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16 Everyday Phrases with Surprisingly Dark Origins

They say the devil is in the details...

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Men hats
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Mad as a hatter

The Mad Hatter is one of the most beloved characters from Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. While fans love him for his hilarious eccentricity, the idea of a hatter being insane is actually based in history. Hat-makers in the 18th and 19th centuries often suffered mental deterioration because of mercury poisoning. Follow these 41 grammar rules to sound smarter.

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Cobblestone road. Large stones on road. Background from big stones. Road surface. Texture of stones. Selective focus.

Meet a deadline

The meaning of this common phrase will resonate with journalists who are used to being under fire for missing the occasional deadline. We mean that literally because this phrase originally referred to an actual line drawn on Civil War prison grounds, beyond which escaping prisoners would be shot dead. Be careful: these are the mistakes spell check won’t catch.

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An old book by Shakespeare

Be-all, end-all

William Shakespeare’s plays mark the absolute height of literary excellence, but it is his enduring influence on everyday speech that matters to the modern person. One of the hundreds of words and phrases that Shakespeare invented was “the be-all and end-all.” It describes a defining moment or element in a given situation, the first being when Macbeth was about to kill the king in one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. Here are 20 more words and phrases you didn’t know were invented by Shakespeare.

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Ancient sword with the bronze handhold on a beautiful background

To wreak havoc

“Wreaking havoc” has never had a positive connotation, but today it is usually used in a metaphorical sense (i.e. wreaking havoc in one’s personal life). The literal cry of the word “havoc” on the battlefield used to grant soldiers permission to commit slaughter or other crimes to their heart’s content. England outlawed this practice in the 1300s.

By the way, do you know who’s “Pete” in the phrase “for Pete’s sake”?

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Wash one’s hands

This is yet another phrase that comes from literature. The Bible tells the story of Pontious Pilate who ultimately helps condemn Jesus Christ to death. When this happens, Pilate literally washes his hands and proclaims that it simply is not his problem. Find out 12 other phrases you never knew came from the Bible.

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Hands athlete with wrist wraps

Diehard fan

Today, the word “diehard” usually refers to an intense fan of something, like a sports team. Historically, the word has been both an adjective and a command. In many different instances, a “diehard” is someone who fights as long and passionately as possible, making it difficult for others to kill them. These are the grammar myths your English teacher lied about.

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Tribal wood carved in decoration of traditional longhouse in Malaysia
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Running amok

This phrase has quite an intriguing history. “Running amok” currently just means that someone or something is out of control and causing general damage. Originally, it was much more sinister. Members of certain Malaysian tribe used to go on seemingly random and severe killing sprees, and the European travelers simply could not figure out why. Initially, they thought it the work of the devil, but it was later assessed to be linked to some kind of mental illness.

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Varicose veins on the womans legs,close up
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Pulling my leg

Today, if someone is pulling your leg, that means that they are fooling you or joking around with you. However, it used to be a very serious matter to have one’s leg pulled. In London, it was a popular tactic amongst robbers and thieves to drag people down by the legs before stealing their possessions.

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The tarot cards with crystal, candle and book. Halloween and magic still life, fortune telling seance or black magic ritual with mysterious occult and esoteric symbols, divination rite
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Got gypped

Gypsies (a.k.a. the Romani people) have been targeted and criticized for a long time. Throughout history, people have hatefully and wrongfully viewed them as thieves and low lives. This idiom stems from that prejudice, claiming that if one was cheated out of money or quality of product, it was reminiscent of what the gypsies would do.

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Siamese Freshwater Crocodile from Samut Prakan Province thailand
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Crocodile tears

Someone who cries crocodile tears is someone who isn’t actually sad at all, but just feigning the emotion. In medieval times, however, it was a popular myth that the vicious predators would indeed feel sorrow for the prey that they killed and ate.

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Nature. The woods cut in half by a river and there is a bridge connecting both sides.

Sold down the river

This idiom refers to the shameful period in American history when slavery was common practice. Black families would often be separated when they were purchased as slaves, and slaves would often be transported down river for delivery to southern plantations. Today, being “sold down the river” means to be betrayed or screwed over.

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six of 223 bullet lay on wooden backgound
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Bite the bullet

In black and white films and westerns, we often see a critically injured person chugging a bottle of whiskey before a crude, on-the-go surgery or amputation. But soldiers who were in the middle of a battlefield didn’t always have that luxury, so they would take a bullet from the ground or their weapon and bite on that instead. Find out which word your state misspells the most.

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close up of conference meeting microphones and businessman


Crowds often bum-rush the field in a sports stadium when their team wins a big game. Politicians will bum-rush an onslaught of criticisms from their opponents. While this phrase is now slang for virtually any kind of great force or stampede, it originates from quite literally rushing a bum out of an upscale location. If someone was chased out of somewhere, it was called “getting a bum’s rush.” Conversely, running into a place where one is clearly unwelcome is “a bum-rush.”

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Woman hand picking white tissue paper from tissue box.

God bless you

There are various theories about why people say “God bless you” after a sneeze. From the desire to prevent plague to the wish that your soul would remain in your body, saying this phrase after a sneeze seems to be critically important to matters of life and death.

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German helmet and outfit from the time of the Second World War lie in a trench on a camouflage raincoat

A snafu

In common vernacular, a situation that has become a snafu is one that has somehow gone wrong. The word actually originates from a World War II military acronym, S.N.A.F.U: Situation Normal, All Fouled Up. It describes the perspective that in war, the only things that are “normal” are terror, murder, and other crimes and atrocities. In short, nothing truly goes right in war. Messed up, huh? These are the 33 middle school vocab words adults still get wrong.

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Thief stealing wallet of a man walking on the street. Pickpocketing on the street during daytime
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Taken aback

To be taken aback is to be caught off guard by something or someone. This used to be quite literal, as the phrase originates from the idea that the most common way to attack a person is from behind.

Taylor Markarian
Taylor Markarian is a regular contributor to RD.com covering culture, advice, travel, pets and all things weird and haunted. She is the author of "From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society," which analyzes the evolution of punk and mental health. She holds a B.A. in Writing, Literature and Publishing from Emerson College.