English Words & Phrases: Where do they come from?

avocado (Nahuatl) – Not to put you off your next avocado salad, but āhuacatl in Nahuatl, a language of the Aztecs still spoken in Mexico, also means ‘testicle’, presumably because of its shape.

bungalow (Hindi) – This derives from the word bangla, meaning ‘of or belonging to Bengal’. Bungalows were originally cottages built for European settlers in the region.

palaver (Portuguese) – Portuguese traders in the 18th century used their word palavra  –  ‘speech’ or ‘talk’ – when negotiating with locals in West Africa. From there it entered the local languages, to be later borrowed into English meaning ‘prolonged or unnecessary fuss or discussion’. Ultimately the word goes back via Latin to the Greek word parabole, meaning ‘comparison’, which also gives English ‘parable’.

they, their, them (Old Norse) – Languages don’t often borrow core grammatical words such as prepositions and pronouns, but around 1200 AD these three little words completely supplanted the Old English third person plural forms hie, heora and heom, largely because the latter were becoming easily confused with the pronouns ‘he’, ‘her’ and ‘him’.

avatar (Sanskrit) – The word we know from the 3D film and which we use for any icon or figure representing a person on the internet comes to us from the ancient Indian language via Hinduism. An avatar is the bodily manifestation of a deity on earth.

rickshaw (Japanese) – It’s usually fairly obvious when a word has come from Japanese, such as karate and karaoke (the kara- in both, incidentally, means ‘empty’ – kara-te means ‘empty hand’, kara-oke is short for kara-okesutura – ‘empty orchestra’). ‘Rickshaw’, however, is less transparent. It comes from jinrikisha, which translates directly as ‘person-power-carriage’.

brainwashing (Chinese) – Not a direct loanword per se, but rather a calque – that is, a word-for-word translation – of xi nao, a term used by the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army during the Korean War.

tulip (Persian) – The name of the flower comes to us via Turkish tülbent. The Persian word dulband, from which the Turkish word originates, also meant (and also gives English) ‘turban’, because of its resemblance to the petals of the flower.

canvas (Latin) – Latin, either directly or via its daughter, French, has furnished English with a huge part of its vocabulary. It might not be obvious, however, that this particular word goes back to the Vulgar Latin cannapaceus, meaning ‘made of hemp’ (canvas sacks were originally made of that material). Cannapaceus, in turn, derives from the Latin word for ‘hemp’, which is, unsurprisingly, cannabis.

checkmate (Arabic) – The name of the winning chess move comes from the Arabic ‘shah mat’ – ‘the king dies’. The ‘h’ in Arabic has a hard, guttural sound.

ombudsman (Swedish) This is a mid-20th century borrowing of the word for ‘commissioner’. Ombud is an ‘agent’ or ‘attorney’. The suffix –man speaks for itself.

dollar (Dutch) –This originally referred to a coin minted in the town of Joachimsthal in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic, which was known as a Joachimsthaler. This was shortened to Thaler in German, which became daler in Dutch, which was then applied to coins used in the British North American colonies at the time of the War of Independence.

gong (Malay) – This means the same in English as it does in Malay – the name of a simple music instrument – and is an onomatopoeic word that imitates the noise made when a metal disc is struck.

juggernaut (Hindi) – Jagannath is one of the names of the Hindu god Krishna. Every year in the Indian city of Puri, a festival is held in which a huge cart carrying an idol of the god is paraded through the streets. Devotees in the past are said to have thrown themselves under the wheels to be crushed. The word, which ultimately derives from Sanskrit jagat ‘world’ and nathas ‘master’, entered English in the 15th century.

klutz (Yiddish) – If anyone ever calls you a klutz – an awkward or foolish person – at least you’ll know where the insult comes from. It means ‘wooden block’.

