Learn The History Behind These 15+ Commonly Used Phrases

Imagine you’re learning a new language and hear someone say ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ or ‘break a leg’, this would be very confusing! And on top of it all, even if you ask a native speaker what on earth these ridiculous sayings mean, unfortunately, not many would be able to answer your question. But here at Bored Panda we went the extra mile to find out the origins of the most frequently used phrases. Who knew you could learn about language and have fun at the same time? So buckle up cause we’re about to dive deep into the history of languages to find out the incredible origins of commonly used phrases all around the world!

#1 Cat Got Your Tongue

asia

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Meaning: Said to someone who remains silent when they are expected to speak.

Origin: There are two stories on how this saying came into being. The first one says that it could have come from a whip called “Cat-o’-nine-tails” that was used by the English Navy for flogging and often left the victims speechless. The second one may be from ancient Egypt, where liars’ tongues were cut out as punishment and…

Meaning: Said to someone who remains silent when they are expected to speak.

Origin: There are two stories on how this saying came into being. The first one says that it could have come from a whip called “Cat-o’-nine-tails” that was used by the English Navy for flogging and often left the victims speechless. The second one may be from ancient Egypt, where liars’ tongues were cut out as punishment and fed to the cats.

#2 The Walls Have Ears

beverage

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Meaning: Be careful what you say as people may be eavesdropping.

Origin: The face Louvre Palace in France was believed to have a network of listening tubes so that it would be possible to hear everything that was said in different rooms. People say that this is how the Queen Catherine de’Medici discovered political secrets and plots.

#3 Bury The Hatchet

Bury

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Meaning: End a quarrel or conflict and become friendly.

Origin: During negotiations between Puritans and Native Americans men would bury all of their weapons, making them inaccessible.

#4 Cold Feet

driver

Meaning: Loss of nerve or confidence.

Origin: This idiom originates from a military term, warriors who had frozen feet were not able to rush into battle.

#5 Big Wig

Egypt

Meaning: An important person, especially in a particular sphere

Origin: Back in the 18th century, the most important political figures would wear the biggest wigs, hence today influential people are called big wigs.

#6 Caught Red-Handed

English Navy

Meaning: Used to indicate that a person has been discovered in or just after the act of doing something wrong or illegal.

Origin: There was an old law stating that if someone butchered an animal that didn’t belong to him, he would only be punished if he was caught with blood on his hands. If one was caught with the meat but his hands were clean, he would not be punished.

#7 Raining Cats And Dogs

John Mandeville

Meaning: Rain very hard.

Origin: This idiom has two stories that try to explain its origin. The first explanation says that the origin of this phrase comes from Norse mythology, where cats would symbolise heavy rains and dogs were associated with the God of storms, Odin. The second version says that in 16th century England, houses had thatched roofs which were one of the few places where animals were able…

Meaning: Rain very hard.

Origin: This idiom has two stories that try to explain its origin. The first explanation says that the origin of this phrase comes from Norse mythology, where cats would symbolise heavy rains and dogs were associated with the God of storms, Odin. The second version says that in 16th century England, houses had thatched roofs which were one of the few places where animals were able to get warm. Sometimes, when it would start to rain heavily, roofs would get slippery and cats and dogs would fall off, making it look like it’s raining cats and dogs!

#8 Barking Up The Wrong Tree

queen

Meaning: Be pursuing a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action.

Origin: This phrase refers to hunting dogs who chase their prey up a tree. Once it climbed the tree the dogs bark at them, yet sometimes the dogs would continue barking even if the prey was no longer there.

#9 Don’t Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth

silver spoon

Meaning: Find fault with something that has been received as a gift or favor.

Origin: While buying a horse, people would determine the horse’s age and condition based on its teeth, and then decide whether they want to buy it or not. This is the reason why people use this idiom to say it is rude to look for flaws in a thing that was given to you as a gift.

#10 Bite The Bullet

Thailand

Meaning: Decide to do something difficult or unpleasant that one has been putting off or hesitating over.

Origin: During battles there was no time to administer anesthesias while performing surgeries. Because of that, patients were made to bite down on bullets to distract themselves from the pain.

asia

Meaning: Pretend not to notice.

Origin: It is believed that this phrase originates with naval hero Horatio Nelson, who used his blind eye to look through his telescope. This way he was able to avoid signals from his superior, who wanted him to withdraw from battle. He attacked, nevertheless, and was victorious.

