Skip To Content

    The Surprising Origins Of 35 English Phrases

    From 'bee's knees' to 'bite the bullet'.


    Meaning: Legitimate.

    Origin: Cardsharps place their hands under the ‘board’ or table to stack the deck. If they keep their hands above the board, they can be presumed to be performing without trickery.


    Meaning: Fully prepared for a confrontation.

    Origin: Medieval warriors were often so laden with weapons that sometimes they would have to carry one in their teeth.


    Meaning: All at once.

    Origin: The phrase originally meant ‘swift and brutal murder’, and was first used in Macbeth. Macduff utters the words on hearing of the death of his wife and children. A ‘swoop’ is the sudden descent of a bird of prey on its victim. ‘Fell’ is from the Old French word fel, meaning ‘merciless’.


    Meaning: Pushed to the limit.

    Origin: It derives from aviation. The ‘balls’ sat on top of the levers controlling the throttle and fuel mixtures. Pushing them forward toward the front wall of the cockpit made the plane go faster.


    Meaning: To argue, discuss in a lively fashion.

    Origin: Bandy was a medieval bat-and-ball game, similar to hockey. To ‘bandy’ words is to knock them back and forth as one would bandy a ball.


    Meaning: Perfection.

    Origin: In the 1920s there was a great craze for this animal + body part construction. There were loads of them — elephant's wrist, eel's ankles, bullfrog's beard — but only three have survived into the modern age: bee’s knees, cat’s pyjamas, and dog’s bollocks. Some etymologists suspect cat’s pyjamas may originally have been slang for 'vagina', though there’s no firm evidence for this.


    Meaning: To avoid the issue.

    Origin: In hunting it’s often necessary to beat the underbrush noisily in order to flush animals out into the open. A timid and unwilling hunter will ‘beat about the bush’, making a show of finding and killing the beast, but not actually doing so.


    Meaning: Out of options.

    Origin: It’s a somewhat inaccurate reference to the greek epic poem The Odyssey. There’s a passage where the hero has to choose whether to sail close to the monster Scylla or the whirlpool Charybdis.


    Meaning: Face up to unpleasant reality.

    Origin: Before anaesthetics were invented, injured soldiers would bite on a bullet to help them endure the pain of an operation/amputation.


    Meaning: Take a risk.

    Origin: The arm in question refers to a stripe of military rank worn on the upper sleeve. Take a risk and you might be demoted, thereby losing a stripe.


    Meaning: To show reluctance.

    Origin: It’s a military term. A man who has cold or frozen feet — a common affliction until the late 19th century — can’t rush into battle, and so proceeds slowly.


    Meaning: Made to feel unwelcome.

    Origin: Nothing to do with barging someone out of the way. In times gone by, an unwelcome visitor would have been given the cheapest and most common type of food: cold shoulder of mutton.


    Meaning: A let-down.

    Origin: A squib is an explosive device, often used in a pyrotechnic display. If it gets wet, it won’t light.


    Meaning: The dregs.

    Origin: Nothing to with smoking. In the textiles trade, the last part of the piece of cloth was made of coarser material than the rest and left hanging loose. It came to be known as the fag end, possibly as a corruption of ‘flag’, meaning ‘hang down’.


    Meaning: Something disappointingly short-lived.

    Origin: There was an old type of gun that had a ‘pan’ on which a trail of powder led from the charge to the flint. Sometimes the powder ignited, but the gun didn’t go off. Hence it was merely a flash in the pan.


    Meaning: Irritate.

    Origin: It’s a horse racing term. Nervous horses could be calmed down by placing a goat in the stall with them. Dastardly rival horse owners would sometimes steal, or ‘get’, these goats, thereby upsetting the horse and making it likely to lose the race.


    Meaning: In a mess.

    Origin: In frontier towns of the United States, wire would be taken from hay bales and used for domestic jobs, such as hanging clothes or binding the stove together. A ‘haywire’ camp was one that was poor, backward, or slovenly.