tsar (Russian) – This word, which is sometimes used in British English to mean a person appointed by the government to advise on and coordinate policy, means ‘emperor’ in Russian. It derives from Julius Caesar, as does the German word Kaiser. The Ancient Roman’s moniker also lives on in the month of July

coach (Hungarian) – The town of Kocs in Hungary was once famous throughout Europe for the excellent carts produced there, which were known as kocsiszekér – ‘cart of Kocs’. This was shortened and became Kotsche in German, which then became coche in French, finally ending up as ‘coach’ in English. The idea of tutoring or training someone came later and derives from the sense of ‘driving’ them through an examination.

punch (Sanskrit) – Not the action of hitting with the fist, but the drink, this word is thought to go back, via Hindi, to the Sanskrit word for ‘five’, pañca. The original drink had five ingredients, namely, alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and either tea or spices.

skunk (Abenaki) – This delightfully smelly word, which English borrowed from one of the Algonquian languages of Maine and Quebec, comes from segankw, which translates directly as ‘urinating fox’.

Whiskey: The word for our favorite liquor can actually be traced back to the Gaelic word uisge beatha, which literally means “water of life.” It’s definitely ironic for anyone who might have overindulged in a little too much whiskey and maybe felt like they were dying the morning after.

Mortgage: In French, the word mort means “dead” and gage means “pledge” — so yes, mortgage basically means “death pledge.” But fear not: It was actually called this because the debt ends — or becomes “dead” — when the pledge is fulfilled or the property is taken through foreclosure, not because taking out a mortgage is actually a death pledge (thank goodness for that).

Sarcasm: If you’ve ever felt hurt by a sarcastic remark made by someone, now you know why: the word “sarcasm” actually comes from the Greek verb sarkazein, which literally means “to tear flesh like dogs.” Eventually, it also came to mean “to gnash the teeth” and “to speak bitterly.”

Clue: This one might have the coolest backstory yet — the word “clue” actually comes from the Greek mythology story of Theseus, who entered the Labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, a mythical bull-headed creature. According to the myth, Theseus unraveled a “clew” — a ball of string or thread — behind him so that he could find his way back out of the maze, much in the same way we might follow a string of “clues” to guide us in a mystery.

Disaster: This one was (literally) written in the stars: “disaster” is derived from Latin and Greek, with dis meaning “bad” and astron meaning “star.” The word got its name because the Greeks often blamed unfavorable and terrible conditions on the stars and the movement of planets. Talk about Mercury being in retrograde!

Tragedy: The word “tragedy” originates from the Greek word tragoidia, which literally means “goat song.” There are many theories that explain this strange origin — with one being that ancient Greeks often dressed in goatskins to represent satyrs when acting in plays, and still another theory pointing out that goats were often given out as prizes or even sacrificed to the gods at Athenian play competitions.

Muscle: Strangely enough, the word “muscle” comes from the Latin word musculus, which translates to “little mouse.” Apparently, people thought that the movement and shape of many muscles looked like mice running underneath our skin!

Nightmare: The word “nightmare” derives from the Middle English word mare, which referred to not a cute horse but actually a goblin creature or evil spirit that was believed to afflict sleepers with the feeling of suffocation as they sat on their chests. Sounds pleasant, right?

Sinister: We use “sinister” to mean something threatening or evil — so it’s bizarre that the word actually has its roots from the Latin word meaning “left” or “of the left,” right? Well, sorry, lefties of the world — the ancient Romans actually considered left-handed people as abnormal, which is why they came to believe that the left side was unlucky or untrustworthy.

Fiasco: “Fiasco” comes from the Italian word fiasco, which actually refers to a “glass bottle” or “to make a bottle.” According to one theory, when Venetian glassmakers realized that a piece they were making had flaws, they’d set aside the imperfect glass and turn it into an ordinary bottle called a “fiasco” — which explains why this word has come to mean “a complete failure.”

Nice: Strangely enough, the word “nice” didn’t always refer to something nice. In fact, it actually began as a negative term derived from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant” or “unaware” — and, for almost a century, was used to refer to a stupid or foolish person. Over time, though, “nice” shifted meanings and came to refer to something “pleasant and agreeable”

Quarantine: This word for a period or place of isolation to prevent the spread of disease has an interesting backstory. “Quarantine” comes from the Italian words quaranta giorni (“forty days”) because in the 14th century, that’s how long ships coming to Venice from plague-infected ports were required to sit before the passengers were allowed to come ashore, giving enough time to see if symptoms develop.

