How 25+ Occupations Shaped the History of English Language Idioms

2What do these occupations have in common? … magician (performer), architect, doctor, sales manager, carnival worker, ad designer, plumber, ruler, tailor, carpenter, cargo worker, soldier, pirate, electrician, sailor, accountant, blacksmith, trader, tavern owner, astronomer, coin maker, policeman, bell ringer, minister and some sports players (tennis, golf, horseracing, cricket, baseball, boxing and billiards).

Well, I’ll give you a hint. It has something to do with the type of website. Okay - so now you are on to something.  You know it must be involved with language.  Hmmm, what is it?

If you guessed how certain words and phrases came to be, then you got it!  Each of these occupations throughout history has helped create an interesting phrase that you may have heard or even have used before.

Let’s look at some of these words and phrases. Learning the context behind an idiomatic phrase will often help you remember the meaning so you can correctly apply it to the context of your life today.

Magician (performer): Blowing smoke (to be boasting without being able to back it up; talking about doing something but not intending to follow-through). Magicians often use smoke in their performance to obscure your view and conceal a bit of trickery. So a person who is “blowing smoke” is trying to cover something up and trick you.

Architect: Bouched up (messed up; goofed up; substandard) is an expression that is attributed to Sir Thomas Bouch, an architect who in 1879 designed a bridge (nearly two miles long and the longest bridge in the world during this time) at Dundee in Scotland. Recognized as the greatest structure built in Victorian England, Bouch was knighted for this feat. About 1½ years after its opening, the wind caused some of the spans to collapse which in turn caused a train wreck and 75 people died.  At the time, this was considered the worst accident caused by a structural failure in the history of England. So if something is “bouched up” it means it did not really work out well. Or if someone tells you “not to bouch it up” it means don’t wreck it or goof it up.

Doctor: Brand spankin’ new (new and unused) is an expression that doctors continue to say right after delivery of a newborn.  The baby is spanked on purpose to cause him/her to cry and to breathe. If you use this expression today, it means something new like a “brand spankin’ new” idea or that “brand spankin’ new” car.

Sales Manager: Clear as a bell (clearly understood).  Bells once used in churches were large and loud. Before electric sirens, they were a means to signal and alert people of important happenings like an attack on their city. These early bells could be heard over a great distance. Back in the 1910's, when many companies were trying to get into the manufacturing and selling the newest invention, the phonograph, the Sonora Chime Company started the Sonora Phonograph Company and used the slogan "Clear as a Bell" to describe this hot item. Now if someone says that it is “clear as bell” it means they get it, they see it, they understand it.

Bell Ringer:  Rings a bell (to sound familiar). Bells used to signal people of the start of events such as a church session, the start of school, or a celebration and often were in the town square. The bells acted as a reminder of the start of the event for people who may not have had a clock or watch. Someone would literally ring a bell as a reminder and later these bells were used to mark each hour of the day. The hourly marking gave people a chance to synchronize their watches as the early watches often did not keep time well.  Today if someone says that something rings a bell, then this reminds them of something or that something is true.  For example, if I share something I did with a friend and they had a similar experience some time before that, they would say that my experience “rings a bell” to them.  Then they would go on and share their story.

Carnival Worker: Close but no cigar (not quite reaching success). A long time ago, carnival games of skill (especially shooting games) would give out cigars to the winner(s). If you came close to hitting the target, you did not get a cigar. You might hear this expression today when someone does something, but they fall a little short…like hitting the target in archery but not getting a bull’s eye, or being off one number on a lottery ticket and not winning the million dollar prize. It means you did well, but not quite well enough or not quite perfect.

Ad Designer: Cooking with gas (to be working fast, proceeding rapidly). People used wood stoves prior to the invention of the first gas stove in the 1800’s. Some of the earliest advertisements claimed that gas is faster, cleaner, easier and better than cooking with wood.  Hence the phrase now you’re “cooking with gas” used when you are performing really well at work or you are ahead of schedule on any task.

Plumber: In the crapper (in the bathroom/restroom). Thomas Crapper of England designed and created modern indoor plumbing (including the flushable toilet). This word was introduced to America by World War I soldiers returning home from Europe. If someone says “in the crapper”, you will know where to find them.

