We all use idioms every day, but we may not even realize it.
So what are idioms? Idioms are phrases, words, or sayings that have taken on a special meanings over time. Meanings that are often very different from the individual words that they contain and their literal meaning.
We know what they mean, even though they don’t mean exactly what is said. Let’s find out where some of these sayings came from.
Hopefully, this will be “a piece of cake” for you.
Meaning: When something has to be done by.
Where the idiom came from: A line was drawn in the dirt to stop -prisoners from escaping in the American Civil War. They were told that they would be shot if they crossed it.
“Saved by the bell”
Meaning: When a difficult situation ends suddenly before you had to do or say something that you did not want to:
Where the idiom came from: It actually comes from a fear of being buried alive. Back in the old days a string was tied to the dead person’s wrist and passed through the coffin lid, up through the ground and tied to a bell.
Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night and listen in case the person was not really dead and was ringing the bell.
Later, it also referred to a boxer being saved at times by the bell that was rung to end a round.
“Press for an answer”
Meaning: To try and influence someone to answer by being persistent.
Where the idiom came from: This one has a horribly literal origin.
In the middle ages, captives would have heavy weights loaded straight on to their chests in an effort to squeeze a confession out of them during interrogation.
Meaning: Someone else who takes the blame.
Where the idiom came from: It originates from The Bible. The people would pick some poor random goat from the flock. Then in a ceremony, all of the people’s sins would be transferred, or loaded upon the goat. Then the goat would be sacrificed, wiping out their sins. From The Bible, the book of Leviticus, chapter 16, verses 8-10, “Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the LORD fell, and make it a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat.”
“Don’t Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth”
Meaning: When someone gives you a gift, just be grateful and don’t try and find fault with it.
Where the idiom came from: People familiar with horses can usually get a pretty good idea of the general age of a horse by looking in their mouth at their teeth. It’s kind of like an odometer on a car. The more mileage, the less it’s worth. So when we say, “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” we are really saying when we receive something as a gift, we shouldn’t worry about inspecting it because we are getting it as a gift. It isn’t costing us anything.
“Start from scratch”
Meaning: Begin (again) from the beginning, embark on something without any preparation or advantage. ‘Scratch’ being the beginning, a point at which there is no advantage or disadvantage.
Where the idiom came from: This meaning originated in the sporting world, where ‘scratch’ has been used since the 18th century to describe a starting line that was scratched on the ground.
“Knock on wood “
Meaning: This phrase is used by people who rap their knuckles on a piece of wood hoping to stave off bad luck, often jokingly by tapping one’s head. The phrases are sometimes spoken when a person is already experiencing some good fortune and hope that it will continue, for example, “I’ve been winning on every race, knock on wood”.
Where the idiom came from: It may have originated with the old world belief that the woods and trees have good spirits in them, or with the wooden Christian cross. It used to be considered good luck to tap trees to let the wood spirits within know you were there. Traditions of this sort still persist in Ireland today.
“Know the ropes”
Meaning: To understand how to do something. To be acquainted with all the methods required.
Where the idiom came from: It may well have a sailing origin. Sailors had to learn which rope raised which sail and also had to learn a myriad of knots.
“The Whole Nine Yards”
Meaning: Give it everything you’ve got.
Where the idiom came from: “The Whole Nine Yards” originated with World War II aircraft and their .50 caliber machine gun ammunition belts. These belts were 27 feet long, which is nine yards. It became common for a pilot to say he, “gave ’em the whole nine yards” when they had used up all of their ammunition shooting at a target.
“It’s all Greek to me”
Meaning: You don’t understand something.
Where the idiom came from: It began when medieval scribes in monasteries would write the phrase, “It is Greek; it cannot be read,” if they had trouble translating the Greek alphabet and language, which was dwindling in use by this time in the Middle Ages.
The phrase probably entered modern English usage when William Shakespeare used it in his 1599 play “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.” Here it is in Act 1 Scene 2:
Cassius: Did Cicero say anything?
Casca: Ay, he spoke Greek.
Cassius: To what effect?
Casca: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you in the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.
Well, what do the Greeks say if they can’t understand something? Obviously, when a Greek doesn’t understand something, they can’t say “It’s all Greek to me.” Rather, they say, “This strikes me as Chinese!”
So, you can see why idioms are the toughest parts of any language to pick up on. They don’t translate well at all from what is literally being said to what they are actually intended to mean.
Here are some other fairly common English idioms and three possible meanings for each of them to check out. See how many of these you’re familiar with!
- “You crack me up.”
- You make me laugh
- You hurt me
- You woke me up
- “Hit the books.”
- Books are hard to hit
- It’s better to hit books than people
- It’s time to study
- “To have a heart of gold.”
- Someone is nice
- Someone is sad
- I’m going to give you money
- “She is pulling your leg.”
- She makes me fall down
- She’s joking with me
- She’s actually pulling on my leg
- “In one ear and out the other.”
- I’m listening
- I hear a sound on one side and then the other
- To not be paying attention
- “Don’t let the cat out of the bag”
- Don’t let my cat escape
- Don’t give away the surprise
- The cat ran away
- “Hold your horses.”
- Don’t let the horses run
- Find the horses
- Wait patiently
- “I have a sweet tooth.”
- My tooth hurts
- My teeth look nice
- I like sweets
- “That’s a piece of cake.”
- That’s easy
- I like cake
- There’s a piece of cake
Idioms are pretty crazy sometimes, but their origins are also pretty interesting at times as well.
Please share any interesting idioms you may know. They may show up in a one of my future blogs! Just try not to “stick your foot in your mouth!”
NOTE: If you’re not already “following” me and you liked my blog today, please scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the “Follow” button. That’ll keep you up to date on my latest posts. Thank you, MrEricksonRules.