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Commonly Used Idioms and How They Came to be

Have you ever wondered where the idioms we use come from? We hear them often and even use them ourselves but how did they originate? Like, “Old Goat.” Why are people with less than desirable dispositions referred to as old goats when they reach a certain stage in life? And, “Old Fart” this one always alluded me, until I stood behind.

Have you ever wondered where the idioms we use come from? We hear them often and even use them ourselves but how did they originate? Like, “Old Goat.” Why are people with less than desirable dispositions referred to as old goats when they reach a certain stage in life? And, “Old Fart” this one always alluded me, until I stood behind and a few steps down from an old man on an escalator. I don’t know what the actual explanation for this one is but, I know mine. What about, “On the wagon.” If you stop drinking why are you on the wagon, where is it going, and when do you get off? It reminds me of a game….If you stop drinking you can get on the wagon but if you fall off, you can have a drink. Below are a few idioms I was able to find the originating meanings to.

Cut the Mustard:

This saying actually refers to the zest or zip of mustard. Someone who can no longer cut the mustard has lost his zip.

Balls to the wall:

Although I know you can come up with a colourful meaning that needs no explanation from me for this one, the real meaning of the phrase comes from old fighter planes. The balls were the knobs on the throttle controls and when the pilot gave full throttle, the knobs were pushed all the way toward the wall of the cockpit.

The Full Monty:

Sir Montague Burton (not Monty Python) who was a tailor by trade, was known in his business for his made to order men’s three piece dress suits complete with waistcoat. It is said that repeat customers would explain their suit of choice by simply asking for the “Full Monty.”

Dead as a door nail:

At one time nails were salvaged for reuse when buildings were torn down. The door nail was driven right through and then bent over at the end. This way it couldn’t work it’s way out from the continuous opening and closing of the door. Door nails were never salvageable and were considered to be “dead.”

Freeze the balls off a brass monkey:

Nope! It’s not a brass door knocker on a cold winter’s day. Cannon balls used to be piled pyramid style on a low wooden triangle shaped platform. It was made with a lip of about 2 inches which held the bottom balls from rolling off. This platform was called a monkey. The wood wore out easily so brass platforms were devised. They were far more sturdy but, in very cold weather the brass would freeze. This would cause the metal to contract squeezing the bottom layer of balls up and out of place sending the balls scattering in the ground. (Young boys who carried and set the powder for cannons were called Powder Monkeys)

Dead Ringer:

This is an old gambling expression used in horse racing. Shady horse owners would have two horses who looked enough alike to be mistaken for one another. One horse was slow and the other horse was fast. The slow horse would was run enough times for people to lose interest in betting on them. Once the odds were at a desired level, they would switch to the fast horse called the ringer. Dead meant a dead shot or dead stop. Hence, the name Dead Ringer.

A perfect toss in the game of horse shoes. The horse shoe hits and spins around post making a ringing sound. This is also called a dead ringer.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater:

Before the luxury of running water and modern day bathrooms, Sunday night’s were family bath night. The water would be heated on the wood stove or in the hearth in a large pot and the water was poured into a tin wash tub. Because father was the bread winner and the head of the house, he would be the first to bathe. Next came the sons, mother, daughters and last of all baby. Long before baby’s bath time, the water was very dirty holding seven days worth of dirt from up to eight or more family members. People often joked that one day they would not be able to see baby in the dirty bathwater and accidentally throw throw them out along with the dirty bath water.

Cat’s pajamas:

This phrase comes from the early 1800’s. The English taylor, E.B. Katz made silk pajamas for royalty and the wealthy. They were said to be the finest pajamas made anywhere in the land and they soon came to be known as Kat’z pajamas.

One meaning of an idiom is a grammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language. We can tell by the examples above that they are indeed peculiar. In their day, they may have made perfect sense, through the years people continue to use the sayings but their meanings became lost in time and we tend to attach modern meaning to these age old sayings. Now when we mention “Full Monty’” it is a reference to someone without clothes, when we hear “Balls To The Wall” we think of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and many people now refer to a brass door knocker as the originating meaning of “Freeze The Balls Off A Brass Monkey.”