Malaria: The word for this nasty disease derives from the Italian words mal (“bad”) and aria (“air”). In the 1700s, the Romans thought breathing in the air surrounding the marshland around their city caused malaria, when in reality it’s transmitted by mosquitoes that breed in those kinds of swampy areas.

Ketchup: It’s arguably America’s favorite condiment, but both the word “ketchup” and the sauce itself originated far from the United States. There are varying theories on where the word came from, but it probably originates from the Amoy dialect of Chinese word ke-tsiap, meaning “brine of pickled fish.” It later made its way to Malaysia, taking the form of the word kicap for “fish sauce.” British and Dutch merchants brought it back to their countries and called it “ketchup” or “catsup,”  and over time the recipe changed, eventually dropping the fish and adding sugar for preservation purposes.

Hooligan: We have many words for troublemakers in English: ruffian, thug, hoodlum, yob, chav, lout… The list is endless. Each word not only has its own nuanced meaning, but also often suggests something about which region of the UK the speaker comes from. But if you’re called a hooligan, the origin is less clear. According to the Oxford English Etymology Dictionary, the name originates from the surname of a racaus Irish family – Houlihan – mentioned in an old song from the 1890s. Another theory is that back during the 1745 Jacobite rising, an English commander misheard the Scots Gaelic word for the insect midge – “meanbh-chuileag” – and created the word “hooligan”to express his frustration at all the pesky midges. It later came to describe anything or anyone that was as irritating as the midges!

Shampoo: Now you have even more of a reason to enjoy your shower time. The word shampoo comes from Hindi, and means ‘to massage’. Derived from the Sanskrit root chapati (चपति), the word initially referred to any type of pressing, kneading, or soothing. The definition was later extended to mean ‘wash the hair’ in 1860, and it was only in the 1950s that its meaning was further extended to refer to the washing of carpets and other materials.

Tattoo: The “tattoo” gets its name from Polynesian word “tatau” which simply means “a mark made on the skin”. The term in this form developed out of the Samoan word ‘tattow’ meaning ‘to strike’. It’s first known usage in English appeared in 1786 in Captain James Cook’s journal Endeavour, in which he described the tradition of tattooing among the people he met during his voyage in Polynesia. The practice of tattooing existed in England before this time, but before we acquired the loanword from Polynesia it was referred to as a form of ‘painting’. In fact, when a native Indonesia man of New Guinea was sadly brought over to the UK as a slave in 1691, he was known among English people as the “Painted Prince” due to the markings on his body.

Barbecue: The term barbecue comes from the Caribbean word ‘barbakoa’ meaning ‘frame of sticks’. Makes sense. The interesting part is that the first recorded use of ‘barbecue’ in the English language was rather as a verb, not as a noun. While it first appeared in the noun form of ‘barbecado’ in 1648 in the sentence ‘the Indians instead of salt doe barbecado or dry and smoak fish’, it later appeared as ‘barbecue’ in 1661, in the sentence ‘some are slain, And their flesh forthwith Barbacu’d and eat”. So that should put an end to debates about whether barbecue can be used as a verb.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Meaning: getting information directly from the most reliable source

Origin: This one is said to come from the 1900s, when buyers could determine a horse’s age by examining its teeth. It’s also why you shouldn’t “look a gift horse in the mouth,” as inspecting a gift is considered bad etiquette.

Let the cat out of the bag

Meaning: to mistakenly reveal a secret

Origin: Up to and including in the 1700s, a common street fraud included replacing valuable pigs with less valuable cats and selling them in bags. When a cat was let out of a bag, the jig was up.

Butter someone up

Meaning: to praise or flatter someone, usually to gain a favor

Origin: A customary religious act in ancient India included throwing butter balls at the statues of gods to seek good fortune and their favor.

