Origins of common idioms

If someone says something funny and you think “what is the origin of this idiom?”, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, Letrário will compile 12 interesting idioms and their origins, while taking a journey through old times, the Wild West, the Middle Ages, Shakespearean works and even nautical terminology.

Let’s get started?


  1. “Straight from the horse’s mouth”

This idiom, which means getting information directly from the most reliable source, is said to come from the 1900s, when buyers could determine a horse’s age by examining its teeth. It’s also why you shouldn’t “look a gift horse in the mouth,” as inspecting a gift is considered bad etiquette.


  1. “Ride shotgun”

In the Wild West, the person who sat next to the driver was often equipped with a shotgun, to kill any robbers that might happen upon the coach.

The first known use of the phrase was in the 1905 novel The Sunset Trail by Alfred Henry Lewis: “Wyatt and Morgan Earp were in the service of The Express Company. They went often as guards—“riding shotgun,” it was called—when the stage bore unusual treasure”.


  1. “Bark up the wrong tree”

The origin of the idiom dates back to early 1800s America, when hunting with packs of dogs was very popular. The term was used literally at first, when wily prey animals such as raccoons would trick dogs into believing they were up a certain tree when in fact they had escaped.


  1. “Fly off the handle”

This American phrase alludes to the uncontrolled way a loose axe-head flies off from its handle. It is first found in print in Thomas C. Haliburton’s The Attaché; or, Sam Slick in England:

“He flies right off the handle for nothing.”

Haliburton was an inventive writer and had a hand in the coining of several commonly used phrases such as “ginger up” and “won’t take no for an answer”.


  1. “Bite the bullet”

The literal meaning of this idiom, which means to accept something unpleasant or difficult, can be attributed to the times of war, or to times when doctors did not have anaesthesia and would distract the patient from pain by asking them to bite hard down on a bullet. The first recorded written use of this phrase was in The Light that Failed in 1891, a novel by Nobel Prize-winning English author Rudyard Kipling.


  1. “Break the ice”

During the time when roads were not yet fully developed, ships were the main means of transportation and trade. During the winter, these ships could get stuck on ice that formed on lakes and other bodies of water.

The receiving country in question would send smaller ships and help the trade ships pass by breaking the ice for them. This gesture has come to mean an invitation of friendship between the sending and receiving countries.


  1. “Mad as a hatter”

Your first guess might be Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, right? Surprisingly, it didn’t originate from it. The origins date back to the 17th and 18th centuries — well before the book was published.

This idiom, used in conversation to suggest (light-heartedly) that a person is suffering from insanity, is believed to derive from Denton and Stockport, in Greater Manchester, where men worked predominantly in the hattery business, which used mercury in the hat making process.

The accumulation of mercury in the body causes symptoms similar to madness, such as irritability and tremors. The earliest known appearance of the phrase in print is in an 1829 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.


  1. “Caught red-handed”

This phrase, which means to be caught in the act of doing something wrong, has its origins in Scotland around the 15th century. The idiom probably referred to people caught with blood on their hands from murder or poaching.

The first documented mention of “red hand” is in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I, written in 1432:

“That the offender be taken reid hand, may be persewed, and put to the knawledge of ane Assise, befoir the Barron or Landeslord of the land or ground, quhidder the offender be his tennent, unto quhom the wrang is done or not… And uthers not taken reid hand, to be alwaies persewed befoir the…”

It subsequently popped up numerous times in various legal proceedings in Scotland, nearly always referring to someone caught in the act of committing some crime.


  1. “All that glitters is not gold”

This aphorism, which states that not everything that looks precious or true turns out to be so, is a derivative of a line in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, which employs the word “glisters,” a 17th-century synonym for “glitters.”

The line comes from a secondary plot of the play, in the scroll inside the golden casket of Portia’s boxes (Act II – Scene VII – Prince of Morocco):


All that glisters is not gold—

Often have you heard that told.

Many a man his life hath sold

But my outside to behold.

Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

Had you been as wise as bold,

Young in limbs, in judgment old,

Your answer had not been inscrolled

Fare you well. Your suit is cold—


However, the phrase has other previous recorded occurrences in the 12th century, from Greek, Latin and French, and Chaucer also gave two early versions in English “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” and in “The House of Fame”.


  1. “In a nutshell”

This idiom has its roots in Greece, nearly two thousand years ago. It describes something that is brief or to the point, and its usage was first seen around 77 A.D., in the work Natural History by Pliny the Elder:

“Cicero hath recorded, that the poem of Homer called the Iliad, written on parchment, was enclosed within a nutshell.”

In this instance, the phrase was used to illustrate something that literally happened. The book was translated into English in the 1600s, and by the 1800s, the idiom was in general use.


  1. “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”

This expression dates back to the 1940s in the United Kingdom, and is said to mean that if an employer pays low wages, they cannot expect to find good staff. Peanuts was always a term used for something small or paltry (since 1840, in fact), but only came to be used as a financial term in the 1940s.

The origin of the idiom “for peanuts”, which means to work for little pay, is credited to a Mr. Harry Mozley Stevens, who is often called the father of sports food service. An immigrant from England, Mr. Stevens began selling peanuts in 1895, when a peanut company called Cavanaros paid for advertising in the New York Giants game programs with peanuts, which Mr. Stevens would then sell to hungry fans. He liked to jokingly state that he was “working for peanuts”.


  1. “Feel under the weather”

This idiom, which means to feel unwell, is believed to be nautical in nature. When a sailor was feeling ill, he would go beneath the bow, which is the front part of the boat. This would hopefully protect him from adverse conditions, as he was literally under the bad weather that could further sicken him. Therefore, a sailor who was sick could be described as being “under the weather”.

Some sources maintain that the original expression was “under the weather bow”, the bow of the ship being the worst place to be because it was constantly buffeted by the weather.


Which origin did you like learning about the most? Would you like to know the origin of an expression not featured in this article? Share it with us in the comments and we’ll look into it!

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