Today’s idiom: let sleeping dogs lie
Meaning: don’t stir up trouble
Origin: This phrase can be found in 14th century France, “Do not wake the dog that sleeps,” and then later in 1374 Chaucer wrote, “It is nought good a sleepyng hound to wake.” Later, in the 18th century it was said that the above phrase was Sir Robert Walpole’s (the first Prime Minister of Great Britain) favorite.
Source: historically speaking.
Today’s idiom: skeleton in the closet
Meaning: shameful secrets
Origin: It came about in the 19th century and is speculated that the use of the world “closet” or sometimes “cupboard” referred to the fact that the secret could be discovered at any time. The first time it appeared in print was in 1816 in a periodical The Eclectic Review, “Two great sources of distress are the danger of contagion and the apprehension of hereditary diseases. The dread of being the cause of misery to posterity has prevailed over men to conceal the skeleton in the closet.” There is a theory that perhaps this phrase came about when the use of skeletons in classrooms was illegal and so doctors would hide them in their closets.
Today’s idiom: go out on a limb
Meaning: taking a risk
Origin: Again, this is a phrase that has a literal meaning. The first time this phrase was printed with the figurative meaning was in 1895 in the Steubenville Daily Herald, “We can carry the legislature like hanging out a washing. The heft of the fight will be in Hamilton country. If we get the 14 votes of Hamilton we’ve got ’em out on a limb. All we’ve got to do then is shake it or saw it off.”
Source: know your phrase.
Today’s idiom: put your foot in your mouth
Meaning: to say something you immediately regret saying
Origin: The only thing I could find was that in the 18th century there was a man named Sir Boyle Roche, a member of the Irish Parliament, who made a statement that caused someone else to say, “Every time he opens his mouth, he puts his foot in it.” Not super exciting, but that’s all I got.
Today’s idiom: when pigs fly
Meaning: highlighting the unlikeliness of something happening
Origin: In 1616 John Withals wrote in his book of proverbs, “Pigs fly in the ayre with their tayles forward.” It is speculated that, while other creatures have been used in this phrase, pigs are popular for the picture they create, this bulky creature achieving flight. In 1732 Thomas Fuller used a phrase more similar to the one above, “That is as likely as to see an Hog fly.” And in 1835Charles Whitehead used the currently popular phrase.
Today’s idiom: shake a leg
Meaning: to hurry up
Origin: Originally this meant to dance; in 1863 Dubuque Democratic Herald there was an advertisement for a local ball, “Nearly every man in town able to shake a leg has purchased a ticket.” However, in 1904 New York Magazine clearly defined it and changed it’s current meaning.
Today’s idiom: start from scratch
Meaning: starting at the very beginning
Origin: The term “scratch” is a sports term started in the 18th century and referred to the line scratched in the ground for the starting point. “Start from scratch” originated when weaker participants are given a head start.
Today’s idiom: under the weather
Meaning: not feeling well
Origin: Originally “under the weather bow,” this phrase is nautical in its origins. The “weather bow” is the side of the ship on which all the bad weather is blowing. If a sailor was not feeling well, he would be sent below deck where the rocking of the boat wasn’t so extreme and provided shelter from the weather.
Source: english language & usage.
Today’s idiom: fight tooth and nail
Meaning: putting all your effort behind something, fighting fiercely for something you believe in
Origin: Obviously this could be seen as literal, as in using your teeth and nails in fights, but it’s often used figuratively. In 1535 Sir Thomas More wrote in A Dialogue of Comfort and Tribulation about a fictional debate, where one of the characters is talking about how some men love things of this world so much that “they would faine kepe them as long as ever they might, even with tooth and naile.”
Source: the grammarphobia blog.
Today’s idiom: the straw that broke the camel’s back
Meaning: reaching the limit of what you can endure
Origin: It seems that the origin of this phrase is very circuitous, not at all starting with a camel, or any straw. In ancient Rome there was a saying by Seneca, “It is not the last drop that empties the waterclock, but all that has previously flowed out.” John Bramhall said in the 1600’s, “It is the last feather that breaks the horse’s back.” The most famous and earlier version most similar to the one above was written by Charles Dickens in his 1848 book Dombey and Son, “As the last straw breaks the laden camel’s back, this piece of underground information crushed the sinking spirits of Mr. Dombey.”
