14 Random sayings and their origins

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There are so many old adages that slip readily off the tongue when referring to certain situations or experiences but have you ever given any thought to where they came from? Here are just a few interesting ones.

1 A diamond in the rough

This well-known saying relates to a person who may be considered of good heart, yet lack social graces. Diamonds are not the sparkling gems we end up with (if we are lucky!) they require much polishing first. Also referred to as a rough diamond, the saying was first seen in John Fletcher’s a Wife for a Month in 1624.

2 Bite the Bullet

Most of us have likely come across this one, meaning to put up with/endure something which is known to be unpleasant because that’s just the way it is. This old adage is from a time when patients literally had to bite into a bullet to distract them from the agony that was about to engulf them when surgeons were about to operate on them on the battlefield, as there was no time to administer anaesthetics, if indeed there were any even available.

3 To Butter Someone Up

Still widely used when trying to flatter someone in order to pave the way for personal benefit, this saying is rooted in an old Indian custom whereby clarified butter balls (ghee) were tossed at statues of Gods in the hope of gaining favour.

4 Cat Got Your Tongue?

Two trains of thought here. The first pertaining to the cat-o’-nine-tails; an English navel whip used to flog disobedient sailors. So agonising was the pain of the lashing, it rendered the recipient speechless. The second refers to the practice of cutting out the tongues of those who dared to blaspheme or tell lies. As if having your tongue sliced out wasn’t punishment enough, it was then fed to the cats.

5 Caught Red Handed

Meaning to be caught in the act of wrongdoing, this saying is from a time when anyone butchering an animal not belonging to them had to be caught with the animal’s blood on their hands to prove the case.

6 To Eat Humble Pie

Apologising for and accepting wrongdoing whist enduring the humiliation that accompanies it, this one has its roots in the medieval times. After a hunt the lord of the manor would host a feast and he would of course be in receipt of the very finest cuts of meat. Those of lower standing however, were given pies filled with animal innards, as was considered befitting of their status, the pie was called umble pie.

7 To Give Someone the Cold Shoulder

Another medieval one. Although regarded today as a rather rude way of letting someone know they are unwelcome, this was originally not the case. Following feasting, the host would hand out cold cuts of meat to guests to let them know the feast was nearing its end. It was considered a most polite thing to do and was very welcomed.

8 To Go Cold Turkey

Often used when trying to cease a bad habit in an abrupt fashion, this adage comes from the belief that the skin of the quitter becomes hard and covered in goose bumps during the process, like that of a freshly plucked turkey.

9 To Kick the Bucket

Said when referring to dying, kicking the bucket is related to the slaughtering of cows. When the animal was killed in the slaughterhouse, a bucket was placed beneath it and the beasts would literally kick it whist being killed. Another theory is that of standing a man about to be hanged on a bucket and kicking it from under him.

10 To Let Your Hair Down

Said when encouraging someone to relax and enjoy themselves, Parisian aristocracy would not be seen out without their sophisticated hairdos which often took hours to achieve; lest they be the subject of gossip. So, taking out all the pins at the end of the evening was often a relaxing experience and a relief.

11 You’re No Spring Chicken

A favourite to imply that a person is no longer as young as they used to be. The saying originates from New England farmers who would sell their chickens during the springtime when they would fetch the optimum price. Some farmers however, would try to sell off older chickens born before the season, with buyers complaining that these were no spring chickens and therefore not of the best quality.

12 As Pleased as Punch

Firmly rooted in the 17th century puppet show Punch and Judy which is still much enjoyed today, to be as pleased as Punch relates to Punch the puppet, who took an odd pleasure in battering his fellow puppets, resulting in him being most pleased with his antics.

13 To Run Amok

Used when referring to disorder and chaos this adage comes from the Malaysian word amoq, which described tribesmen high on opium who would behave wildly, attacking and killing whist under the influence of the drug.

14 Saved by the Bell

Although a terrifying thought, it is well documented that in times past people were unwittingly buried alive. This was a real fear for many, so much so that they were sometimes buried with bells in their coffins so that if they awoke to find themselves interred they could ring on the bell and the night watchmen would hear it and save them from this awful fate. This well used phrase is often mouthed when referring to being saved from a horrible experience, often just in the nick of time.


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