17 Common Phrases With Long Forgotten Origins

1. “Dressed to the nines” “The nines” refers to the nine yards of clothing required for a tailor-fit outfit.

2. “Take it with a grain of salt” One of the oldest idioms, dating back to 77 A.D., it originally referred to taking salt as an antidote for poison.

3. “Put your best foot forward” When bowing to nobility, a gentleman would literally put his best foot forward, extending his leg to take the bow.

4. “At the drop of a hat” Instead of a gunshot to indicate that a race had started, in the 1800s it was customary to drop a hat to begin.

5. “Roll up the window” Believe it or not, there was a time when you had to physically crank or “roll” a lever to raise a car’s window.

6. “Close, but no cigar” During carnivals in the 1800s, cigars were rewarded as prizes for winning carnival games.

7. “Pulling out all the stops” This idiom meaning “applying your best effort” originated from when organists would literally pull the stops from every pipe on an organ in order to play at maximum volume.

8. “Carbon copy” Before copying machines were an office staple, copies were made by sliding a piece of carbon paper between an original document and blank paper. Though an intermediary paper soaked in ink is no longer necessary, this phrase is still invoked to mean “an exact copy. If you’ve ever wondered what the “cc” in emails actually stands for, this is it.

9. “Burning the midnight oil” Before electricity any late-night work had to be done by candle or, you guessed it, lamp oil.

10. “Straight from the horse’s mouth” Purchasing a horse was an expensive endeavor and unless you knew where to look, you could easily be swindled. A horse’s teeth, however, could tell you all you needed to know: the age, health, and general condition of the horse. So, literally, the horse’s mouth told you the truth.

11. “Bite the bullet” When no painkiller was available, soldiers literally had to bite down on a bullet during surgical operations. To bite the bullet now just means to endure something necessary but unpleasant.

12. “Blackballed” In 18th century social clubs, membership was voted upon by a committee. Typically an anonymous vote was cast using different colored balls. A positive vote was cast for membership with a red ball, and a black ball meant a negative vote. Some clubs required only one black ball vote to reject an applicant’s membership. So literally, to be black balled meant to be voted against and denied membership.

13. “Time to face the music” In Great Britian and the early American colonial era, disgraced military officers were drummed out of their regiment when discharged. Nowadays, this implies that we have to face the fallout of our misdeeds.

14. “As mad as a hatter” In the 17th and 18th centuries, hat-makers (hatters) often had cognitive issues (or went mad) as a result of mercury poisoning, a side-effect of manufacturing felt hats. The famous Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland is also a play on this phenomenon.

15. “Jumping on the bandwagon” Circuses would parade around town before setting up, with bandwagons leading the parade and politicians started renting space on the bandwagons to get face time with an audience. Over time, politicians would make calls of action not to “jump on the opponent’s bandwagon,” and the phrase took on a negative connotation, meaning to mindlessly go along with whatever became flashy or popular.

16. “Get off your high horse” In the pre-automobile era to “get of your high horse” literally meant to dismount and humble yourself, as owning a horse was a sign of prominence.

17. “In the nick of time” Through the 18th century, businessmen often kept track of debts owed (and interest that built on loans) by carving notches (or nicks) on a “tally stick.” When someone arrived to pay off their debt before the next nick was carved, they’d save that day’s worth of interest, thus arriving “in the nick of time.”

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