Idioms are figures of speech that become fixed in a language. Usually, an idiom is figurative in modern contexts but once had a literal meaning. These literal meanings, or idiom origins, can help a learner of English to understand where a phrase originated.
Ever wondered what it means to “turn a blind eye” or “pull out all the stops”? Wonder no more!
Because the English language is full of idioms, we wanted to compile a list of English idioms and their origins to help make better sense of how these idioms work in modern contexts.
Ready? Let’s go!
1. Straight from the horse’s mouth
Meaning: getting information directly from the most reliable source
Origin: This one 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.
2. Let the cat out of the bag
Meaning: to mistakenly reveal a secret
Origin: Up to and including in the 1700s, a common street fraud included replacing valuable pigs with less valuable cats and selling them in bags. When a cat was let out of a bag, the jig was up.
3. Butter someone up
Meaning: to praise or flatter someone, usually to gain a favor
Origin: A customary religious act in ancient India included throwing butter balls at the statues of gods to seek good fortune and their favor.
4. Pulling someone’s leg
Meaning: teasing someone, usually by lying in a joking manner
Origin: Although pulling someone’s leg is all in good fun nowadays, it originally described the way in which thieves tripped their victims to rob them.
5. Wolf in sheep’s clothing
Meaning: someone who is pretending to be something they are not, usually to the detriment of others
Origin: This one’s attributed to the Bible (Matthew 7:15). The Bible also gave us “rise and shine” (Isaiah 60:1), “seeing eye to eye” (Isaiah 62:8), and a “broken heart” (Psalm 69:20).
6. Hands down
Meaning: without a lot of effort; by far
Origin: Winning “hands down” once referred to 19th-century horseracing, when a jockey could remove his hands from the reins and still win the race because he was so far ahead.
7. Riding shotgun
Meaning: riding in the front seat of a vehicle next to the driver
Origin: 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.
8. Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: pursuing a misguided course of action
Origin: Likely referring to hunting, this saying explains when a dog would literally bark at the bottom of the wrong tree after the prey in question moved to the next branch.
9. Flying off the handle
Meaning: suddenly becoming enraged
Origin: This one is said to come from poorly made axes of the 1800s that would literally detach from the handle. Yikes!
10. Cost an arm and a leg
Meaning: extremely expensive
Origin: The story goes that this phrase originated from 18th-century paintings, as famous people like George Washington would have their portraits done without certain limbs showing. Having limbs showing is said to have cost more.
11. Sleep tight
Meaning: used to tell someone to sleep well
Origin: One possible origin of this phrase dates back to when mattresses were supported by ropes; sleeping tight meant sleeping with the ropes pulled tight, which would provide a well-sprung bed.
12. Bite the bullet
Meaning: to perform a painful task or endure an unpleasant situation
Origin: In the 1800s, patients would literally bite on a bullet to cope with the pain of having surgery before anesthesia was common.
13. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water
Meaning: look for avoidable errors so you don’t remove something good with the bad
Origin: This idiom allegedly comes from a time when the household bathed in the same water; first, the lord would bathe, then the men, the lady, the women, the children, and the babies last. The bath water is said to have been so dirty that there was a risk of throwing the baby out with the water once everyone was done bathing!
14. Jump the shark
Meaning: the moment when a form of entertainment reaches a decline in quality by including gimmicks to maintain interest.
Origin: In the show Happy Days, the character Fonzie literally jumps over a shark while water skiing; afterward, radio personality Jon Hein popularized the phrase “jump the shark” to describe the decline of the show.
15. Minding your Ps and Qs
Meaning: being on your best behavior
Origin: There are many origin stories for this one, but perhaps the one that is most fun is that bartenders would keep track of the pints and quarts consumed by their patrons with the letters “P” and “Q.”
16. Turn a blind eye
Meaning: to consciously ignore unwanted information
Origin: The phrase “to turn a blind eye” is said to originate with Admiral Horatio Nelson, who allegedly looked through his telescope using his blind eye to avoid signals from his superior telling him to withdraw from battle.
17. Armed to the teeth
Meaning: to be extremely well equipped
Origin: The idea behind being “armed to the teeth” is that the weapon wielder would carry the maximum number of weapons, so many that he or she would be forced to carry some between his or her teeth.
18. Get one’s goat
Meaning: to irritate or annoy someone
Origin: This one also comes from horseracing. Jockeys placed goats in the stables with their horses as this was said to relax the horses. However, competitors would remove the goats of their rivals to spook their competitors’ horses, hoping they would consequently lose the race.
19. Pull out all the stops
Meaning: to do everything you can to make something successful
Origin: Alluding to the piano-like instrument the organ, this phrase refers to when the stops are pulled out to turn on all the sounds in an organ, allowing the organ to play all the sounds at once and, therefore, be as loud as possible.
20. Dish fit for the gods
Meaning: a very scrumptious or delectable meal
Origin: We can thank Shakespeare for this expression (found in Julius Caesar), but we can also thank him for “foaming at the mouth” (Julius Caesar), “hot blooded” (The Merry Wives of Windsor), “in stitches” (Twelfth Night), “green-eyed monster” (Othello), “wearing your heart on your sleeve” (Othello), and “one fell swoop” (Macbeth).
Did any of these idiom origins surprise you? Do you know of any other English idioms with surprising origin stories? Alternatively, do you know of any other idioms in other languages that you think are interesting or funny? Share them with us on Facebook or Twitter!