Popular sayings are usually clever, short gems of wisdom that express some universal truth about life. For almost any situation, there’s a phrase or saying that – while it may be reductive – helps elucidate meaning. There are thousands of witty or curiously apt expressions in the English language alone, many of which date back as far as hundreds of years ago. These come from the minds of people from all walks of life, from poets to medical doctors.
Some of these sayings are honoured through time as useful guides to life. Others are just plain common sense. Regardless of the usages, phrases and sayings stand the test of time with their endless appeal through their brevity, vividness, and humour. In the same way people laugh because they immediately understand a joke, people immediately relate to a certain truth when a phrase is worded just right.
It’s obvious that people use phrases, sayings, and mottos almost every day of their lives, mostly without even knowing it. But much less obvious is where these grains of truth actually come from. Some origins are lost to the mists of time, but the same expert linguists who edit the Webster’s Dictionary have managed to hunt down the often surprising origins of some popular sayings that are an integral part of the English language.
10. You Are What You Eat
This phrase might motivate people to shed a few pounds by eating healthier food. French and German intellectuals as early as 1826 wrote versions of the phrase along the lines of “show a man what he eats and I will show you who he is.” But nothing much happened with the expression in the public consciousness until the 1920s when the popular nutritionist Victor Lindlahr linked certain foods to diseases: “Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.” He also wrote a book using the phrase as its main title. Since then, the hippies of the 1960s took over the saying as a buzz phrase in their healthy-eating lifestyles. It has stuck in the English language ever since.
9. You Can’t Teach An Old Dogs New Tricks
This phrase usually describes the stubbornness of older people and their inability to learn anything new. It’s one of the oldest expressions in the English language; it gained popularity as early as 1546. In 1534, John Fitzherbert, in his book The Boke of Husbandry, used an Old English version of the phrase when he described a shepherd who has difficulty taking care of his animals. Today, it’s still used to describe a variety of situations of how people, or things, will rarely change.
8. Two Heads Are Better Than One
Team work, team work, team work! Two people have a better chance at figuring something out than just one. Back again to 1546, the linguist John Heywood used this phrase almost verbatim when the word “head” literally meant “mind” in Old English. Variations of the phrase can also be found in the Bible, Ecclesiastes, 4:9: “Therefore two are better than one, for they may well enjoy the profit of their labour.” These days, the phrase can also mean being open to opinions and ideas.
7. An Apple A Day Keeps The Doctor Away
For grandmothers around the world, the best advice is to eat at least one apple a day. In the 1866 edition of Notes and Queries, it was written that eating an apple before going bed will keep the doctor from “earning his bread”. Later, a variation of the rhyme people use today appeared in folklore books, such as Rustic Speech and Folk-lore, written by Elizabeth Wright. Every expression has a grain of truth, and this one is no exception; apples are a good source of nutrition, with plenty of vitamins and fibre, so it’s not surprising it became a symbol of good health.
6. What You See Is What You Get
This phrase usually describes uniqueness or genuine authenticity. The acronym ‘Wysiwyg’ used to display on computer screens to stand for what will be seen when something is printed. But there’s another, older, origin. Performer Flip Wilson popularized this phrase in the show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Versions of this saying also appeared in advertisements as early as the 1940s, in phrases like “What you see, you get!” In 1966, the phrase appeared verbatim in a print ad in The Oakland Tribune. It’s now used by people everywhere to indicate there’s no hidden agenda.
5. Smoke And Mirrors
If there are smoke and mirrors, trickery is afoot. Smoke and mirrors are common tools in magic shows, where magicians deceive an audience by diverting their attention or hiding certain parts of a trick. The American journalist Jimmy Breslin used the term in the 1970s as a metaphor to describe modern political powers: “All political power is primarily an illusion… Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors…” Not long after, people borrowed the most common take on the phrase to describe tricksters, charlatans, and con artists.
4. The Whole Nine Yards
If you’re going to do something, go the whole nine yards; that is, go the full way. Many theories exist on the origin of the popular phrase, even though nobody knows exactly when it first appeared, or who first coined it. From what experts can determine, it was used as early as 1907, but it didn’t gain popularity until later. In 1961, American Ralph Boston broke the world record for long jumping. When newspapers reported on it, the headline read: “Boston goes the whole nine yards.”
3. Piece Of Cake
If it’s something easy, it’s ‘a piece of cake’. The phrase actually comes from the American poet Ogden Nash and his poem Primrose Path published in 1936. Nash writes in the poem: “Her picture’s in the papers now /And life’s a piece of cake.” Nash isn’t the first person to use deserts as a symbol for simplicity and ease. Other phrases exist in the American lexicon such as “easy as pie” and “it’s a cake walk”. Deserts like that are easy to eat, too.
2. Break A Leg
Performance artists like actors and musicians have heard this phrase a hundred times before going on stage. It’s one of a range of deep-rooted superstition many actors have, such as never saying the name of Shakespeare’s famous “Scottish play” out loud. Many people believed that wishing a performer “good luck” would actually jinx them. Instead, they did the opposite by wishing them “bad luck”. The actual words in ‘break a leg’ could have multiple meanings, such as making a great effort in the performance. It’s also theorised that it could be a simple play on words of the phrase “big break”.
1. Cold Turkey
Quitting smoking? Are you going cold turkey? The phrase has become almost exclusively associated with withdrawal from drugs or suddenly stoping anything at all. It’s origin goes back as early as American colonists and the role the turkey played as both a food source and symbol. In America, it went on to mean “talking the plain truth”. In 1921, when the newspaper The Daily Colonist said that drug addicts were getting the “cold turkey treatment”, it became a popular usage to define withdrawal from a substance. Something to think about the next time you’re battling an addition.