Have you ever wondered where old sayings like ‘turn a blind eye to’ or ‘burning the midnight oil’ come from? Some of the following sayings have a really sinister origin, and others are completely surprising.
35 Popular Old Sayings and Their Real Meanings
“At the Drop of a Hat”
Means: To do something without delay
Real meaning: In the 19th century, a hat was used to indicate the start of a race or a fight. A hat would be dropped or swept in a downward arc and participants would begin.
“As Mad as a Hatter”
Means: To be crazy or insane
Real meaning: In the 17th and 18th centuries, hatters made felt hats with mercury, which lead to all kinds of side effects, including insanity. The Mad Hatter, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, is based on this phenomenon.
“Barking up the Wrong Tree”
Means: Take the wrong approach or waste your efforts
Real meaning: This is an old saying that originates in America and refers to hunting dogs in the early 19th century. Hunted prey such as raccoons or bears would escape the dogs by climbing up trees. The dogs would then sit and bark at the base of the tree, waiting for their masters.
However, sometimes the dogs would lose the scent and select the wrong tree. They would still bark for their masters.
Means: Stressed out, unable to cope
Real meaning: In WW1, tragically many soldiers lost limbs and had to be carried. They were put in a makeshift basket and referred to as ‘basket cases’.
Means: A very important person
Real meaning: This is one of those old sayings that is literal in origin. In the 18th century, the important figures within the political system would wear the biggest wigs.
“Bite the Bullet”
Means: Go through the pain and get on with it
Real meaning: There was no such thing as pain relief or anaesthesia in the 19th century. As a result, when soldiers were injured on the battlefield and needed treatment, they were given a bullet to bite down on to prevent them screaming out loud.
“Burning the Midnight Oil”
Means: Working late into the night
Real meaning: Before the days of electricity, oil lamps were used for lighting a room. Hence, you were burning oil at midnight if you were working late.
“Bury the Hatchet”
Means: End a disagreement and move on
Real meaning: This old saying comes from a Native American tradition. When tribes declared a truce from battle, the chief from each opposing side would take a hatchet and bury it during a ceremony.
Means: Apprehended during the commission of a crime
Real meaning: In 15th century Scotland, being caught red-handed refers to committing a crime that leaves you with blood on your hands.
Means: To get on with eating
Real meaning: The US military came up with this slang term during WWII. The Chinese were rumoured to eat dog meat and as a Chow is a Chinese dog the term grew from those two things.
Means: An exact likeness
Real meaning: In the 19th century, US horse-racers would substitute a horse that was faster or slower than the original racing horse to con the bookies. That horse looked exactly like the substituted horse and was called a ringer.
“Dressed to the Nines”
Means: Wearing your best clothes
Real meaning: There were no ‘off the shelf’ suits in the 18th century. If you wanted one, you had it made especially for you. In those days, a suit included the waistcoat and so it took nine yards of fabric to complete.
“Eating Humble Pie”
Means: To be submissive or apologetic
Real meaning: As far back as the 17th century, the lord of an estate would give the umbles (the less tasty parts of an animal) to his servants. Typically, they were made into a pie. This became associated with a lower social status.
“Feeling under the Weather”
Means: Not feeling well
Real meaning: This is another one of those old sayings that come from the sea. Sailors would rest under the bow of a ship if they became seasick during a voyage. This was the best place as it would protect the sailor from bad weather. Those who were ill were described as ‘being under the weather’.
“Give a Cold Shoulder”
Means: Ignore or reject
Real meaning: At medieval banquets, the host would give his guests a cut of cold meat, usually the shoulder, to indicate the feast was over and it was time to go home.
“Happy as Larry”
Means: As happy as you can be
Real meaning: In the late 19th century, Australian boxer Larry Foley won a massive prize pot of $150,000. The headlines the next day reported on Happy Larry.
“Can’t Hold a Candle to”
Means: You are nowhere near as good as
Real meaning: In the 17th century, it was the job of the apprentices to hold the candles during the night so that their teachers or the talent could see what they were doing.
“In the Limelight”
Means: To be the centre of attention
Real meaning: In the 19th century, theatres used a limelight, a bright white spotlight, to light up the actors. In the limelight became known as being the centre of attention.
Means: The holiday immediately after a newly-wed couple’s marriage.
Real meaning: It was a tradition for just-married couples to drink honey for a month to increase their chances of good luck throughout the marriage.
“In the Nick of Time”
Means: An action performed before it is too late
Real meaning: There are lots of old sayings that relate to money and debt. This one originated in the 18th century. People kept track of the money they owed to creditors with a stick. A nick was carved onto this stick every day the money was overdue. If you paid before the nick, then you didn’t owe interest on the debt.
“Kick the Bucket”
Means: To die
Real meaning: During the slaughter of cows, buckets were placed under the animal to catch the blood. Often the cow would kick the bucket at the last minute as it was being hoisted up for slaughter.