Pulling someone’s leg

Meaning: teasing someone, usually by lying in a joking manner

Origin: Although pulling someone’s leg is all in good fun nowadays, it originally described the way in which thieves tripped their victims to rob them.

Hands down

Meaning: without a lot of effort; by far

Origin: Winning “hands down” once referred to 19th-century horseracing, when a jockey could remove his hands from the reins and still win the race because he was so far ahead.

Riding shotgun

Meaning: riding in the front seat of a vehicle next to the driver

Origin: In the Wild West, the person who sat next to the driver was often equipped with a shotgun to kill any robbers that might happen upon the coach.

Barking up the wrong tree

Meaning: pursuing a misguided course of action

Origin: Likely referring to hunting, this saying explains when a dog would literally bark at the bottom of the wrong tree after the prey in question moved to the next branch.

Flying off the handle

Meaning: suddenly becoming enraged

Origin: This one is said to come from poorly made axes of the 1800s that would literally detach from the handle. Yikes!

Cost an arm and a leg

Meaning: extremely expensive

Origin: The story goes that this phrase originated from 18th-century paintings, as famous people like George Washington would have their portraits done without certain limbs showing. Having limbs showing is said to have cost more.

Sleep tight

Meaning: used to tell someone to sleep well

Origin: One possible origin of this phrase dates back to when mattresses were supported by ropes; sleeping tight meant sleeping with the ropes pulled tight, which would provide a well-sprung bed.

Bite the bullet

Meaning: to perform a painful task or endure an unpleasant situation

Origin: In the 1800s, patients would literally bite on a bullet to cope with the pain of having surgery before anesthesia was common.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

Meaning: look for avoidable errors so you don’t remove something good with the bad

Origin: This idiom allegedly comes from a time when the household bathed in the same water; first, the lord would bathe, then the men, the lady, the women, the children, and the babies last. The bath water is said to have been so dirty that there was a risk of throwing the baby out with the water once everyone was done bathing!

Jump the shark

Meaning: the moment when a form of entertainment reaches a decline in quality by including gimmicks to maintain interest.

Origin: In the show Happy Days, the character Fonzie literally jumps over a shark while water skiing; afterward, radio personality Jon Hein popularized the phrase “jump the shark” to describe the decline of the show.

Minding your Ps and Qs

Meaning: being on your best behavior

Origin: There are many origin stories for this one, but perhaps the one that is most fun is that bartenders would keep track of the pints and quarts consumed by their patrons with the letters “P” and “Q.”

Turn a blind eye

Meaning: to consciously ignore unwanted information

Origin: The phrase “to turn a blind eye” is said to originate with Admiral Horatio Nelson, who allegedly looked through his telescope using his blind eye to avoid signals from his superior telling him to withdraw from battle.

Armed to the teeth

Meaning: to be extremely well equipped

Origin: The idea behind being “armed to the teeth” is that the weapon wielder would carry the maximum number of weapons, so many that he or she would be forced to carry some between his or her teeth.

Get one’s goat

Meaning: to irritate or annoy someone

Origin: This one also comes from horseracing. Jockeys placed goats in the stables with their horses as this was said to relax the horses. However, competitors would remove the goats of their rivals to spook their competitors’ horses, hoping they would consequently lose the race.

Pull out all the stops

Meaning: to do everything you can to make something successful

Origin: Alluding to the piano-like instrument the organ, this phrase refers to when the stops are pulled out to turn on all the sounds in an organ, allowing the organ to play all the sounds at once and, therefore, be as loud as possible.

Break the ice

Meaning: To break off a conflict or commence a friendship.

Origin: Back when road transportation was not developed, ships would be the only transportation and means of trade. At times, the ships would get stuck during the winter because of ice formation. The receiving country would send small ships to “break the ice” to clear a way for the trade ships. This gesture showed affiliation and understanding between two territories.

Mad as a hatter

Meaning: To be completely crazy

Origin: No, you didn’t already know this one, because it didn’t originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries — well before Lewis Caroll’s book was published. In 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The “Mad Hatter Disease” was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear “mad.”