Source: yahoo voices.
Today’s idiom: turn over a new leaf
Meaning: fresh start
Origin: In the 16th century pages were referred to as “leaves.” So to turn over a new leaf was to turn to a blank page.
Source: idiom origins.
Today’s idiom: the ends justify the means
Meaning: if the result is successful, it doesn’t matter how you got there
Origin: Sophocles wrote, in BC 409, “The end excuses any evil.” In BC 10 Ovid wrote, “The result justifies the deed.” Later Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1532 and popularized this notion.
Sources: phrases. yahoo answers.
Today’s idiom: the pot calling the kettle black
Meaning: being guilty of the thing you are accusing someone else of
Origin: It is believed that this phrase came from Don Quixote translated into English in 1620 by Thomas Shelton. William Penn used it in 1693.
Today’s idiom: you can’t have your cake and eat it too
Meaning: you can’t have everything, you can’t have it both ways
Origin: The original phrase was ordered differently, it was more like: you can’t eat your cake and have it too. Many people get confused by the more popularized version above because of the use of the word “have,” which seems to imply that you would be eating it, because what else are you going to do with a cake you “have”? The phrase is believed to have started in 1546 and in 1749 became what it is known as today.
Sources: ny times. wikipedia.
Today’s idiom: wear your heart on your sleeve
Meaning: not hiding your emotions, openly displaying them
Origin: There are three theories I found regarding the origin of this phrase. 1. During the middle ages when jousting was still a thing, knights would tie the colors of the lady they were supporting on their arm. 2. Also during the middle ages Emperor Claudius II didn’t allow marriage because he thought that unmarried men made better soldiers. As a compromise, he allowed temporary coupling, where during the festival of Juno men would draw a name of a woman and wear her name on his sleeve for the rest of the festival and for the rest of the year they would be a couple. 3. Shakespeare wrote it first in Othello.
Sources: threaded. phrases.
Today’s idiom: apple of my eye
Meaning: something or someone who is cherished above everything and everyone else
Origin: Before it became known as a pupil, the central part of the eye was known as the “apple.” This is a very old phrase, originally found in the Bible and often attributed to King Aelfred in AD 885. Sir Walter Scott popularized the use of the phrase in his book Old Mortality in 1816.
Sources: phrases. wikipedia.
Today’s idiom: flash in the pan
Meaning: flashy, with no real substance and a disappointing result
Origin: A fanciful origin story comes from the California Gold Rush in the 19th century. It turns out that the real meaning comes from a flintlock musket, which had a small pan for the gunpowder. If the gunpowder flared up without firing a bullet, this was called a “flash in the pan.”
Sources: phrases. wiktionary.
Today’s idiom: down to the wire
Meaning: until the last possible moment
Origin: In horse racing, before the advent of cameras, a wire or thread was drawn across the finish so that it would be easy to determine who had won. Again, it’s unclear when the phrase came about exactly, but there was an article written in 1889 that used the phrase.
Source: world wide words.
Today’s idiom: burning your bridges
Meaning: cutting off your option to go back; ending an interaction, whether personal or professional, in such a way that it cuts off all ties with the person(s) or business
Origin: It’s unclear when this phrase came into play. All the sources agree that it came from a military strategy in which the commander would burn bridges as his army advanced to keep the enemy from following and keep his troops moving forward. Maybe not the best strategy ever?
Sources: phrases. word reference. using english.
Today’s idiom: beating a dead horse
Meaning: fruitless or pointless effort
Origin: Originally “dead horse” meant a job that a person was paid in advance for and might have already spent. This meaning came from a play by Richard Brome, The Antipodes, first performed in 1638 and first printed in 1640. The phrase “flogging a dead horse” or “beating a dead horse,” was first seen in print in 1859 in the report of a UK parliamentary debate.
Today’s idiom: burning the candle at both ends
Meaning: living at a frenzied pace
Origin: When this phrase first came about, it did not have the meaning it does today. It’s original meaning was literal, where someone burned a candle at both ends, something that was considered very wasteful. It is first found in 1611 by Randle Cotgrave in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues. It’s unclear when the focus went from finances to its current meaning.