Ruler:  Crossing the Rubrican (taking a decisive and irrevocable step – one that can’t be changed).  When using this phrase you admit commitment to a given course of action and there is no turning back.  Julius Caesar is credited with the phrase “crossing the Rubrican”, a river in Northern Italy.  Caesar began the three year civil war when he crossed the 15 mile (25 kilometer) river in 49 B.C. to march against Pompey. By crossing the river, it was seen as an act of aggression.  So if a future groom says that he paid for the church and sent out the invitations, then he is crossing the Rubrican.

Rule of thumb: (usually correct but not always; rules to be followed). Old English measurements were originally based on the body measurements of the King.  Today the expression means that the use of your thumb is an estimate to measure the length of the foot, inch (thumb tip to first knuckle), cubit (elbow-to-fingertip), and yard (nose-to-fingertip). If you are to follow a set rule, then that rule is considered “rule of thumb”.

Tailor: Dressed to the 9’s: (dressed very well). Common lore has it that a tailor making a high quality suit uses more fabric and has a lot of wasted fabric. The best suits are made from nine yards of fabric as the fabric is cut in the same direction with the warp, or long strands of thread, parallel with the vertical line of the suit. So if you want to go "dressed to the nines", you are willing to pay for the added fabric that is not used. If someone is described as being “dressed to the 9’s” today, it means they are dressed up and looking their best.

Carpenter:  Dead as a door nail (to be dead with no chance of recovery). A long time ago, nails were very expensive as they were handmade.  When a barn or cabin was torn down, the nails were saved and reused.  However, when a door was built, carpenters drove the nail through the door and bent the nails over so it would not fall out when the door was opened and closed.  When this building was torn down, the nails used on the doors could not be reused. The nails were thought to be useless or “dead” because of the way they were bent. If you say that the computer is as “dead as a door nail”, that means that it is not working at all and you will probably need to get a new one.  It is probably beyond repair.

Cargo Worker:  Down the hatch (to drink or eat). Sea freight known as cargo is lowered into the hatch (an opening to get to the bottom level of boats) below the deck of a ship. The freight appears to be consumed by the ship much like someone who consumes food or drinks. If someone gave a toast today before a meal and then followed the toast with the expression “down the hatch”, then everyone would know to drink the beverage or “to drink up”.

Soldier:  Face the music(accept the truth.) This saying comes from the British military. When someone was court marshaled, a military drum squad played music. The term "drummed out of the military" came from this practice, too. If someone tells you that you need to “face the music” then it means you need to accept what is happening. At the eleventh hour (at the last moment). On a 12-hour clock (rather than the 24-hour clock) the hours of 12 noon and 12 midnight seem to hold special significance.  To happen at "the eleventh hour" implies that it is the last hour before a deadline. The selection of "the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" as the time to end W.W.I was quite significant.

Pirate:  Armed to the teeth (to be heavily armed) was an expression first used in Jamaica in the 1600’s. At that time, there was only a single shot black powder weapon. The pirates had to carry many of these weapons at once to keep up the fight.  Today the expression can be transferred to any setting where you are well-prepared.  For example, a babysitter could be “armed to the teeth” if they come over with items to entertain the kids they are babysitting for; a parent could be “armed to the teeth” if they have prepared everything for their child’s birthday, etc.

Sailor:  From stem to stern (very thorough; complete).  The very front of a ship is called the stem and the rear is called the stern. From stem to stern includes the entire ship so if you clean your house from “stem to stern” you clean it completely.  In the doldrums (to be depressed or unmotivated).  Doldrums is the name of a place in the ocean that is located near the equator and with  unstable trade winds. A sailing ship caught in the Doldrums can be stranded due to lack of wind.  If you say that you are “in the doldrums”, then this means that you really aren’t doing anything or you are unsure or unwilling to do something.  To pass with flying colors (to exceed expectations).  "Passed with flying colors" is an expression that comes from sailing of ships that passed other ships at sea.  They would fly their colors (flags) if they wanted to be identified. Now it means to do well.  If you take a law exam and “pass with flying colors” it means you did really well! To show your true colors (to reveal your true intentions, personality or behaviors). The word “colors” was an early meaning of the word flag, pennant, or badge. Primitive warships often carried flags from many nations on board in order to frighten or trick the enemy. The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true national ensigns before firing a shot.