“My Ears Are Burning”
Means: Someone is talking about me behind my back
Real meaning: The Ancient Romans paid particular attention to bodily sensations. They believed they were signs of good or bad luck, depending on where these sensations occurred. The left-hand side was associated with bad luck and the right side was good luck. Burning in the left ear indicated criticism whereas burning in the right ear was associated with praise.
“One for the Road”
Means: The last drink before setting off
Real meaning: This old saying dates back to the Middle Ages. Apparently, prisoners on their way to execution in London were allowed to stop along Oxford Street for one final drink before they died.
“Paint the Town Red”
Means: Go out for a wild night
Real meaning: There are several explanations for this old saying, but it is generally attributed to a night of drunken antics in 1837 by the Marquis of Waterford.
According to the records, the Marquis was a known drunk and renowned for his drunken rampages in the small English town of Melton Mowbray. On this particular night, however, the marquis and his friends went wild, vandalising houses and eventually painting the doors and a statue with red paint.
“Pulling Out All the Stops”
Means: Making a huge effort
Real meaning: In the late 19th century, organists used stops to create volume whenever they played. Pulling out all the stops is the loudest an organ can play.
“Put a Sock in It”
Means: Be quiet and stop talking
Real meaning: Talking of volume and sound, here we have yet another one of those old sayings from the late 19th century. Gramophones used to have large trumpet-shaped horns which provided the sound. However, there was no way to adjust the volume in those days so the only way to lower the sound was to literally put a sock in the horn.
“Resting on Your Laurels”
Means: To sit back and rely on past achievements
Real meaning: In Ancient Greece, laurel leaves were associated with high status and achievement. As a matter of fact, athletes were presented with wreaths made from laurel leaves to denote their prestige.
Later on, the Romans also implemented this practice and awarded laurel crowns to successful generals. They were known as ‘laureates’ and allowed to retire because of their past achievements. In other words, they could ‘rest on their laurels’. Nowadays it has more of a negative connotation.
“Sell You Down the River”
Means: A betrayal of trust
Real meaning: During the abolition of the slave trade of the 19th century, southern states in the US would continue to capture and sell slaves. These slaves would be shipped down the Mississippi River and sold.
“Show Your True Colours”
Means: Divulge your true intentions
Real meaning: ‘Colours’ refer to a ship’s flags and, therefore, their identity. In the 18th century, pirate ships would deliberately lower their colours or display false colours to confuse other ships into thinking they were friendly. It was only when they got close enough to attack they would show their true colours.
Means: have a good night’s sleep
Real meaning: this is just one of the many old sayings that derive from Shakespeare’s era. In those days, beds and mattresses were secured with ropes that were pulled tight. This formed a solid base and led to a night of good sleep. Hence – sleep tight.
“You Son of a Gun”
Means: A term of endearment
Real meaning: When sailors took their wives to sea on long voyages inevitably some of the women fell pregnant. The safest place to give birth was deemed to be between the gun cannons. Therefore, a child born on the gun deck was known as a ‘son of a gun’.
“Spill the Beans”
Means: Tell me your secret
Real meaning: Back to Ancient Greece again for this old saying. During elections, voters would place a bean into a jar designated to the candidate of their choice. Sometimes the jar would be knocked over and the beans would spill out, revealing the result of the voting.
“Steal Your Thunder”
Means: Take the limelight away from someone
Real meaning: As old sayings go, this one is the most literal I can find. 18th-century playwright John Dennis wanted an authentic sound of thunder to give his play more gravitas. So he invented a thunder-making machine.
When his play flopped he thought nothing of it, but later on, he learned that someone had looked at his machine and made a similar one for their play. It was practically the same but he was not credited with the invention. This person had literally stolen his thunder.
“Turn a Blind Eye”
Means: Refusing to accept the situation
Real meaning: Naval commander Horatio Nelson is a hero in British history, but even he had his foibles. During one particular battle, his ships were sent to battle a huge combined fleet from Norway and Denmark. When an officer suggested that they withdraw, according to legend, Nelson held the telescope up to his blind eye and said:
“I really do not see the signal.”
“Walls Have Ears”
Means: Watch what you say, someone could be listening
Real meaning: I’m not sure whether this is one of those old sayings born from myth but the story is interesting enough. It is said that there are underground chambers built into the Louvre Palace in Paris. In fact, Catherine de Medici had them built specifically for listening to plots against her family.
“Winning Hands Down”
Means: Wins by a huge margin
Real meaning: In horse racing, a jockey uses a whip to make his or her horse gallop faster. If they are miles away from the competition, then they can put their hands down as they don’t need the whip.
These are just a few of many old sayings that have become popular over time. Do you have any to add to the list?
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Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)
Sub-editor & staff writer at Learning Mind
Janey Davies has been published online for over 10 years. She has suffered from a panic disorder for over 30 years, which prompted her to study and receive an Honours degree in Psychology with the Open University. Janey uses the experiences of her own anxiety to offer help and advice to others dealing with mental health issues.
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