Ever wondered why the “hair of the dog” is a hangover cure, why a bird in the hand is worth “two in the bush” and who decided “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”?
Some sayings are now so commonplace, we’ll utter them with no idea of where they came from. But every phrase, saying or proverb starts somewhere, and thanks to the Phrase Finder, we’ve uncovered the (often disputed) authors, meanings and stories behind some of the most commonplace sayings. The results are surprising, and prove it wasn’t just Shakespeare changing our language.
· The apple of my eye
This Old English phrase was first attributed to King Aelfred (the Great) of Wessex, AD 885, in Gregory’s Pastoral Care, but also appears in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
· Hold a candle to
This phrase originates from when apprentices were expected to hold the candle up, so their more experienced colleagues could see what they were doing. The phrase first appeared in print in Sir Edward Dering’s The fower cardinal-vertues of a Carmelite fryar, in 1641.
· Chow down
‘Chow down’ was first used by the U.S. military during WWII. ‘Chow’ is a Chinese breed of dog, that became a western slang term for food due to the Chinese’s reputation for eating dog meat.
· Come up trumps
‘Come up trumps’ is a variant of ‘turn up trumps’, which has been used since the early 17th century. “Trump” is a corruption of triumph, which was the name of a popular card game during this period.
· A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
This medieval proverb comes from the sport of falconry, where the ‘bird in the hand’ (the preying falcon) was worth more than ‘two in the bush’ – the prey.
· Hair of the dog that bit you
This term for a hangover cure is another medieval saying, originating from the belief that once bitten by a rabid dog, the victim would be cured by applying the same dog’s hair to the wound. The first use of it being applied to drinking was in John Heywood’s 1546 tome A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue.
· Off the record
This American phrase was first attributed to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, who was recorded in The Daily Times-News saying “he was going to talk ‘off the record’, that it was mighty nice to be able to talk ‘off the record’ for a change and that he hoped to be able to talk ‘off the record’ often in the future.”
· A sight for sore eyes
Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, first used this phrase in A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation, 1738, with the line “The Sight of you is good for sore Eyes.”
· A stone’s throw
This term for ‘a short distance’ is a variation of ‘a stone’s cast’, first used in early editions of the Bible, but it fell out of use. Writer John Arbuthnot revived it in The History of John Bull, in 1712.
· Absence makes the heart grow fonder
This sweet saying came from the Roman poet Sextus Propertius’ Elegies: “Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows.” In 1832, the modern variant of the phrase was coined by a ‘Miss Strickland’ in The Pocket Magazine of Classic and Polite Literature.
· The Acid Test
This term came from the California Gold Rush in the 19th century, when prospectors and dealers used acid to distinguish gold from base metal – if the metal dissolved in a mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, it was real.
· An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Was this catchy rhyme a proverb from Pembrokeshire, or Devon? The earliest recording of the phrase in 1866, states “Eat an apple on going to bed, And you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread” is from the former. But in 1913, Elizabeth Wright recorded this phrase from the latter: “Ait a happle avore gwain to bed, An’ you’ll make the doctor beg his bread; or as the more popular version runs: An apple a day Keeps the doctor away.”
· Cool as a cucumber
Despite sounding like a modern-day phrase, Cool as a cucumber actually first appeared in John Gay’s Poems, New Song on New Similies, in 1732: “I … cool as a cucumber could see The rest of womankind.”
· Busy as a bee
Chaucer coined the term in the Squire’s Tale, from his Canterbury Tales, around 1386-1400.
· As happy as Larry
This saying has Australia and New Zealand origins, but who is ‘Larry’? There are two contenders. The first is late nineteenth-century Australian boxer Larry Foley, who never lost a fight. The other is a deriviation of the Australian/New Zealand slang term ‘larrikin’, meaning a rough type or hooligan.
· Bring home the bacon
This phrase is often attributed to the story of Dunmow Flitch. In 1104, a couple in Great Dunmow, Essex, impressed the Prior of Little Dunmow with their love and devotion so much, that he awarded them a flitch [a side] of bacon.
· A baker’s dozen
This phrase is widely believed to originate from medieval times, when English bakers gave an extra loaf when selling a dozen in order to avoid being penalized for selling a short weight. Bakers could be fined, pilloried or flogged for selling ‘underweight’ bread.
· Ball and chain
This rather crude description of a wife refers to the ball and chain strapped to a prisoner’s leg in American and British prisons in the early 19th century.
· Barking mad
The most probable meaning for this phrase is a reference to rabid dogs, barking in their madness. A more interesting (but less likely) tale is that ‘barking mad’ originates from the east London suburb of Barking, where there was an asylum for the insane during the medieval period.
· Basket case
Originally, this term was used by the US military after WWI, referring to soldiers who had lost arms and legs and had to be carried by others.
· Bee in your bonnet
This phrase was first recorded in Alexander Douglas’s Aeneis, in 1513: “Quhat bern be thou in bed with heid full of beis?”. It has been speculated that the bonnet could refer to the protective headgear beekeepers wear.
· Beat around the bush
Beat around the bush evolved from “beat about the bush”, a term used in birdhunting to rouse the prey out of the bushes, and into nets. Grouse hunters still use beaters today.
