Have you ever wonder the origins of various sayings, like “Lick into shape”? Some of these origins seem obvious after you hear them like “Straight from the horse’s mouth” which means getting your information direct from the source; or similarly, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth” meaning never to appear ungrateful. Seeing you can tell the age of a horse by looking at it’s teeth rather on relying what a horse trader may tell you. Opposite would apply if someone was to be kind enough to give you a horse, you wouldn’t look at its teeth in front of the giver in case you offended. “Long in the tooth” also has the same origins. As a horse gets older its gums recede and its teeth appear longer.
Here are twenty sayings and their origins. Oh and by the way, “Lick into shape” came from the Middle Ages when people thought that bear cubs were born shapeless and their mother literally licked them into shape.
Saying #1: CHOCK-A-BLOCK
When pulleys or blocks on sailing ship were pulled so tightly together that they could not be moved any closer together they were said to be chock-a-block.
Saying #2: MAD AS A HATTER
Hat makers often used mercury in hat felt during the 17th and 18th centuries, developing mercury poisoning and symptoms like slurred speech, tremors, and hallucinations.
Saying #3: CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE?
Some say the “cat” is a reference to a cat-o-nine-tails whip used by everyone from prison wardens to English naval officers—a flogging with one was so painful that you wouldn’t be able to talk after your punishment. Another version states punishment for blasphemy in medieval times was having your tongue cut out and fed to cats.
Saying #4: CAUGHT RED-HANDED
In Scotland in the 15th century, if you were caught with blood on your hands, likely right after a murder or after butchering another person’s livestock – you were caught red handed.
Saying #5: BITE THE BULLET
This old saying means to grin and bear a painful situation. It comes from the days before anesthetics. A soldier about to undergo an operation was given a bullet to bite.
Saying #6: KICK THE BUCKET
A pig would have its hind legs tied to a wooden beam (buquet in French) before being slaughtered. As the pig died it would kick the buquet.
Saying #8: FLYING COLOURS
In the past if a fleet won a clear victory the ships would sail back to port with their colors proudly flying from their masts.
Saying #9: PUT A SOCK IN IT
A 19th century gramophone came with a large large horn but no volume control. So to lower the sound a woollen sock was stuffed inside the horn.
Saying #10: RAKE OVER THE COALS
In the Middle Ages if you were being accused of witchcraft youd be dragged over hot coals in order to get a confession out of you.
Saying #11: FROG IN YOUR THROAT
In the Middle Ages, however, you’d have one in there for real. Healers sometimes treated infections like thrush by putting an amphibian into a patient’s mouth—it was thought that the slimy creature would absorb the infection into its own body.
Saying #12: BITTER END
Anchor cable was wrapped around posts called bitts. The last piece of cable was called the bitter end. If you let out the cable to the bitter end there was nothing else you could do, you had reached the end of your resources.
Saying #14: CUT AND RUN
In an emergency rather than haul up an anchor the sailors would cut the anchor cable then run with the wind.
Saying #15: PAYING THROUGH THE NOSE
In 9th-century Ireland when the Danes conquered the Irish. Danish forces imposed a census poll tax during their reign, and refusal to pay came with a steep price: Collectors would slit one’s nose from tip to eyebrow.
Saying #16: SAVED BY THE BELL
Patented coffins in the 18th and 19th centuries were outfitted with a cord that led to a bell above ground, making it easy for anyone accidentally buried alive to alert graveyard workers.
Saying #17: BLUE-BLOOD
During the centuries when the Arabs occupied Spain, many of the Spanish “lower” class inter-married with them and produced darker skined children. Later it was observed veins of the lighter skin upperclass were often easier to notice along with its blue-looking blood.
Saying #18: RESTING ON YOUR LAURELS
In the ancient world winning athlete were given wreaths of laurel leaves. If you are resting on your laurels you are relying on your past achievements.
Saying #19: GET THE SACK
In the days when workmen carried their tools in sacks, if your employer gave you the sack it was time to collect your tools and go.
Saying #20: BIG WIG
In the 18th century when many men wore wigs, the most important men wore the biggest wigs. Hence today important people are called big wigs.