8 Phrases and Their Origins

What do “Once in a blue moon,” “Close, but no cigar,” and “Break a leg” all have in common? They’re phrases and idioms that our culture has accepted as a useful means of communication. Whose ideas were these seemingly nonsensical collections of words?

Well, the gibberish actually often has legitimate background.

“Let the cat out of the bag.”

What it means: To reveal a secret.

This popular saying actually finds its roots in 18th century street cons. Baby pigs were sold in brown sacks. Often, the street vendor exchanged the pig for a cat… and the customer would walk away none the wiser. Unless of course, someone happened to “let the cat out of the bag,” revealing the con.

“Bite the bullet.”

What it means: Accepting an unpleasant situation.

Long before antastesia, doctors on the battlefield would have to perform impromptu surgery. The soldier would be instructed to bite a bullet to help him deal with the pain.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

What it means: Criticizing a gift or inquiring its value.

The best way to tell a horse’s age is to inspect its teeth. Their gums recede with age, therefore, longer teeth lead to an older horse. Immediately inspecting the age of a horse that was given to you was historically considered very rude, and showed that you were ungrateful for the generosity.

“Break a leg.”

What it means: Good luck.

The phrase still most commonly used in the theater actually originated there. The theater business was, and still is, extremely superstitious. It is bad luck to actually wish someone well. Long ago, performers found a way around this by saying that they wanted their fellow actor to break a leg, or to have bad luck. The idea is that if you wish bad luck on a person, the opposite will happen.

“Close, but no cigar.”

What it means: To almost reach a goal but fall short.

At carnivals now, winning a game might get you a fluffy, oversized, stuffed animal or an inflatable of some sort. In the past, a lucky winner would get a cigar. So, coming close to winning a carnival game was, “close, but no cigar.”

blue moon“Once in a blue moon.”

What it means: Very rarely.

A blue moon is the second full moon to happen in a month. Therefore, an extremely rare occurrence. Hence the phrase.

“Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

What it means: Sleep well.

The first part of this phrase comes a time when mattresses were only supported by ropes ties in the bed frame. It was a hope that the ropes would hold tight for the sleeper. At the same time as this, the mattresses were made of straw, a perfect breeding ground for what would come to be known as bed bugs. Sleeping was a much more risky activity a few hundred years ago than it is now.

“Armed to the teeth.”

What it means: To carry as many weapons as possible.

Handguns in the 1600s could only be fired once before they had to be reloaded. Naturally, when raiding a ship, pirates would strap as many guns to themselves as possible. To add to the amount of destruction they could wreak, they would even carry knives in their teeth.

-The Alternative Daily


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