If you have ever tried to learn a foreign language or have talked to someone who has had to learn English, you are reminded of how much figurative speech makes up a language. I suppose that in some sense all speech is figurative. Having an understanding of some common phrases not only makes you smarter but also helps connect the past with the present and can give us some insight into the lives of those who came before us.
Note: Most idioms have been around for so long it is hard to trace the exact origins. Below are a few from my readings and memory but there are alternative origin stories on some of them. If you have any corrections or additions please let me know!
10 Common Idioms & Their Origins
1. “An Axe to Grind”
Present Meaning: If you believe you have been slighted or wronged by someone you would have an “Axe to grind” with them, meaning you are carrying a grudge or you have some harsh words for them.
Original Meaning: You were going to grind (sharpen) your axe to prepare it for vengeance. Likely this was used in jest but could refer to beheadings.
2. “By Hook or by Crook”
Present Meaning: Accomplishing something anyway possible.
Original Meaning: In early America wood was very valuable. Tenants of leased land were often told they could only use the wood on the property that could be taken by “hook or by crook”. This meant they could not cut down a tree for firewood or other such use. The hook referred to a billhook, which is a machete like tool, and could be used against small limbs and brush, and the crook was likely a shepherd’s crook (or staff) that could be used to gather fallen branches.
3. “Pass the Buck”
Present Meaning: To forego a responsibility leaving it for someone else to handle or, in strictly financial terms, to not pay for something leaving someone else responsible.
Original Meaning: In poker the ‘buck’ is a token used to mark the current dealer. In the old days, it was thought that a knife, usually outfitted with deer antler (buck antler) or sheathed in buckskin was used as the marker. The phrase “pass the buck” was born. Latter a $1 coin was used to mark the dealer but the phrase stuck. This is why we call a dollar a buck!
4. Playing it “Fast and Loose”
Present Meaning: To do something with little care for the consequences or slyly avoiding the consequences.
Original Meaning: When archers were at full draw and you wanted them to halt and not shoot you would shout “Fast!”. Archers also ‘Loosed’ their arrows. So, to do something “fast and loose” meant to do two things that contradicted each other. Just like with archery, playing it fast and loose in life is going to cause trouble.
5. “Go to Pot”
Present Meaning: When something has gone beyond all usefulness. For example, our government has “Gone to Pot”
Original Meaning: When a farm animal had outlived its usefulness it was killed and “went to pot”. Litterally…to be eaten!
6. “Spick and Span”
Present Meaning: Something is shiny and new.
Original Meaning: Originally it was “Spick and Span New!” A span was a wood shaving. If something was newly built it would have tell-tale wood chips so it was ‘span new’. Spick is an old word for a nail. New spicks (nails) would be shiny therefore “spick and span” referred to a new house or other structure.
7. “A Hack”
Present Meaning: A person who doesn’t know what they are doing or does their work in a shoddy manner.
Original Meaning: In the Civil War and prior, before anesthesia, doctors would literally hack the limbs off soldiers and patients to prevent the spread of infection, folding a flap of skin over the wound. As anesthesia and better practices became more popular it took a while for this barbaric practice to phase out. These doctors were referred to as “Hacks” by the up and coming medical community.
8. “Chip on Your Shoulder”
Present Meaning: To carry a grudge.
Original Meaning: The chip refers to a literal wood chip that was placed on the shoulder by someone interested in picking up a fight. The challenger would come along and knock the chip off, brushing the cheek as he did so, as a means of accepting the challenge. The two would then go and brawl like boxers. The history of where this custom came from is pretty interesting. You can read the full account here.
9. “Loose Cannon”
Present Meaning: Someone who is unpredictable, out of control.
Original Meaning: Like most things on a ship, a cannon had to be secured to the deck. A “loose cannon” would be an uncontrollable danger in the event of a storm or strong waves. Theodore Roosevelt may have saved this term from obscurity when he said: “I don’t want to be the old cannon, loose on the deck in the storm.”
10. “Get the Hang of It”
Present Meaning: Ability to do something new. For example, if you tried to learn piano but couldn’t quite “get the hang of it.”
Original Meaning: Another axe related idiom. Back when axes were the kings of tools, the fit of the head (blade) to the handle was a particular thing based on the person’s height, preference, and tool usage. This was called the “hang” of the axe head or hanging an axe head. See the picture below for an illustration.
Language and History
I love learning about history and as I do the authors of books will point out where some of these idioms may have originated. Understanding the roots of these gives me something of a picture to my speech and makes these common statements more significant and allows me to use them in a better context.
If you have any to share please do!