Since I was a little girl, I have always been fascinated by idioms, their meanings and where they came from. I swear, I tried to make every single English paper I wrote about idioms.
What Are Idioms?
Idiom: A saying or an expression; A group of words that does not make sense when taken literally; A group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own.
The first thing that strikes me when I hear a new idiom is how funny and silly the phrase can sound. Like, “That’s the cat’s pyjamas!” Which is used to describe something really hip and cool.
Next, I get really interested in finding out where the idioms originated; what’s their story? For the above example, the cat’s pyjamas, this idiom was coined in the 20’s when pyjamas were new to women’s fashion and highly desirable. Cats was a nickname for the fashionable young flapper girls from the era.
Just for fun, I have looked up some of the most common idioms that you have probably heard, and paired them with their meanings and their stories. I hope these are as entertaining and interesting to read for you as they are for me!
Common Idioms, Their Meanings & Their Stories
“A Red Herring.”
Meaning: A clue that initially seems vital, but ends up being irrelevant. Perhaps intended to throw someone off.
Origin: A herring is a fish that is known for its’ strong smell and red colouring when smoked. Red herrings were used to train hunting hounds to follow their trail and not be distracted by other strong scents, such as the fish.
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Meaning: Do not find fault with receiving a favour or gift.
Origin: When someone buys a horse, they can usually tell its’ age by inspecting their teeth. It was considered bad etiquette to look at your horse’s mouth if it was a gift.
“Let the cat out of the bag.”
Meaning: Revealing a secret.
Origin: Bringing pigs in bags to sell on the streets used to be a common practice. Some people would fraud the transaction by bringing cats in bags, rather than the more valuable pigs. If they accidentally let the cat out of the bag, they revealed their sneaky trick.
“Costs an arm and a leg.”
Meaning: When something is very expensive.
Origin: Before practical photography, people hired artists to paint their portrait. Many famous people had their portraits done without limbs, because adding arms or legs would have cost more.
“Give the cold shoulder.”
Meaning: Being antisocial toward someone.
Origin: Long ago, when the host felt that the guest had over-stayed their welcome, they would serve them a piece of cold meat from the shoulder of the animal. The guest would then take the hint that it was time for them to leave.
“Close, but no cigar.”
Meaning: Not quite achieving success, but close.
Origin: In shooting games at carnivals, a common prize was a cigar. If the person just barely missed the mark, the carney would say that they weren’t close enough to get a cigar.
“With a grain of salt.”
Meaning: With some skepticism or caution.
Origin: Salt is known for its’ healing properties and was believed to prevent sickness. If somebody thought their food or drink looked suspicious, they would eat/drink it with a grain of salt in hopes to prevent any illness.
Have you heard most of these idioms before? Are there one or two that you say all the time but never knew the origin? Let me know in the comments below!
Most of these I grew up hearing my mother say, as she is choke-full of these types of expressions! PS: Does anyone know the origin of choke-full? I don’t!
Listen closely today for idioms and see how many you hear in the run of a day!
Related Post: 10 Short Jokes To Make You Smile