Fun With Idioms

I can’t for the life of me remember which blog I read this on, but there was a bit of a discussion about art and one commenter noted that the expression “something costing an arm and a leg” was originally an artistic term. It seems portrait painters back in the day used to charge for portraits by the number of body parts they had to paint. So, just a head and shoulders portrait wouldn’t cost too much while a full body (complete with visible arms and legs) would cost a fortune.

I love finding out stuff like that!

The English language has over 4,000 established idioms and idiomatic phrases. A good percentage of them come from Shakespeare, sailor talk or pub talk. You can work out what most of them mean with a little thought. For instance: You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. To make a little more sense it should go, you can’t eat your cake and have it, too – meaning if you snarf down your damn cake, it’s gone, so don’t come whining to me that you have no cake.

The idioms I find interesting, however, are the ones that don’t make obvious sense – like the arm and leg one. Or these:

  • Kick the bucket.  In old timey slaughter-houses, the wood frame used to hang animals up by their feet for slaughter was called a “bucket”. Even in those days, before rampant vegetarianism,  animals didn’t like getting slaughtered so they’d struggle and spasm before and after death, causing them to often “kick the bucket.” It was very annoying and very noisy.
  • Cat got your tongue. If you’ve ever worked on an English sailing ship, you’d know that punishments for all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors was a good whipping with the cat-o-nine-tails.  Sailors were always afraid of doing or saying something wrong and getting a whipping, so they generally kept themselves to themselves (until shore leave). Consequently, being circumspect came to be related with fear of the “cat” having silenced your tongue. 
  • Raining cats and dogs. In nasty 17th and 18th century England, there was no sanitation department or much thought to hygiene in general. Garbage, sewage and other waste would just be tossed in the streets.  Dead animals would be tossed out in the open, too, so when it rained heavily, the water flowing down the streets would bring with it all sorts of debris including dead cats and dogs. 
  • Flying by the seat of your pants. The first airplanes didn’t have navigation equipment so pilots had to balance the plane by feeling air movements in the seat of the plane. Much like riding a motorcycle, the pilot would have to shift his weight in the seat accordingly, in order to fly straight, ergo…flying by the seat of his pants. 
  • Born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Back in the days of plagues and garbage in the streets, there were, unfortunately also no reliable antibacterials/antibiotics. However, people knew that silver had excellent anti-bacterial properties.  Sailors would put silver coins in their drinking-water barrels to help prevent illness. And, those who could afford silverware, would give their babies and children silver spoons to suck on to keep them healthy. (You can still buy colloidal silver to use as an anti-bacterial agent). 
  • Once in a blue moon. A blue moon is the second full moon of a month. It doesn’t happen very often. On average, there are only about 40 months every 100 years that have two full moons. So, once in a blue moon happens once every two-and-a-half years. 
  • Sweating like a pig is kind of a backwards idiom because pigs don’t sweat. They have no sweat glands. So, sweating like a pig, used to mean doing absolutely nothing – not breaking a sweat. 
  • Jumping on the bandwagon. When the circus came to town there would always be a circus parade down the main street to attract the public. Politicians soon stole the idea and started parading a decorated “bandwagon” of their own down the main streets of towns to garner the public’s interest and votes when campaigning for office. 
  • Bob’s your uncle. It usually means something really easily accomplished and originally referred to nepotism.  Victorian Prime Minister (Robert Cecil) Salisbury once appointed his completely unqualified nephew to a succession of posts. The British public noted that it seemed that having Bob as your uncle was all you needed for political success these days. 
  • Paying through the nose.   When the Danes invaded Britain back in the 9th century they brought with them a quirky little tax law. They levied what they called “nose taxes” on the Irish, which just meant that if they didn’t pay up on time they’d have their noses slit open and would know better next time.

Those are some of my favourites anyway. And not all of the explanations of their origins are necessarily absolute fact — for some idioms there are various possible explanations, some better than others.

Idioms are one of the things that make learning new languages fun. It’s always interesting to see non-native English speakers sprinkling their conversation with what they believe to be the correct context and/or phrasing of English idioms.

If you’ve got any good idiom stories, I’m sure we’d all love to hear them!