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10 Origins of Commonly Used Phrases

by M David Scott
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

An idiom is a group of words making up a phrase with a symbolic meaning rather than a literal meaning. Phrases like “it’s raining cats and dogs” can be confusing for someone not native to the language. We are all guilty of using many idioms and other popular phrases daily, but do we know where these phrases originated? Here are ten commonly used phrases and their origins.

Related: Top 10 Silliest English Words And Their Origins

10 Pull Out All the Stops

Where the phrase “pulling out all the stops” comes from | Sci NC

We commonly use the phrase “pull out all of the stops” when talking about making a great effort to achieve something. Your boss may ask you to pull out all of the stops on an upcoming project, or you may tell a friend how you had to pull out all of the stops to make the party happen. The phrase has a much older meaning, though, that relates to a pipe organ.

The word “stops” refers to stop knobs on a pipe organ, which regulates sound on the instrument by changing the active set of pipes. The pipes are arranged in sets known as ranks on an organ, and each rank will have a pipe for each of the keyboard’s notes. The ranks will sound by using airflow, and the airflow to each rank is controlled by stop knobs. The organist will control which ranks are being used by pushing in or pulling out the stop knobs. If the organist were to literally “pull out all of the stops,” then air would blast through every rank as the organ was being played, creating a loud blast of unfiltered sound.

The first person believed to use a form of the phrase in a figurative application was British poet Matthew Arnold when comparing his countrymen to an organ in his Essays in Criticism in 1865. Different forms of the phrase have been used over time leading to the phrase we now use today.[1]

9 Put a Sock in It

Oh, put a sock in it! That’s what one would say when wanting someone or something to immediately stop talking or be quiet. The origin of the phrase is tough to trace, but it is believed to originate in Britain sometime in the early 20th century. The phrase was used to imply sticking a sock in one’s mouth to help quiet a person if they were being rowdy or annoying.

The first time the phrase popped up in print was when it was defined by the 1919 weekly literary review The Athenaeum. “The expression ‘put a sock in it,’ meaning ‘leave off talking, singing or shouting’” The phrase is also said to be known as old war slang and could have been coined by someone in the military. Another use refers to lowering the sound of certain instruments by putting a sock in it.[2]

8 Go Bananas

Saying someone is about to go bananas could be defined as becoming very excited or the complete opposite—becoming very angry. An example of becoming very excited would be, “If he scores this goal, the crowd is going to go bananas!” If one is angry, the phrase would be something like, “Frank might go bananas if he gets fired from his job.” You may have even heard a popular song by Gwen Stefani that spells out the word being described here.

he origin is hard to pinpoint, but it may have derived from the slang term “go ape” from the 1950s. There may have been a connection between apes and bananas that helped the new phrase take off. Several theories try to explain the origin, such as mental patients eating bananas to help their brain, causing people to say going bananas instead of going crazy. Some crazier theories start with people smoking banana peels, the smell that the bananas put off, and songs that mention bananas. You know what I say about these theories? This s*** is B-A-N-A-N-A-S![3]

7 Butter Someone Up

Buttering someone up doesn’t mean actually lathering them with a tub of Land O’ Lakes, but instead flattering someone in order to get them to agree with you or give you something. The origin of the common phrase dates back to Ancient India, where it was customary to toss Ghee butter balls at sculptures of different divinities during worship.

Ghee is clarified butter that has been strained to remove all water. The butter balls were supposed to help them secure favors from the gods, such as good fortune and health.[4]

6 Bite the Bullet

Meaning Behind “Bite The Bullet”

During the American Civil War, an anesthetic was not available for soldiers having a medical procedure. Soldiers would then bite down on bullets when undergoing surgery to help get through the pain. Legends all show that people receiving capital punishment would also bite down on bullets to keep their minds off the lashing or whipping they would receive. This description first appeared in the 1796 book A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

The term is now used to show that you are stepping up or taking responsibility for an action and accepting any possible consequences. Someone may say, “It is time for me to bite the bullet and admit what I have done.” The first known usage of the phrase as an idiom was in Rudyard Kipling’s book The Light That Failed. He wrote, “Steady, Dickie, Steady! Said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. ‘Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.’”[5]

5 Sleep Tight

Where the Expression “Sleep Tight and Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite” Came From

“Sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Chances are your parents told you that right before bed—you may even say it to your own kids before bedtime. “Sleep tight” is simply just another way of saying “good night” to someone.

In 1866, the term was first found in print in Susan Bradford Eppe’s diary Through Some Eventful Years. She wrote, “All is ready, and we leave as soon as breakfast is over. Goodbye, little diary. Sleep tight, and wake bright, for I will need you when I return.” By the late 1800s, the phrase was common across Britain and America. Some rumors have said that the phrase originated from the tightness of the strings that supported mattresses, but it is most likely due to “tight” easily rhyming with “night” and “bite.”[6]

4 Rule of Thumb

The Meaning and Origin of the Idiom “RULE OF THUMB”

A rule of thumb is described as an approximate method of procedure based on experience. The origin of the phrase is unclear. The first time the phrase popped up in literature was in a collection of sermons from James Durham in 1685. It also showed up in Sir William Hope’s The Complete Fencing Master in 1692 and in the 1721 Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs by James Kelly.

Many believe the phrase comes from English common law that described the width of a stick (thumb width) that a man could use to beat his wife. No such law was ever proven to exist. English judge Sir William Blackstone once wrote about an old law that allowed beatings by husbands, but he never mentioned a thumb or any other rule of measurement. A thumb’s width is also historically known as the equivalent of an inch in the cloth trade. Beer brewers have also used the thumb to estimate the heat of the brewing vat.[7]

3 Son of a Gun

Son of a Gun – Exploring the Intriguing History of this Popular Phrase

The phrase “son of a gun” is usually used as the less-explicit form of the phrase “son of a b**ch,” and it usually describes a mischievous or dishonest person. The phrase most likely came about some 200 years ago and was used to describe a son of a military man. The Royal Navy would sometimes allow women to stay aboard their ships. This wasn’t officially allowed, but sometimes they would turn a blind eye to it and allow wives and girlfriends to stay.

The ship’s log had to include everyone that entered the ship, exited the ship, and died while onboard, including the women. The log also kept track of anyone born on the ship. If the father of the child was unknown, it would be listed as a “son of a gun.” Eventually, all children born on board were known as a son of a gun, and later all children of a military man would be identified as such.[8]

2 Run Amok

What is an “Amok” as in “Run Amok”?

The phrase “run amok” usually describes someone going crazy while doing something. A false etymology of the phrase comes from a sailor running a ship into the muck. The term most likely originated in Asia, where it meant “a furious frenzy or rage leading to murder.” It is said to come from the Amuco, a class of maniacal warriors hired during power struggles in Malaysia and Java. These paid assassins attacked quickly and killed as many people as possible.

Captain James documented his time in these parts of the world in Voyages in 1772, in which he wrote: “To run amock is to get drunk with opium… to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage.”[9]

1 Chow Down

We use the phrase “chow down” when referring to sitting down to eat. One might say, “The food is ready, so let’s chow down!” The two words together were literal in their original form, meaning to swallow food down someone’s throat. These words were first seen together in a 1937 print of The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, saying, “You can ask me anything, but only after Williams and I have thrown some chow down our throats.”

The phrase “chow down” originated sometime around World War II by the U.S. military. A story about life on a submarine was documented in The Hammond Times in 1942 and stated, “‘Chow down, sir,’ a mess attendant in a white coat informed… Served on a navy blue and white china, we put away steak, potatoes, peas, and ice cream.”[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen