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Calendar >  Where Did That Saying Come From and What Does It Mean – Part 5

Where Did That Saying Come From and What Does It Mean – Part 5

By   /  June 3, 2021  /  No Comments


TR Robertson — The final article in the Old Sayings and Idioms series will cover the origin of several sayings still being used by many of you today. Just as the COVID pandemic has led to a few new words and references for our vocabulary, sayings, and idioms from many years ago and situations that arose then have somehow remained in our vocabulary to this day. As always, see how many of these you have heard or even use.

Old Sayings and Idioms

Show Your True Colors – To reveal your true character or intentions. This origin dates to the 1800’s when sailing warships would sometimes disguise their country of origin by not flying the true flag of their country. To show your true colors would be to fly the correct flag to let other ships know what country your ship was from.

The Best Man – A male friend or relative chosen by the bridegroom to assist him at his wedding. It is said in feudal days there were times a rival Lord would try to break up a wedding ceremony and steal the bride for political reasons. The tradition of the bridegroom selecting friends to stand with him at his wedding was begun to protect the wedding party from any attempt to disrupt the wedding. The man standing next to the groom was said to be the “Best Man”.

To Get One’s Goat – To irritate someone. During the early days of horse racing, racehorse owners would put a goat in the stalls of anxious horses to calm them down. Other racehorse owners would steal the goat at times to irritate the horse and upset the horse for the coming race.

To Have an Achilles Heel – To have a weakness or a vulnerable point. This comes from the ancient Greek legend of the Greek warrior Achilles who could not be killed except for a small portion on the heel of his right foot, which a Trojan warrior Prince Paris was able to strike with an arrow, killing Achilles.

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining – This refers to the possibility that negative occurrences may have a positive aspect to them. This comes from a piece written in 1634 by English poet John Milton called “Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle”. In this the spoke of a silver lining of brightness behind a gloomy cloud. This reference became a staple of English literature. This became a use again in the 1800’s in England, a time of optimism and positivity in the upper classes of Victorian England.

The Whole 9 Yards – To do everything that is possible or available. During WW II, pilots would have a 9-yard chain of ammunition for their fighter planes. When they had used all 9-yards of the ammunition in the fight, they had given “the whole 9-yards”.

Sleep Tight – A greeting, usually to a child, when they are put to bed. The reference comes from 1600’s when beds were hung in homes to raise them off the floor, away from “creatures” that crawled on the floors of the homes of the day. These beds were held to the ceiling by ropes, and they occasionally had to be tightened to make sure the bed was level and did not sway as much, therefore they were tightened. To “sleep tight” is a response that the bed was ready.

Don’t Spill the Beans – Don’t reveal the information before it is time. This saying comes from the ancient Greeks when voting was done in their governmental agencies using beans placed in jars. When voting for a candidate they supported, white beans were dropped in a jar and for a candidate they did not support, black beans were dropped in another jar. If the jars were accidentally knocked over, the beans were spilled, and the vote had to start again.

To Pull Out All the Stops – To make a great effort to achieve something. This saying comes from the 1700’s when organ music was predominant in churches and in auditoriums. The organs have knobs on them called “stops”. When these stops are pulled out to their extreme, the organist could get the maximum volume for the piece he was playing.

To Run Amok – To behave uncontrollably and disruptively. This work comes from the Malaysian word “amoq”, which describes the bizarre behavior of tribesmen under the influence of opium when they would behave wildly and at times attack people.

To Win Hands Down – To do something easily and decisively. This term comes from the world of horse racing when a horse had a large lead in the race and the jockey could relax his hands on the reins of the horse allowing the horse to easily win the race. It was also referred to as winning “at a canter”.

Rule of Thumb – This refers to a broadly accurate guide or principle based on experience or practice rather than theory. It is believed that the “rule of thumb” comes from the 17th century England when Judge Sir Francis Butler once ruled that husbands were allowed to beat their wives with a stick no wider than his thumb. A law that would be rescinded in the 1800’s.

To Go Bananas – Acting insane or extremely silly. No specific origin, but it could refer to the 1950’s reference to “go ape”, when monkeys were popular due to the space race and in a variety of slapstick movies. Also popular was the expression, “that’s bananas” referring to something someone said that was nonsense.

To Be Called on the Carpet – To be severely reprimanded by someone in authority. Expression seems to have appeared in England in the 1700’s when servants would be brought into a carpeted office of the homes owner to be reprimanded for some offense.

By and Large – Means overall, everything considered. This phrase grew to mean all things considered, but originally it was a nautical term in the 1600’s. The word “large” meant a ship was sailing with the wind at its back and the word “by” meant the ship was sailing into the wind. Mariners used the phrase, “by and large”, to refer to sailing in any and all direction relative to the wind.

The list of old sayings and idioms seems to be endless. Their historical beginning can go back hundreds of years and their origin, at times, is very surprising. Each year, many of these sayings fall out of use and new ones appear. So, “Mind your P’s and Q’s”, “Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite” and I hope your days are always “Fair to Partly Cloudy not Stormy”.


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  • Published: 3 years ago on June 3, 2021
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  • Last Modified: June 3, 2021 @ 11:59 pm
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