The Stories Behind Idioms

Hi! I’m Mr Joshua, a teacher at Lil’ but Mighty. In one of my earlier posts, I explored some lesser known idioms, such as Bob’s your uncle and being all mouth and no trousers. Do check out this link if you are keen to know more about these idioms and other more obscure ones.  As a student and even now as an adult, I’ve always been fascinated by the stories behind idioms and phrases because they give insight into where these phrases come from and how they came to be. So, here are some interesting stories behind ten idioms that we commonly use, or we’ve learnt.

1. Break the ice

Meaning: to do or say something to release tension or get conversation going in a strained situation or when strangers meet.

Sentence example: In order to break the ice, Tom told a joke to his new classmates.

Origin: The phrase originally used to refer to the carving of ice to create passages for ships on trade routes. Often, ships entering a country would get stuck in the ice during winter. The country would then send small ships out to ‘break the ice’ in order to make way for the trade ships to enter.

2. Turn a blind eye

Meaning: to pretend not to notice or to ignore something you know is wrong

Sentence example: The teacher was aware that Felix had been bullying his classmates but she decided to turn a blind eye to the matter.

Origin: During a battle in 1801, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker signalled to Admiral Horatio Nelson to stop attacking using a system of signal flags. Nelson, who was blind in one eye, raised his telescope to his blind eye and said, “I really don’t see the signal”, and carried on attacking the enemy.

3. Caught red-handed

Meaning: to discover someone while they are doing something bad or illegal

Sentence example: While trying to steal the lipstick, she was caught red-handed by the store assistant.

Origin: An old law in England sought to punish a person who killed an animal that he did not own. In order to be convicted of the crime, the man had to be caught with his hands still covered in the animal’s blood, thus the phrase ‘caught red-handed’.

4. Pull someone’s leg

Meaning: to deceive someone playfully, as a joke

Sentence example: Stop trying to pull my leg! I don’t believe that Benedict Cumberbatch is your uncle.

Origin: Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, thieves in London used to work in pairs – one thief (known as the “tripper up”) would trip up the victim with a cane or a rope (i.e. pulling their leg) while the other thief robbed the victim as he lay on the ground.

5. Let the cat out of the bag

Meaning: to reveal a secret carelessly or by mistake

Sentence example: I was trying to keep the party a secret from my brother but Mother let the cat out of the bag.

Origin: Way back in the 16th century, farmers used to cheat customers by putting a cat in a bag instead of a piglet. If someone let the cat out of the bag, the fraud was uncovered.

6. Cost an arm and a leg

Meaning: to be very expensive

Sentence example: That car cost an arm and a leg. I used up all my savings to buy it.

Origin: The amount a painting or portrait cost in the 18th century was not based on the number of people in the picture, but how many arms and legs there were. The cheapest portrait was one with just the head and shoulders, and the price went up with the inclusion of legs, and more still if the subject of the portrait wanted to include his legs.

7. Burn the midnight oil

Meaning: to read or work late into the night

Sentence example: Being unable to complete her work that afternoon, Susan had no choice but to burn the midnight oil.

Origin: Back when people were still dependent on oil lamps for lighting, oil wasn’t the cheapest thing to buy. Having to burn oil till or past midnight meant that you were working on something that was so important that you burned expensive oil to light your lamp till late into the night.

8. Take something with a pinch of salt

Meaning: to not completely believe something that you are told, because you think it is unlikely to be true

Sentence example: “Aunt Gina tends to exaggerate, so you should take everything she says with a pinch of salt,” my sister warned.

Origin: There was an ancient Roman belief that a person could swallow their food more easily if they took it with a small amount of salt. In fact, the directions on a bottle of antidote for poison asked the patient to take it with a grain of salt. This led the Romans to believe that adding a grain of salt would protect them from getting poisoned.

9. Give the cold shoulder

Meaning: to intentionally ignore someone or treat someone in an unfriendly way

Sentence example: I don’t think I have said anything to offend him, so I don’t understand why he is giving me the cold shoulder.

Origin: In medieval England, it was customary to serve a guest a hot meal fresh from the oven. Serving a guest an undesirable part of an animal, like a cold shoulder of goat, was a way of telling them that they were unwanted or had overstayed their welcome. In other words, giving a guest a bit of cold shoulder was a hint for them to get on their way.

10. Up to scratch

Meaning: reaching the required or satisfactory standard

Sentence example: The manager is displeased with you because your work is not up to scratch.

Origin: Today, a round of boxing is signalled by the ringing of a bell. When the sport was first invented, though, no such bell existed. Instead, the referee would scratch a line on the ground between the boxers. A fighter who had been knocked down had to show he was able to continue fighting by walking up to the scratch. If he couldn’t, he would be considered unfit to carry on and “not up to scratch”. They would thus have lost the match and the win would be awarded to their opponent.

There you have it! Ten idioms that we’re all familiar with and use fairly frequently, but perhaps have never really considered how they came about. I hope you found this an interesting read – share with your friends and family your newfound knowledge and who knows, you might even wow them! Till next time, take care!

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Mr. Joshua

Mr Joshua believes that learning does not happen in a vacuum and strives to bring the real world into the classroom. He enjoys telling stories and works hard to ensure his classroom is a welcoming environment in which all students are comfortable to share their thoughts and ideas – It’s fine to make mistakes as long as we learn from them. Mr Joshua has a passion for English Literature and encourages his students to read widely and write earnestly.

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