The Quirky Origins of Common Phrases

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The Quirky Origins of Common Phrases

For someone learning English, some of the hardest things to master are our many strange idiomatic expressions, which don’t make a lot of sense to someone who’s trying to translate them literally. Exactly why do we eat “humble pie” and why are special stocks called “blue chips”?

Some of these idioms don’t even make much sense for us native speakers, and it’s a reminder of why English can be such a frustrating language. Some of our curious turns of phrase came into use hundreds of years ago, and many have interesting—and surprising—origins.

The Dog Days of Summer aren’t just those few weeks when the heat makes us pant like dogs. In fact, astronomers began using this expression in Roman times, when they noticed that the star Sirius, also known as the “dog star,” rose and shone with the sun from about July 3 to August 11. Scientists thought that when Sirius was in the sky along with the sun, it contributed to the intense heat of those “dog days.”

Since the time of early Scandinavians, we’ve called the period after a wedding a Honeymoon. According to tradition, the wedding couple was compelled to drink a fermented honeyed beverage for about a month after the wedding—from the time of one full moon until the next—for fertility and luck. This month of drinking and festivity was dubbed the “honeymoon.”

After the Moors invaded Spain in 711, proud aristocratic families took pride in their pure Spanish heritage and the fact that they never intermarried with the dark-skinned Moors. They called the proof of their racial purity sangre azul for the way their veins tended to look blue under their pale skin, earning anyone from a noble or patrician heritage the nickname Blue Blood

When you eat Humble Pie, you’ve been proven wrong or have had to take back your words. As early as the 15th century, the entrails and leftover organs of animals were called “umbles,” and they were often baked into pies as a common peasant meal. The word “humble” developed separately, but since it means lowly or contrite, it morphed into “humble pie,” a dish eaten by the apologetic.   

In feudal days, weddings were fraught with the real possibility that a rival lord would try to break up the ceremony and steal the bride. To prepare for a possible battle, a groom would ask a friend with fighting skills to stand with him during his marriage and act as his Best Man, helping to defend his bride from possible kidnapping. Often, grooms would convince multiple friends and relatives to stand with him, and several peasant maids would be persuaded to stand with the bride, in the hope that if invaders came to disrupt the ceremony, they would be confused by the plethora of girls, and possibly kidnap the wrong one. Think about that the next time you’re asked to be in a wedding party.

We sometimes say that someone in a state of suspense is On Tenterhooks. Tendere is a Latin word meaning “to stretch.” In Medieval Europe, freshly-woven bolts of cloth were dried on special racks so that they would not shrink or stretch. The racks were called “tenters,” and cloth was affixed with hooks, which is how the phrase “on tenterhooks’” came to connote being in a state of tension or anxiety.

Animals are oft-recurring characters in English expressions. In medieval times, unscrupulous vendors in the marketplace would sometimes substitute a cat when someone bought a piglet, putting the feline in a bag where its squirms would mimic the struggle of the pig. Once the buyer walked away, they would Let the Cat Out of the Bag, revealing the trickery.

Some claim that the expression Rule of Thumb originated with an English common law which stated that a man could not beat his wife with a branch any thicker than his thumb. Although that might be true, people have used body parts as standards of measure since ancient times. Feet, forearms, and finger lengths had been used in building, cooking, and brewing for thousands of years before the English solidified it into law, and the phrase “rule of thumb” has referred to a general, but imprecise, rule for the past few hundred years.  

The phrase Armed to the Teeth comes from pirate times, when no one took the trouble to re-load guns, so pirates compensated by carrying as many weapons as they could handle—in their pockets, in their shoes, in their waistbands, and anywhere else they could fit one. To cap it off, many carried a knife or dagger in their teeth, since it was the only place left.

Also in ancient Rome, marble workers and craftsmen would sometimes cover up cracks and imperfections in their work with wax. Items that were whole and unblemished were, understandably, more valuable, so an artisan’s promise of sine cera, Latin words meaning “without wax” was an important personal and professional guarantee, and it’s why we now sign letters with the salutation Sincerely.

In the stock market, a Blue Chip stock is valuable and stable—a sure thing. In gambling parlance, different colors of chips are worth different amounts of money. Blue chips are the most valuable chips in casinos, and the phrase “blue chip” is used to describe any stock that’s unlikely to decline in value.

Crazy people are often described as being Mad as a Hatter. It’s not just a reference to Alice in Wonderland; up until the 19th century, milliners used large amounts of mercury in their work. After years of exposure, the hatters would sometimes develop symptoms of mercury poisoning, including aggression, tremors, and unpredictable behavior. Even today, mercury poisoning is sometimes called “Mad Hatter’s disease.”

The English language is full of strange phrases with unexpected origins. The next time it’s raining cats and dogs, batten down the hatches and burn the midnight oil with an etymological dictionary … you never know what sort of skeletons you’ll find in the closet.

Updated August 9, 2010