telling someone to 'break a leg' was actually an attempt to outsmart the devious ghosts and cause something good to happen.

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Can't hold a candle to

Before electricity, a person doing a task in the dark needed an assistant to hold a candle and provide light in the room. Of course, holding a candle is not a challenging role, so someone who can’t even hold a candle is not nearly as competent as the person performing the task.

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Crocodile tears

It was once believed that crocodiles shed tears only to help soften their food. While it appears to be a sincere emotion, the crocodile tears were merely produced to slide into their mouth and make the food easier to swallow.

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Close, but no cigar

Carnival games once gave out cigars as prizes. Even if you were extremely close to hitting the target, you still didn’t get a cigar.

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Chew the fat

In order to pass the time, the Inuits chewed on whale blubber. Like chewing gum, the blubber took a long time to dissolve, so chewing it gave them something to do while performing other tasks. Bacon fat was similarly used in other cultures.

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Dead as a doornail

Once extremely expensive, nails were salvaged from old barns and dilapidated buildings in order to be reused. However, doornails were bent to ensure security and could not be reused in later construction. These nails were deemed ‘dead’ and useless.

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Don't count your chickens before they hatch

The origin of this phrase comes from Aesop’s fables in the sixth century B.C. While traveling home, a young girl daydreamed about what she would do with the pail of milk she was carrying on her head. With the milk she would make cream and sell the cream to buy eggs. With the eggs she would raise chickens, which would inevitably hatch and produce more eggs. She eventually wanted to sell some of the chickens and buy a dress to attract the young men in town. However, in the midst of daydreaming, she spilt her milk and ruined the chance of fulfilling her dreams.

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Dressed to the nines

It was commonly believed that nicer suits were made of more material, and that tailors made the best suits out of nine yards of fabric. While this produces a lot of waste, the end result is a parallel suit with fabric cut in the same direction.

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Let the cat out of the bag

In medieval markets pigs were sold in bags and given to customers with instructions not to open until they were far way. Only when the bag was opened would the customer realize the wiggling animal was not a pig, but in fact a cat. Therefore, to ‘let the cat out of the bag’ is to expose a trick or a con.

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Jump on the bandwagon

To gain support for their political campaigns, old time politicians held small parades with bands that would travel up and down old country roads. You showed your support for the candidate by joining the parade and following the wagon that carried the band.

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High on the hog

The best quality meat is found in the upper (or higher) portion of a pig, a luxury rich people were able to afford. The lower parts of a pig were less expensive and purchased by poorer people and servants.

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Rule of thumb

Distance was once calculated based on the measurements of the King. The length of his feet (foot), tip of his thumb to first knuckle (inch), and nose to fingertip (yard) were common units of measurements.

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Sleep tight

Tightly pulled ropes between bed frames once supported the mattresses of old beds. If the ropes became loose, the mattress would sag and become uncomfortable. Wishing someone to ‘sleep tight’ literally meant wishing their bed ropes won’t loosen so they would have a good night sleep.

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Under the weather

The most stable area of a ship in right under the deck where the sway of the rough waves and weather is not as severe. Seasick passengers retreat ‘under the weather’ to escape the constant rocking motion.