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  1. Jason

    On August 23, 2007 at 11:27 am

    Hey! These are pretty good and knowing how they originated is neat too. I have never heard of alot of them but it is probably because I am younger….alot. But maybe I will start using them. My favorite one is the one about the controls in the cockpit.

  2. lizzie2uk

    On August 23, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    Interesting! I knew the phrase, ‘balls to the wall’ but not it’s origin.

  3. Liane Schmidt

    On August 23, 2007 at 11:07 pm

    Dear Darlene,

    Another wonderful article! I love to find out the origin behind interesting things in life. I always wonder about where things came from and the logic behind them.

    Best wishes!


    -Liane Schmidt.

  4. C A Johnson

    On August 24, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    Great job on the article. I have heard of some of these, but I haven’t heard of the others. I never knew the meanings behind them though.

  5. Beatrice Adams

    On August 25, 2007 at 10:50 pm

    You are so full of fascinating, interesting articles like these, Darlene! Great job, as always :)

  6. Ruby Hawk

    On August 27, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    I have heard most of these but the Full Monty was a new one on me.

  7. Onflame

    On August 30, 2007 at 5:34 am

    Wow! Some cool info out here!

  8. Gail Nobles

    On September 9, 2007 at 8:00 am

    I have heard one or two of the phrases. They were all fun to know about. Great article.

  9. angelstar

    On September 23, 2007 at 2:08 am

    great stuff thank you – angel x

  10. Nick Kenney

    On October 4, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Well, unfortunately I’m old enough to have heard of them all. I didn’t know their origins, though. Great job, Darlene! I have experienced taking the Sunday night bath in a metal washtub. (A part of my adventures of living in the back woods of North Carolina years ago). Not a great way to live, let me tell ya!
    You’re from Ontario? No wonder you’d heard the story about Cornelius Burley. :)

  11. Judy Sheldon

    On October 27, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    Fascinating information and wonderfully written.

  12. Ms. Revilla

    On January 3, 2008 at 12:42 am

    ‘Tis indeed ver informative! May the collection be added with more idioms and the explanations of their origins. Thank you!

  13. Hugh Deal

    On February 13, 2008 at 9:33 am

    Great article Darlene. Here are two new ones for your edification. The term “the whole nine yards” is from construction. A cement truck held a total of nine square yards of concrete so when a full load was used it was “the whole nine yards” which slipped into the lexicon as a more colorful way of saying “everything”.This next one cleared up my childhood vision of someon holding an unfortunate feline by the tail and swinging around with it to judge a room size. “Not enough room to swing a cat” is from slave sailing ship days. The overseer in the cramped area below decks used a whip called a “cat o nine tails” on the unfortunate rowers. In extremely cramped rowing decks they would not be able to flail away at the rowers thus “Not enough room to swing a cat”.

  14. Darlene McFarlane

    On February 13, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    Hugh Deal, thank you for your information. I never heard of them before and love it when I get to learn something new.

  15. Doubtful

    On March 14, 2008 at 12:47 am

    I’ll bet almost none of those are true. They sound much more like “reverse” explanations.

  16. Darlene McFarlane

    On April 8, 2008 at 7:37 am

    Jim, thanks for the information.

  17. Chloe

    On July 14, 2008 at 3:23 am

    Hahaha. ‘dead as a doornail’ made me laugh. Love stories behind things

  18. Erin

    On July 14, 2008 at 3:26 am

    hahaha , nice

  19. Erin

    On July 14, 2008 at 3:27 am

    this is a good page to get weird/funny quots or sayings lol

  20. Geoff

    On July 31, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Entertaining those these are and fun to learn about, your providing of the source of these idioms is actually of great importance in my mind! Language and words provide insights into history and culture. Reading just your few descriptions here illustrates that. Idioms are endless, keep them coming!

