Idioms and their origin: A top ten list

downloadJanuary 15, 2014 – You have heard them and may even use them, but might not know where they come from.

Idioms, words that stem from the Latin idioma meaning special feature, are phrases that have a figurative meaning separate from a literal meaning. Idioms occur in all languages; in English, they number over 25,000. I am barely scratching the surface, but here are 10 popular English idioms, and their interesting origins:

  1. Turn over a new leaf
    In the 16th Century, people referred to pages in a book as “leaves”. Turning over a new leaf meant turning to another page to begin again.
  2. Absence makes the heart grow fonder
    The author of this particular sentiment remains unknown, but it first appeared in a book of French poems in 1602 (author unknown). Using it refers to lacking something increases the desire for it.
  3. Get sacked
    To get sacked means to be fired. We all know that. It is said to come from the 17th Century in England and France when tradesmen, who owned their work tools took them home in a bag or sack after losing their job.
  4. Can’t hold a candle to someone
    I couldn’t locate a year or place of origin for this common idiom, but it came from apprentices holding candles so their craftsmen could see as they worked; therefore, it had to be before electricity was commonly used. If you don’t perform as expected today, you may be told you can’t hold a handle to whoever performs well.
  5. Mad as a Hatter
    This idiom might be my favorite expression. We know it was used in “Alice in Wonderland”, but it originally it is said to come from 18th Century England when mercury was used when making hats, which caused hat makers to go mad. Today, we use it to describe someone we think is crazy.
  6. No dice
    This phrase is 100% made in America and comes from the early 1900s when gambling with dice was illegal. Gamblers went to great lengths to hide their dice back then; if the law couldn’t find the dice (no dice), they couldn’t convict. We use it indicate there is no chance for something happening.
  7. Get up on the wrong side of the bed
    In ancient Rome, people believed it was bad luck to get out of bed on the left side. If you dared, your day would likely not be a pleasant one. Today, getting up on the wrong side of the bed is used when someone is in a grumpy mood.
  8. Apple of my eye
    When we cherish someone above all others, we might say they are the apple of our eye. This idiom is biblical. Deuteronomy 32:10: “He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye”. Shakespeare may have been the first to use it commonly, as he did in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1600.
  9. It’s Greek to me
    Another idiom that is attributed to Shakespeare, and “Julius Caesar” in 1599. It comes from “Graecum est; non legitur, or “It’s Greek, therefore it cannot be read”, which was used by monk scribes around the same time. In modern times, we use it if something complex is not easily understood.
  10. Close but no cigar
    The second “All American” idiom on the list, it is said to have originated in the 1935 script for the film “Annie Oakley”, which stated, “Close Colonel, but no cigar!” Today, we use it when we fall short of our expectations.

2 thoughts on “Idioms and their origin: A top ten list

    1. You’re right about loose leaf paper! Didn’t catch that one. I love the origin of language, too. It’s quite interesting…

      On Wed, Jan 15, 2014 at 9:51 AM, janemcmaster

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