Cat got your tongue?

Meaning: Asked to a person who is at loss of words

Origin: The English Navy used to use a whip called “Cat-o’-nine-tails” for flogging. The pain was so severe that it caused the victim to stay quiet for a long time. Another possible source could be from ancient Egypt, where liars’ and blasphemers’ tongues were cut out and fed to the cats. (What a treat for the cats!)

Bury the hatchet

Meaning: To stop a conflict and make peace

Origins: This one dates back to the early times North America when the Puritans were in conflict with the Native Americans. When negotiating peace, the Native Americans would bury all their hatchets, knives, clubs, and tomahawks. Weapons literally were buried and made inaccessible.

Caught red-handed

Meaning: To be caught in the act of doing something wrong

Origin: This originates from an old English law that ordered any person to be punished for butchering an animal that wasn’t his own. The only way the person could be convicted is if he was caught with the animal’s blood still on his hands.

Give a cold shoulder

Meaning: Being unwelcoming or antisocial toward someone

Origin: In medieval England, it was customary to give a guest a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of mutton, pork, or beef chop when the host felt it was time for the guest to leave. This was a polite way to communicate, “You may leave, now.”

Go the whole nine yards

Meaning: To try your best at something

Origin: During World War II, the fighter pilots were equipped with nine yards of ammunition. When they ran out, it meant that they had tried their best at fighting off the target with the entirety of their ammunition.

Let one’s hair down

Meaning: To relax or be at ease

Origin: In public, the aristocratic women of medieval times were obliged to appear in elegant hair-dos that were usually pulled up. The only time they would “let their hair down” was when they came home and relaxed.

Rub the wrong way

Meaning: To bother or annoy someone

Origin: Early Americans, during the colonial times, would ask their servants to rub their oak floorboards “the right way”. The wrong way (not wiping them with dry fabric after wet fabric) would cause streaks to form and ruin it, leaving the homeowner annoyed. Alternatively, it could have derived from rubbing a cat’s fur the “wrong way,” which annoys them.

White elephant

White elephants were once considered highly sacred creatures in Thailand—the animal even graced the national flag until 1917—but they were also wielded as a subtle form of punishment. According to legend, if an underling or rival angered a Siamese king, the royal might present the unfortunate man with the gift of a white elephant. While ostensibly a reward, the creatures were tremendously expensive to feed and house, and caring for one often drove the recipient into financial ruin. Whether any specific rulers actually bestowed such a passive-aggressive gift is uncertain, but the term has since come to refer to any burdensome possession—pachyderm or otherwise.

Crocodile tears

Modern English speakers use the phrase “crocodile tears” to describe a display of superficial or false sorrow, but the saying actually derives from a medieval belief that crocodiles shed tears of sadness while they killed and consumed their prey. The myth dates back as far as the 14th century and comes from a book called “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.” Wildly popular upon its release, the tome recounts a brave knight’s adventures during his supposed travels through Asia. Among its many fabrications, the book includes a description of crocodiles that notes, “These serpents sley men, and eate them weeping, and they have no tongue.” While factually inaccurate, Mandeville’s account of weeping reptiles later found its way into the works of Shakespeare, and “crocodile tears” became an idiom as early as the 16th century.


While it typically refers to someone with a strong dedication to a particular set of beliefs, the term “diehard” originally had a series of much more literal meanings. In its earliest incarnation in the 1700s, the expression described condemned men who struggled the longest when they were executed by hanging. The phrase later became even more popular after 1811’s Battle of Albuera during the Napoleonic Wars. In the midst of the fight, a wounded British officer named William Inglis supposedly urged his unit forward by bellowing “Stand your ground and die hard … make the enemy pay dear for each of us!” Inglis’ 57th Regiment suffered 75 percent casualties during the battle, and went on to earn the nickname “the Die Hards.”