Someone who finally "shows his true colors" is acting like a warship which hails another ship flying one flag, but then hoists their own when they get in firing range.  In other words, when you show your true colors, you reveal the truth about yourself. It can be good or bad. For example, my boss “showed his true colors” when he gave everyone a yearly bonus would tell everyone that your boss is generous.  Room to swing a cat (a confined space). This interesting phrase has nothing to do with cats, although it sounds like it does.  The "cat" is a cat-of-nine-tails, a type of whip used to discipline sailors on old sailing ships. The cat-of-nine-tails has one handle to which is attached nine thin strips of leather, each about three feet long. The beatings would take place on the deck because the ceilings were too low below the deck to swing the whip.  Nowadays, if there is “room to swing a cat” then there is plenty of room, and vice versa. So if my apartment has “room to swing a cat” then it is big enough. Square meal (Nutritious meal). British war ships in the 1700s did not have the best of living conditions. A sailor’s breakfast and lunch were sparse meals consisting of bread and something to drink. But the third meal of the day included meat and was served on a square tray. Therefore, a "square meal" was the most substantial meal served.  Today if you eat three “square meals” a day that means you eat three healthy meals.  And if someone invites you to a fast food restaurant and you know the food is not that healthy, you can say, “Thanks for the invitation, but I would rather go somewhere that offer a square meal.” Three sheets to the wind (very drunk; highly intoxicated).  This phrase comes from 18th - 19th century English Naval terminology. The original phrase referred to a ship losing control of its sails as the word “sheets” means the ropes that adjust the position of the sails that are raised on the masts.  If your sails move about without being held tightly by a rope, then you lose the ability to control your boat.  This feeling of lack of control is similar to someone who has had too much to drink.  So if someone says that they are “three sheets to the wind” it means they had too much to drink. Toe the line (follow the group, don’t disagree, and do what others are doing).  Many people mistakenly think the phrase is "tow the line" but it is “toe the line”.  This phrase comes from military line-ups for inspection. Soldiers are expected to line up by putting their toes on a line, and submit to the inspection. The line is usually imaginary, but nonetheless it means to line up in a straight line and to stand up straight.  If you are told to “toe the line” it means to follow the rules and behave.  For example, all of the students must “toe the line” means they need to take responsibility and do all of the work to a certain standard.

Electrician:  Can’t hold a candle to it (to be less competent or to have inferior skills than someone else).  Before the invention of electric lights, evening work or work in the dark was done with candlelight.  Often, someone would hold the candle to help the person see what they were doing similar to how someone helps you see by holding a flashlight today. Holding the candle is not as challenging as doing the task. If someone says “so and so can’t hold a candle to someone else” then the person can’t even come close to how well the person does in comparison.

Accountant:  In the black (making money) and In the red (losing money). Standard practice for accounting is to record positive numbers in black ink and negative numbers (losses) in red ink. Not only was the red ink quite a contrast to the black and it could easily be seen, but in the medieval times the church being the center of literacy and learning in the west kept accounting records and since the ink was very expensive and rare at this time, the church would use blood obtained from their domesticated animals to write the losses “in the red”.  A person who makes a profit or does well with business during any time period can he/she is “in the black” but if the opposite holds true, then he/she is “in the red”.

Blacksmith:  Irons in the fire (having or following multiple opportunities). Blacksmiths traditionally worked iron into shape by hammering. The iron was heated in the fire until it was red-hot and malleable. Once the iron cooled, it became brittle and no longer could be hammered into shape. Blacksmiths needed to work quickly and to be more efficient; they worked on many pieces of iron at the same time. This way, they could always have a piece of iron red-hot and ready for hammering. The cooled piece would be returned to the fire if it needed more hammering. Today, if someone has a lot of “irons in the fire” they  might be doing many things…having more than one job…always running kids around to activities, possibly going to school/working/managing a family, etc. Strike while the iron’s hot (act quickly while the opportunity is still available) refers to the blacksmith who must work quickly before the iron cools and it can’t become shaped.  In other words, the blacksmith misses the chance to shape it.  So if you are given advice to “strike when the iron is hot” it means to do it whatever it is quickly before it is too late.  For example, if you see job advertising and you are interested in this career change, and then you need to “strike while the iron’s hot”, i.e. before more people apply or before the deadline date, etc. so you have the best chance at getting it.

