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10 Intriguing Origins of Popular Sayings

by Jeffrey Morris
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

As humans, there are popular phrases that we have come to accept and use without actually taking the time to find out where those sayings came from. If you are curious about the origins of some of the phrases you have become accustomed to, then you need not bother anymore. These are ten intriguing origins of popular sayings:

Related: 10 Sayings and Idioms That Are Often Misunderstood

10 Turn a Blind Eye

Battle of Copenhagen: The Royal Navy and the Danish Fleet, 1801

To “turn a blind eye” is used to refer to the act of ignoring or failing to acknowledge something you know to be real. The expression finds its roots in the naval exploits of Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. In the midst of the intense battle, Nelson, commanding the British fleet, received a signal from his superior to withdraw from the engagement. However, Nelson, renowned for his boldness and strategic acumen, allegedly raised his telescope to his blind eye, claiming he could not see the signal.

By turning a blind eye to the order, Nelson defiantly continued the fight, ultimately securing a decisive victory for the British forces. This audacious act of disregarding orders by feigning ignorance gave rise to the expression “to turn a blind eye,” signifying the deliberate choice to ignore or overlook something, often out of convenience or expediency.

Over time, the phrase “to turn a blind eye” has transcended its naval origins and become a widely used idiom in the English language. It now encompasses instances beyond military contexts, representing a deliberate act of ignoring or overlooking something, whether it be wrongdoing, inconvenient truths, or uncomfortable situations. [1]

9 To Shed Crocodile Tears

Crocodiles Really Do Cry! | Say What?!

The phrase “to shed crocodile tears” simply means to show an insincere emotion or feign sadness or grief. The saying originates from ancient lore surrounding crocodiles. In various cultures, it was believed that crocodiles shed tears while devouring their prey, creating the illusion of remorse or sadness. This belief likely stemmed from observing the watery discharge that occurs when crocodiles open and close their jaws.

Over time, this phenomenon became associated with insincere displays of emotion or false sympathy. The term “crocodile tears” first appeared in English literature in the 16th century, reflecting this ancient notion and suggesting that tears shed were not genuine but rather a deceptive façade.

The expression “to cry crocodile tears” gained popularity in the English language as a metaphor for feigned sorrow or hypocrisy. It implies a superficial display of emotion intended to manipulate or deceive others. Whether used to describe someone’s insincere condolences or political posturing, the phrase captures the skepticism toward displays of emotion that lack authenticity.[2]

8 Feeling under the Weather

How Did Pirate Ships Deal With Storms? | The Pirates Port

The term “feeling under the weather” is used when someone feels unwell or in low spirits. The saying has its origins in maritime terminology. In the 19th century, sailors used the phrase “under the weather bow” to describe a ship’s position when it was being battered by rough seas and adverse weather conditions. Being “under the weather” meant enduring the discomfort and sickness that often accompanied such conditions.

As time passed, this nautical expression found its way into common usage as a metaphor for feeling unwell or experiencing a mild illness. The association between rough seas and feeling unwell likely resonated with people, leading to the widespread adoption of the phrase in everyday language.

Today, “feeling under the weather” is a common idiom used to convey a sense of physical discomfort or illness. It suggests a temporary state of being not quite oneself, often characterized by symptoms such as fatigue, malaise, or minor ailments like a cold or headache. Whether experiencing a mild illness or simply feeling off-kilter, saying that one is “under the weather” provides a convenient way to express discomfort without delving into specific symptoms or details.[3]

7 Let the Cat out of the Bag

Who Let The Cat Out of the Bag? Piglets! | Say What?!

The expression “let the cat out of the bag” refers to an act of revealing a secret either deliberately or inadvertently. The phrase has two commonly suggested origins. One of the theories refers to the “cat o’ nine tails,” a whipping device infamously used by the Royal Navy as an instrument of punishment aboard its ships. The whip’s nine knotted cords are capable of scratching the back of sailors badly, hence the nickname. The wounds created by the whip are like what occurs when a cat scratches a human’s back.

The second theory of the origin of the phrase—which we believe is the most probable— is the ridiculous livestock fraud that was commonplace at a time in Europe. Merchants would sell customers live piglets that would be put in a bag for easy transport. Sometimes, fraudulent merchants would swap the pig for a cat when the customer was distracted. The buyer would not discover that they have been cheated until they got home and literally let the cat out of the bag.

Over the centuries, “letting the cat out of the bag” has become a widely used idiom in the English language. The image of the cat escaping from its bag remains a vivid metaphor for the unintended disclosure of a secret, emphasizing the difficulty of containing information once it has been set free. Whether used in playful banter or serious contexts, the saying captures the consequences of careless speech and the challenge of maintaining confidentiality in a world where secrets are often difficult to keep.[4]

6 Like a Bull in a China Shop

A Real Bull in a China Shop! | You Asked For It

When someone behaves “like a bull in a China shop,” the person behaves recklessly and clumsily in a situation where such a behavior could cause damage. This phrase originated from a real-life situation when cattle were brought to the market in London for sale in the 17th century. Some cattle would stray into nearby china shops, causing havoc in the process. The phrase first appeared in print in the early 19th century and quickly became a popular metaphor for describing someone who behaves with reckless abandon or lacks finesse in delicate situations.

