English Expressions With Disgusting Origins

English is a phenomenally idiomatic language, so much so that it's a wonder anybody at all understands it as a speaker of another language; what on earth are people meant to make of expressions like "shooting fish in a barrel?" Behind some of the more innocuous-looking phrases we might use without thinking, though, there's the possibility of some seriously disgusting history. A lot of words in English have racially problematic origins and are thankfully falling out of use, but there are others whose history is just, well, a bit grubby. Icky. Something that will make you want to take three showers. And, because the original meaning of these english expressions has been disconnected from the word, you may spend your day unwittingly talking about deer guts or sperm or grotesque war wounds! Isn't etymology fun?

The history of some phrases is actually rather sweet; the first instance of "stealing somebody's thunder," for example, comes from a case when a theatre really did steal a playwright's new idea for producing the rumble of thunder as a sound effect. But others have departed from their origins in slightly more spectacular ways. It's likely that they had to, otherwise people might shrink from using phrases that, for instance, reference a bit of cheerful flogging.

Good luck getting these disgusting meanings out of your head next time somebody casually uses one of these English expressions in conversation.

"Spitting Image"

To be the spitting image (or spit and image, according to other definitions) of somebody means to be virtually identical in every way. But the origins of the expression have been contentious; there are a few competing explanations for it, some of which are actually pretty disgusting. While some commentators believe it to be a variation on "split and image," as if something had been split down the middle (a theory that dates back to at least 1939), and others think it's some sort of variation of "spirit," those aren't the dominant theories. Instead, as the linguistics professor Laurence Horn explained to the Chicago Tribune, the real origin of the "spitting" or "spit and" bit of the phrase seems to come from a corruption of "spitten," which was a verb form about spit itself.

Horn and other linguists believe that the idea of a "spit" image comes from the notion that one person is so identical to another that they could have formed from that person's spit. (Urgh.) This is why "spitting image" tends to refer to people, and so often to relatives. Horn also notes, though, that there's a good argument to be made that "figuratively the 'spit' in question involved a rather different bodily fluid." Sperm, that is. When the two choices about a phrase involve either expectorating or ejaculating, you know you've got a winner.

"Basket Case"

This is a derogatory term to use for somebody or something who is either "crazy" or rendered completely incapable of coping with their normal circumstances. If you guessed that the original term likely had something to do with baskets, you'd be right, but it's not what you might think. They didn't put lunatics in baskets in the 17th century or anything like that. (They put them in asylums and chained them up.)

Instead, the origins of "basket case" seem to be a lot closer to the modern day. It dates from 1919, for the grim cases of American servicemen who were completely quadriplegic or without limbs after battle in World War I. According to the Syracuse Herald of that year, "By 'basket case' is meant a soldier who has lost both arms and legs and therefore must be carried in a basket." The Guardian notes that the notion that it might refer to a person with all their limbs but otherwise incapacitated appears to turn up in English in the 1960s. It remains deeply insensitive, just perhaps not towards the people you might think.

"Kick The Bucket"

Anybody who has heard this phrase for dying must have at least wondered, in passing, what on earth it was talking about. There are two main divergent opinions about its meaning, both of which are a bit gruesome.

One posits that it's about kicking aside the bucket, chair, or other item on which a person to be hanged was standing, letting them drop and be strangled by the rope. Another, more reputable theory is based on the fact that the word "bucket" also meant a beam used by farmers in 16th century English, when the term first turned up. The beam was slung across their shoulders, and was often used to hang up animals who were being slaughtered, by their feet. It's pretty understandable in the circumstances that they would kick at the "bucket" above them.

"Eat Humble Pie"

This is only really a disgusting meaning if you're something of a delicate eater. To "eat humble pie," if you're not familiar with the phrase, is the equivalent of "eating crow:" it basically means to be publicly humiliated and forced to apologize after committing some sort of error.

The origins of the "humble pie" do, in fact, involve pie, and date back to the Middle Ages, wherein the "numbles" of deer were considered a viable thing to put inside a pie and eat. Numbles were offal, including the entrails, liver, and other less popular bits of the animal. Samuel Pepys refers to eating an "umble pie," so at least by the time he was writing in the 1660s the term had shifted to "umble," though the central ingredients were the same. We still have some recipes for "umble pie" from throughout the centuries, one of which involves mixing the offal with currants, apples, salt, cloves, nutmeg, and orange juice. Not so humble at all, really.

"Over A Barrel"

To be "over a barrel" means to be completely helpless, and if you're like me, you somehow thought it had to do with the people who launched themselves over Niagara Falls in barrels. Incorrect.

There are, as with many of these phrases, a few competing notions about its origins, but neither are particularly fun. One is concerned with the practice of placing people "over a barrel" to whip or flog them in the 19th century, likely in the context of a prison. People have traced other uses of the action in different contexts, though: there's a record of a student being hazed at a college in 1886 in which "bound hand and foot, he was rolled over a barrel," and there's another interesting use in medical literature. It seems that one proposed cure for serious near-drowning in the 19th century was to place him head-down over a barrel in an attempt to dislodge water from the lungs. Those are your choices: flogging, torture, or drowning. Isn't English a pleasant language.

Images: British Library, Internet Archive Book Images, Bodleian Libraries, National Museum In Warsaw/Wikimedia Commons; Imperial War Museum Collections