Resting on laurels

The idea of resting on your laurels dates back to leaders and athletic stars of ancient Greece. In Hellenic times, laurel leaves were closely tied to Apollo, the god of music, prophecy and poetry. Apollo was usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves, and the plant eventually became a symbol of status and achievement. Victorious athletes at the ancient Pythian Games received wreaths made of laurel branches, and the Romans later adopted the practice and presented wreaths to generals who won important battles. Venerable Greeks and Romans, or “laureates,” were thus able to “rest on their laurels” by basking in the glory of past achievements. Only later did the phrase take on a negative connotation, and since the 1800s it has been used for those who are overly satisfied with past triumphs.

Read the riot act

These days, angry parents might threaten to “read the riot act” to their unruly children. But in 18th-century England, the Riot Act was a very real document, and it was often recited aloud to angry mobs. Instituted in 1715, the Riot Act gave the British government the authority to label any group of more than 12 people a threat to the peace. In these circumstances, a public official would read a small portion of the Riot Act and order the people to “disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations.” Anyone that remained after one hour was subject to arrest or removal by force. The law was later put to the test in 1819 during the infamous Peterloo Massacre, in which a cavalry unit attacked a large group of protestors after they appeared to ignore a reading of the Riot Act.

Paint the town red

The phrase “paint the town red” most likely owes its origin to one legendary night of drunkenness. In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford—a known lush and mischief maker—led a group of friends on a night of drinking through the English town of Melton Mowbray. The bender culminated in vandalism after Waterford and his fellow revelers knocked over flowerpots, pulled knockers off of doors and broke the windows of some of the town’s buildings. To top it all off, the mob literally painted a tollgate, the doors of several homes and a swan statue with red paint. The marquis and his pranksters later compensated Melton for the damages, but their drunken escapade is likely the reason that “paint the town red” became shorthand for a wild night out. Still yet another theory suggests the phrase was actually born out of the brothels of the American West, and referred to men behaving as though their whole town were a red-light district.

Running amok

“Running amok” is commonly used to describe wild or erratic behavior, but the phrase actually began its life as a medical term. The saying was popularized in the 18th and 19th centuries, when European visitors to Malaysia learned of a peculiar mental affliction that caused otherwise normal tribesmen to go on brutal and seemingly random killing sprees. Amok—derived from the “Amuco,” a band of Javanese and Malay warriors who were known for their penchant for indiscriminate violence—was initially a source of morbid fascination for Westerners. Writing in 1772, the famed explorer Captain James Cook noted that “to run amok is to … sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage.” Once thought to be the result of possession by evil spirits, the phenomenon later found its way into psychiatric manuals. It remains a diagnosable mental condition to this day.

By and large

Many everyday phrases are nautical in origin— “taken aback,” “loose cannon” and “high and dry” all originated at sea—but perhaps the most surprising example is the common saying “by and large.” As far back as the 16th century, the word “large” was used to mean that a ship was sailing with the wind at its back. Meanwhile, the much less desirable “by,” or “full and by,” meant the vessel was traveling into the wind. Thus, for mariners, “by and large” referred to trawling the seas in any and all directions relative to the wind. Today, sailors and landlubbers alike now use the phrase as a synonym for “all things considered” or “for the most part.”

The third degree

There are several tales about the origin of “the third degree,” a saying commonly used for long or arduous interrogations. One theory argues the phrase relates to the various degrees of murder in the criminal code; yet another credits it to Thomas F. Byrnes, a 19th-century New York City policeman who used the pun “Third Degree Byrnes” when describing his hardnosed questioning style. In truth, the saying is most likely derived from the Freemasons, a centuries-old fraternal organization whose members undergo rigorous questioning and examinations before becoming “third degree” members, or “master masons.”

Busy as a Bee

This common expression, used in reference to someone that is very busily engaged in some activity or other or who is working very hard, is one that has really stood the test of time, and is most likely one of the oldest phrases still in use that was originally in the English language, albeit a much different version than that which we speak today.

It was coined by Chaucer in the Squires Tale, from his famous Canterbury Tales (circa 1386 – 1340), and was spoken by the Squire describing how he saw women as keeping themselves very busy devising ways to deceive men.

