Hearing idioms– a.k.a. old sayings, slang, expressions – used in every-day conversation has always caught my interest, and finding out how and where they began has over the years become somewhat of a hobby.

It’s impossible to know for sure what the origins of some old sayings are because the information has through the centuries been either lost or unrecognizably blurred. But it’s nonetheless cool to have at least some idea about the background of some of the strange expressions that are both widely used and largely taken for granted.

We did this about a year ago, but just for fun, here’s a look at another randomly selected handful of English language idioms, some of which might be more commonly used than others, but all of which can at times be heard in ordinary conversation.

DOUG DAVISON

DOUG DAVISON

––Another one bites the dust. Easily recognized as having to do with death, the phrase “bite the dust” came from a translation of a passage in the “The Iliad,” an ancient Greek poem about war between the Greeks and Trojans traditionally attributed to Homer. It was a poetic way of describing the death of a warrior.

––Hat trick. Often used to refer to a soccer player or hockey player scoring three goals in one game, the phrase began in another sport: cricket. When a bowler took three wickets in successive deliveries, he was given a new hat by his club.

––It will cost you an arm and a leg. In the days before cameras, a person’s image could either be sculpted or painted. Painters would often base their prices not on how many people were to be painted, but how many limbs. The more arms and legs in a picture, the higher the price (which is why people in old paintings sometimes have their arms behind their backs).

––Jay walker. Used to describe a person who crosses a roadway in a reckless or illegal manner, the label stems from jaybirds that would become confused when they left their rural digs and entered an urban area. City people would make fun of the birds’ erratic behavior and how they would even endanger their own well being by walking almost anywhere, including into traffic.

––Mind your Ps and Qs. At local taverns and pubs, people drank from pint and quart-sized receptacles, and it was a bar maid’s job to keep an eye on who was drinking from which size container (the p-size or the q-size) and keep the drinks coming.

––Pot luck. We’ve all gone to large gatherings featuring “pot luck” meals where attendees all bring a prepared dish. But long ago people would put all kinds of food in a big pot and cook it, and when you sat down for dinner with friends or other families, you hoped for good pot luck because you were never really sure what you were being served.

––Raining cats and dogs. When houses had thatched roofs made of thick straw with no wood underneath, cats and other small animals would at times live in the roof because it was the only place where they could stay warm. Rainfall would result in slippery conditions and animals would slip and fall off the roof.

––Red tape. We all know what someone means when they say something involved “a lot of red tape.” Long ago, official documents were bound in red tape.

––Show your true colors. When pirate ships roamed the open seas, they would often lure an intended victim into a false sense of security by displaying a false flag. When the victim could no longer escape, they would show their true colors.

––The bitter end. The cable attached to ships’ anchors was wrapped around posts called bitts. If you let out all of the cable, you had reached the bitter end of your resources.

––Turn over a new leaf. Now familiar as a way express making a fresh start, it refers to turning the page (or leaf) of a book.

––White elephant. Long ago in Siam (now Thailand), white or pale elephants were very valuable. A king might sometimes give one to a person he disliked, which might seem a wonderful gift, but it was actually a punishment because it cost so much to keep.

––Dirt poor/threshold. In some cultures, people commonly lived in houses with dirt floors, and only the wealthy peoples’ floors were made of something else. Many well-to-do folks’ homes had slate flooring that would become slippery during wet winter months, so they would spread straw – or thresh – on it. As the winter wore on, enough thresh piled up that it would slip outside when the door was opened. In turn, a piece of wood would be placed in the doorway to hold back the thresh.

––Graveyard shift/dead ringer/saved by the bell. When space to bury dead people was running low in old-time England, coffins were dug up and reused and the bones stored in a bone-house. One out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside, indicating that people were being buried alive.
To solve the problem, a string would be tied to the wrist of a supposed corpse, which was led through the coffin and attached to a bell above ground. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. If a bell was heard, the fortunate person ringing it was called a dead ringer, and was saved by the bell.

––Mind your own bee’s wax/crack a smile/losing face. Long ago, personal hygiene wasn’t so great, so many men and women developed acne scars by adulthood. Some women would put bee’s wax on their face to smooth out their complexions, and if a woman began to stare at another woman’s face she was told, “mind your own bee’s wax.” When a woman smiled, her facial wax might crack, and sitting too close to a fire could melt the wax, hence the third expression.

The idioms listed here are only “a drop in the bucket” compared to the number that are used with at least some regularity. By paying a bit of attention when listening to people talk, it’s not hard to notice all manner of “mumbo jumbo” being substituted for standard words and phrases. In fact, it’s a “piece of cake.”

Most people who use idioms never even consider why they’re doing so, but the fact that the practice comes virtually “out of the blue” is part of what makes it so interesting.

Not that usage or origins of old sayings really matters. They’re just “par for the course” in the English language and folks really aren’t “pulling your leg” by saying them.

Think about that tonight when you “hit the hay.”

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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