#12 Blood Is Thicker Than Water

beverage

Meaning: Family relationships and loyalties are the strongest and most important ones.

Origin: Even though many might think this saying means that we should put family ahead of friends, it actually meant the complete opposite. The full phrase actually was “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,†and it referred to warriors who shared the blood they shed in battles together. These ‘blood brothers’ were…

Meaning: Family relationships and loyalties are the strongest and most important ones.

Origin: Even though many might think this saying means that we should put family ahead of friends, it actually meant the complete opposite. The full phrase actually was “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,†and it referred to warriors who shared the blood they shed in battles together. These ‘blood brothers’ were said to have stronger bonds than biological brothers.

#13 Honeymoon

Bury

Meaning: A holiday spent together by a newly married couple.

Origin: According to tradition, a newly wed couple would have to drink a beverage with honey for an entire month for fertility and good luck

#14 One For The Road

driver

Meaning: A final drink before leaving a place.

Origin: During the middle ages, the condemned ones were taken through what today is known as Oxford Street to their execution. During this final trip, the cart would stop and they would be allowed to have one final drink before their death.

#15 Kick The Bucket

Egypt

Meaning: To die

Origin: When killing a cow at slaughterhouses, people would place a bucket under the animal while it was positioned on a pulley. While trying to adjust the animal, the cow would kick out its legs and therefore kick the bucket before being killed.

#16 White Elephant

English Navy

Meaning: A possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.

Origin: White elephants were considered to be sacred creatures in Thailand, yet they were also very hard to take care of. It is believed that Siamese kinds (now Thailand) would gift white elephants as a subtle form of punishment, since taking care of this animal would drive the recipient into financial…

Meaning: A possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.

Origin: White elephants were considered to be sacred creatures in Thailand, yet they were also very hard to take care of. It is believed that Siamese kinds (now Thailand) would gift white elephants as a subtle form of punishment, since taking care of this animal would drive the recipient into financial ruin.

#17 Break A Leg

John Mandeville

Meaning: Good luck!

Origin: It is believed that the phrase dates to World War I Germany and a saying used by German actors “Hals- und Beinbruch†which translates to “a broken neck and a broken leg.†Besides that, it still doesn’t make sense why would you wish someone to break a leg? Well, as it turns out, popular folklore down through the ages encouraged people to wish others bad luck since…

Meaning: Good luck!

Origin: It is believed that the phrase dates to World War I Germany and a saying used by German actors “Hals- und Beinbruch†which translates to “a broken neck and a broken leg.†Besides that, it still doesn’t make sense why would you wish someone to break a leg? Well, as it turns out, popular folklore down through the ages encouraged people to wish others bad luck since it was believed that wishing someone good luck would tempt evil spirits. So, you guessed it, people started wishing each other to break a leg in order for them not to break one!

#18 Give The Cold Shoulder

queen

Meaning: Reject or be deliberately unfriendly to.

Origin: This saying, that is currently considered to describe someone rude, was actually considered an act of politeness. During medieval times in England, after everyone was done feasting, the host would give his guests a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef or pork as a way of showing that it was time for everyone to leave.

#19 Butter Someone Up

silver spoon

Meaning: Flatter or otherwise ingratiate oneself with someone.

Origin: The people ancient India used to throw balls of clarified butter at the statues of gods in order to seek a favor.

#20 Riding Shotgun

Thailand

Meaning: Used to claim the right to sit in the front passenger seat of a vehicle on a particular journey.

Origin: This expression refers to the passenger of an old fashioned stagecoach, who sat next to the driver with a shotgun to protect from attackers and robbers along the way. There is no evidence to suggest the expression was actually used in times of the ‘Wild West,’ but most likely came…

Meaning: Used to claim the right to sit in the front passenger seat of a vehicle on a particular journey.

Origin: This expression refers to the passenger of an old fashioned stagecoach, who sat next to the driver with a shotgun to protect from attackers and robbers along the way. There is no evidence to suggest the expression was actually used in times of the ‘Wild West,’ but most likely came about much later on, when media and films began to romanticize the period.

asia

Meaning: A jocular or affectionate way of addressing or referring to someone.

