The Meanings and Origins of Idioms: How your Favorite English Phrases Were Coined

Have you ever wondered about the origins of some of your favorite English idioms? From biting the bullet to spilling the beans, these phrases have become a part of our everyday language. However, the origins of idioms –even the most common ones– remain a mystery even to some native English speakers.

In this article, we will explore the origins of phrases such as “breaking the ice” and “laying your hair down” so that you can impress your friends with your newfound knowledge.

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The Origins of Idioms: Part 1: Expressions with Military, Nautical and Religious Origins

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1.   Bite the bullet

To endure a painful or unpleasant situation with courage and determination.

Example: “I don’t want to have a root canal, but I’ll have to bite the bullet and get it done.”


Since the era of muskets, soldiers were typically given bullets to bite down on while undergoing surgery without anesthesia. This was supposed to distract the poor men from the pain. Today, some people still bite down on something (usually a piece of cloth) to manage pain, such as during childbirth.

2.   Blood is thicker than water

Family relationships are more important than other relationships.

Example: “I know my sister can be difficult, but blood is thicker than water, and I’ll always stand by her.”


As sometimes happens with the origins of idioms in English, there are at least two theories for this one. The first theory has to do with ancient Middle Eastern culture, where blood rituals were performed among men to indicate a strong bond of friendship or alliance. Another theory is that the idiom refers to ‘blood brothers’, i.e., warriors united by the blood they shed on the battlefield.

3.   Break the ice

To make a social situation more comfortable by initiating conversation or activities.

Example: “Let’s play a game to break the ice and get to know each other better.”


Long before the times of trains and trucks, port towns that thrived on trade had a bad time during the winter because their ships got stuck in the frozen rivers. When this happened, small ships known as ‘ice breakers’ would come to the rescue by breaking the ice and letting the bigger ships pass.

4.   Show your true colors

To reveal your true nature or intentions, especially if they are unpleasant or unexpected.

Example: “John always seemed like a friendly person, but he showed his true colors when he spread rumors about his colleagues.


The phrase “true colors” originated from the practice of hoisting flags to identify ships at sea. A ship’s true colors referred to the flag it flew to indicate its nationality, allegiance, or purpose. Later, the expression evolved to refer to a person’s genuine agenda or character.

5.   Go the whole nine yards

To put in the maximum effort or complete something to the fullest extent.

Example: “He went the whole nine yards to impress the teacher by working overtime and completing the project on time.”


As is usually the case with the origins of idioms, the history behind this phrase is unclear, but it is believed to have originated in the United States during World War II. One theory suggests that it refers to the length of ammunition belts in fighter planes, which were said to be nine yards long. Therefore, when a pilot used up all the ammunition in the belt on one target, it was said that he had gone the whole nine yards.

6.   Butter someone up

To flatter or praise someone excessively in order to gain favour or influence.

Example: “I’m going to butter up my boss before asking for a raise.”


The origins of idioms usually have nautical, military, or religious connotations. In this case, the origin comes from Ancient India when butter was used as an offering to Hindu gods in temples.  People would ‘butter up’ the gods in order to gain favour, and this term has since evolved into our modern usage.

The Origins of Phrases – Part 2: Expressions with Gruesome Origin Stories

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7.   Saved by the bell

Rescued from a difficult or dangerous situation at the last minute.

Example: “I thought the teacher was going to call my name, but I was saved by the bell when the lesson ended early.”


For us, it may be a horror movie trope, but in the past, being buried alive was quite a common occurrence. So common, in fact, that people who were terrified of accidental entombment could ask to be buried in a special coffin that contained a bell atop the casket. If the person were to wake up in the coffin, they could ring the bell and be rescued! Aren’t the origins of idioms in English fascinating?

8.   Cat got your tongue

Used to ask someone why they are not speaking or responding.

Example: “You haven’t said a word all day – cat got your tongue?”


The origins of idioms can be fun, but some of them are definitely gruesome. This phrase dates back to the 16th century in some European countries, where people who had committed serious crimes would have their tongues cut and fed to stray cats. Delightful, right?

9.   Give the cold shoulder

To ignore or reject someone.

Example: “I don’t know why she’s giving me the cold shoulder – I haven’t done anything wrong.”


In Medieval England, people would serve a cold shoulder of pork meat to an unwanted guest, indicating that it was time to leave. Subtle, right? Over time, the expression “giving a person the cold shoulder” has become a metaphor for rejecting someone.

10.   Go cold turkey

To abruptly stop a habit, especially a drug or alcohol addiction.


“I quit smoking by going cold turkey – I just stopped without any gradual reduction.”