· Two peas in a pod
Referring to the fact that two peas in a pod are identical,this phrase dates from the 16th century, and appeared in John Lyly’s Euphues and his England, in 1580: “Wherin I am not unlike unto the unskilfull Painter, who having drawen the Twinnes of Hippocrates, (who wer as lyke as one pease is to an other).”
· Born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth
Although this phrase was thought to be British, referring to the upper classes born into privilege, the first recorded use was in America in 1801, in a speech made in U.S. Congress: “It was a common proverb that few lawyers were born with silver spoons in their mouths.”
· A man after my own heart
This saying comes from the Bible (King James Version): Samuel 13:14: “But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee.”
· Cut of your jib
Sir Walter Scott brought this phrase into common use in 1824, but what actually is a jib? This triangular sail is used on sailing ships, and as each country has its own style of ‘jib’, the ‘cut of your jib’ determines where a boat originates from.
· Namby Pamby
‘Namby Pamby’ was a nickname invented in the eighteenth century by poets John Gay, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift to mock the English poet and playright Ambrose Philips. Philips, a tutor to King George’s grandchildren, gained notoriety for the sycophantic poems he wrote about his charges, often using babyish language such as “eensy weesy”– and his rival poets gave his own name the same treatment.
· The female of the species is more deadly than the male
This now famous phrase is a line from Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Female of the Species , published in 1911.
· Frog in the throat
The earliest use of this name for a sore throat, was actually supposed to be a ‘cure’. In The Stevens Point Journal, November 1894, the Taylor Bros advertised a medicine called ‘Frog in the Throat’ that will “cure hoarseness” for only 10 cents a box. What a bargain…
· Fools rush in
This is a shortened line from English poet Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, 1709: “For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread”. The ‘fools’ in question are literary critics – although fool did not have such negative connotations in the 18th century.
· Fly off the handle
Coined by American writer Thomas C Haliburton in 1843 (he also invented “won’t take no for answer” and “ginger up”), this phrase was inspired by the way an axe-head will fly off its handle if loose.
· Fly by the seat of your pants
This aviation term emerged in 1938 in US newspapers, to describe pilot Douglas Corrigan’s (slightly perilous) flight from the USA to Ireland.
· Flogging a dead horse
Dating from the 17th century, a “dead horse” was a term for work which a person had been paid for in advance (and already spent).
· Gee Whiz!
First used in the late 19th century, Gee Whiz is actually shorthand (or a “minced oath” in linguistic terms) for Jesus.
· Get the sack
This slang term for getting fired originates in France, and alludes to tradesmen, who would take their own bag or “sac” of tools with them when dismissed from employment
· Wide Berth
Originally a nautical term, a “berth” is a large space where a ship can be moored.
· Go down like a lead balloon
The US version of this phrase “Go over like a lead balloon”, first appeared in a Mom-N-Pop cartoon in several newspapers in 1924. It then fell out of use until after WWII – and was said to inspire a certain heavy metal band to name themselves Led Zeppelin.
This word brings comic strip superheroes to mind, but like Gee Whizz, it’s another minced oath – meaning “God’s words”, and first used in various 17th century plays.
· Goody two shoes
Good two shoes comes from a Christian retelling of Cinderella, a nursery tale named The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, published in 1765. The poor orphan of the title only has one shoe – but is given two shoes by a rich man as a reward for her virtue.
· Green-eyed monster
Shakespeare coined this term in The Merchant of Venice, when Portia says: “And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy! O love, Be moderate;”. He then used green eyed monster again in his most famous play about jealousy – Othello.
· Saved by the bell
Contrary to popular belief, this phrase didn’t priginate from the popular 90s sitcom. ‘Saved by the Bell’ is boxing slang from the late 19th century. A boxer who is in danger of losing a bout can be ‘saved’ from defeat by the bell that marks the end of a round.
· Dead Ringer
This word was used in US horse-racing at the end of the 19th century. A ‘ringer’ is a horse substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies.
· Bad Books
In the Middle Ages, ‘one’s books’ meant ‘one’s reckoning or cognizance’. So to be ‘out of someone’s books’ meant you were no longer part of their life or of interest to them.
· In Spades
The expression ‘in spades’, used to described a large amount, is a 20th century US word used in Bridge and card games, referring to Spades as one of the highest ranking suits.
· I’ll be there with bells on
The first record of this phrase in print is in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, 1922: “All-ll-ll righty. I’ll be there with bells!”
· In stitches
Another Shakespeare coinage, although not used again until the 20th century. In Twelfth Night, 1602, Maria says: “If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself into stitches, follow me.”
· In the limelight
Limelight is an intense white light widely used in 19th century theatres to illuminate the stage. Clearly, actors who were the centre of attention on stage being said to be in the limelight.
· In the buff
A buff-coat was a light browny/yellow leather tunic worn by English soldiers up until the 17th century. The original meaning of ‘in the buff’ was simply to be wearing such a coat. Later on, ‘in the buff’ was used to mean naked, due to the colour of the skin, which is similar to the buff coat.
· Keeping up with the Joneses
This American term emerged in 1913, when Arthur (Pop) Momand started a Keep Up With The Joneses comic strip in the New York Globe. The strip was so popular in, that in 1915 a cartoon film of the same name was released.
· Mad as a hatter
19th century Mercury used to be used in the making of hats. This was known to have affected the nervous systems of hatters, causing them to tremble and appear insane. Mercury poisoning is still known today as ‘Mad Hatter’s disease’.