15 Amusing Stories Behind Common Expressions
English has some hilarious expressions—and their origin stories are funny, too! Find out where "last-ditch effort," "under the weather," and more come from.
Our everyday language is full of idioms, some of which might seem downright bizarre. And as funny as expressions like “kit and caboodle” and “till the cows come home” are, the stories behind where they come from might be even funnier! They’re certainly fun brain candy. And though English is indisputably wacky and confusing, plenty of other languages also have common expressions that sound downright ridiculous.
Getting the sack
In ancient Rome, those convicted of parricide or other heinous murders were tied in a sack and dumped into the Tiber River, instantly solving any potential recidivism problem. The practice spread throughout many other European countries, and, as late as the nineteenth century, murderers in Turkey were tossed into the Bosporus in a sack. To get the sack, then, probably was used figuratively as a threat of any sort of punishment, such as losing one’s job.
Another theory to explain how “get the sack” was recorded—as early as 1611 in France—is that it referred to craftsmen of the Middle Ages. Artisans carried their tools in sacks; while they worked, they handed the sacks to their employers. When a craftsman got the sack, it meant that his services no longer were required. He was left, literally, holding the bag.
Stealing someone’s thunder
John Dennis, an English poet and playwright, wrote a tragedy called Appius and Virginia, which was produced in 1709 to less than rousing commercial success. Only one element of the production stirred the audience: thunder sound effects more realistic than any heard before on the stage, effects that Dennis himself created. The play failed, but the theater’s next production didn’t. Dennis went to check out a successful production of Macbeth and was more than a little upset to discover that his sound effects were used in the storm scenes of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Different sources vary slightly in describing what Dennis exclaimed upon hearing his thunder help promote the new production, but they are all variations of Stuart Berg Flexner’s quote: “See how the rascals use me! They will not let my play run, and yet they steal my thunder!”
Kit and caboodle
Both words, separately, have distinct meanings, but the two have been lumped together for so long that each has taken on much of the other’s meaning. Both words have Dutch origins: “Kit” originally meant tankard, or drinking cup, while “Boedel” meant property or household stuff. By the eighteenth century, “kit” had become a synonym for a tool kit. “Boodle” became slang for money, especially tainted money. By the nineteenth century, “caboodle” had taken on connotations of crowds, or large numbers.
By the mid-nineteenth century, “kit” had found many companion words in expressions that meant essentially the same thing: “kit and billing,” “whole kit and tuck,” “whole kit and boodle,” and “whole kit and caboodle” were all used to mean “a whole lot” or “everything and everyone.” The expression “kit and caboodle” was popularized in the United States during the Civil War. Although the expression isn’t as popular as it used to be, it’s comforting to know that old-fashioned slang made no more sense than the modern variety.
The first recorded use of “last-ditch” was in Bishop Gilbert Burnet’s memoirs, History of My Own Time, published in the early eighteenth century: “There was a sure way never to see it [Holland] lost, and that was to die in the last ditch.” The earliest use of “last-ditch” was a literal one, signifying the last stand, the last defense against an aggressive enemy. The first American citation was in a proclamation issued by the citizens of Westmoreland, Virginia, in 1798: ” … but one additional Obligation, To Die in the Last Ditch or uphold our nation.”
Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the first to use the phrase figuratively (1821): “A government … driven to the last-ditch by the universal call for liberty.” Check out even more words and phrases you didn’t know originated in the military.
Beat around the bush
Medieval men may not have had the thrill of flinging Frisbees, but they had a worthy counterpart: the challenging sport of batfowling. consisted of going into a forest or shrub-laden area and beating birds senseless with a bat. Before whacking it with the bat, they were “kind” enough to wake the bird up first, by stunning it with harsh light, rendering the bird blind and temporarily helpless. “Sensitive” batfowlers caught the birds in nets.
Sometimes, though, the birds proved to be uncooperative, selfishly sleeping in bushes where they were invisible instead of marching forward and offering themselves as ritual sacrifices. So batfowlers engaged servants or boys, known as beaters, to literally beat adjacent bushes to rouse flocks of sleeping birds. As the stunned birds awakened and fled in panic, they would be attracted to the torch or lantern and be socked into unconsciousness by the batfowler. Although the person today who beats around the bush might not have violence on his mind, he similarly conceals or avoids the real thing that concerns him.
Flotsam and jetsam
Although they sound suspiciously like two of Santa’s missing reindeer, flotsam and jetsam are actually two different types of debris associated with ships. We rarely hear either term mentioned without the other close behind (and saying, “jetsam” before “flotsam” is like saying, “Cher” before “Sonny”). When we talk about “flotsam and jetsam” today, we are usually referring metaphorically to the unfortunate (for example, “While visiting the homeless shelter, the governor glimpsed what it is like to be the flotsam and jetsam of our society”).