” Ey! Goddes mercy!” sayd our Hoste tho,
Now such a wyf I pray God keep me fro.
Lo, suche sleightes and subtilitees
In wommen be; for ay as busy as bees
Be thay us seely men for to desceyve,
And from a soth ever a lie thay weyve.
And by this Marchaundes tale it proveth wel.”

Flash In the Pan

This popular saying, that basically means something that starts with great promise but fails to deliver, such as a new band that bursts onto the music scene with a number one hit, has no others, and quickly disappears, actually refers to a literal flash in a real pan.

The phrase originated with flintlock pistols and rifles. In order for a flintlock weapon to fire it requires a spark to ignite the gunpowder that is stored in the barrel. This combustion creates the force that projects the musket from the barrel. The spark in this case is created using a flint and steel, much like the way a modern Zippo lighter works, but instead of rotating a steel wheel with your thumb to spark the flint you pull a trigger and the mechanism does the rest.

Pulling the trigger releases a spring that sets the hammer in motion. The flint is attached to the hammer. The rapid downward motion of the hammer causes the flint to strike the frizzen (the steel) this causes the friction that causes the flint to burn producing a spark. This spark then lands in the gunpowder that is stored in the pan, thus igniting it, causing a bright flash as the gunpowder burns, and, hopefully creates the pressure required for the weapon to eject its projectile. This, however, did not always happen, and that is where the expression “flash in the pan” comes from.

If the gunpowder ignited creating a big flash but nothing else happened, the weapon did not fire, then it was just a “flash in the pan”. It started out with a big bang and lots of promise but alas came to nothing.

Kick the Bucket

The expression “kick the bucket”, referring to someone having died, as in “old Ralph kicked the bucket”, has been a part of the English lexicon for a long time. It has even given rise to another common expression, the “bucket list”, which refers to a list of things that one wishes to accomplish before he or she “kicks the bucket”. But what does kicking a bucket have to do with death?

The origin of this saying is actually quite dark and refers to suicide by hanging. In order to commit suicide by hanging it is necessary to elevate one’s self above the ground so that one can swing freely from the end of a rope. It was a common practice, relatively speaking, back in the day to use a bucket for this purpose as they were readily available. The person committing suicide would place the bucket upside down on the ground, stand on it, and slip the noose around his or her neck. When ready he or she would simply kick the bucket over.

Hair Of the Dog

Anyone who has ever suffered the agonies of a hangover is most likely familiar with the expression “hair of the dog”, which refers to the practice of using alcohol to cure the illness, (hangover), that was created by the alcohol in the first place.

The long form of this expression is ” the hair of the dog that bit you”, and comes from the outdated, and very much mistaken, belief that rabies contracted by a human from the bite of a rabid dog could be cured by applying a few hairs from that same dog to the bite wound. We know now that this bizarre treatment has absolutely no affect on the disease. However, the hangover cure does seem to work, at least temporarily. The problem is that eventually you have to sober up.

Bring Home the Bacon

To “bring home the bacon” is to earn a living and bring home one’s wages to support one’s family, or to be financially successful. There are many purported origins for this particular saying, attributing it to periods as far back as the 12th century, and to supposed customs such as carrying around a side of bacon as a sign of ones wealth, all of which are completely false.

This particular phrase has its origins in the 20th century and the sport of boxing. In a 1906 news story about a lightweight fight between Joe Gans and Oliver Nelson the Post-Standard, a New York Newspaper, reported that before the fight Gans had received a telegram from his mother, a line from which read, “Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon.” The newspaper went on to report that after Gans won the fight he sent a reply telegram to his mother telling her “I have not only the bacon, but the gravy”.

Following this story “bringing home the bacon” was used regularly in association with winning a prize fight. Over time, and with common usage, it came to be understood the way we commonly accept it today.

Beat Around the Bush

If it is said that someone is “beating around the bush”, it is understood that this person is speaking indirectly about an issue, failing to get to the main topic or point. The expression “beat around the bush” is the American form of the British expression “beat about the bush”, which refers to the practice by bird hunters of having someone beat the bushes so that the birds will take flight and the hunt, “cutting to the chase”, can begin.

