17 Sep 2013

A History of Ten Common English Phrases

Every culture has a selection of wise sayings that offer advice about how to live your life. The English language is littered with these idioms and many of them are used by thousands of English speakers daily. But have you ever wondered where such phrases originate from?

We did some research and here is our list of the top ten most common English sayings. Feel free to slip them into a conversation next time you are at the pub or tell your grandma what she is actually referring to. And even if you are not a native English speaker, this article might you give an idea of how English-speaking cultures think (or thought) about the world.

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

Meaning: 

It’s raining heavily.

Origin: 

One tale suggests that most of the medieval Brits lived in hovels which had thatched roofs with thick straw, but no wood underneath. The roof was often the only place for animals to keep warm and therefore, cats, as well as other small animals (including rats, mice and bugs), lived in the roof. When it rained, it sometimes became slippery and the animals would slide off the roof.

Another source indicates, though, that this is highly unlikely. It seems more plausible that in the dirty streets of 17th and 18th century England, the heavy rain would occasionally carry along dead animals. Hence, the sight of dead cats and dogs floating in the storm could have been the cause for the coining of this phrase.

One for the Road

Meaning:

A final drink before leaving on a journey (or simply going home from the pub).

Origin:

During the medieval period and Middle Ages, condemned prisoners were taken from London City jails to Tyburn Hill for execution. En route, along today’s Oxford Street, the cart stopped and the criminals were allowed to have one final drink at a pub situated on that road before they were publicly executed. Therefore, the ‘one’ they had was for the road to death.

Break the Ice

Meaning:

To initiate friendship, break down social formality or commence a project.

Origin:

Before the days of cars, trains or planes, port cities which thrived on trade suffered very hard during the winter because frozen rivers prevented commercial ships from entering  cities. Small ships, which were also known as ‘ice breakers’, would rescue and navigate the icebound ships. They did that by breaking the ice and creating a path for them to follow.

Mark Twain later stated in his Life on Mississippi in 1883 that “They closed up the inundation with a few words – having used it, evidently, as a mere ice-breaker and acquaintanceship-breeder – then they dropped into business”.

To Be Caught Red-Handed

Meaning:

To be caught doing something wrong with the evidence there for all to see.

Origin:

There is one theory that states that in the past, there was a law that declared that if someone butchered an animal that did not belong to him/her, he/she had to be caught with the animal’s blood on his/her hands in order to be convicted. Being caught with freshly cut meat did not make the person guilty.

A more general speculation suggests that the term was used in Scotland as a straightforward allusion to having blood on one’s hands after the execution of a murder or a poaching session.

Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater

Meaning:

Hang on to valuable things when disposing unnecessary ones.

Origin:

During the 1500s, many people only bathed once a year. Baths usually consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The whole family used the same bathing water and the man of the house were allowed to use the clean water first, followed by other males of the house. Women and babies were last. The water must have been extremely cloudy and thick by the time the babies were “washed”, and therefore, the children’s mothers had to take special care not to throw them out with the dirty bathwater when they emptied the tub.

To Let Your Hair down

Meaning:

To behave in an uninhibited or free manner.

Origin:

In Tudor England, ladies had to wear their hair up in “wimples” which meant that their hair was pinned and piled high, keeping it tidy. Otherwise, they risked condemnation from their peers if they made an appearance in public without a fancy hairdo. Before they went to bed, hats, caps, as well as other garments were disposed of.  Hence, in the bed chamber, the hair was let down for brushing and washing.
Give the Cold Shoulder

Meaning:

An impolite way of subtly informing someone that he/she is not welcome.

Origin:

Although it is considered rude nowadays to give someone the cold shoulder, in medieval England it was regarded as a polite gesture. After having finished a feast, the host would let his guest know that it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of pork, beef or mutton.


To Go Cold Turkey

Meaning:

To withdraw something abruptly and suddenly.

Origin:

People used to believe that during drug withdrawal, the skin of the drug addict would become white, semitransparent, hard-to-touch and covered with goose bumps, due to the blood being directed to the internal organs. This resembled the skin of a plucked turkey.


Goodnight, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite

Meaning:

To sleep well.

Origin:

In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. To tighten the mattress and to provide a well-sprung bed, the ropes had to be pulled tight in order to make the bed firmer to sleep on. The origin of the bed bugs, on the other hand, requires little explanation.

Honeymoon

Meaning:

Traditional holiday taken by newly married couples to celebrate their marriage.

Origin:

In Anglo-Saxon England, it was an accepted practice that for a month after the wedding, the bride’s father had to supply his son-in-law with all the mead (honey wine) he could drink. It was assumed that it made the husband virile and the wife fertile. And because the Germanic calendar was based on the lunar rather than solar cycles, the phrase ‘honeymoon’ was coined.

Another suggestions is that ‘honeymoon’ simply refers to the time of the first month of marriage where it is the sweetest.

What are your favourite English phrases and where do they originate?



 
 

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