    Meaning: At top speed.

    Origin: A horse that had been ridden fast used to be called ‘all of a lather’. Over time this got intensified to the more potent-sounding ‘hell for leather’.


    Meaning: Japes.

    Origin: A variant of the once-popular game ‘high pranks’, which was a cross between dice and charades.


    Meaning: Remain silent.

    Origin: Nothing to do with mothers. It’s derived from the German word for mumble, mummeln. Hundreds of years ago people played a dice game called mumchance, which was played in complete silence.


    Meaning: Divulge a secret.

    Origin: In times gone by, farmers would bring suckling pigs to market wrapped up in a bag. Unscrupulous ones would substitute a cat for the pig. If someone let the cat out of the bag, the deceit was uncovered.


    Meaning: Reach the required standard.

    Origin: Nothing to do with sitting exams. ‘Grade’ is short for ‘gradient’. The expression derives from railroad construction in 19th century America. Careful calculations had to be made to ensure engines didn’t encounter sudden steep gradients.


    Meaning: Unable to speak simply or directly.

    Origin: It’s an improper pronunciation of the Greek word melimuthos, meaning 'honeyed speech'.


    Meaning: I can hear someone talking about me.

    Origin: It goes back to the ancient Romans, who had a strange obsession with burning sensations in various organs. If your left ear tingled, it signaled evil intent from outside influences. If your right ear tingled, you were being praised or were in line for some good luck.


    Meaning: Going very fast.

    Origin: In Cornish mines in the 18th century, pumps were installed to drain floodwater. When working at full capacity, they could drain 19,000 gallons of water for every 12 bushels of coal that powered them.


    Meaning: To be under someone’s control.

    Origin: This dates back to the Spanish inquisition. A form of torture was to suspend someone over a barrel of boiling oil. If you didn’t agree to the demands, you’d be dropped in.


    Meaning: Pass on responsibility.

    Origin: In an old English card game, a jacknife, or ‘buck’, was passed from player to player to indicate whose turn it was to play.


    Meaning: Achieve the maximum.

    Origin: The ‘stops’ are knobs on an organ console. If the organist pulled them all out, he would be squeezing the most volume out of the instrument possible.


    Meaning: Raining heavily.

    Origin: In Norse mythology, cats symbolised heavy rain, while dogs were associated with Odin the storm god, and therefore represented howling wind.


    Meaning: A distraction from the main issue.

    Origin: It comes from fox hunting. A red herring has a strong odour. Hounds chasing a fox could be distracted by the smell of the herring and start following that instead.


    Meaning: A document signed by multiple parties.

    Origin: ‘Robin’ is a corruption of the French ruban, meaning ribbon. These petitions were originally signed in a circle so that no single person’s name appeared at the top. The shape of the signatures resembled a circular ribbon.


    Meaning: To do something that takes attention away from what someone else has done.

    Origin: The 18th century playwright John Dennis claimed to have invented a machine that could mimic the sound of thunder in the theatre. When rivals used the same trick, he complained they’d 'stolen his thunder'.


    Meaning: To ridicule someone.

    Origin: One of the least desirable jobs was to collect human urine for the cloth-dying industry. Anyone in this line of work would be inclined to lie about what they did for a living. Anyone suspecting the truth might ask if he was, in actual fact, ‘taking the piss’.


    Meaning: Acceptable.

    Origin: It’s a boxing term. At one time a line was scratched on the ground to mark the point where the fighters would meet. By failing to come up to the scratch, one would default the match.


    Meaning: A pointless search.

    Origin: This was once a sort of horse race, so named because the positions of the horses resembled geese in flight — except it wasn’t much of a race, because no one could win.

    Images via Shutterstock. Derivations via 1000 English Idioms Explained.

    BuzzFeed Daily

    Keep up with the latest daily buzz with the BuzzFeed Daily newsletter!

    Newsletter signup form