Origin: Back in the day, sailors would sometimes take their wives on long ocean voyages. It is believed that if the woman gave birth on a ship, it should take place between the cannons on the ship’s gun deck, since it was the most secluded place. Because of this reason, a child that was born on a ship…

Meaning: A jocular or affectionate way of addressing or referring to someone.

Origin: Back in the day, sailors would sometimes take their wives on long ocean voyages. It is believed that if the woman gave birth on a ship, it should take place between the cannons on the ship’s gun deck, since it was the most secluded place. Because of this reason, a child that was born on a ship would be called ‘a son of a gun’.

#22 Waking Up On The Wrong Side Of The Bed

beverage

Meaning: Start the day in a bad temper.

Origin: Throughout history the left side of basically anything was considered to be ‘the evil side,’ so waking up on the left side was also considered a sign of bad luck. To ward off evil, house owners would push the left sides of the beds to the corner, so their guests would have no other option than to get up on the right…

Meaning: Start the day in a bad temper.

Origin: Throughout history the left side of basically anything was considered to be ‘the evil side,’ so waking up on the left side was also considered a sign of bad luck. To ward off evil, house owners would push the left sides of the beds to the corner, so their guests would have no other option than to get up on the right side.

#23 Close But No Cigar

Bury

Meaning: almost but not quite successful.

Origin: In the late 19th century carnival games were targeted to adults and not children, so the winners would get a cigar as a prize instead of stuffed animals. If the person was close to winning but did not succeed they’d say it was ‘close but no cigar’.

#24 Get One’s Goat

driver

Meaning:Irritate someone.

Origin: During horse racing some horses would get anxious, so owners would places goats in the stalls with them to calm them down. Rival horse owners would sometimes steal these goats therefore upsetting the horse and making it more likely to lose.

#25 Show Your True Colors

Egypt

Meaning:Reveal one’s real character or intentions, especially when these are disreputable or dishonorable.

Origin: To confuse their enemies, warships would use multiple flags. However warfare rules dictated that the ships must show its actual flag before firing and hence, the ships would then display its true colors.

#26 Let The Cat Out Of The Bag

English Navy

Meaning: Reveal a secret carelessly or by mistake.

Origin: Some time ago farmers who sold pigs would bring them to the market wrapped up in a bag. Unscrupulous ones would replace the pig with a cat and if someone would accidentally let the cat out, their fraud would be uncovered.

#27 My Ears Are Burning

John Mandeville

Meaning: One is subconsciously aware of being talked about or criticized.

Origin: The idiom dates back to ancient Romans who believed that burning sensations in various organs had different meanings. In fact, it was believed that if your left ear is burning it signaled an evil intent, and if your right ear was burning you were actually being praised.

#28 Born With A Silver Spoon In Your Mouth

queen

Meaning: Be born into a wealthy family of high social standing.

Origin: It is an old tradition for godparents to gift a silver spoon to a christened child. However, not everyone was able to afford this type of luxury gift so those who did receive the spoon as a gift were considered to be wealthy, sometimes even spoiled.

#29 Achilles Heel

silver spoon

Meaning: A weakness or vulnerable point.

Origin: This phrase comes from Greek mythology, where Thetis dipped her son Achilles in the Styx, a river that was believed to be a source of incredible power and invulnerability. However, Thethis was holding her son by his heel, meaning it was the only part of his body that was not touched by water, making his heel vulnerable. Eventually, Achilles was killed by the shot…

Meaning: A weakness or vulnerable point.

Origin: This phrase comes from Greek mythology, where Thetis dipped her son Achilles in the Styx, a river that was believed to be a source of incredible power and invulnerability. However, Thethis was holding her son by his heel, meaning it was the only part of his body that was not touched by water, making his heel vulnerable. Eventually, Achilles was killed by the shot of an arrow in his heel.

#30 Crocodile Tears

Thailand

Meaning: Tears or expressions of sorrow that are insincere.

Origin: Written in the 14th century, a book called “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville†recounts a knight’s adventures through Asia. In the book it says that crocodiles shed tears while eating a man they captured. Even though it is factually inaccurate, the phrase ‘crocodile tears’ found its way into Shakespeare’s work and became…

Meaning: Tears or expressions of sorrow that are insincere.

Origin: Written in the 14th century, a book called “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville†recounts a knight’s adventures through Asia. In the book it says that crocodiles shed tears while eating a man they captured. Even though it is factually inaccurate, the phrase ‘crocodile tears’ found its way into Shakespeare’s work and became an idiom in the 16th century, symbolizing insincere grief.

asia

Meaning:A male friend or relative chosen by a bridegroom to assist him at his wedding.

Origin: It is said that during feudal days it was possible that a rival Lord would try to break up a wedding ceremony and steal the bride for political reasons. To avoid any trouble, grooms would ask their best friends to stand next to them during the ceremony so they would help during the possible battle….

Meaning:A male friend or relative chosen by a bridegroom to assist him at his wedding.

Origin: It is said that during feudal days it was possible that a rival Lord would try to break up a wedding ceremony and steal the bride for political reasons. To avoid any trouble, grooms would ask their best friends to stand next to them during the ceremony so they would help during the possible battle. The man, standing next to the groom was named ‘Best Man’.

#32 Steal One’s Thunder

beverage

Meaning: Win praise for oneself by pre-empting someone else’s attempt to impress.

Origin: You think that you’ve done something awesome and unique, but someone got in there first and took your credit! Spare a thought for playwright John Dennis who, back in the 18th Century, made a machine that could nicely mimic the sound of thunder for his play. Sadly, his play wasn’t a success, but somebody had taken note of…

Meaning: Win praise for oneself by pre-empting someone else’s attempt to impress.

Origin: You think that you’ve done something awesome and unique, but someone got in there first and took your credit! Spare a thought for playwright John Dennis who, back in the 18th Century, made a machine that could nicely mimic the sound of thunder for his play. Sadly, his play wasn’t a success, but somebody had taken note of his clever invention. When, later on in another theatre, Dennis found somebody had copied his thunder machine and was using it without credit, he got mad. Really mad. Somebody had stolen his thunder!

#33 Sleep Tight

Bury

Meaning: Sleep well (said to someone when parting from them at night).

Origin: It is believed that the saying comes from Shakespeare’s time when mattresses were secured by ropes. During that time, sleeping tight meant sleeping with the ropes pulled tight, making a well-sprung bed.

#34 Blue Blood

driver

Meaning: Noble birth.

Origin: Saying that some has blue blood comes from the Middle Ages, where it was believed that those who had pale skin (meaning their ancestor have not inter-married with darker skin partners) were noble or aristocrat. The main reasoning behind it is that when your skin is really pale, the veins are more visible and they usually look quite blue.

#35 Put A Sock In It

Egypt

Meaning: Stop talking.

Origin: In the late 19th century people would use woollen socks to stuff the horns of their gramophones or record players to lower the sound, since these machines had no volume controllers.

#36 Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

English Navy

Meaning: negative occurrence may have a positive aspect to it.

Origin: This expression can be traced directly from a piece written in 1634 by English poet John Milton called Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle. He spoke of a silver lining of brightness behind a gloomy cloud, and soon afterward ‘Milton’s clouds’ became a staple of English Literature. The proverb ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ eventually came into…

Meaning: negative occurrence may have a positive aspect to it.

Origin: This expression can be traced directly from a piece written in 1634 by English poet John Milton called Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle. He spoke of a silver lining of brightness behind a gloomy cloud, and soon afterward ‘Milton’s clouds’ became a staple of English Literature. The proverb ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ eventually came into being in the 1800’s, a time of optimism and positivity in the upper-classes of Victorian England.

#37 The Whole 9 Yards

John Mandeville

Meaning: To do everything that is possible or available.

Origin: During World War II, pilots would have a 9-yard chain of ammunition. When a fighter pilot used all of their ammunition on one target, they would give ‘The whole 9 yards.â€

#38 Piece Of Cake

queen

Meaning: Something easily achieved.

Origin: The saying ‘Piece of Cake’ comes from American poet Ogden Nash who, in 1930, was quoted saying ‘Life’s a piece of cake’.

#39 Resting On Laurels

silver spoon

Meaning: Be so satisfied with what one has already achieved that one makes no further effort.

Origin: Since ancient Greece laurel branches symbolized victory and success. This plan was closely tied to Apollo, the god of music, prophecy and poetry. Laurel branches were given to victorious athletes in ancient Greece and later to generals who won important battles, thus the term ‘laureates’ and the phrase ‘resting on laurels’. In the 19th…

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