My friend, Shaheen is from Kenya and she speaks three languages (including Kiswahili). I barely speak English compared to her. She is always learning new words and new expressions that I take for granted. She incorporates them in to her vocabulary so fast that it blows my mind. Our idioms intrigue her – they make her laugh. She has made me think about our quirky, English language in many new ways. She makes me want to know about these expressions that we use so off-handedly and regularly – to learn their etymology, to know where they come from and what the mean (or at least used to mean). So, I’ve googled myself silly finding about these expressions, these idioms, and what I have found is really rather interesting. So on this lazy Sunday I thought you might find it fun too to discover what’s behind some of those things you’ve been saying for years…
First we need a couple of definitions:
- IDIOM: a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogs, see the light ).
- ETYMOLOGY: an explanation of where a word came from : the history of a word. The study of word histories.
So, now that we got the boring part out of the way, let’s have some fun learning how we ended up with some of these common idioms:
1. Till The Cows Come Home
The expression “till the cows come home” refers to a long time. I will love him “till the cows come home.” But did you know that the expression came about quite literally? At the end of a long day, farmers generally put the cows back into the barn and milk them before they can be done with their day. I can imagine the hard work of a farmer can result in some very long days, so it’s interesting etymology. Till the cows come home to be milked… now we just say “till the cows come home.”
2. Let The Cat Out of The Bag
With the meaning of letting out a secret, this one goes all the way back to medieval times. In medieval markets you apparently used to be able to buy a piglet for your dinner (a delicacy) that was placed in a bag for your long walk or ride home, after you purchased it. Occasionally, unscrupulous merchants would replace the piglet with a less costly animal, like a cat, and the buyer would not discover the ruse until arriving home and letting the cat, not the piglet, out of the bag! Who knew?
3. Close But No Cigar
This one means you almost made it, almost accomplished something, right? But this is another one who’s etymology comes from something quite literal. In the 1800’s, carnival games were not really a child’s domain; they were meant for adults, with adult prizes, like, yes, you guessed it, cigars. So if you did well enough at the game but you didn’t win you were literally close but no cigar. I’d much rather have it be close but no teddy bear, but it doesn’t really have the same ring.
4. Steal Someone’s Thunder
This one is really funny. To steal someone’s thunder has come to mean to take undue credit or to take credit away from a more deserving someone. In the early 1700’s someone actually stole the thunder of playwright, John Dennis. It seems that Dennis had written a disastrous play but as part of the staging for the play he created an invention to make the sound of thunder in the production. The play bombed, but the thunder maker was quite a success. In fact, in the next play to open in that same theater, the producer took Dennis’ thunder machine and used it to make the sounds in his albeit better play. He literally stole Dennis’ thunder. And Dennis is quote chastising the his adversary saying “This is my thunder, by God, you villians!” You can’t make this stuff up!
5. Fly Off The Handle
Having used an axe to attempt (unsuccessfully) to break up a clump of beach grass one summer, I can attest to the dangerousness of the tool (I still have all my fingers and toes, thank God). Now picture a poorly made axe, and you’ll get the etymology of this next one. In times before OSHA and manufacturing standards, axe heads would depart from their handles fairly often. Yikes! You can see how this idiom came to mean loosing it in a chaotic or dangerous way. Too wild, especially if you don’t duck.
6. Read The Riot Act
My kids would never want to be read the riot act for their behavior, so they pretty much (well, maybe except for Charlotte), followed the house rules. The etymology of this one goes back to the actual Riot Act of 1714, which was a law passed in England by King George I. It seems the old King was really worried that he would be overthrown by the followers of his predecessors, the Stuarts. The Riot Act forbade the gathering of more than 12 people. The King thought that these gatherings were more than likely people getting together to plot his overthrow. His troops would address these groups by literally reading them the riot act, which forced them to disband or face arrest. From that we have turned this idiom into giving someone a scolding. Too funny.
7. Spill The Beans
Ancient Greece is where you have to go to get to the origin of this last idiom. Meaning to tell a secret, this expression is thought to have originated via the way the Greeks held their elections; they placed a white bean in a vase to vote yes and a brown one to vote no. If someone was to prematurely tip over the vase, they would know the secret results prior to their being announced. Pretty cool that this one survives from that day to this.
One Final, Funny Thought:
So, before the cows come home and before anyone reads you the riot act, now that you’re all versed on idioms, get out there and have some fun today, my friends. And make it real fun, not just the close but no cigar kind. I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag or spilling the beans to tell you that, as James Taylor said so eloquently, “the secret of life is enjoying the passing of time.” (Hope I didn’t just steal his thunder.) So don’t fly off the handle, instead enjoy… and be well. M