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!

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32 responses to “Fun With Idioms

  1. I kind of like the idioms that make no apparent sense at all. My grandmother used to be full of them. If you ever finished eating and declared yourself “full” she would always respond “If you’re full you’ll no be feart (afraid)”. Still no idea why that is, other than you won’t be scared of starving!

  2. With this sudden heat and humidity that descended on us, I met 3 people in the elevator today who all claimed they were “sweating like a pig”. Stangely, one of them looked very crisp and dry.

    Loth: my mother used to say that too, I’d forgotten!

  3. I refused to read this post because I don’t think you should be making fun of idioms. It isn’t their fault if they don’t understand everything like we do.

  4. Loth – Interesting. Please find out where that comes from. I couldn’t find it anywhere on the interwebby and even though I’ve never heard it before I now absolutely need to know its origins.

    Violetsky – I think the pig sweating is still valid because we usually say it when we haven’t actually done anything to warrant the sweat except exist. I’m very suspicious of the dry as a bone guy though — especially given the current climate.

    Bandobras – O.M.G.!!! You’re such an IDIOM!!!

    Dr. Monkey – I, on the other hand have uncles named Wolfgang and Adolph.

  5. I can’t think of any idioms, but I have a few odd word meanings: Gossamer is a contraction of “goose summer”. meaning late October, November. After harvest, geese used to be let in fields to fatten on the leftovers. Spider webs hanging on the empty stalks was gos samer.

    The English, back in the day, were tremendous contraction makers: sine nobilitate (without nobility) became snob, association football became soccer, university became varsity, public house became pub, etc.

    “bonfire” means bone-fire. When the bodies were burned after battle, or corpses cremated etc.

    (I, once again, could have done with a little warning on the slit nose business.)

  6. I like it when people make mistakes… a colleague recently said to me (about another colleague), “He likes to pass the buckets”.

  7. I never heard “Bob’s your uncle” before, although of course nepotism runs rampant in NY. This sounds foolish, but would you use it in a sentence as in how it would come up nowadays? Did that make any sense? Obviously, Bob’s not my uncle.

  8. @Becky — It’s usually used as a replacement for something like “you’re good to go” or “there you go” when used in a description of something really easy. For example: “Using a Mac is easy. Just plug it in, turn it on, and Bob’s your uncle.”

  9. Sorry I haven’t been around and I’d just like to tell you that you were 100% right on your last comment on my blog, which I promise I will address. Meanwhile, I’d appreciate it if you laid off my Uncle Bob. If it weren’t for him I’d be unemployed.

  10. I’ll have to send you a list of the hilarious ones my FIL, a good ol’ boy from East Texas uses. Unfortunately my husband is asleep and I can’t think of any of them. And the Bob/Uncle thing must be Canadian. I’ve never heard that in my life. A weird one that Dad used to say a lot was: You never know how you look til you had your picture took.

  11. LoLa – The English are still big on contractions (and diminutives) if Coronation Street is anything to go by. Lipstick (and all make-up in general) is just called “lippy”. Sandwiches are “butties” or “sarnies”. Football is “footie”. Thanks for these word origins. Bonfire is particularly interesting, so is snob. I don’t get how soccer came from association football, however??

    Maureen – Did you mean to link something here?? Please do??

    Woodsy – Ha ha, me too. Idioms are one of the hardest things to learn about any language because they usually make no sense and yet they’re part of every day speech. I wish I could remember some my German relatives always say or some of the Francophones at work come out with sometimes.

    Becky – It’s used as a hang-on to an explanation of something really simple. Like if I were giving you directions somewhere; I’d say,”head down main street until you get to the stop light, turn left and follow Maple street right to the end and bob’s your uncle. Or, I’m telling you how easy it was to get my new passport, “You can get it in 2 weeks – just make sure all your paperwork is complete and you bring it in early in the week and bob’s your uncle. I actually heard it used more on the east coast than in central Canada. They also say “fill your boots” a lot… which just means “please yourself” I thought that one was hilarious.

    Louise – Thanks. A much simpler example than the ones I just struggled with.

    Mayopie – You da man! From what I’ve read of you so far, I knew were trying to be sensitive and mommy-loving in that post and didn’t mean it to come off quite so patronizing. I eagerly await your next installment. (I’m glad Bobbism is still working well for you)

    Geewits – Yes, please send me your FIL’s hilarious ones! And I guess the bob’s your uncle thing must be Canadian — there is a further explanation in my comment to Becky and also in Louise’s comment above. Maybe all the American bloggers who read this could start using it and soon it will sweep the nation? Or not…

  12. That is some pretty useful information. I had no idea where some of those came from. Thanks for passing that along. I’ll be sure to use those sayings, along with the detailed history of their origin. 🙂 People will then think I’m really smart… and naturally, being somewhat honest, I’ll have to tell them where I learned about it 😉

  13. i always wondered about this one:
    A Chip On Your Shoulder.

    i also giggle when Francophones translate their idioms directly to English because it just. makes. no. sense. (same could be said for us I s’pose).

  14. Charlene – Wasn’t it?

    Bandobras – I ain’t askeered of the likes of you all.

