Say What? Origins of Popular Expressions

It is interesting to dig back and see when common expressions originated. Not only when, but to understand the underlying meaning. Sometimes, we apply them improperly. Here are bunch to set you straight and use in the right context. Oh, and you will learn what, “Nuke the Fridge”, means.

The Acid Test: to prove something is real.

During the California Gold Rush, prospectors and dealers used acid to distinguish gold from base metal. If the metal dissolved in a mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, it was the real thing.

A Baker’s Dozen: one more over 12, or 13 in total.

Medieval English bakers gave an extra loaf when selling a dozen to avoid being penalized for selling a short weight. Bakers could be fined, pilloried or even flogged for selling ‘underweight’ bread.

Bite The Bullet: to make a difficult decision or one long put-off.

During early battles there was no time to administer anesthetics while performing surgeries. So, patients were made to bite down on bullets to distract from the pain.

Break the Ice: a friendly, disarming way to commence a relationship.

Ships were once the only transportation and means of trade. At times, they would get stuck during the winter because of ice. The receiving country would send small ships to “break the ice” to clear a way for the trade ships, a gesture of understanding between two territories.

Butter Someone Up: to impress and ingratiate with flattery.

This was a customary religious act in ancient India. The devout would throw butter balls at the statues of their gods to seek favor and forgiveness.

Bury the Hatchet: to end a conflict and make peace.

This dates back to when Puritans were in conflict with the Native Americans. When negotiating peace, the Native Americans would bury all their hatchets, knives, clubs, and tomahawks to make them inaccessible.

Caught Red-Handed: to be caught in the act of doing something wrong.

An old English law ordered any person to be punished for butchering an animal that wasn’t his own. To be convicted meant being caught with the animal’s blood still on one’s hands.

Chow Down: to eat a meal, often quickly and without ceremony.

This was first used by the U.S. military during WWII. ‘Chow’ is a Chinese breed of dog, that became a slang term for food due to the Chinese’s reputation for eating dog meat.

Cut of Your Jib: to admire a certain style or personality.

Sir Walter Scott brought this phrase into common use. The jib is a triangular sail used on sailing ships, and as each country has its own style, the ‘cut of your jib’ determines a boat’s origins.

Give a Cold Shoulder: being unwelcoming or antisocial.

In Medieval England, it was customary to give a guest a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of mutton, pork, or beef chop when the host felt it was time for the guest to leave. This was a polite way to move them along.

Go the Whole Nine Yards: to try your best at something, to go for it.

Often confused with football, this one comes from World War II when fighter pilots were equipped with nine yards of ammunition. When they ran out, it meant that they had tried their best at fighting by using the entirety of their ammunition.

In the Buff: to be naked or nude.

A buff-coat was a light coloured leather tunic worn by English soldiers up until the 17th century. The original meaning was simply to be wearing such a coat. Later on, ‘in the buff’ was used to mean naked, due to the colour of skin, which is similar to the buff coat.

Nuke the Fridge: a moment that beats all future ones.

A film moment that is so incredible, it impacts subsequent scenes that rely on more understated action or suspense. The term comes from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which, Harrison Ford’s character survives a nuclear blast in a kitchen fridge.

Put A Sock In It: tell someone to stop talking.

In the late 19th century, people used woolen socks to stuff the horns of their gramophones or record players to lower the sound. These early machines had no volume control.

Steal One’s Thunder: win praise by pre-empting someone else’s attempt to impress.

In the 18th century, playwright John Dennis, made a machine that mimicked the sound of thunder for his play. The play wasn’t a success, but someone stole his invention. Later on, in another theatre, Dennis discovered the thunder machine being used without credit.

The Walls Have Ears: take care of what you say as people may be eavesdropping.

France’s Louvre Palace was believed to have a network of listening tubes so it was possible to hear what was said in different rooms. This may be how Queen Catherine de’Medici discovered political secrets and plots.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *