English is a silly language.
I remember learning idioms in ESL class and thinking “this language is so silly”. But apparently there’s a history behind most commonly-used idioms that gives these silly phrases slightly more meaning. Here are some of my favorite idioms that make no sense, and you tell me whether knowing the history helps.
“It’s raining cats and dogs.”
- Meaning: To rain heavily
- Origin: Back in the 1500s, houses had thick straw roofs with with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals lived under the same roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof.
“Saved by the bell!”
- Meaning: Saved by a last minute intervention
- Origin: England started running out of places to bury people, so it was common to dig up coffins and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, there have been found scratch marks and people realized that they have been burying people alive. So they would tie a string around the wrist of the “corpse” that led to a bell above ground. So if someone was buried alive, they would move their wrist and be heard.
“Goodnight, sleep tight!”
- Meaning: To have a good night
- Origin: In colonial times, mattresses were made of goose feathers which some men found too soft to sleep on. To make it firmer, ropes were tied around the mattresses width-wise at the top, middle and bottom and pulled tight to condense the mattress. A firmer mattress produced a good night’s sleep.
“Rule of thumb”
- Meaning: Estimation made according to a rough and ready practical rule
- Origin: In the 17th century, English Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled that it was ok for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, and the stick should be no wider then his thumb.
“Bring home the bacon”
- Meaning: To earn the family’s money
- Origin: This is based on a tradition in Great Dunmow, Essex where a local couple impressed the Prior of Little Dunmow with their marital devotion to the point that he awarded them with a side of bacon.
“To kick the bucket”
- Meaning: To die
- Origin: In slaughterhouses, the rail on which pigs are hung after slaughter to drain off the blood is known as the bucket bar. Muscle spasms after death sometimes lead to the dead pig twitching as if to kick the bucket bar
“To feel under the weather”
- Meaning: To feel sick
- Origin: Passengers on ships become seasick during times of rough seas and bad weather. Sick passengers go below deck which provides shelter from the weather and the sway is not as heavy low on the ship. Hence seasick passengers tend to feel better below deck.
“To steal my thunder”
- Meaning: to take attention from someone else’s work or accomplishments to your own advantage
- Origin: English dramatist John Dennis invented a gadget for imitating the sound of thunder and introduced it in a play in the early 1700s. The play flopped. Soon after, another play in the same theater was using his sound-effects device and he angrily exclaimed, “That is my thunder! The villains will play my thunder, but not my play.”
“To read between the lines”
- Meaning: To perceive or understand a hidden meaning.
- Origin: In the 16th century it became common for politicians, soldiers, and businesspeople to write in code. To ordinary folks, this writing was unintelligible. They concluded that the meaning was not in the lines of gibberish, but in the space between them.
- Meaning: Caught in the act
- Origin: For hundreds of years, stealing and butchering another person’s livestock was a common crime. But it was hard to prove unless the thief was caught with a dead animal … and blood on his hands.
I guess English is more interesting than I give credit for