Origins of 15 Everyday Sayings and Idioms

You’ve probably heard many of these sayings without even thinking about why we use them. Where did phrases like “bury the hatchet” even come from?

English is filled with idioms, and many people have no idea what they used to mean. Linguistic experts have tracked down the origins of some of our most common sayings. Did you know the history behind any of these famous slang terms?

1. Paint the Town Red

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Today, this term refers to a night out on the town, partying, drinking, and loving life. While some historians suggest it comes from men touring the brothels in the red-light districts, it actually refers to one epic drinking bender by the Marquis of Waterford.

The local drunk and his friends spent the night drinking in the small English town of Melton Mowbray. The group finished their night by vandalizing random homes, breaking windows, pulling up flowers, and literally painting a giant swan statue red. The term lived on and is now used to describe a wild night out.

2. Running Amok

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We now call crazy and volatile behavior “running amok,” but the phrase’s origin is a medical term. In the 18th century, Europeans visiting Malaysia feared a condition that caused relatively sane men to go on killing sprees.

A band of Javanese and Malay warriors called “Amuco” were notorious for their violence, and these Westerners were fascinated by their antics. Famous explorer Captain James Cook coined “amok” to describe their behavior and its effect on travelers who believed it was a form of possession.

3. Diehard

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Sports fans might consider themselves diehard fans of a particular team or player. While this usually means they’re dedicated to that franchise, the word has a much darker meaning.

In the 1700s, the term was connected to men sentenced to death by hanging, but whose necks weren’t broken by the rope. Instead, they suffered a painful death by strangulation.

Later, a British officer, William Inglis, was severely wounded in battle but urged his troops on. He shouted, “Stand your ground and die hard… make the enemy pay dear for each of us!” The regiment lost 75% of its men and was, after that, known as “the Die Hards.”

4. White Elephant

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I’m sure most of us have played the white elephant game during the holidays. If not, it is a gift-giving game where you give out gag gifts instead of real presents.

The history of the term is quite similar. The kings of Siam, now Thailand, would gift anyone who angered them a rare and sacred albino elephant. While this seems like a noble gesture, albino elephants cost a fortune to take care of and often, the recipients of the gift would go broke tending to their new pet’s needs.

5. Feeling Under The Weather

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It is common to hear someone say they feel “under the weather” when they’re sick. But the phrase doesn’t really make sense until you know the history behind it.

The phrase is an old nautical term for sailors who fell ill at sea. Contagious sailors quarantined themselves under the ship’s bow, literally putting them “under the weather.”

6. Beat Around The Bush

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When someone tells you to stop “beating around the bush,” they’re telling you to get to the point. The original use of the phrase dates back hundreds of years.

In medieval times, upper-class royalty hired men to beat around bushes to flush out the birds hiding in them. The day’s main purpose was hunting the birds, so beating around the bush circled the main point. The phrase stuck and is now a part of everyday speech.

7. Spill the Beans

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If you have a secret you’re trying to keep, your friends might tell you to spill the beans. This means telling someone what you know about a situation. But how did beans become associated with secrets?

The truth is, there is no clear-cut answer. Historians believe it comes from an ancient Greek voting system using beans as ballots. At the end of the process, a person would “spill the beans” and count the election results, thus revealing the winner.

8. The Proof is in the Pudding

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Does anyone really understand the meaning of this saying? It can mean three things. First, it can back up a previously made claim. Second, it means that how someone achieves something doesn’t matter as long as the outcome is good. Third, success is only measured by putting the final product to good use.

In early 16th-century English, proof was most likely associated with the test, and pudding was a mixture of minced meat, not the sweet treat it is today. So, the phrase meant that the true test of your meat is by tasting it. Somehow, it caught on and continues to be a weird idiom we still use today.

9. I’ve Got It in the Bag

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We’ve all heard this saying before. It means we are guaranteed success in whatever we do. For example, “I’m not worried about flunking this test. I’ve got it in the bag.”

But what is the bag, and what does that mean? In 1916, the former New York Giants of Major League Baseball were so good that they used to pack up their equipment before the game was over because they were so confident they would win. Teams were once required to provide a bag with a set number of baseballs for the game, but the egotistical Giants took their bag into the clubhouse during the latter innings, claiming they had the game “in the bag.”

10. Bury The Hatchet

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We agree this means making amends, putting differences aside, and remaining friends, right? Luckily, most of us don’t need weapons to solve our problems, but that wasn’t the case in early America.

The phrase is actually pretty straightforward. When early American settlers had conflicts with indigenous natives, the tribes would literally bury their weapons to make them less likely to be tempted to use them. We say, “Bury the hatchet,” as a way to agree to resolve differences, but the Native Americans did it in real life to avoid added conflict.

11. The Whole Nine Yards

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Why is nine yards the standard for trying to do your best? The story behind this idiom is that fighter pilots were given a nine-yard ammunition belt during World War II.

Fighters were encouraged to unload all of their ammunition at the target if they got involved in air-to-air combat, or a “dogfight.” Emptying their clip proved they had fought their best fight, which is why we still use this saying today.

12. Butter Someone Up

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Have you ever tried to compliment someone just to get your way? If so, you might have been accused of trying to “butter someone up.” Ever wonder how that phrase came to be?

It comes from an old Hindu tradition of throwing balls of ghee butter at statues of gods with the hopes of asking them for their forgiveness. The roots of the phrase stuck, but instead of butter balls, we use kind words and cheesy one-liners.

13. Break The Ice

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How often have you tried to break the ice with that cute girl at the bar? For years, the saying has meant avoiding the awkwardness of approaching a stranger and developing a friendship. Of course, the metaphor has a meaning that goes back centuries.

When cargo ships were the main source for transporting goods, they braved freezing conditions, sometimes getting stuck in ice formations. Neighboring countries would send ships to “break the ice,” allowing the ships to continue their deliveries. These acts were considered a sign of goodwill and trust between the two countries.

14. Bite The Bullet

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Accept your punishment, face your fate, and meet your maker. Whatever idiom you prefer, biting the bullet means taking responsibility for your actions.

The first known usage of this idiom comes from Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 book The Light That Failed. The author recounts a story about a field doctor during a battle who was short on anesthesia and asked his patients to “bite the bullet” to help ease the pain they were about to experience. Based on this description, I would imagine most of the patients didn’t survive and met their maker while biting the bullet.

15. Win Hands Down

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If you win a race or a match easily, people will say you won “hands down.” What do hands have to do with winning unless we’re talking about thumb wrestling or poker?

The answer is simple. When a horse wins a race by a wide margin, the jockey no longer has to whip the animal and hangs his hands at his side. The circumstance led announcers to describe riders crossing the finish line with their hands down instead of on the straps or the whip.

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