25 Common Sayings And Where They Came From

Posted by on October 8, 2012


No Spring Chicken

ChickMeaning: Someone who is past his prime
History: New England chicken farmers generally sold chickens in the spring, so the chickens born in the springtime yielded better earnings than the chickens that survived the winter. Sometimes, farmers tried to sell old birds for the price of a new spring chicken. Clever buyers complained that the fowl was “no spring chicken,” and the term came to represent anyone past their prime.

Pleased as Punch

Punch and JudyMeaning: To be very happy
History: A 17th century puppet show for children called Punch and Judy featured a puppet named Punch who always killed people. The act of killing brought him pleasure, so he felt pleased with himself afterwards.

Rub the Wrong Way

Wood floorMeaning: To irritate, bother, or annoy someone
History: In colonial America, servants were required to wet-rub and dry-rub the oak-board floors each week. Doing it against the grain caused streaks to form, making the wood look awful and irritating the homeowner.

Rule of Thumb

Thumbs upMeaning: A common, ubiquitous benchmark
History: Legend has it that 17th century English Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled it was permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, given that the stick was no wider than his thumb.

Run Amok

Angry mobMeaning: Go crazy
History: Comes from the Malaysian word amoq, which describes the behavior of tribesmen who, under the influence of opium, became wild, rampaging mobs that attacked anybody in their path.

Saved by the Bell

Buried alive bellMeaning: Rescued from an unwanted situation
History: As scary as it sounds, being buried alive was once a common occurrence. People who feared succumbing to such a fate were buried in special coffins that connected to a bell above ground. At night, guards listened for any bells in case they had to dig up a living person and save them “by the bell.”

Show Your True Colors

War shipMeaning: To reveal one’s true nature
History: Warships used to fly multiple flags to confuse their enemies. However, the rules of warfare stated that a ship had to hoist its true flag before firing and hence, display its country’s true colors.

Sleep Tight

Sleeping dogMeaning: Sleep well
History: During Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. In order to make the bed firmer, one had to pull the ropes to tighten the mattress.

Spill the Beans

Spill the beansMeaning: To reveal a secret
History: In Ancient Greece, beans were used to vote for candidates entering various organizations. One container for each candidate was set out before the group members, who would place a white bean in the container if they approved of the candidate and a black bean if they did not. Sometimes a clumsy voter would accidentally knock over the jar, revealing all of the beans and allowing everyone to see the otherwise confidential votes.

Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed

No leftMeaning: Waking up in a bad mood
History: The left side of the body or anything having to do with the left was often associated considered sinister. To ward off evil, innkeepers made sure the left side of the bed was pushed against a wall, so guests had no other option but to get up on the right side of the bed.
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…