Where 18 Phrases & Sayings Come From, Because You Need To Know What "Rule Of Thumb" Actually Means
The classic sayings in our shared vocabulary are kind of like the route we take from home to work every day — so familiar and comfortable that you miss the small details, like that pretty oak tree that has been there for years or the dilapidated wall that's actually covered in graffiti. There are so many phrases out there that we use on the daily whose origins we know nothing of; your boss has probably never stopped to explain what they mean when they're mid-meeting and the clock is ticking. In fact, so many of these hackneyed phrases exist that there's literally an online library where you can search for any one of them. But it's even more fun to take it a step further and dig into the history of these phrases and strange sayings, because frankly, some of them are pretty shocking.
The sources of these common phrases can be weird, hilarious, or even disturbing — you might find yourself grimacing and swearing off the words altogether, but at least you'll have an interesting topic at the next boring dinner party you find yourself at. So when you want to impress people with your trivia-like knowledge, whip out the meaning of any of these 18 classic phrases, because I'm sure not many of your friends know where they actually come from.
1. "Rule Of Thumb"
Prepare to give this one up. In the 17th century, there was a law stating that a man could physically beat his wife — so long as it was with a stick that was no wider than his own thumb. Anything bigger was considered illegal and socially unacceptable. In 1881, a book by Harriet H. Robinson claimed the wife wasn't even allowed to complain if the man followed this rule. Ugh.
2. "Caught Red-Handed"
The translation of this one is quite literal. It was once a crime to slaughter and butcher an animal that wasn't your own, but to simply be caught with the meat in your hands wasn't enough; there had to be blood present in order to be convicted. How they could be sure the blood matched that of the pig or cow is past me, as I doubt DNA testing was popular back then.
3. "Saved By The Bell"
As much as we want this one to be related to adorable Zach Morrison, the origin of this phrase is much more morbid. Being buried alive used to be major a problem, so deceased people were placed underground in a coffin that was connected to a bell above ground, just in case they weren't actually dead. If guards heard the bell, they ran to the poor person's rescue.
4. "Cold Turkey"
When drug addicts and alcoholics were in the process of recovering, the detoxing caused their skin to become translucent and tough to the touch. Some even claimed raised goosebumps covered their bodies, and it wasn't long before their appearance was compared with that of a plucked turkey.
5. "Give The Cold Shoulder"
Although it's associated with resentment or rudeness today, giving the cold shoulder back in the day was a matter of routine etiquette. At a feast in Shakespearean times, the equivalent of a dinner party, the host would signal it was time for all the guests to clear out by placing a cold slab of meat in front of them, such as beef, pork, or mutton. Whether they had to eat said piece of meat is unknown.
6. "Hair of The Dog"
This gem goes way back to medieval times, when it was thought that the only way to cure being bit by a rabid dog was to apply the same dog's hair to your wound — and wait for the supposed healing to occur. In 1546, the same logic was then transferred to drinking more alcohol more when you wake up in the morning oh-so-hungover.
7. "Chow Down"
Leave it to the U.S. military in World War II to come up with such a vile phrase. Chow is a popular breed of dog in China, and, sure enough, it was used as slang to describe gorging on a large amount of food — to poke fun at the Chinese for eating dog meat.
8. "Pleased As Punch"
The puppet show from the 17th century called Punch and Judy earned a creepy reputation because its star, Punch, took joy out of killing others. Just try not to picture a mass murderer next time you hear this being used in everyday conversation.
9. "Run Amok"
We use this to describe a group of children or people chaotically running around, especially around Christmas shopping season, but little do we know it's a reference to Malaysians who go crazy after smoking too much opium (OK, maybe not so different than the holiday rush, then). It comes from the word amoq, referring to tribesmen who strategically thrashed around in groups killing anybody in sight.
10. "Waking Up on The Wrong Side of The Bed"
This list wouldn't be complete without a solid religious reference. The left side of the body was thought to be sinister, evil, and related to the devil's unwanted presence (folks who were left-handed were considered demonic), so innkeepers pushed the left side of the beds against the wall, leaving their guests no choice but to wake up and exit the bed on the "right" side.
11. "The Cat's Out Of The Bag"
In the 18th century, butchered pigs were sold to passersby in suckling bags. A common street fraud was to sneakily replace the pig with a dead cat, leaving someone very upset — and scarred, I would imagine. This prank became so popular that we now use it to describe a secret being revealed in an untimely manner.
When major cities were starting to be developed, people found it funny that Jay birds who accidentally left their natural habitat flew into urban areas and became incredibly confused. They would fly around erratically and become visibly disturbed by the traffic of the cars. The term has been passed down to innocent pedestrians who are just trying to get to work on time.
13. "Spill The Beans"
Before hanging chads came along, the ancient Greeks would vote for a political officer by placing a certain colored bean in a basket — a white if they approved, and a black if they did not. There was bound to be an ungainly guy in the mix, though, who would accidentally knock over the whole thing, revealing the meant-to-be-confidential votes.
14. "Mind Your P's And Q's"
In the 17th century, beers were doled out in either pints or quarts, and if a patron was having trouble holding their alcohol, the bartender would give them this verbal warning. Well, it certainly stuck, regardless of whether you've got booze in your hands.
15. "Basket Case"
In World War I, this phrase refereed to the soldiers who were injured so badly in battle that they were missing arms or legs had to be carried by their comrades in baskets. It was also used to refer to people with other physical disabilities, who also needed assistance to move from one place to the next. Now we insensitively invoke the term to describe someone who seems off their rocker or has a mental illness.
16. "Mad As A Hatter"
Nope, it didn't originate with Alice In Wonderland, so guess again. In the 19th century, mercury was a main ingredient used for making hats. The folks who adopted this as their profession — the hatters — ended up getting mercury poisoning in their nervous system, resulting in trembles and irrational behavior. To this day, the disease is still referred to as "Mad Hatter's Disease."
17. "Sleep Tight"
I still like to think this is a reminder of those childhood days when your grandma would tuck you in nice and snug, but it's much more boring than that. Instead of box springs, mattresses were held up by ropes, so if they weren't tied properly and tightly, it was impossible to get a good night's sleep.
18. "Goody Two Shoes"
A nursery tale from 1765 called The History of Little Goody Two Shoes told the story about an orphaned girl who was so well-behaved that a rich man gifted her with two shoes as a reward. I suppose the misbehaving ones ran around with one bare foot? Seems a bit unfair to me.
Images: maria clara de melo costa /Flickr; Giphy (19)