Some idioms and expressions have unusual histories. Idioms are often archaic, and the literal meaning sometimes has little to do with the meaning of the phrase as it is used today. It’s fun to learn about origins of common phrases. Below are a few idioms and their unlikely beginnings.
Getting sacked (to be dismissed from a job)
“Getting sacked” likely comes from tradesmen who carried their tools in a bag or sack. When they were released from a job, they may have been told to “get the sack.” Other variations of this phrase include “get the bag” and “get the empty.”
Raining cats and dogs (to rain extremely hard)
In 1651 Henry Vaughn used the phrase “Dogs and Cats rain’d in the showre.” In 1652 Richard Brome used the phrase “It shall raine… Dogs and Polecates.” Most likely this phrase derives from the notion that cats and dogs are noisy, just like a hard rainstorm.
Spill the beans (to reveal a secret)
Ancient Greece is often cited as the origin of this phrase; however, the words were first printed in The Stevens Point Journal in 1908. Most likely, “spill the beans” derives from a 13th century phrase, “spill blood,” meaning “to let out.”
Know the ropes (to understand how to do something)
This phrase most likely has a seafaring origin. The first time the phrase was printed was in 1840 in Richard Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before The Mast. Another possible origin comes from theater terminology. In 1850 J. Timon used the phrase “learned the ropes” in the Opera Goer. In both cases an experienced sailor or set manager would have to literally “know the ropes.”
Cut to the chase (to get to the point)
We can thank Hollywood for this phrase. After filming a dramatic scene, the director would call for the action (or chase) scene. This phrase was first recorded in the 1927 novel Hollywood Girl, by J.P. McEvoy.
Pipe dream (an unrealistic desire)
This phrase originated in American slang during the 1890s. Smoking opium was known to cause hallucinations and fantasies (dreams).
Pie in the sky (the promise of better things to come)
This phrase was coined by Joe Hill in 1911. As a leading member of the radical labor party, The Industrial Workers of the World, Hill wrote songs to promote the group’s political position. The phrase first appeared in the song “The Preacher and the Slave,” which mocked the Salvation Army hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.”
Put a sock in it (to quiet down)
This British phrase was first recorded in 1919 in The Athenaeum. It may have had to do with the practice of softening the volume of a gramophone by using a sock.
To learn more about language and its modern uses, see Web Slang, The Purist Debate, and Sniglet.
Cats and dogs used to sleep under the roof, under the straw that lined the beams. When the roof got wet and the water reached the straw, the pets leapt or fell down below, so I was told in the UK where I"ve lived many years…
The animals were welcome indoors so they could chase and catch rats and mice.
I believe Bill Bryson supports this version in The Mother Tongue. Of course, these animals are not always silent!
A.C. – Very interesting! We love how elusive some origins are, how hard to pin down! Makes it fun.
What are some common expressions that kids in high school and middle school use these days. My grandchildren use the same words I use and they understand them or ask the meaning, but I don’t hear them speak with their peers.
For 30+ years I have studied and performed old British ballads, and have discovered some interesting origins of phrases. For instance, the phrase "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" was originally "every rose grows fairer with time", which was an admonition to young women to remain virgins until married. Hey, these origins would make a good subject for a book …..