A friend and I were discussing this the other day as we often use many of these common phrases but do not know their origin.  Writers and literature throughout the ages have had a great effect on the language we use today.  Words have power.

“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

common phrases

Let’s have a look at some common phrases

Many ways to skin a cat

This weird phrase was first found recorded in 1840 by Seba Smith an American humorist and writer in The money diggers. Why anyone would want to commit felicide is beyond me, those were strange times!

Kicking the bucket

One of the many thought origins is that people would commit suicide by standing on a bucket with a noose around their necks. Then kicking the bucket away. Another thought that comes from the original Latin meaning of the word bucket was where animals were slaughtered.

Rule of thumb

It was said to be English law used to allow a man to beat his wife with a stick as long is it was no longer than his thumb! but there is debate as to if this was an actual law or not. In 1685 James Durham, an English puritan printed Heaven Upon Earth where he wrote: “many professed Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by the rule of thumb, (as we use to speak) and not by Square and Rule.” 

Bring home the bacon

In 1104 a couple so impressed the Prior of Little Dunmow with their service and devotion that he gave them a slice of bacon. This became a standing tradition in Essex. Later in America Joe Gans, a lightweight boxer was sent a telegram from his mother to “bring home the bacon”

Break the ice

In the 17th century, ice breaker ships would go ahead to forge the path, made a common phrase in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, in 1678 

Cat got your tongue

It is said that in ancient Egypt liars and blasphemers tongues were cut out and fed to cats. Another possible origin is in the English Navy when people were flogged with a whip that was called the cat of nine tails, they would stay silent because of the pain!

Biting the bullet

The phrase was first recorded in 1891 by author Rudyard Kipling but was also how some soldiers would cope with pain during surgical procedures in war situations without anaesthetic but biting on a bullet.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

The Roman poet Sextus Propertius Elegies said: “Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows.” In 1832 a modern version of the phrase was coined by The Pocket Magazine of Classic and Polite Literature

Green-eyed monster

This is another one of those common phrases we see in media and literature quite often! Referring to jealousy coined by Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice and late in Othello 

Off the record

 Ironically In 1032, President Franklin Roosevelt was recorded in The daily news saying he was going to talk “off the record”

“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” -Pearl Strachan Hurd

It is interesting to note how many of our modern-day common phrases came from Shakespeare. Like: “Wear your heart on your sleeve”, “full circle” or even “laughing stock” It makes you appreciate the complex English language all the more! Are there are any other common phrases you would like to know the meaning or origin of? Please let me know in the comments.

common phrases

Image by Colleen ODell

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
-Hamlet, Act I, Scene III