Ever used a saying and paused to wonder where on Earth it came from? Some of our most common expressions have the quirkiest of origins, rooted deep in history or culture. Let’s get into a few of these sayings, and I promise, some of them will make you go, “Really?!”
Table of Contents
Bite the Bullet
The phrase “bite the bullet” paints a vivid picture of a soldier’s grit and determination. Before the advent of anesthesia, surgeries were excruciating. Soldiers, in the absence of painkillers, would bite down on a bullet to cope with the pain. This act of bravery and endurance is now metaphorically used to describe facing a challenging situation with courage.
Break a Leg
The theater is a world filled with superstitions, and “break a leg” is one of its most famous idioms. While the origins are debated, one popular belief is that actors considered it bad luck to wish each other “good luck.” Instead, they opted for the opposite, hoping the reverse psychology would work in their favor. The term “leg” in theater also refers to the side curtains, suggesting a stellar performance that would result in numerous curtain calls.
Let the Cat Out of the Bag
Marketplaces in medieval Europe were bustling with activity and, unfortunately, scams. Unscrupulous sellers would sometimes replace valuable pigs with less valuable cats in sacks. If a buyer discovered the ruse, the cat was literally out of the bag. Today, the phrase is synonymous with revealing a secret, hopefully with fewer feline surprises!
Butter Someone Up
Ancient India revered its deities, and devotees would often seek divine favor by offering butterballs to statues of gods. This act of trying to appease and win favor has evolved into the modern expression of “buttering someone up,” which means to flatter or charm someone, usually to gain an advantage.
Pulling Someone’s Leg
London’s cobblestone streets have witnessed their fair share of mischief. In bygone days, thieves would trip unsuspecting victims by pulling their legs, making it easier to rob them. While the act was sinister, the modern usage is far more light-hearted, referring to teasing or joking with someone.
Burning the Midnight Oil
In a world devoid of modern conveniences like electricity, burning the midnight oil was a literal act. Scholars, writers, and artisans would work late into the night by the light of oil lamps. Today, the phrase symbolizes hard work and dedication, especially during late hours.
Bury the Hatchet
Native American tribes had a beautiful tradition of burying weapons during peace-making ceremonies, symbolizing the end of hostilities. This powerful gesture of reconciliation and peace has been immortalized in the modern saying, urging us to let go of grudges and make amends.
Close But No Cigar
Fairgrounds were once filled with games of skill and chance, where the prize for a near-win was often a cigar. Falling just short of victory meant you were close, but you didn’t get that coveted cigar. Today, it’s a colloquial way of saying you were near success but didn’t quite achieve it.
Jump on the Bandwagon
19th-century politicians knew how to gather a crowd. They’d parade through towns on bandwagons, playing music to attract attention. As the wagon’s popularity grew, more people wanted to jump on, both literally and figuratively. Now, the phrase refers to joining a growing movement or trend.
The Whole Nine Yards
The fierce battles of WWII required immense firepower. Fighter pilots were equipped with nine-yard-long ammunition chains. Using the entire chain meant they’d given their all in the fight. This saying has evolved to mean doing everything possible or going the full distance in any endeavor.
language is a fascinating tapestry woven with history, culture, and sometimes, pure randomness. These sayings remind us that there’s often more than meets the eye (or ear!). Next time you use one of these phrases, you’ll have a fun tidbit to share. Keep the conversation going, and who knows, you might just “steal someone’s thunder” with your newfound knowledge! 😉 (Oh, and that last one? It’s a story for another day!)
This article was originally published on STEM Education Guide.
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