25 Common Sayings And Where They Came From

Posted by on October 8, 2012

Have you ever thought about the expressions people use on a daily basis and wonder how they became such a widespread part of the English language? Well, I can assure you that I have. The one that recently piqued my interest is “kick the bucket.” As I heard those words escape someone’s lips, I thought to myself, “What on earth does a bucket have to do with death?” If you’re just as neurotic as I am, have any interest in these sayings and their histories, or just realized “kick the bucket” really is an odd saying and you’d like to figure out the history behind it, then this list of 25 common sayings and where they came from is the list for you. I hope it doesn’t “rub you the wrong way.”


Bite the Bullet

Bite the bulletMeaning: Accepting something difficult or unpleasant
History: There was no time to administer anesthesia before emergency surgery during battle. The surgeon made patients bite down on a bullet in an attempt to distract them from the pain.

Blood is Thicker than Water

SoldiersMeaning: Family comes before everything else
History: In ancient Middle Eastern culture, blood rituals between men symbolized bonds that were far greater than those of family. The saying also has to do with “blood brothers,” because warriors who symbolically shared the blood they shed in battle together were said to have stronger bonds than biological brothers.

Break the Ice

Ice breakerMeaning: To commence a project or initiate a friendship
History: Before the days of trains or cars, port cities that thrived on trade suffered during the winter because frozen rivers prevented commercial ships from entering the city. Small ships known as “icebreakers” would rescue the icebound ships by breaking the ice and creating a path for them to follow. Before any type of business arrangement today, it is now customary “break the ice” before beginning a project.

Butter Someone Up

Butter ballsMeaning: To flatter someone
History: An ancient Indian custom involved throwing balls of clarified butter at statues of the gods to seek favor.

Cat Got Your Tongue?

Egyptian CatMeaning: Something said when a person is at a loss for words
History: There are two possible sources for this common saying. The first refers to the cat-o’-nine-tails – a whip used by the English Navy for flogging. The whip caused so much pain that the victims were left speechless. The second refers to the practice of cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and feeding them to cats.

Caught Red-Handed

Red handedMeaning: To be caught doing something wrong
History: This saying originated because of a law. If someone butchered an animal that didn’t belong to him, he had to be caught with the animal’s blood on his hands to be convicted. Being caught with freshly cut meat did not make the person guilty.

Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

Baby in bathMeaning: Hang on to valuable things when getting rid of unnecessary things
Hisory: During the 1500s, most people bathed once a year. Even when they did bathe, the entire family used the same tubful of water. The man of the house bathed first, followed by other males, then females, and finally the babies. You can imagine how thick and cloudy the water became by that time, so the infants’ mothers had to take care not to throw them out with the bathwater when they emptied the tub.

Eat Humble Pie

Umble pieMeaning: Making an apology and suffering humiliation along with it
History: During the Middle Ages, the lord of a manor would hold a feast after hunting. He would receive the finest cut of meat at the feast, but those of a lower standing were served a pie filled with the entrails and innards, known as “umbles.” Therefore, receiving “umble pie” was considered humiliating because it informed others in attendance of the guest’s lower status.

Give the Cold Shoulder

Lamb ShoulderMeaning: A rude way of telling someone he isn’t welcome
History: Although giving someone the cold shoulder today is considered rude, it was actually regarded as a polite gesture in medieval England. After a feast, the host would let his guests know it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton, or pork.

Go Cold Turkey

Cold turkeyMeaning: To quit something abruptly
History: People believed that during withdrawal, the skin of drug addicts became translucent, hard to the touch, and covered with goose bumps – like the skin of a plucked turkey.

Go the Whole 9 Yards

WWII planeMeaning: To try one’s best
History: World War II Fighter pilots received a 9-yard chain of ammunition. Therefore, when a pilot used all of his ammunition on one target, he gave it “the whole 9 yards.”


JaywalkerMeaning: One who crosses the street in a reckless or illegal manner
History: Jay birds that traveled outside of the forest into urban areas often became confused and unaware of the potential dangers in the city – like traffic. Amused by their erratic behavior, people began using the term “Jaywalker” to describe someone who crossed the street irresponsibly.

