We have so many common expressions in the English language. It seems like there’s an idiom for every situation. Have you ever wondered where those phrases that you hear on a daily basis come from? Take a look and find out!


Red herring

A red herring is a clue that is meant to lead someone to the wrong conclusion or to distract someone from seeing what’s real. This is an often-used storytelling device to make a story unpredictable and keep the audience on their toes. But this idiom has interesting and unexpected origins.

It was a tool used in British fox hunting in order to train the hunting dogs. A herring is silver, but when it is smoked it turns a bright red hue. Hunters would drag the red herring along the ground in order to confuse the hounds and throw them off the scent. This way, the dogs would learn to follow the original scent and ignore that of the red herring. The first literary reference to a red herring was written by William Cobbett in 1807. He wrote it in a periodical called Political Register to cleverly describe being deceived by politicians. This would still be a relevant description today, I think!


Give someone the cold shoulder

You might know this phrase to mean to treat people with icy indifference, but it has origins that stretch back to Elizabethan times. This expression came about when hosts felt forced to let in an unwelcome houseguest. While guests who were welcome received a nice, hot meal, someone who was not welcome instead received a cold shoulder of mutton. The shoulder is known to be the toughest, chewiest part of the meat. The first ever mention of “the cold shoulder” was in 1816 by Sir Walter Scott.


Bite the bullet

This expression is used in situations where a person does not want to do something, but they “bite the bullet” and do it anyway. This idiom is thought to have gained popularity in the 18th century. In this time, anesthesia was not available, so soldiers on the battlefield had to have painful surgeries such as amputations without any sort of numbing. They were given bullets to bite to distract from the pain and keep them from biting down on their tongues. Sometimes sticks, leather, or wood were used, but bullets were more plentiful during war. They were also made of lead, which made them rather soft, so the soldier’s teeth wouldn’t break. The first time this expression was used was by Rudyard Kipling in 1891 in his novel The Light that Failed.


To steal someone’s thunder

Stealing someone’s thunder refers to when someone tries to undermine someone else, take attention away from them, or to accept credit or praise for what they have done. This idiom has interesting origins from the theatre. John Dennis was an English playwright. He wrote a play called Appius and Virginia, which premiered in 1704. For this play, he invented a new and innovative way of creating thunder onstage. Unfortunately, the play tanked, and not long after, a production of Macbeth was produced, where they used Dennis’s new thunder technology. To this he exclaimed, “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”


Piece of cake

As you might know, to refer to something as ‘a piece of cake’ means that it is something very simple and easy to do. This expression originated during slavery in the U.S. White slave owners would have their slaves compete in a cake walk, which was where they were instructed to imitate the slave owners in what they thought was sophisticated behavior. The winner of the cake walk would win a piece of cake, accordingly. Unbeknownst to them, the slaves would subtley mock the slave owners, and it became a running joke amongst the slaves. The owners were ignorant to the fact that they were the butt of a very well-deserved joke, finding glee in watching the slaves mimick their more ‘refined’ behavior. The piece of cake became known to slaves as something very easy to win, which was further ridicule of the slave masters.


To get out of hand

This idiom means that something has gotten out of control. This is actually a term related to horseback riding. When you ride horses, you hold the reins in your hand. However, if the horse gets out of your control, the reins are, quite literally, out of your hands. Hence, out of hand became a common expression. Simple!


Get your act together!

When you are told to ‘get your act together’, it means that you have probably let your nerves, worries, or anxieties get the better of you, and that you need to organize yourself so that you can become productive. This is another simple origin, and you can probably guess it from just seeing the words. When actors would get stage fright and make mistakes, they were told to ‘get their act together’ so that they could perform at their best. Now, it’s directed at everyone, not just actors.


Whatever floats your boat

This one has mature themes, so discretion is advised! This idiom has some pretty sexual origins and you won’t be able to unsee it. It is derived from the phrase, “the man in the boat”, where ‘the boat’ refers to a woman’s clitoris. If the boat is floating, it means that good things are presumed to be happening. Hence, ‘whatever floats your boat’ has come to mean whatever makes you content or happy. Now you’ll never be able to say this expression again without thinking of its dirty, obscene origin. You’re welcome.


Photo by Daniele Franchi on Unsplash 

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