In the past, people believed that during withdrawal the skin of drug addicts became thin, pale, and covered with goosebumps, just like the skin of a plucked bird. Today, the phrase has become a metaphor for abrupt and complete withdrawal from an addiction.

11.    Kick the bucket

To die.

Example: “The old man kicked the bucket peacefully in his sleep last night.”


The origin of this phrase is uncertain, but there are several theories about its origins. One theory suggests that “bucket” refers to a beam or yoke used to hang animals for slaughter, and “kicking the bucket” refers to the animal’s final convulsions before death. Another theory suggests that the phrase comes from the idea of committing suicide by standing on a bucket and kicking it away. (We warned you the origins of idioms in English could be a bit gruesome!)

The Origins of Idioms: Part 3: Expressions Related to Farming

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12.    Caught red-handed

To be caught in the act of doing something wrong or illegal.

Example: “The thief was caught red-handed with the stolen goods.”


This idiom has its roots in Scotland, where a law required that anyone caught butchering an animal that wasn’t their own had to have their hands stained with blood as proof of their guilt.

13.  More than you can shake a stick at

Having more of something that you need.

Example: “John has more tools than you can shake a stick at – he’s always ready to fix anything that needs repair.”


In the past, farmers controlled their sheep by shaking their shepherd’s stick at them. This phrase likely originated from the idea of having more sheep than a farmer could control with his stick. Over time, it has evolved to mean having more of something than one can possibly use.

14.   No spring chicken

Not young or in one’s prime.

Example. “I may not be a spring chicken anymore, but I still have a lot of energy.”


This American English idiom originated in the 18th century in New England, where farmers sold their chickens in the spring. As a consequence, the chickens that were born around this time yielded better earnings than the older chickens. Sometimes, farmers tried to sell an old chicken at the same price as a younger one; this dishonest practice became known as “selling no spring chicken.”

The Origin of Idioms – Part 4: Miscellaneous expressions

Last but not least, here is a section for the origins of sayings and phrases that don’t fit the previous categories.

15.   Sleep tight

An expression used to wish someone a good night’s sleep or to encourage them to sleep well.

Example: Before going to bed, Mary’s mother always told her, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”


The phrase “sleep tight” dates back to the 18th century when mattresses were supported by ropes that needed to be tightened to prevent sagging. Therefore, “sleeping tight” meant sleeping soundly on a well-made bed.

16.    Spill the beans

To reveal secret or confidential information unintentionally or intentionally.

Example: “Jack accidentally spilled the beans about the surprise birthday party to his friend, and the secret was no longer a secret.”


The origin of this phrase is unclear, but there are a few theories. One theory is that it comes from an ancient Greek voting system, where white beans were used to indicate a positive vote, and black beans indicated a negative one. If someone accidentally spilled the beans before the voting was over, the outcome would be revealed prematurely.

17.   Waking up on the wrong side of the bed

To start the day in a grumpy or bad-tempered mood.

Example “I was feeling so tired this morning, I must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed.”


Traditionally, the left side of the body has been associated with bad luck in many cultures, and the right side has been associated with good luck. As a result, waking up on the wrong side of the bed implied that you started the day on the unlucky side and that this affected your mood. To avoid this, people would push the bed against the wall and sleep on the right-hand side of it so they had no other choice but to wake up “on the right side”.

18.   Rub the wrong way

To irritate or upset someone.

Example: “His comment really rubbed me the wrong way.”


In Colonial America, servants were ordered to wet-rub and dry-rub the oak board floors almost every day. If they rubbed against the grain, they caused scratches on the floor and ran the risk of angering their masters.

19.   Run amok

To go on a rampage or behave uncontrollably.

Example: “The protesters started to run amok and vandalize nearby stores.”


This short saying comes from the Malaysian word amoq. It was originally used to describe a Malaysian ritualistic form of insanity, where individuals would suddenly and violently attack people in their vicinity. The term was later used to describe any kind of violent, unprovoked behavior.

20.    Let your hair down

To relax and let go of one’s inhibitions or restrictions.

Example: “After a long week of work, I just want to go out and let my hair down with some friends.”


Parisian nobles risked disapproval from their peers if they dared show up at a dinner party without an elaborate hairdo. This phrase likely originated from the practice of women undoing their hair from tight hairstyles such as braids or buns at the end of the night to relax and let their hair down. Over time, it has evolved to mean letting go of one’s inhibitions and relaxing.

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The origins of idioms and phrases that people use every day are fascinating and often have surprising stories behind them. From the Malaysian word amoq to the ancient Greek voting system, the history of language is full of interesting tales. Knowing the origins of sayings can help us gain insight into their meanings and appreciate the English language even more.

Would you like to go beyond the origins of phrases in English and learn how to use them in context?

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