    How about this one? A guy I used to work with (reluctantly) used the phrase, “Like pissing up a rope,” when something was difficult. Where the heck did that annoying thing come from?

  21. niecey

    On August 29, 2008 at 7:05 am

    This was pretty neat. Have a blog devoted soley to idioms:

  22. aces

    On February 14, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    I think that “dead ringer” is a little bit older than you think. I’m sure that you’ve heard stories of when people were buried alive due to lack of medical awareness. Diseases that would give the idea that the victim was dead. When relocating a graves they discovered scratch marks on the insides of the coffins. They then would also bury a pipe from the coffin to the surface. It would house a rope tied to a hanging bell above ground. If they had a live one, it was called a “dead ringer”. This also gave birth to the “graveyard shift”. During daylight there were priests, workers, and others at the church, where most graveyards were. But at night someone had to listen for the ringers.

  23. aces

    On February 14, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    oh ya, to #13. “The whole nine yards” I believe, originated from the old WW2 fighter planes, equiped with nine yards of belt fed into their machine guns. This dates back to the early 60’s.

  24. Dave

    On May 8, 2009 at 8:31 am

    Unfortunately, the etymology “Freeze the balls off a brass monkey” presented here is bogus. The noun phrase “brass monkey” has never been used in the manner described above, but has bee used in other colorful expressions, of which this is one. Show us a single example of a wooden “monkey” or “brass monkey” as described above and I’ll eat crow.

  25. Katya

    On August 14, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Hello! I need your help for my scientific work! Could you help me, please ,to find out the historical origin of the following idioms with the word ’swing’ :

    swing into high gear;
    be in full swing;
    get into the swing of things;
    go with a swing;
    it swings and rounabouts;
    swing the balance;
    swing with someone or something;
    swing to something

    Thank you! I hope that you will help me! It`s the matter of importance! BE SO KIND!!!!!! PLEASE!!!))))))))

  26. Stephanie Skirts

    On March 17, 2010 at 1:53 am

    this website is great bur it doesn’t have a lot of idioms. Any way still cool

  27. Avery

    On April 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    This site is great ,
    it really came in handy
    I did idioms for a speach
    and this site gave me ideas and helped

  28. sihana

    On May 27, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    Is “half assed” the correct spelling and what is its origin?

  29. Darlene McFarlane

    On June 7, 2010 at 9:00 am

    sihana, I found this online. Hope it answers your question.


    Half Assed

    We’ve all heard the phrase that something was done “half-ass,” but few people stop to wonder what such a ridiculous expression could possibly mean. The term “half-ass” evolved from “half-adz.” An adz is an axelike tool with a curved blade used for shaping wood. If you were wealthy and paid top-dollar for a new fireplace, the mantle would be shaped using an adz in the front as well as the back side, which isn’t visible. However, if you weren’t wealthy and wanted to save money, you could have only the front visible portion of the mantle shaped, this cheaper job being a “half-adz” job.

  30. John

    On January 29, 2011 at 9:27 am

    the origin of ” on the wagon” as i hear is..
    In olden days when wagon and cart and hanging of criminals were still common place..
    The driver would often pass by the “ale house” for an ale.
    On days when he would drive the criminals to the gallows,
    he wasn’t allowed to drink because he was working.
    He was ” on the wagon “.

  31. John

    On January 29, 2011 at 9:32 am

    *wearing your heart on your sleeve*
    In times where knights and kings would have their lances for dangerous games.
    The knight would sew the name of his sweetheart onto his gauntlet. Quite often after an accident they would either lose their hands or gauntlets(not sure).But to wear your heart on your sleeve would say that it’s easily lost

  32. Jane

    On March 12, 2012 at 1:50 am

    Not trying to be vulgar just always wondered about this one:
    Someone having a “sh!t eating grin”
    I always heard ppl saying it and I was raised in the south. Maybe because when you smile really wide it looks the same as when you would say the above curse word.
    Anyways cool article and hope I have provided a little…
    Food for thought ;)

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