Origins of Some Common English Idioms and Expressions

The English language fascinates me. It’s weird, messy, and fairly inexpressive as languages go, but as a writer I find that I’m always curious about idioms and expressions. Are we using them correctly? Where did they come from?

With the help of Phrase Finder, I’ve put together a little cheat sheet for some some of the most common or interesting expressions that I could find. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

Radio Silence

In everyday use this phrase refers to a situation in which one hears nothing from a normally communicative person or group. Historically however, this term referred to an intentional absence of communications from radio stations for safety or security reasons. Because radio transmissions could reveal troop positions, radio silence was a means of protection for military personnel.

Play it by ear

Nowadays this expression means to do something in an improvised manner. But it originally referred specifically to musicians who would play music without reference to printed notation. Instead, the well trained musician would play it entirely from memory. Note that someone of great musical talent is often referred to as having a “good ear” for music. Aka, not being tone deaf like me.

Heard it through the grapevine

The phrase means to learn of something informally and unofficially by means of gossip, rumor, and likely the exchanges of multiple previous persons. In history, this term is most likely a reference to the Grape Vine telegraph which was likened to the coiling tendrils of a vine and alluded to interactions among the rural poor in the 1850s. It’s also a really popular Marvin Gaye song, in case you missed it.

Take it with a grain of salt

To accept something as truth, but with skepticism. The internet seems unsure about this particular phrase’s origins, but it may find roots in the idea that antidotes to poison are more easily swallowed with a small amount of salt (as dictated by Pliny’s Naturalis Historia in 77 A.D).

Steal your thunder

This phrase, which nowadays means to steal someone’s ideas to your own advantage, found its origins on the stage. In theatre, the sound of thunder has been produced in various ways over time. In the early 1700s John Dennis developed a new method for his production of Appius and Virginia. However the method was co-opted by his theatrical competitors when the show ultimately failed. Thus, the competition quite literally stole his thunder sound effects to their own gain.

Ace in the Hole

Something (or someone) that can supply a sure victory once revealed. In poker, cards that are dealt face down and kept hidden are called ‘hole cards.’ The ace is the best card to play in these situations, because it is the one which always assures victory.

Basket Case

We use this term nowadays to refer to infirm persons, specifically those who are mentally unstable or, in the age of social media, riding the #strugglebus. But the term originally referred to WWI soldiers who had lost both arms and legs and needed to be carried by others. This was usually done in baskets.

Field Day

A day of excitement or a circumstance of opportunity. Though less commonly used nowadays, this phrase also finds its roots in the military. In a literal sense, this term initially referred to a day spent in field maneuvers, but later its meaning was broadened to include any activity which might occur in a field or a day spent out of doors.

Five o’clock Shadow

This phrase has always meant beard regrowth that darkens a man’s features late in the day, following a morning shave. However the specific reference to the five o’clock hour – as opposed to say four or six – was based on the 19th century English habit of taking tea at five. When the habit travelled across the Atlantic to uppercrust Americans, light late afternoon meals were renamed ‘five o’clock dinners.’ In the 1930s an advertising company then took advantage of this genteel mentality and marketed their razors by convincing men their five o’clock dinners were overshadowed by unseemly beard growth. Note that respectable fashions of the time dictated that a man be either clean shaven or have a full moustache or beard. If the later, he usually waited until he was on vacation to begin growing it out of the public eye.

Saved by the bell

Saved by last minute intervention. In boxing, a boxer who is in danger of losing a bout can be ‘saved’ from defeat by the bell that marks the end of the round. There’s also some speculation that this phrase could refer to bells attached to coffins that could save someone inside from being buried alive by ringing it. However, other than some US patent designs for the bells, there’s no evidence to support the idea that they were ever used or that the phrase was put into common use as a result.

Graveyard Shift

This term for the early morning work shift (usually midnight to dawn) was coined in the US at the latter end of the 1800s. There’s no evidence of specific relation to graveyards other than the quiet and lonely ambiance found in the middle of the night.

Jump the Gun

To begin something before preparations are complete. This phrase derives from false starts in track and field races. Each race is traditionally started by the shot of a pistol and the ‘jump’ aspect likely just refers to the word’s definition: a sudden unexpected movement.

That’s all for now. If you enjoyed this, let me know down in the comments and I’ll do another one sometime soon!


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