Every day we are bombarded with slogans, one-liners, clichés and a variety of other terms and phrases. We memorize our favorite movie quotes, sing along to our favorite songs and can probably recite a ridiculous number of commercials (past and present) word for word. While you try to get that HeadOn (“apply directly to the forehead”) commercial out of your head, think about all of the sayings you use or encounter in a day. Often, without even really understanding what we are saying or why, we use common sayings to sum up various moods or describe situations. But, what do they really mean and where do they come from?
Most of the popular sayings we use today are shrouded in mystery. We might know they come from the 17th or 18th century but we don’t know exactly who started using them. In most cases, the assumptions surrounding the origins of popular sayings are totally wrong, have been hijacked by another meaning or have taken on a different meaning over time. For instance, ‘break a leg’ is often said to stage actors before they perform. The popular belief is that it is bad luck to wish an actor well. Therefore, by wishing them ill, the superstitious believe the opposite will happen. However, the phrase can also mean to put in a strong or strenuous effort – also applicable to stage actors. Some even believe the saying refers to putting on such a good show that you will be required to bend your leg and bow to the applause. There are many more, but you get the idea.
Now, before we let the cat out of the bag, it is important to understand that there are many more popular sayings than could possibly fit on this list. We’re not pulling your leg, there really are a lot. Below are listed some of the most popular sayings along with where we think they came from. For each, at least a couple explanations or possible origins are given and you can be the judge of what seems to be the best fit. So, let’s stop beating around the bush and get on to the list.
10. Saved by the Bell
Some of you may remember that hit sit-com from the 1990s that revolved around a group of teenagers who went to school, encountered crazy challenges and talked on giant brick-sized cellphones. The show was called Saved by the Bell, but it wasn’t the first time that term had been used. The first, and the most modern explanation, comes from boxing where the term was first used in the 19th century to refer to someone who avoided a knockout thanks to the bell being rung to signify the end of the round. A more morbid origin comes from the 17th century where the dead were buried with a string around their wrist that was attached to a bell above ground. The idea was that if the person was not really dead the bell would sound and someone would dig them up – saving them or unleashing a zombie upon the unsuspecting British countryside.
9. Rule of Thumb
The rule of thumb is a principle or general application fit for a wide range of situations. In short, it’s a general rule to follow. Thanks to the 1999 cult hit The Boondock Saints, everyone who saw that film loved to repeat the origin of the term ‘rule of thumb.’ In the film, a co-worker informs the two protagonists that the term comes from 18th century English law which stipulated a husband could beat his wife as long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb. Interesting and witty, but not totally true as there has never been a ‘rule of thumb’ in British law. In all likelihood, the phrase originated with carpenters and/or farmers as a general measurement or benchmark you could fall back on if required.
8. Pleased as Punch
If you were like me and thought this had something to do with fruit punch, you are wrong. In short, this saying refers to be very happy or pleased with the current situation. It comes from the character of Punchinello, a 16th century Italian puppet. Punch and his wife Judy are just two of the characters made famous by puppeteer booths which played to seaside and street audiences over the last few centuries. The saying specifically refers to how happy and pleased Punch is after he does something bad to another character – often murdering them. Over the last several decades the popularity of these puppet shows has decreased, although we think it has little to do with the fact Punch is a wife-beating murderer.
7. Run Amok
If people or things are described as running amok, then they are out of control, wild and unruly. The term comes from the Malay word ‘amuk’ which means generally to go on a killing spree or into a murderous frenzy. It is attributed to the Amuco, a warrior class who believed that death made you a favorite of the gods. The result was that the Amuco fought in a maniacal and fearless way. In 1772, James Cook described his travels and that people who ‘run amok’ were high on opium and killed anyone who stood in their way. Today the term is still used, although other related phrases such as ‘going postal’ or ‘going berserk’ are equally popular.
6. Caught Red Handed
If the police caught you robbing a bank or your parents found you while you were sneaking out of the house, you could say you were caught red handed. Basically, this saying refers to being caught in the act of doing something inappropriate, wrong or illegal. The phrase is Scottish in origin dating to around the 15th century. In the law of that time, in order to be taken in by the sheriff and prosecuted for poaching, the accused had to be apprehended with ‘red-hand,’ referring to the presence of animal blood on the hands. This could also apply to murder in some cases. By the 19th century, the term had evolved fully into ‘caught red handed.’
5. Dressed to the Nines
This phrase refers to someone who is dressed flamboyantly or wearing a lot of clothing of the highest quality. Like many sayings, the origin is hard to pin down but there are a host possible sources. It could refer to the belief that a tailor used nine yards of cloth to make the finest suits. The saying could refer to the British 99th Regiment of Foot, a unit which was known for its high quality uniforms. The earliest example of ‘to the nines’ appears in a Scottish poem from the early 18th century. In this early form, it takes the meaning of ‘a lot,’ ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ – probably one of the best all-round explanations for what this saying generally means.
No, this is not going to be about Bruce Willis and the hit 1988 film Die Hard – although that was a pretty good movie, wasn’t it? The term die-hard refers to someone who resists stubbornly and is defiant in the face of great odds. Today the term is often used to describe someone’s allegiance to a sports team – such as a die-hard Boston Red Sox fans. The term is believed to have its origins in 18th century Britain where people executed by hanging often didn’t die quickly because they were not first dropped from a height. The popular origin of the term comes from the Peninsular War in 1811. During the Battle of Albuera, the wounded commander of the British 57th Regiment of Foot ordered his men to resist the French assault, shouting “Stand your ground, die hard…” The regiment held the line and came to be known as the “Die Hards.”
3. Cat Got Your Tongue
Up until the mid-20th century, if you’d ever been in a situation where you were left speechless or dumbfounded, this saying was likely appropriate. For the last 40 years it has generally been used less and less in daily speech. There are a couple prominent ideas when it comes to where this phrase originated. First, the incorrect belief is that it originated with sailors who were speechless when being whipped with a cat-o-nine tails. Second, and a bit more believable, is the story that ancient Egyptians cut out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and fed them to the cats. Nobody really knows for sure where this saying came from and it only appears in print for the first time in the late 19th Century.
2. Bite the Bullet
This saying basically means to take on or accept an unpleasant situation which is unavoidable. Like many sayings, the origins are not 100% clear. Many believe that it refers to wounded Civil War soldiers having to bite down on a bullet in order to cope with the pain of a surgeon performing surgery or an amputation. While it may sound like a decent explanation, the saying goes further back than the American Civil War and appears in the 18th century when describing punishment in the British Army. In order to endure the pain of a whip and not cry out, soldiers reportedly chewed on a ‘bullet.’ Of course, to add more confusion to this saying is the fact that wounded soldiers and men being whipped were known to bite down on pieces of wood which were called billets.
1. The Whole Nine Yards
In 2000 Matthew Perry teamed up with Bruce Willis in the comedy The Whole Nine Yards. The movie wasn’t the greatest but its title made use of a famous and often used saying which basically means ‘everything.’ Today, if you go the whole nine yards it means to go all the way or give everything you’ve got to achieve an objective. No one knows the true origins of this saying. Many people think it refers to World War Two US fighter and bomber crews who operated .50 caliber machine guns which used nine-yard ammunition belts. If you fired off all your ammunition at the enemy, you gave him the whole nine yards. While this fits, the saying actually appeared in commercial prints in 1907, over 30 years before the Second World War.