Kick the Bucket

CowMeaning: To die
History: When a cow was killed at a slaughterhouse, a bucket was placed under it while it was positioned on a pulley. Sometimes the animal’s legs would kick during the adjustment of the rope and it would literally kick the bucket before being killed.

Let Your Hair Down

Parisian hairdoMeaning: To relax or be at ease
History: Parisian nobles risked condemnation from their peers if they appeared in public without an elaborate hairdo. Some of the more intricate styles required hours of work, so of course it was a relaxing ritual for these aristocrats to come home at the end of a long day and let their hair down.

More Than You Can Shake a Stick At

Shepherd with sheepMeaning: Having more of something than you need
History: Farmers controlled their sheep by shaking their staffs to indicate where the animals should go. When farmers had more sheep than they could control, it was said they had “more than you can shake a stick at.”
Mary Reyes


Mary is a journalism student at the University of Florida. She loves vintage fashion, The Rat Pack, superheroes, and all things Disney. Someday, she hopes to dazzle the world with her writing skills by becoming the next J.K. Rowling.

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  • Matthew Edwards

    the phrase bite the bullet in fact has origins from before the 1858 Indian mutiny, where ammunition cartridges were lubricated with pig and cow fat grease, which was obviously distressing to Hindus and Muslims, as these cartridges had to be opened by tearing them open with ones teeth. So an Indian troop who was still willling to use these guns was accepting the unpleasant situation and ‘biting the bullet’

  • Reverandglenn

    There are some inaccuracies here, but overall, a fun read.

    Rule of thumb was a common measurement of length for carpenters and such, but I think there are plenty of men who like the way you think.

    Rub the wrong way has to do with just about anything, but in particular, animals. You rub them the wrong way and you will see what I mean. People had pets forever, but not everyone had wooden floors. You must come from a long line of privilege :)

    Cold Turkey- It’s not that ‘people believed’ as if it’s a fable; opiod withdrawal produces goose flesh, absolutely. BUT, that’s not where the term came from. Using it to describe withdrawal was a derivative of an older phrase of literally, making turkey sandwiches from leftover pieces of turkey. Cold turkey meant, ‘with little to no preparation’. It was adapted by a clever writer in a Time Magazine Article in the 50′s or 60′s when heroin was getting big.

    Baby out With Bathwater- It more closely means, ‘If you need to fix something or change something, there is no need to throw the whole project out the window.”

    The Cold Shoulder- This was an old Scot saying that had to do with guests who either received a hot meal or ‘a cold shoulder of mutton.’ Look up Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Antiquary, from 1816. I believe that was the first time the saying was ever in print.

    Red handed- This was indeed for animal poaching The Origin of this was from a Northern Ireland area called Ulster where in a boat race where the winning team had to physically touch the other shore. It was said that a contestant said he would cut off his hand and throw to the shore to win. The Red Hand is still on their local flag to this day.

    Why do I have a multitude of useless information, you ask? I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t enjoy learning anything akin to bread and circus for the masses (even though I know too much of that rubbish as well).

    Thank you for the article. I enjoyed reading it.

  • Boyana Darveniza

    number 24. The full phrase is
    “blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”
    which practically means the exact opposite.

  • Alexis15

    how bout if raymond vincent truscott actually beat me up with the “Rule of thumb”. id break up with him and call the police

  • ron koykka

    Actually the rule of thumb to beat your wife is a common fallacy. The truth is. that before a standardized means of measurement became common, tradesman, most notably carpenters would use their thumb as a means of measurement in place of a ruler, Thus the term rule of thumb

  • Marshall

    Great for triva and small talk, beats talking about the weather!

  • Margaret

    Don’t do it!

  • Warren

    Very good.

  • NewPotatoe

    Loved how insightful this was! Thank you! Keep it up!

  • Rya

    Hopefully it all pans out….where did that come from? :-)

  • Nik

    So many urban legends here, so few facts. Language simply doesn’t work this way. We invent stories to make things sound more interesting. Almost all “amazing” stories behind sayings are retrospective. As a journalism student you need to start distinguishing between a good story and a factual one.

  • Jay

    Very many thanks.

  • Dorothy

    Enjoyed this! Thanks for sharing.

  • abo rose

    oye ! what ? :-D

  • Tim

    #19: Really? Methinks there’s hornswogglery afoot…