We use countless idioms in our day-to-day dialogue, but we rarely take a second to wonder why, for instance, we use “baker’s dozen” to mean 13, “hair of the dog” to refer to drinking alcohol while hungover and “from scratch” to describe how we’re baking a cake using only the most basic ingredients.
The following list is comprised of some of the most common expressions and their corresponding etymologies. While many of their origins can’t be confirmed with absolute certainty, you might be surprised by some of the theories.
Meaning: Something or someone that one cherishes above all others
Etymology: According to Mental Floss, the pupil used to be referred to as an “apple,” so the phrase “apple of my eye” eventually took on the figurative meaning we know today: someone who is as precious as the organ or your ability to see.
Etymology: Back in the day, many societies had severe punishments for merchants who cheated customers — bakers could have their hands chopped off in Babylon. To ensure they didn’t accidentally give a customer less than they paid for, many bakers started giving 13 loaves of bread for every dozen ordered.
Meaning: The most influential or important person in a group
Etymology: As far back as 1863, cheese was considered synonymous with quality. John Camden described it in “The Slang Dictionary,” published in 1863, as “anything good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant or advantageous.” Thus, people eventually combined “big” and “cheese” to mean a person of big wealth, fame and/or importance.
Meaning: To earn money, particularly for one’s family
Etymology: The exact evolution of the phrase “bring home the bacon” isn’t clear, but many believe it originated from the story of a couple living in Great Dunmow, Essex, in 1104. According to Phrase Finder, the Prior of Little Dunmow was so impressed with the couple’s marital devotion that he awarded them a flitch, or side, of bacon. It supposedly became a tradition going forward, with the church offering bacon to any married man who could swear before the congregation and God that he had not fought with his wife for a year and a day.
At some point, the expression became synonymous with “generating household income.” One of the first known records of it being used in this way is from coverage of a boxing championship between Joe Gans and “Battling” Oliver Nelson in the Sept. 4, 1906, issue of New York City’s Post-Standard. “Before the fight Gans received a telegram from his mother: ‘Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon.’”
Meaning: To pass the time by casually chatting or gossiping
Etymology: There are a variety of explanations for this expression’s origin. One possibility is that it’s based on the once common Inuit habit of chewing on whale blubber as a way to pass the time. Another is that it’s a derivation of “chew the rag,” which may have evolved from sailors literally chewing on pieces of rag when chewing tobacco ran out.
The most probable explanation: Before metallic cartridges were used, most ammunition involved powder and a ball wrapped in paper or cloth soaked in animal fat, which was bitten open during musket drill. Soldiers sometimes chewed on these ends to reduce stress, pass the time or possibly curb tobacco cravings.
Meaning: To stop talking
Etymology: It’s most likely just an analogy of a clam closing its shell.
Meaning: To pass gas
Etymology: This euphemism originated in the 1950s, most likely in reference to the odor released by cutting into a stinky cheese.
Meaning: A lazy person, especially one who watches a lot of TV
Etymology: Interestingly, “couch potato” was introduced in 1976 as another way of saying “boob tuber” (potato = tuber), as in someone who sits in front of the “boob tube” for excessive periods of time.
Meaning: To succeed; to come up to expectations
Etymology: Though there are many guesses on the origin of this phrase, the most popular is probably “the association between the heat and piquancy of mustard and the zest and energy of people’s behavior,” says Phrase Finder. The condiment has been similarly used in expressions like “as keen as mustard” and “up to mustard.” Since “cutting” was once used to mean “exhibiting,” “cut the mustard” is most likely derived from “cutting the mustard,” which was used as a way to say “exhibiting one’s high standards.”
Meaning: To be embarrassed by something one has done
Etymology: There are three main theories for this one, according to SayWhyDoI.com:
1) It could be a reference to how, in low-brow theater, when a performer was disliked, he had things thrown on him — raw eggs sometimes included. So having “egg on the face” would have been mortifying not only because of the appearance but also because it was indicative of a bad performance.
2) Soft-boiled egg was a common breakfast dish that could easily end up stuck in a man’s facial hair as he went about his daily business, an embarrassing scenario we’ve all probably had similar nightmares about.
3) Sometimes farm dogs would chow down on chicken eggs, and the farmers could identify the culprit by the residue on their snout.
Meaning: To deliberately exaggerate one’s emotions or movements; to be over-the-top
Etymology: “Ham it up” is based on the literal meaning of ham — not the one related to pork: an excessively theatrical actor. No one’s really sure where this definition of “ham” originated.
Meaning: Alcohol consumed in order to reduce symptoms of a hangover
Etymology: Ebenezer Cobham Brewer wrote in “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” (1898): “In Scotland, it is a popular belief that a few hairs of the dog that bit you applied to the wound will prevent evil consequences.” Thus, if you suffer from the adverse effects of excessive alcohol, consuming a bit of the booze that hurt you might help reduce the symptoms.
Meaning: An expression of surprise
Etymology: This most likely evolved as a euphemism for “Holy Mary,” just as some people will shout “Fu-dge!” instead of the four-lettered alternative. The choice of “mackerel” may or may not have been related to the fact that Catholics ate fish on Fridays.
