Idioms and their Origins

Idioms and their Origins

Here are a few gift-giving-related idioms you all know and use. As with all old sayings, there are more than a couple of theories as to their origins.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth: If in times past you were gifted with a horse, it was considered impolite to look into the animal’s mouth to check its age and health, it was a gift after all. Nowadays it usually means, if it’s free take it and don’t ask questions.

Gift of the gab: Origin is unknown. A smooth talker. Speak fluently with no shortage of words.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts: Originates from the tale by Homer of the Trojan Wars. Where the Trojans were said to have been tricked by the Greeks who used a wooden horse, gifted to the Trojans to infiltrate Troy and thereby defeat it. Today it usually means, don’t trust anyone, especially people who are being too nice to you.

Let the cat out of the bag: Origin is not clear but it is thought to date back centuries to when a dishonest merchant would pretend to put a small piglet into a bag and give it to the customer. When the customer arrived home and opened the bag a cat jumped out. There are also other suggested origins about it being a whip, the cat o’ nine tails, being taken out for use. Today it means to speak about a secret or something confidential that you weren’t supposed to talk about. (eg. A gift, a surprise birthday party)

Don’t buy a gift that “costs an arm and a leg”: One explanation is that it was because an artist would charge extra, depending on how many arms or legs he had to paint. Another is that someone wanted something so badly that they would say that they would give their arm or leg for it. Today it usually means that the item is very expensive.

Close but no cigar: A game of chance usually offered at a saloon, involving a pair of dice. If you get double 6’s for example, you will win a cigar. If, however, you get 11, well it was “close but no cigar”. Today it means that you almost succeeded at your goal, but not quite.

Here are some others:

Not enough room to swing a cat: No, it doesn’t mean taking a poor pussy cat and swinging it by its tail. The saying refers to a cat o’ nine tails, a whip used for punishment, usually on board old sailing ships. There was not enough room to swing the whip or as we use the saying today; the area/room/space is very small.

A cat has 9 lives: This also does not refer to a real live cat. It refers to a cat o’ nine tails, a whip used for punishment which had nine leather strips with knots in them. After some use a leather thong would break off, then there were 8 and so on. 

Top Dog / Underdog: This saying comes from the days of wooden shipbuilding. A deep pit was dug over which a huge log was passed. One person jumped into the pit and the other stayed on top. A large two person saw was then used by the two to saw the log to the desired dimensions. The person in the pit had the worst job as they were constantly showered with sawdust and muck, the “underdog“, the person on top was called the “top dog” for obvious reasons.

Hold your cards close to your chest: This comes from card playing and gambling where you keep your cards hidden so that your opponents can’t see what you have – Keep things to yourself (secret), don’t let anybody know what you are doing. In North America they keep their cards close to their VESTS – Strange – they don’t even wear vests?

Cross that bridge when I get to it: Don’t worry about the problem now, resolve it when needed. Some in North America have been heard to say “jump off that bridge” when they get to it – Oh well, different strokes for different folks. (Did I just use another idiom?)

These are just a few of the many English idioms we use daily.

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