We often say things that have a specific meaning, yet we don’t know the history behind the saying. Here are 30 of those. Many others have disputed histories, such as “in the weeds,” “rule of thumb,” and “back to square one”—whereas others are simply unknown.
1. “Bark Up the Wrong Tree...”
Hunting dogs often chase animals up trees, only to have the animal jump to a branch on another tree to try to escape. If the dog misses this happening, it would then be barking up the wrong tree.
2. “Beat Around the Bush...”
This was originally a phrase to describe the practice of hunters who would beat around bushes to flush out birds.
3. “Call a Spade a Spade...”
This one has nothing to do with playing cards, and instead is based on the less frequently used name for a shovel.
4. “Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat it Too...”
I always found this one confusing, but it’s based on the idea that once you eat your cake, it’s gone (i.e., you then “can’t have your cake”).
5. “Can’t Hold a Candle...”
Apprentices—and even children—were often tasked with holding a candle so experienced workers could see. It was an insult if you were deemed unworthy of even holding a candle.
6. “Chip on Your Shoulder...”
In the 19th century, someone looking for a fight would walk around with a chip of wood on his shoulder. Someone could take them up on the challenge to fight by knocking the wood off his shoulder.
7. “Close, But No Cigar...”
Fairgrounds once gave out cigars as prizes (before stuffed animals), and though you could come close, you had to win to get a cigar.
8. “Cook the Books...”
This is based on the idea that the numbers are altered, just as cooking will alter food.
9. “Cut Corners...”
This is based on the notion of being able to move faster by cutting diagonally across a space. For math lovers, this is Pythagorean theorem in action.
10. “Cut to the Chase...”
This is an old cinematic phrase. When there was a move with too much dialogue, people wanted to get to the more interesting scenes, which often involved a chase. Movie producers would then say get to the chase to hear about the more exciting parts of a script.
11. “Dead in the Water...”
This is derived from a nautical term based on a ship that would remain motionless when there was no wind for the sales. Now it is used to describe a lack of progress.
12. “Drop of a Hat...”
During the American frontier days, the dropping of a hat was used to signify the start of something, often a fight. This has evolved into its current meaning of moving quickly.
13. “Foot the Bill...”
The bottom (i.e., foot) of the page is where the total amount is placed. This resulted in determining who will cover the foot of the bill.
14. “Go Belly Up...”
A company that dies goes belly up, just like a dead fish in the water.
15. “Heard it Through the Grapevine...”
This has nothing to do with real grapes, and is derived from the fact that telegraph wiring resembled grapevines. When receiving a telegram, people received the message via this electronic grapevine.
16. “Hot Potato...”
Potatoes were baked in fires before ovens, and had to be handled with caution when removed from the embers.
17. “In the Bag...”
This started with the New York Giants baseball team and their superstition that they would win the game if they put a ball in a bag and walked off with it they had the lead.
18. “Jump Through Hoops...”
You have to jump through hoops to get something done or please someone, just like circus animals to please their trainers.
19. “Learn the Ropes...”
New sailors had to learn knots and ropes on their ship, just as new employees need to learn about their role.
20. “Let the Cat Out of the Bag...”
Centuries ago piglets were sold in bags; folktale tells it that unscrupulous vendors would try to substitute a cat in the bag instead since these were more plentiful. If the buyer opened the bag before the purchase, the vendors’ secret would then be known.
21. “Pass the Buck...”
In the 1800s, a knife was often used to signal whose turn was coming up to deal in poker. Knife handles were frequently built with buck antler, hence pass the buck. Note, the similar “the buck stops here” evolved from this to indicate that there would be no more passing of responsibility.
22. “Pull the Wool Over Your Eyes....”
Back when leaders and politicians were powdered wigs, pulling this wool over their eyes was slang for when they were blinded to facts.
23. “Push the Envelope...”
This is not based on an actual envelope, and instead comes from the world of aviation. Pilots will push an airplane’s flight envelope to understand its performance limits.
24. “Security Blanket...”
The original security blankets where clipped to babies’ cribs in order to prevent them from falling out. A security blanket now refers to something that gives someone a sense of comfort or protection.
25. “Steal Your Thunder...”
This came from playwright John Dennis in the early 1700s. One of his plays was not well received, but his cutting edge sound effects for thunder were; he soon found that others had copied the effect and “stolen his thunder.”
26. “Straight From the Horse’s Mouth...”
When considering purchasing a horse a buyer would want to know its age, and the more accurate way to do so was to look at it’s teeth.
27. “Take it With a Grain of Salt...”
Food is easier to swallow with a small amount of salt, and this evolved into taking news with a grain of salt to make it more palatable to receive.
28. “Think Outside of the Box...”
This origin of this does not have to do with an actual box. It is instead based on the “Nine dots puzzle” where the nine dots are arranged in a box shape; to solve it you must think outside of traditional logic.
29. “You’re Fired...”
This is most employees’ worst fear, and the roots can be traced to the early 1900s at National Cash Register. Legend has it, founder John Patterson sent an employee out on a business call and when he was gone, put his desk outside and set it on fire to signify that he no longer had a job when he returned.
30. “The Writing is on the Wall...”
This is derived from the Book of Daniel and writing that appeared on the palace wall in Babylon predicting the pending doom of the kingdom.
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