The association of a powerful, lumbering bull causing havoc in a setting filled with fragile items vividly captures the idea of someone being clumsy, destructive, or unrefined. The expression is now firmly embedded in the English language. Whether applied to someone’s behavior in social interactions, decision-making processes, or any situation requiring delicacy and precision, the phrase conveys a sense of brute force and lack of grace. It serves as a cautionary metaphor, reminding us of the importance of exercising care and consideration in navigating delicate circumstances to avoid unintended consequences.[5]

5 Beat about the Bush

Why do People Say Beat Around the Bush? | Idioms and Phrases

The phrase “beat about the bush” means to discuss a matter in a dodgy way without coming to the point. The saying has its origins in medieval hunting practices. In those times, hunters would literally beat bushes with sticks to flush out birds and other game hiding within. However, sometimes the game would be difficult to flush out, and hunters would resort to beating around the bush instead of directly targeting the concealed prey. This indirect approach prolonged the hunt and was seen as inefficient.

Over time, the phrase “beat around the bush” evolved into a metaphor for avoiding directness or skirting around the main point in conversation or action. Since its inception, “beat around the bush” has become a common idiom in the English language, used to describe the act of avoiding the central issue or delaying the discussion of an important topic. Whether in personal conversations, business negotiations, or everyday interactions, the phrase captures the notion of reluctance to address something directly, often due to discomfort, evasion, or a desire to soften the impact of the topic at hand. Despite originating several centuries ago, the idiom has come to stay.[6]

4 Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

Tracing the roots of thoroughbred racing

The expression “straight from the horse’s mouth” means that a person has received information from someone who has personal knowledge of the spoken matter. The saying originates from the world of horse racing and betting. In this context, receiving information “straight from the horse’s mouth” means obtaining it directly from a knowledgeable and reliable source, often the horse’s owner, trainer, or someone closely associated with the horse. This phrase gained popularity because obtaining information directly from those intimately involved with the horse provided bettors with the most accurate and reliable insights into its condition, performance, and chances of winning.

Beyond the realm of horse racing, it signifies information obtained directly from a primary or authoritative source, thereby implying its credibility and reliability. Whether used in casual conversation or professional contexts, the phrase underscores the value placed on firsthand information and the trustworthiness associated with information provided directly by those with firsthand knowledge or experience. Thus, the saying has become a powerful metaphor in the English language for authenticity and trustworthiness in communication.[7]

3 To Put Someone on the Spot


The phrase “to put someone on the spot” means to cause someone embarrassment or difficulty by forcing them to answer a difficult question or make an important decision. The saying finds its origins in the world of theater. In theatrical productions, actors perform on a stage where designated spots, marked by lighting or other cues, indicate where they should stand or perform specific actions during a scene.

If an actor was unexpectedly placed in a spot where they were not prepared to deliver their lines or perform their role, they would be caught off guard and likely feel pressured to respond immediately. This situation of being thrust into the spotlight, figuratively and often without warning, led to the expression “to put someone on the spot,” denoting a moment of unexpected pressure or scrutiny.

The phrase now refers to situations where someone is placed in a difficult or uncomfortable position, often requiring them to respond or make a decision quickly and under pressure. Whether in social interactions, professional settings, or personal relationships, the phrase captures the sense of being singled out or challenged unexpectedly, forcing one to think and act swiftly in the spotlight of attention.[8]

2 To Get Cold Feet

Idiom ‘Cold Feet \ Get Cold Feet’ Meaning

The phrase “to get cold feet” means to suddenly become too frightened to do something you had planned to do, especially something important. There seem to be several possible theories about its origins, which changed as the expression evolved. A possible theory is from the military back in the 16th and 17th centuries when soldiers went to war in harsh weather and the technology available at that time did not allow for the manufacturing of high-quality protective footwear. The feet of soldiers were often exposed to snow and other elements, which would cause them to freeze. In this state, the soldier could not fight and could not be sent to the front.

Another origin story has its roots in the world of 19th-century American slang, particularly in the context of gambling and politics. It was commonly used to describe a sudden loss of nerve or resolve, especially just before undertaking a risky or important endeavor. The phrase likely originated from the physical sensation of one’s feet becoming cold due to nervousness or fear, leading to a reluctance to proceed with a planned action. In the context of gambling, it referred to a player backing out of a bet at the last moment due to doubts about their chances of winning, while in politics, it described a candidate withdrawing from a race due to apprehension about their ability to succeed.

Several others involve Italian and German influences about a “lack of money” or a “lack of courage.” Although the first literary publication of the phrase as we know it today appeared in Stephen Crane’s second edition publication of Maggie: Girl on the Streets in 1896. Regardless, it has become popular and is used to denote a situation wherein a person has prepared for an important activity only to excuse himself at the last minute.[9]

1 Bury the Hatchet

Where is the phrase Bury the Hatchet from? – Etymology in 60s

The phrase “bury the hatchet” simply means to make peace and end a conflict. The saying traces its origins back to Native American tradition, specifically the practices of certain tribes during treaty negotiations or peace agreements. When tribes would come together to settle disputes or establish peace, they would symbolize their commitment to reconciliation by literally burying a hatchet or tomahawk in the ground.

This act served as a tangible representation of their willingness to let go of past conflicts and grievances, signifying a mutual desire to move forward in harmony. The burying of the hatchet was not only a symbolic gesture but also a practical one, as it ensured that the weapon could not be readily retrieved for use in future conflicts. Although the phrase became popular in the 17th century, the practice of burying the hatchet is way earlier than that, possibly pre-dating the European settlement of America.

This practice has been observed in Massachusetts as early as 1680. The Treaty of Hopewell, which marked a new era of relations between the United States and Native American nations signed by Col. Benjamin Hawkins, Gen. Andrew Pickens, and Headman Mcintosh in Keowee, in South Carolina, in 1795, makes use of the phrase.

Over time, “burying the hatchet” has evolved into a widely recognized idiom in the English language, representing the act of resolving differences or ending hostilities between individuals or groups. Whether used in personal relationships, business dealings, or diplomatic negotiations, the phrase conveys the idea of putting aside past disagreements and animosities in favor of peace and cooperation.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen