Origin of Familiar Phrases

Written by Alex

The following is reprinted from Uncle John’s Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader


Meaning: Ask someone a question they can’t answer
Origin: Actually refers to tree stumps. “Pioneers built their houses and barns out of logs ? and they frequently swapped work with one another in clearing new ground. Some frontiersmen would brag about their ability to pull up big stumps, but it wasn’t unusual for the boaster to suffer defeat with a stubborn stump.” (From I’ve Got Goose Pimples, by Marvin Vanoni)


Meaning: Spend a wild night out, usually involving drinking
Origin: “This colorful term ? probably originated on the frontier. In the nineteenth century the section of town where brothels and saloons were located was known as the ‘red light district.’ So a group of lusty cowhands out for a night on the town might very well take it into their heads to make the whole town red.” (From Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins Vol. 3, by William and Mary Morris)


Meaning: Keep something away, albeit temporarily
Origin: “A stave is a stick of wood, from the plural of staff, staves. In the early seventeenth century staves were used in the ‘sport’ of bull-baiting, where dogs were set against bulls. [If] the dogs got a bull down, the bull’s owner often tried to save him for another fight by driving the dogs off with a stave.” (From Animal Crackers, by Robert Hendrickson)


Meaning: Do something with little or no preparation
Origin: “Originally comes from the theater. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it refers to the hurried study of the role in the wings of the theater.” (From The Whole Ball of Wax, by Laurence Urdang)


Meaning: Carefully and thoughtfully consider something
Origin: In previous centuries, it was customary for judges to put a cap on before sentencing criminals. Because judges were respected thinkers, it was referred to as a “thinking cap” (From Gordon’s Book of Familiar Phrases)


Meaning: Stretch the truth or meaning of words or rules, deceive or trifle with someone
Origin: This term dates from the 16th century. It comes from a game called “fast and loose,” which was played at fairs. Operators rolled up a strap and left a loop hanging over the edge of a table. To win, a player had to catch the loop with a stick before the strap was unrolled. But they never won. Cheating operators rolled it up in such a way that the feat was impossible. (From Have a Nice Day – No Problem! by Christine Ammer)


Meaning: Repair badly
Origin: “In old England, bodgers were peasant chairmakers ? They produced, by traditional handicraft methods, simple and serviceable objects. When chairmaking was transformed into high art, the bodgers was correspondingly downgraded to ‘bodge’ or ‘botch,'” which came to mean an item or service of poor quality. (From To Coin a Phrase, by Edwin Radford and Alan Smith)


Meaning: Broke; have all of your belongings in a pawn shop
Origin: Comes from the Old West. In a common gambling card game called “faro,” “the last card [to be played] was called the hocketty card. It was said to be in hocketty or in hock. When a player bet on a card that ended up in hock he was himself in hock, at risk of losing his bets.” (From The Whole Ball of Wax, by Laurence Urdang)


Meaning: Try a different strategy
Origin: “Sailing ships could not move directly into the wind but had to tack – zigzag back and forth with the wind first on one side, then on the other. If a skipper approaching harbor found that his vessel couldn’t make the harbor mouth on the starboard tack, he was obviously on the wrong tack, and would have to take the other (port) tack.” (From Loose Cannons and Red Herrings, by Robert Claiborne)


Meaning: Escape punishment
Origin: “In the thirteenth century, scot was the word for money you would pay at a tavern for food and drink, or when they passed the hat to pay the entertainer. Later, it came to mean a local tax that paid the sheriff’s expenses. To go scot-free literally meant to be exempted from paying this tax.” (From How Does Olive Oil Lose its Virginity?, by Bruce Tindall and Mark Watson)


Meaning: A hidden cache of money used for illegal or corrupt political purposes
Origin: “Derived from Scandinavian words meaning ‘slops,’ this phrase is derived from the nineteenth-century shipboard practice of boiling up large pots of pork and other fatty meats. The fat that rose to the top of the kettles was stored in vats and then sold to soap and candle makers. The money received from the sale of the ‘slush’ was used for the crew’s comfort and entertainment.” (From Eatioms, by John D. Jacobson)


Meaning: Humble someone who is self-important and conceited
Origin: “The expression probably originally referred to a ship’s flags. These were raised or lowered by pegs – the higher the position of the flags, the greater the honor. So to take someone down a peg came to mean to lower the esteem in which that person is held.” (From Get to the Roots, by Martin Manser)


Meaning: Buying something sight unseen
Origin: “The poke was a small bag (the words pouch and pocket derive from the same roots), and the pig was a small pig. As related in Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundredth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1580), the game was to put a cat in the poke and try to palm it off in the market as a pig, persuading the buyer that it would be best not to open the poke because the pig might get away.” (From The Dictionary of Cliches, by James Rogers)


Meaning: A risky, precarious situation
Origin: “Dates back to the days of stagecoaches, whose drivers were often intensely competitive, seeking to charge past one another, on narrow roads, at grave danger to life and limb. If the vehicle’s wheels became entangled, both would be wrecked; if they were lucky, the wheels would only touch and the coaches could still go.” (From Loose Cannons and Red Herrings, by Robert Claiborne)


Meaning: Leave work for the day
Origin: “[This phrase] originated in the days of slave galleys. To keep the oarsmen rowing in unison, a drummer beat time rhythmically on a block of wood. When it was time to rest or change shifts, he would give a special knock, signifying that they could knock off.” (From Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins Vol.2, by William and Mary Morris)


Meaning: Does that sound familiar?
Origin: “Old-fashioned carnivals and amusement parks featured shooting galleries, in which patrons were invited to test their marksmanship by shooting at a target – often with a bell at the center: if something was right on target, it rang the bell. Similarly, to say that something ‘doesn’t ring a bells’ means that it doesn’t strike any ‘target’ (evoke any response) in your mind.” (From Loose Cannons and Red Herrings, by Robert Claiborne)


Meaning: Avoid punishment for wrongdoing
Origin: “It is likely that this slang Americanism originated in anther expression, take the rap, in which rap is slang for ‘punishment,’ facetiously, from a ‘rap on the knuckles.’ One who takes the rap for someone else stands in for the other’s punishment. Beat the rap ? often carries with it the connotation that the miscreant was actually guilty, though acquitted” (From The Whole Ball of Wax, by Laurence Urdang)


Meaning: Be honest
Origin: Comes from card playing. “Board is an old word for table.” To drop your hands below the table could, of course, be interpreted as trying to cheat – by swapping cards, for example. “But if all play was above board this was impossible” (From To Coin a Phrase, by Edwin Radford and Alan Smith)

7 thoughts on “Origin of Familiar Phrases

  1. ken

    more about the “pig in a poke”. since the deception commonly involved a cat instead of a pig, the fakery was revealled when someone “let the cat out of the bag”! ๐Ÿ™‚

    (Sorry, i’ve lost the reference for that one…)

  2. jeroen

    And my personal favorite (being a history buff):

    *Parting shot*

    the Parthians where feared for their abilty to shoot a bow from horseback. they could even shoot backwards while galloping away from the enemy. This technique was known as the ‘Parthian shot’. This skill, in combination with the feigned retreat, worked wonders in battle. They used this tactic with great succes against the Romans. For a while at least, eventually they got their ass kicked like everyone else.

  3. jayme

    can anyone help me find the origin of the phrase “throwing things away LEFT and RIGHT”?

  4. dave flashman

    Re painting the town road, the town was melton mowbrey in england and the local lord and his house guests after a very drunken evening painted large parts of it red.

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