At one time, however, “flotsam” and “jetsam” not only had different meanings but carried important legal distinctions. In English common law, “flotsam” (derived from the Latin flottare,
“to float”) referred specifically to the cargo or parts of a wrecked ship that floats on the sea. “Jetsam” (also derived from Latin — jactare, “to throw”) referred to goods purposely thrown overboard in order either to lighten the ship or to keep the goods from perishing if the ship did go under.
Originally a Scottish word, the primary meaning of “jink” has, for the past two hundred years, been “to move swiftly, especially with sudden turns.” High jinks existed just as long. Although we now use high jinks to refer to any prank or frolic, during the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century, high jinks was a popular parlor game. A throw of dice would determine one “victim.” He would have to embarrass himself by performing some prank for the amusement of the other revelers; if the victim refused or couldn’t satisfactorily perform the task, he had to pay a forfeit, usually downing a hefty container of liquor.
If this is the origin of HIGH jinks, it is probably just as well that there is no LOW jinks in our lexicon. Here are some more words that people say aren’t really words, even though they are!
Under the weather
This might seem obvious; doesn’t it just reference being stuck in bad weather? Well, it kind of does, but it has a much more specific origin than that. The original phrase was actually “under the weather bow,” and referred to the side of a ship that would get most buffeted by bad weather. Sailors who were feeling seasick would go below decks to wait out the storm—so they’d literally be underneath the bad weather.
Wild goose chase
Surprisingly, the origins of this expression have to do with not geese, but horses! This phrase most likely originated in the 16th century with a type of horse race where a single horse would start running through a path in the woods. A second horse would follow the first one, trying to follow the path of the lead horse exactly. More subsequent horses would follow, until the race reminded spectators of a flock of geese all exactly following the one in front—but admittedly wilder. Hence, wild goose chase. Check out the stories behind more familiar animal idioms.
In the nick of time
This phrase might be a little puzzling when you think about it. What does a random, common name have to do with time? But “nick” in this phrase doesn’t refer to a person’s name. In the 1500s, a “nick” was reportedly a word for a small, precise marker. Because of this, “in the nick” or “in the very nick” meant “at the exact right moment.” The phrase evolved to refer to time with “in the nick of time” or “just in the nick of time.” We won’t spoil the interesting origin of another perplexing expression, “close but no cigar”—find out where it comes from!
Let the cat out of the bag
This one goes way back—to the Middle Ages! It refers to shady salespeople in medieval marketplaces, who, when a customer would purchase a pig, would swindle them by secretly putting a cat in the bag instead of a pig. The customer would pay for a pig, and then when they got home and opened the bag—or, literally, let the cat out of the bag—they would realize that they’d been scammed. The expression has lasted all the way to today, and continues to refer to the revealing of a usually unpleasant secret!
If you immediately guessed that this was going to be one of the common English expressions with dark origins, you’d be right. We call the front seat of a car, next to the driver, “shotgun” because of a practice in the Old West. Wagon drivers would often be accompanied by men with shotguns, who would keep a lookout for robbers and bandits, using the shotgun to ward them off if need be. You’ll certainly see this practice depicted in Western films, but it does, in fact, derive from reality! And those Western movies, including the John Wayne film Stagecoach, helped popularize the expression “riding shotgun” to mean claiming the spot next to the driver. Learn even more about the origin of “riding shotgun.”
Till the cows come home
When we think about animals that might take a really long time to get somewhere, we probably think of sloths or turtles—not cows. But for farmers trying to finish a busy day by milking the cows—usually the final task of the day—any time that they had to wait for the cows to return to the barn probably felt like an incredibly long time. Especially if the cows didn’t wander back until late at night or even the next morning.
The phrase likely dates back to the 16th century, where the phrase appeared in print for the first time in—of all things—a French textbook. “I am tied by the foote till the Cow come home,” read a line of the 1593 textbook Ortho-epia Gallica.
Bite the bullet
You might hope that the origin of this expression is not literal—but, alas, it most likely is. The most popular explanation for its origin suggests that soldiers undergoing painful medical procedures or even punishments would literally bite down on a bullet to keep from screaming or biting their tongues. In fact, in a 1796 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the author describes this: “It is a point of honour in some regiments, among the grenadiers, never to cry out…whilst under the discipline of the cat of nine tails; to avoid which, they chew a bullet.” How many of these most common idioms in English do you use regularly?
Apple of your eye
Eyes don’t have apples, of course, but by now we’ve surely realized that many common English idioms require us to suspend disbelief. This phrase is an old one, dating back to the ninth century AD; King Aelfred of Wessex, in the year 885, wrote, “Poor Richard was to me as an eldest son, the apple of my eye.” But he didn’t just come up with that phrase. The “apple” of your eye was what people around that time, with their rather spotty science, called the pupil. The reason it took on such a strong connotation of love and value was because people back then deeply valued their eyesight (not that we don’t today, but this was a world without proper eye care or vision regulation). So basically, when you say someone or something is the apple of your eye, you’re saying that they’re akin to your pupil. Next, find out the surprising origins of even more of your favorite idioms.