Sources: phrases. random house.
Today’s idiom: between a rock and a hard place
Meaning: having to choose between two difficult options
Origin: The American phrase was influenced by similar phrases. “Between Scylla and Charybdis” refers to Homer’s Greek myth when Odysseus is forced to choose between the sea monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. “An offer you can’t refuse” is made popular by The Godfather book (1969) and the movie (1972). The earliest printing of this phrase is found in American Dialect Society’s publication Dialect Notes V, 1921.
Sources: phrases. wikipedia.
Today’s idiom: blood is thicker than water
Meaning: modern meaning – family bonds are stronger than non-familial ones
Origin: It seems that the meaning of the phrase has changed a lot since this phrase first came about, though the phrasing is not the same. The original phrase: “Blood is not spoilt by water” was written in 1180 by Heinrich der Glîchezære in Reynard the Fox. It is thought that the meaning here is the opposite of our modern meaning, referring to a covenant made by the shedding of blood, whether that is an actual blood ritual or the common bloodshed that occurs in times of war amongst soldiers. It first appeared in its modern phrasing in 1670 in John Ray’s Proverbs and again in 1815 in Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering. It is unclear when its meaning changed to where it stands now, though it might have been in the 1900’s.
Sources: today i found out. wikipedia.
Today’s idiom: at wit’s end
Meaning: unable to think any more or come up with new ideas
Origin: It originated with the Bible in Palms 107:27 in the King James translation, first printed in 1611. And that’s really the only thing I could find.
Sources: dictionary. phrases. yahoo voices.
Today’s idiom: safe as houses
Meaning: perfectly safe, certain
Origin: The general consensus is that phrase came about in reference to investments, that investing in buildings is a safe move because of the tendency for the value to appreciate. Another source said that the phrase came from less literal origins. It points out that “safe” is probably referring to assuredly and cites the many examples of when safe is used in phrases: “safe enough to be hanged,” “safe to thunder,” “safe as the bellows.” The first written instance of the phrase is found in 1859.
Sources: random house. answers yahoo. world wide words.
Today’s idiom: a taste of your own medicine
Meaning: giving someone the same treatment they gave you
Origin: Both sources were word for word the same. They both said that this comes from an Æesop’s Fable about a man who sells fake medicine and when he gets sick, and people try to give him his own medicine, which he knows won’t cure him.
Sources: wiki answers. tranloi.
Today’s idiom: beat around the bush
Meaning: to avoid saying something
Origin: All sources seem to agree that this phrase came from the practice, in bird or boar hunting, of beating the bushes to get the animals to come out. This was a step towards the main event in the hunting process. The first instance of the phrase in writing is found in about 1440 in the poem Generydes – A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas, though it does not include the use of “around,” which is found in 1572 in George Gascoigne’s Works.
Sources: phrases. yahoo voices. know your phrase.
Today’s idiom: an arm and a leg
Meaning: extremely expensive
Origin: All three sources mention the origin referring to portrait painters, where they charged more per limb (or as the painting got larger to include more of a person’s body). It seems that this is thought of as erroneous. It seems the the phrase came about around WWII when soldiers would come back from the war with missing limbs, reinforcing the high cost of their sacrifices. It seems that this particular phrase came from a two other phrases: “I would give my right arm for” and “even if it takes a leg.”
Sources: phrases. wiki answers. snopes.
Today’s idiom: rings a bell
Origin: Some think this has to do with Pavlov’s experiment (1934), where he used a bell to get dogs to salivate because they associated the ringing of a bell with being fed. There are arguments that this cannot be the origin since it was not something that reminded them they were hungry, but caused a physical reaction. Others believe that it has to do with bells being used as signals, for the start of school, doorbells, laundry’s done. All of these are more modern conventions though, so it still doesn’t explain the origin of the phrase. One source states that the first time the phrase is used in this context is 1941 in Budd Schulber’s What Makes Sammy Run?
Sources: etymology. phrases.
Today’s idiom: at the drop of a hat
Origin: It seems that a lot of sources talk about this being used in the 19th century when dropping a hat signaled the beginning of a fight. However, there is a quote from Register of Debates in Congress written in 1837 where it is not in reference to fighting. Another mystery.
Sources: english stack exchange. world wide words.