15 popular sayings and where they came from 55



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We often say things without realising – it seems like there’s a saying for every situation!

But have you ever wondered where that saying comes from or what it really means?

Here’s the explanation being 15 popular phrases we have said for years.

1. Bite the bullet

When we bite the bullet, we accept something difficult and just push through, and the saying goes back to when anaesthetic couldn’t be administered quickly. The surgeon made patients bite down on a bullet to stop them from focusing on the pain!

2. Blood is thicker than water

You may have used this phrase when describing your family or in a family situation, and this is where it originated. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, blood rituals between men symbolised bonds that were far greater than those with family.

3. Cat got your tongue?

When you just want someone to spit it out, you might say “cat got your tongue” but it wasn’t a reference to the humble feline. It was first used by the English Navy when they were doing floggings. The whip caused so much pain that the victims were left speechless.

4. Caught red-handed

Been caught in the act? You’ve been caught red-handed. This saying is derived from the act of butchering someone else’s animal, then being caught with blood i.e. dobbing yourself in.

5. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

Been cleaning out your house? You may have been sentimental and told your partner not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But did you know this saying comes from the 1500s when families all bathed in the same water. The baby was the final one to bathe, and mothers had to be careful not to throw the baby out because the water was so dirty!

6. You’re pulling my leg

Meaning to tease someone or jokingly lie to them, “pulling one’s leg” actually comes from criminal world of the 18th century. Street thieves would literally pull victims down by their leg in order to rob them.

7. Dressed to the nines

If you’re dressed beautifully, you may be complimented with this, and thankfully the saying has roots in years gone by. The most popular theory comes from the fact that the very best suits used a full nine yards of fabric.

8. Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched

This is something that you say in order to warn someone to wait until a good thing they are expecting has really happened before they make any plans about it. The best explanation for where this idiom comes from is that Aesop said it, and it comes from a short story about a young milkmaid.

9. Crocodile tears

“Crying crocodile tears” means to fake being upset or force tears that are not very believable. An ancient anecdote by Photios claimed that crocodiles weep in order to lure prey – it makes sense!

10. Close, but no cigar

You might find yourself saying this when someone or you were almost successful. It is an old saying that originated in carnivals when cigars were given as prizes. If you didn’t win, you were close, but didn’t win a cigar!

11. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

Horses’ gums recede with age, leading to longer teeth. A common way to inspect a horse’s “worth” is to check it’s mouth, hence the phrase. Receiving a horse as a gift and immediately inspecting its value was considered offensive.

12. Rule of thumb

A rule of thumb is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. And that’s really where it came from! It refers to carpenters or farmers who used their thumb to measure things.

13. Sleep tight!

Simply meaning to sleep well, the phrase “sleep tight” dates from the time when mattresses were supported by ropes. These ropes needed to be pulled tight to provide a stable mattress and a good night’s rest – a-ha!

14. A square meal

While nobody actually knows where this idiom came from, it is thought the Royal Navy did serve meals on square plates at one point.

15. Stay on the straight and narrow

Want your grandkids to stay out of trouble? You may have used this phrase. It is actually from the Bible – Matthew 7:13/14 described the gates to heaven as “strait” and the way to eternal life as “narrow”!

Share your thoughts below.


Starts at 60 Writers

The Starts at 60 writers team seek out interesting topics and write them especially for you.

  1. I used the expression—-don’t upset the apple cart—-had to explain it to a 24 year old grand daughter

  2. Remember hearing these expressions being used in my childhood & Im also guilty of repeating them as well

  3. Does anyone remember. .wigwom for a gooses bridal..my grandma used to say this when i asked her ..what is that. Gran?………

    4 REPLY

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