They’ve transcended time, passed from generation to generation, evolving to become part of our every day conversation. But what exactly do old proverbs mean and where did they come from? I’ve researched and compiled a list of the most widely believed origins.
Limelight – In 1816, Thomas Drummond devised a lighting source for theatres. It was a cylinder of lime heated by an incandescence flame and placed behind a lens or in front of a reflector. These ‘lime lights’ were very bright which meant that the ‘star’ performer was visible as long as he stood in it. Soon, actors were competing to be easily seen in the limelight. And thus the saying was born.
Axe to Grind – There are a few stories behind this one. Some say that prolific author and inventor, Benjamin Franklyn was duped by a stranger into giving a demonstration of how the family grindstone worked. In reality, the man just needed his axe sharpened. (Spelt Ax in America). Franklyn then wrote a metaphorical cautionary tale about axe sharpening, as did Author Charles Miner. Therefore, the saying cannot be attributed to either although the meaning is the same; somebody with a hidden agenda is often referred to as somebody with “an axe to grind”.
No Spring Chicken – New England chicken farmers discovered that chickens born in the spring bought better prices than the old birds that had gone through the winter. Farmers would often try to sell old birds as new spring born chickens but smart buyers often complained that a tough fowl was “no spring chicken” and so the term was adopted into society representing somebody past their plump and tender years.
Break the Ice – All cities that grew as a result of being on rivers (for trade) suffered during bitter cold times when the river froze. Even large ships got stuck, making them icebound for weeks. Small, sturdier boats, known as ‘icebreakers’, were developed to precede larger ships, breaking the ice and enabling the movement of goods to market. Thus, every boatman knew that in order to get down to business, one first had to “break the ice”. It is believed that the term, as we know it, was born around 1821 when Lord Byron’s immortalised it, in a metaphorical sense, in his Epic, Don Juan.
Pass the Buck – Poker became very popular in America during the days when the west was wild. Players were suspicious of each other. Many stories circulated depicting gunslingers in shoot-outs due to accusations of dirty dealing. In order to avoid unfairness, the deal changed hands during sessions. The person who was next in line to deal would be given a marker. This was often a knife, and knives often had handles made of buck’s horn – hence the marker becoming known as a buck. When the dealer’s turn was done he ‘passed the buck’. Silver dollars were later used as markers and it’s believed that this was the origin for the use of buck as a slang term for dollar.
Throw in the Towel is believed to originate from old boxing days, when battered fighters were unable to get up for the next round. As a signal that the fight was over, managers would reluctantly throw an item into the ring, often the sponge or towel. Today, regulations are in place to limit the violence of the past but the saying “throwing in the towel” is still used when one gives up on a situation or project.
To Rub up the Wrong Way is to deal with someone insensitively, whether on purpose or by accident, to the point of irking them. It’s believed that this saying dates back to colonial times and oak-board floors. Once a week, servants had to wet-rub then dry-rub these floors. But if the task wasn’t carried out incorrectly (to the grain), the floors would look streaky. To some masters, this was worse than it not being done at all since it proved to be a source of embarrassment when entertaining. There is an alternate and more plausible version which is to rub an animal (such as a domestic cat) up the wrong way. That is to rub its fur in the opposite direction to which is grows.
To Spill the Beans is to reveal all. In ancient Greece, voting for membership into some organisations was done via coloured beans; white beans favouring a nominated candidate and black or brown beans against. Jars weren’t transparent and therefore, not unlike today, the results of the ballot were unknown until these were counted by officials. However, on some occasions, clumsy voters would knock the jar over, ‘spilling the beans’ and revealing the content to all. Since then, the phrase has become synonymous with revealing truth or hidden secrets.
To Beat around the Bush is to avoid dealing with an issue or situation directly. This saying is believed to originate from boar hunting when noblemen hired workers to walk through the woods, beating branches and making noises to get animals to run towards the hunters. Most know that boars are dangerous with razor-sharp teeth. Most workers were reluctant to come face to face with one of the animals (at least unarmed) which meant they’d avoid the dense undergrowth where the boar might be, they’d ‘beat around it’ rather than go into it.
On Cloud Nine – For some odd reason, the number 9 has always been considered special by mathematicians. Some say it goes back to the Holy Trinity since 3 x 3 = 9.And later in Victorian times, a person who was all dressed up was said to be “dressed to the nines.” So what does this have to do with clouds? It was believed that clouds existed on a level of layers, and the ultimate high layer was 9. So anyone who is ecstatically happy is believed (at least in a metaphorical sense) to be soaring to the highest level cloud, 9.