Meaning: Briefly stated
Etymology: According to the Oxford Dictionaries blog, “in a nutshell” dates back to the late 16th century. Shakespeare uses the idiom in “Hamlet” to mean something compact: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” But its most probable origin dates back much, much further: AD 77, in a story written by Roman scholar Pliny. In the story, the great philosopher Cicero witnesses a copy of Homer’s “Iliad,” written on a piece of parchment that was small enough to fit into the shell of a walnut.
Meaning: A straightforward task that can be easily accomplished
Etymology: There are two main theories for this expression’s origin. The first is that it’s simply a reference to how easy it is to consume a bite of sweet, delicious cake. Makes sense, right? The second theory says it may have originated from the 1870s when cakes were handed out as prizes for winning simple competitions — notably, a tradition in slavery states in the U.S. whereby slaves or free descendants would circle around a cake in pairs at a social gathering and the most graceful couple would win the cake in the center.
Meaning: None really, since this expression is incorrect. But most misuse it as a way to say “The evidence is there.”
Etymology: “The proof is in the pudding,” or “the proof of the pudding,” is actually a common but incorrect derivation of the proverb “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” which means you need to try a food to determine whether or not it’s good. In an interview with NPR News, Ben Zimmer, language columnist at the Boston Globe, explained that the word “pudding” once referred to a kind of sausage, “filling the intestines of some animal with minced meat and other things — something you probably want to try out carefully since that kind of food could be rather treacherous.”
Meaning: A clue or information that is, or is intended to be, misleading, that diverts attention from a question
Etymology: You might be surprised to learn that there is no such fish as a red herring, which makes its etymology that much more interesting. The true origin was only just discovered in 2008, says World Wide Words: English journalist William Cobbett wrote a news story in 1805 about how he used red herring as a boy — meaning, a cured and salted herring, nicknamed for its red color after being strongly brined and heavily smoked — to mislead hounds following a trail. Until this point, many believed red herring was used to train dogs to track scents and thus developed into an idiom.
Meaning: To divulge a secret, especially to do so inadvertently or maliciously
Etymology: One of the theories for this idiom’s etymology is that it relates to the ancient Greek system of voting, which involved dropping beans into a jar. A white bean represented an affirmative vote, while a black bean indicated a negative vote. If the jar was accidentally knocked over — or someone “spilled the beans” — the vote would be revealed too early. However, since the first record of this expression being used in this way wasn’t until the early 20th century, it’s unlikely that this theory is accurate.
Back in the 16th century, “spill” was another way to say “divulge” or “let out,” according to Phrase Finder. It was eventually used in the idiom we know today in October 1911 in The Van Wert Daily Bulletin: “Finally Secretary Fisher, of the President’s cabinet, who had just returned from a trip to Alaska, was called by Governor Stubbs to the front, and proceeded, as one writer says, ‘to spill the beans.’” No one knows why “beans” ended up being the thing spilled, but it could have evolved from anything — after all, derivations like “spill the soup” and “spill your guts” exist too.
Meaning: To view something with skepticism, or to not take it literally
Etymology: This expresses the basic belief that food tastes better and is easier to swallow if you add a little salt.
The phrase was first used in the 17th century, Phrase Finder explains, and was most likely influenced by classical scholars’ study of ancient Greek texts like “Naturalis Historia” by Pliny the Elder, in which he translated an ancient antidote for poison: “After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for the day.”
The grain of salt helped protect from poisons, just as skepticism may prevent one from absorbing inaccurate information that could negatively impact their beliefs and behaviors.
Meaning: Begin (again) from the beginning; embark on something without any preparation or advantage
Etymology: We often use this phrase today to talk about cooking something from the most basic ingredients (e.g., making every part of the pie, instead of buying the premade pie crust from the grocery). “Scratch” is used to indicate “beginning” because of how lines were scratched into the ground since the 18th century to mark where athletes began a race or game, such as boxing, golf and cricket. As Wiktionary explains, “a runner ‘starting from scratch’ received no handicap, but started at the beginning of the course.”
Meaning: Disparagement of something that has proven unattainable
Etymology: First used in 1760, this expression originated from one of Aesop’s fables, “The Fox and the Grapes.” When the fox fails to reach the grapes she desired, she declares they must be sour.
Meaning: “On the wagon” refers to abstinence from alcohol, while “off the wagon” refers to drinking after attempting to quit
Etymology: Many believe this idiom to have originated from an old story about how the U.S. Salvation Army national commander would pick up alcoholics and deliver them to sobriety. But the real origin dates back to the late 19th century, says Phrase Finder, when various temperance organizations were encouraging men to “take the pledge,” or vow never to drink again.
At the time, water wagons rode down U.S. city streets, spraying the streets with water during dry weather. Men who had taken the pledge and were tempted to break it said they would drink from the water cart instead of indulge in alcohol. “Water cart” soon evolved into “water wagon,” from which the figurative “on the wagon” and “off the wagon” originated.