25 Startling Origins Of Popular Idioms

Posted by , Updated on December 17, 2014


Without them the English language wouldn’t be as colorful and vivid as it is in many instances. An idiom can often successfully express a complicated idea than a hundred words can. We use them in our everyday conversations but how many of us know the origin or even the original meaning of some of the most popular idioms we use? Ironically even the term idiom isn’t an English word but derives from the Greek for “one of a kind.” Before we give too much information and ruin it for you, here are 25 widely used and popular idioms accompanied by their meaning and origin. It’s time to learn and know what we’re talkin’ about, right?

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Get out of hand

Get out of hand

Even though this phrase has several different meanings nowadays, the oldest of them is the one you will usually hear when someone loses control of things or a situation. According to Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris, this expression goes back to the old days when failure to keep a firm grip on the reins would result in a team of horses getting “out of hand.”


Make the grade

make the grade

This idiom is kind of revealing really and has no hidden meanings since it simply suggests that one has to reach the required standard to enter a university or get a job and so on. The more impressive thing about this phrase, however, is that it has nothing to do with taking exams as most of us would think.

The word grade is short for “gradient” and the idiom derives from railroad construction in nineteenth-century America. Back in the non-high-tech age of the nineteenth century, calculations had to be carefully made to ensure engines didn’t encounter sudden steep gradients and this is how we ended up with “make the grade.”


Sick as a dog

Sick as a dog

Even though dogs appear to physically (and mentally) deal with sickness way better than humans this idiom refers to someone who’s very sick. The origin of the phrase comes from the early 1700s when it was common to call someone who was undesirable and ill-looking “a dirty dog.”




We use this idiom to describe a very easy decision we make for anything that requires minimal brain activity to accomplish. This phrase has been widely used only for the past five or six decades and one of the earliest sources we have for it comes from an issue of the Lethbridge Herald of 1968, in which the following was stated about an ice hockey coach: “He’d break in on a goalie and the netminder would make one of those saves that our manager-coach, Sid Abel, calls ‘a no-brainer.’ ”


To hit the nail on the head


We often hear this idiom during intense conversations and especially when someone gets right to the precise point or says something that is verified as correct. However, no one can be sure about its exact origin but what we know for a fact is that this phrase is really old.

It appears for the first time in recorded history in 1438 in The Book of Margery Kempe, even though many scholars believe that the idiom in Kempe’s book isn’t entirely clear and probably has a different meaning from its modern use.

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