    Kelvin – I don’t want to get into a whole discussion about colloidal silver and other natural remedies and how ugly rumours about them fly around originating from the medical/pharmaceutical environment. Lets just say the suspensions of collodial silver sold in natural food stores today have very low (but still effective) concentrations of silver, while “silver salts”, etc. used in centuries past had concentrations of 30% or more of silver and were often combined with more toxic substances. I think there is value is many of the old timey remedies and we’d be foolish to just scoff at them and dismiss them all out of hand. In a related note, whenever I am coming down with a cold or similar illness, I always know ahead of time because my silver jewelry (the stuff I wear all the time) turns black. When I start to get better, it untarnishes.

    Chris – You don’t have to give me credit; go ahead and look smart all on your own. I just found this stuff out from a variety of other sources, too.

    Meanie – Chip on the Shoulder was a poor man’s version of a challenge to duel or fight once upon a time – like throwing down the gauntlet or slapping someone with your white glove. If you had a grudge against someone you put a chip of wood on your shoulder and dared them to knock it off. Then you’d have a big fight where you’d beat each other to a pulp. That’s apparently the most likely explanation for the origin of this idiom anyway. Speaking of foreigners. I had this enormous battle with my German cousins one day when I was trying to explain what “o’clock” meant. They thought it was a totally ridiculous way to tell time and really, it is, isn’t it??

  15. I’ve got a idiom reference book somewhere around here. Great fun!
    I find it fascinating that we still use so many Shakespearian metaphors. One of my favourites is ‘hoist with his own petard’, an ending I would wish on all Kandahar trap bombers.
    I once also made a collection of my grandmother’s Irish Canadian sayings, things like ‘he’s roading’ which meant leaving home while there was work to do and ‘gossamer wings’ for an effeminate male (I don’t think my grandmother knew about fairies, though).
    Love this post and the comment stream. You are a Good Example to us all.

  16. I’m amazed the Germans don’t like o’clock since it is short for of the clock. It’s both logical and efficient you’d think it would be right up their alley.

  17. I remember having the same “o’clock argument” with some Dutch friends.

    and that “dry as a bone guy” actually claimed to have been cleaning out her closet for donatable stuff. I did see her carry a small bag to her car later, but it wasn’t enough to work a sweat over. Unlike, say, doing my laundry. I am sweating just typing this. Sorry, I am “glowing”.

  18. Here are two more (I am ex-navy so these are both navy ones)

    “son of a gun!”

    Old english rude slang – Being the “son of a gunner” meant you were a bastard whelped by a sailor under a ships long guns – not a “positive” saying

    “freeze the balls off a brass monkey”

    Ever seen old movies where the sailing ships had piles of cannonballs piled up in little pyramids?

    Those cannonballs were piled on a “brass monkey” – if it actually got cold enough for metal to contract enough, the cannonballs could roll off of the brass monkey ……

  19. Kelvin – Okay, but you’re eating silver every time you eat or drink from silver utensils or dishes; just like you absorb iron when you cook with cast iron pots and pans. Not so much today, but at one time many people ate with silverware all the time and they never turned blue.

    Mary – I’d like to hear some of the idiioms from your reference book — in fact, I need to get me one of those! “Gossamer wings” is so much nicer than some of the other things they call men who people don’t think are macho enough.

    Bandobras – In German it’s even more efficient and straight forward. They just say 6 (th) hour. Kind of like the military. And they use the 24 hour clock, too. Crazy bastards.

    Violetsky – It certainly has been a sweaty few days. And you CAN sweat doing absolutely nothing lately. I think it’s grand, personally.

    Elliot – Thanks! Interesting. So the brass monkey thing has nothing at all to do with testicles. Who knew?

    Friar – I included that one just for you.

  20. barking up the wrong tree:

    from hunting. I have treeing walker coonhounds and they were bred to tree raccoons and give voice to indicate which tree the coon was in so the hunter could come shoot it. Grotesque, no? But that is where the idiom came from.

    FTR – I do not hunt and both dogs are rescues – one from the humane society and one from the streets of a very bad neighborhood (no clue how/why he was where he was but he enjoyed running with his pitbull harem).

  21. Here are some of my FIL’s:
    “He’s so stupid he couldn’t pour piss out of a boot” . Often the following is added on the end “…if the directions were printed on the heel.”
    If you ask him “what for”: “cats four, dogs four, what do you want to know for?”

    If you tell him you’re going to do something he doesn’t want done: “you’ll shit and fall back in it”

    Here’s a Michigan saying:

    “Busier than a cat covering up shit in a marble hallway”.

    That last one cracks me up.

  22. I’m amazed at how many idioms I use that cause my French husband to say, “What?” It happens all of the time. That’s the way the cookie crumbles was one, put the petal to the medal, flip a U-ie, all sorts of idioms, most not that old, I think.

  23. Oh and I thought that first saying meant the price you would get for selling one’s limbs!

    My goodness this post is gory! (but good)

  24. Elaine – You are a good and wise person. And thanks for the idiom origin to add to my list.

    Geewits – Your FIL sounds like a real card. I especially like the first one — and the last one, of course.

    Linda – Hmmm – “cookie crumbles” sounds like it might have an interesting story. I’ll have to look it up. And ya, I know, it’s fun talking idioms to ESL people, isn’t it?

    Robin – Gory?? The goriest thing here is your comment about selling one’s limbs! Ha! And I guess the nose slitting thing. Times were tough back in the day. And filthy.