It is unclear exactly how old this expression is but it may rival Chaucer’s “busy as a bee”, for one of the oldest in the English language. The phrase first appears in writing in an anonymous 15th century poem, Generydes – A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas, and was referred to as an old saying then,

“Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.”

Hold a candle to

This phrase originates from when apprentices were expected to hold the candle up, so their more experienced colleagues could see what they were doing. The phrase first appeared in print in Sir Edward Dering’s The fower cardinal-vertues of a Carmelite fryar, in 1641.

Chow down

‘Chow down’ was first used by the U.S. military during WWII. ‘Chow’ is a Chinese breed of dog, that became a western slang term for food due to the Chinese’s reputation for eating dog meat.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

This medieval proverb comes from the sport of falconry, where the ‘bird in the hand’ (the preying falcon) was worth more than ‘two in the bush’ – the prey.

Off the record

This American phrase was first attributed to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, who was recorded in The Daily Times-News saying “he was going to talk ‘off the record’, that it was mighty nice to be able to talk ‘off the record’ for a change and that he hoped to be able to talk ‘off the record’ often in the future.”

A sight for sore eyes

Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, first used this phrase in A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation, 1738, with the line “The Sight of you is good for sore Eyes.”

The Acid Test

This term came from the California Gold Rush in the 19th century, when prospectors and dealers used acid to distinguish gold from base metal – if the metal dissolved in a mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, it was real.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

Was this catchy rhyme a proverb from Pembrokeshire, or Devon? The earliest recording of the phrase in 1866, states “Eat an apple on going to bed, And you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread” is from the former. But in 1913, Elizabeth Wright recorded this phrase from the latter: “Ait a happle avore gwain to bed, An’ you’ll make the doctor beg his bread; or as the more popular version runs: An apple a day Keeps the doctor away.”

A baker’s dozen

This phrase is widely believed to originate from medieval times, when English bakers gave an extra loaf when selling a dozen in order to avoid being penalized for selling a short weight. Bakers could be fined, pilloried or flogged for selling ‘underweight’ bread.

Namby Pamby

‘Namby Pamby’ was a nickname invented in the eighteenth century by poets John Gay, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift to mock the English poet and playright Ambrose Philips. Philips, a tutor to King George’s grandchildren, gained notoriety for the sycophantic poems he wrote about his charges, often using babyish language such as “eensy weesy”– and his rival poets gave his own name the same treatment.

Get the sack

This slang term for getting fired originates in France, and alludes to tradesmen, who would take their own bag or “sac” of tools with them when dismissed from employment

Go down like a lead balloon

The US version of this phrase “Go over like a lead balloon”, first appeared in a Mom-N-Pop cartoon in several newspapers in 1924. It then fell out of use until after WWII – and was said to inspire a certain heavy metal band to name themselves Led Zeppelin.

Goody two shoes

Good two shoes comes from a Christian retelling of Cinderella, a nursery tale named The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, published in 1765. The poor orphan of the title only has one shoe – but is given two shoes by a rich man as a reward for her virtue.

Saved by the bell

Contrary to popular belief, this phrase didn’t originate from the popular 90s sitcom. ‘Saved by the Bell’ is boxing slang from the late 19th century. A boxer who is in danger of losing a bout can be ‘saved’ from defeat by the bell that marks the end of a round.

Dead Ringer

This word was used in US horse-racing at the end of the 19th century. A ‘ringer’ is a horse substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies.

Bad Books

In the Middle Ages, ‘one’s books’ meant ‘one’s reckoning or cognizance’. So to be ‘out of someone’s books’ meant you were no longer part of their life or of interest to them.

In the buff

A buff-coat was a light browny/yellow leather tunic worn by English soldiers up until the 17th century. The original meaning of ‘in the buff’ was simply to be wearing such a coat. Later on, ‘in the buff’ was used to mean naked, due to the colour of the skin, which is similar to the buff coat.

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