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Some Strange English Idioms

sayings-red-handedYou could have heard some of the following expressions and sayings all your life and never knew how or why some of them started. Well, they all started with our ancestors, for one reason or another.

See how many of the following idioms you recognize. All the origins of the phrases come from Anais John, an English Language specialist.

Rub the Wrong Way – meaning someone who bothers or annoys you. 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.

Mad as a Hatter – someone who was totally crazy. Origin: Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries. 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.”

Barking Up the Wrong Tree – having the wrong idea about a person or event, false information. Origin: This refers to hunting dogs that may have chased their prey up a tree. The dogs bark, assuming that the prey is still in the tree, when the prey is no longer there.

Caught red-handed – a person caught as they were doing an illegal act. 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.

Cat Got Your Tongue? – a person at a loss for words, speechless. 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.  sayings-cold shoulder

Given a Cold Shoulder – when a person is made to feel unwelcome, not social. 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.”

Break the Ice – to approach someone, start a new conversation. 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.

sayings-hatchetBury the Hatchet – to end any conflict and declare peace. Origin: Back to the early times in North America when the Puritans along the east coast were in conflict with the Native Americans the following would happen. When negotiating peace, the Native Americans would bury all their hatchets, knives, clubs, and tomahawks. Weapons literally were buried and made inaccessible.

To Go the Whole Nine Yards – to do your best, achieve your goal. Origins: In Europe during the 13th century and the 100 Years War, an arrow in English was called a yard, derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a straight piece of wood. The demands for ammunition of the English army marauding in France was so great that a whole cottage industry sprang up producing the necessary quantity of arrows, and they became standardized at more or less 36″ in length and so ubiquitous that people began using them as measuring tools, creating the measurement “a yard”. There is also the use of nine yards of fabric to make an outfit. During World War II, the gunners in bomber crews 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.

Related genealogy blogs:

Comical Sayings

Slang Terms

Funny Things Our Ancestors Said


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