Henpeck – Biologist W.C. Allee gained fame when he discovered the pecking order of hens, and the female’s habit of using her beak as a weapon among other females. The hens never peck the male roosters. And yet the term today is represents the verbal attacks females inflict on males!
Double-cross – Centuries ago, when illiteracy was common, and a person was asked to sign a document, they’d do so by inserting an “X” in place of their signature. This was legal. However, the process was often done under pressure (at gunpoint) which meant that the signing party had no intention of honouring the terms of the contract. Oral lore stated that if a cross was doubled (one written over the other), the first cross was voided thus nullifying the contract. So, to be double crossed was to be duped into a contract or a situation not honoured by the other party.
Graveyard Shift – There are few versions of this story. The more plausible appears to be tied into another saying, saved by the bell. Tragically, there was a time when being buried alive was a common occurrence. Some who were terrified of such a fate were buried in special coffins with strings attached to a bell above ground. At night, a guard was set to watch the graveyard. This was known as the graveyard shift. The guard’s task was to listen for any ringing bells and occupants liberated from their earthly tomb were saved by the bell.
Dead as a Doornail – There are a few origins for this saying although both are very similar to each other. There was a high demand for nails during colonial times. So much so that people would often go out during the night and steal these from their neighbour’s doors. To prevent this from happening, the ends of the nails were bent and hammered down (on the inside) to prevent them from being pulled out (from the outside). The act was ‘deadening the nail’, it could not be removed and all other uses for the nail were terminated. Thus it was dead. One of the earliest uses for the term is documented in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI (1590).
Bring Home the Bacon comes from the prize a contestant would win at many county fairs for catching the greased pig. The winner ‘brought home the bacon’ or the winnings. Today the term is used to mean bringing home money that’s been worked through a job and or a difficult task.
Shindig originates from North Carolina; USA which is believed to be the square dance capital of the world. Many rookies who try to square dance end up swinging their foot wildly, often digging into the shins of their partners or other dancers. Any dancing event of its kind became known thereon as a shindig.
Over a barrel – In the days when a public whipping was the norm, prisoners were often tied to the curve of an overturned barrel (with their feet on the floor) to prevent them from escaping. Today the term signifies being in a metaphorical (sometimes physical) position from which there is no way out.
Sweetheart– Hard-hearted, soft-hearted, heavy-hearted, light-hearted, and cold-hearted. Many years ago, the pumping action of the heart was considered to be the seat of a person’s personality. Doctors knew little else about our circulatory system which meant that figurative words were used instead. Since love often makes our heart beat faster, the term “swete hert” was born and slowly metamorphosed into the one we all know and ‘cherish’ today, “sweetheart”; somebody who makes our heart beat fast.
Wrong Side of the Bed – Most of us are right handed. In the ancient world, the left-side of the body or anything “left” was considered sinister, mysterious, dangerous or evil. This prompted most to push the left side of the bed against the walls which meant you HAD to rise from the right side. Today, we’ll rise on either side of the bed and don’t really think about it. However, the term remains and if somebody we know acts irritably, they’re deemed to have “got out of the wrong side of the bed.”
Blockbuster originates from WWII and refers to a bomb that could level an entire block. When the boys came home, the phrase caught on to represent anything that made a gargantuan impact.
Flip Side goes back to the days of vinyl records. Remember those? Each record had an ‘A’ side featuring the main recording and a ‘B’ side often carrying a much lesser title. This song became known as the “flip side.” In society, it caught on as every argument or situation has another side or perspective.
The Green-eyed Monster is the manifestation of Jealousy as conceived by Shakespeare in his play, “Othello”. Act III refers to a cat’s green eyes (the green eyed monster).
The doom that is The Writing on the Wall is from the bible when Belshazzar, successor to King Nebuchadnezzar, got drunk one night and afterwards reports that a mysterious hand appeared and wrote 4 strange words on the banquet room wall. Daniel (the prophet) interpreted this writing as an ominous foreboding as many of us do today.
Lock, Stock and Barrel. An old rifle (or musket) had 3 major parts: lock, a stock of wood and a metal barrel. Each part was totally useless without the other. Thus, when a person chose to put everything 100% into a decision, action or commitment, they are doing it “lock stock and barrel.” Alternative farm analogy was that a Lock meant the house, stock was all the animals and barrel was the rain barrel meaning (all the junk). So a sale on the land at that time would have been sold lock, stock and barrel.
The term ‘get the sack’ dates back to 1825 when roaming tradesman carried most of their worldly possessions in a sack. So, to remain in employment was to rest your sack the alternative was to get it!