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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Hands down


“Hands down” is a term meaning “easily” or “with little or no effort at all” and is used mostly in the context of a competition or comparison and that’s why we often hear it in sports discussions. Just as with most idioms, there are a few theories about its origin but it’s widely accepted that it dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and the genteel world of British horse racing. Back then, a jockey who found himself way ahead as he approached the finish line would relax his grip on the reins and drop his hands. By the late nineteenth century, the idiom had been extended to non-racing contexts, and remains in frequent use today.


Freak out

freak out

“Freak out” is the urban term that best describes a state of shock. Do most of us know the origin of this idiom though? Well not that we know from experience but the phrase derives from the wild sixties, specifically the even wilder drug scene and “freaking out” usually referred to a bad psychedelic trip.


A piece of cake

piece of cake

You hear this idiom very often, especially when someone wants to say that something is very easily done or achieved. The question is what makes cake “easy,” though? Being super hungry and eating a delicious piece of cake could be a logical answer but I am afraid that we will disappoint you. The origin of the phrase goes back to at least the 1930s and the term was recorded officially for the first time by the American poet Ogden Nash, who wrote The Primrose Path in 1936. In it there is a verse that says: “Her picture’s in the papers now, / And life’s a piece of cake.”


When pigs fly


We often use this phrase to sarcastically say that something will never, ever happen and it’s pretty much of the same meaning as another popular idiom “until hell freezes over.” “When pigs fly” is a traditional Scottish proverb, which was first written down in 1586, in an edition of John Withals’s English-Latin dictionary for children. The dictionary had an appendix of proverbs rendered into Latin, of which one was the usual form of the proverb in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: “pigs fly in the air with their tails forward.”


Chip on your shoulder

Chip on your

This idiom perfectly describes all the troublemakers who go around looking for an argument or holding a grudge that eventually leads to a physical fight. As for its origin? Americans claim that it comes from an American game called Chip on Your Shoulder that kids used to play back in the 1800s. A chip of wood was placed on one’s shoulder and the other had to knock it off. When the chip was knocked off, the fight began. Similarly, back in medieval Europe a knight would throw down his gauntlet and if the opponent picked it up the challenge was accepted and the fight began.

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