Lobbyist:  Jump on the bandwagon (do what everyone else is doing and whatever is popular). Old time political campaigners would attempt to gain supporters, beginning with a small parade including a band for the candidate.  “Jumping on the bandwagon” meant that you provided support for this candidate.  Now if you “jump on the bandwagon” at work, that means you support the business concept, etc.  If someone “jumps on the bandwagon” for you in any setting, it means they support you.

Importer/Exporter (Trades):  Let the cat out of the bag (to divulge a secret). At medieval markets, unscrupulous traders would advertise pigs for sale. However, the pig was always given to the customer in a bag, and they were told not to open it until they were far away from the market. The trader would hand the customer a bag, and although the bag wiggled like a pig, the buyer would later find out that he/she was conned as upon opening the bag it contained a cat, not a pig. The saying "letting the cat out of the bag" showed the secret of the con artist.  Now used to gossip or tell a secret in any setting, you no doubt have “let the cat out of the bag” on more than one occasion.  Or you at least know someone who has.

Tavern Owner: Mind your P’s and Q’s (behave properly).  Coming from the early days of English pubs, drinks were served in pint and quart containers. The amount owed was kept on a chalkboard with a tally of the pints and quarts consumed. To watch your Ps and Qs then is to control your alcoholic intake and behavior.  The saying can be transferred to any setting.  If a teacher uses this expression with kids on a fieldtrip, it means they need to behave.  If a parent says it at the dinner table, then the kids need to be on their best behavior and use good table manners during dinner.

Astronomer:  Once in a blue moon (to happen on rare occasions). Two full moons in the same month are very rare.  The second full moon in a month is called the “blue moon”. This expression was first used in the Maine (USA) Farmers’ Almanac in the early 1800’s to list the date of first moon in red text, and the second moon in blue print so you could better read the information in this annual guide.  So then if you can think of something that doesn’t happen often you can use this expression.  For example, I would say that “once in a blue moon” a dog lives to be 20 years old or “once in a full moon” you get up at 4:00 a.m. in the morning.

Coin Maker:  One red cent (a single symbolic penny). The "Red" refers to the color of the penny (one cent) and the image of an American Indian that used to be on the head of the penny. This one cent coin was called an Indian Head or Indian Head Penny that was first issued in 1859.Before the Indian Head penny was the "Buzzard Cent" issued in 1856-1858.  The flying eagle on the coin did not go over well (people thought it was not attractive) so the “red” penny was issued.  At that time period in history, the word “red” described an Indian.  This expression is not used today.  If you say “one red cent” today it means not one cent so if you paid someone a debt and they asked for more money or if you were unhappy with a certain job that someone did for you around the house you might say “I will not give you another red cent” or “He will not get “one red cent” from me!”

Policeman:  Reading the riot act (to complain or lecture loudly with angry emotion). "Reading the riot act" originally refers to the Bobbies – the policemen - in Britain who used to read a prescribed proclamation known as the Riot Act before they could arrest a crowd.  The Riot Act is used similar to the Miranda Rights in the US. The Bobbies would read the Riot Act aloud and then arrest or disperse the crowd. If a parent “read the riot act” to a child, then the son must have provoked the parent’s anger.  If you do something wrong, then a person in authority “reads the riot act” which means they get upset with you, probably mention certain rules or expectations that were broken, etc. It is not a piece of paper, but just words that the person says to you and the tone of voice used.

Minister: Tie the knot (to get married). Some marriage ceremonies actually tie together the wrists of the bride and groom. In the Webster dictionary one meaning of the word “tie” is defined as “to unite in marriage”. This expression has been used for centuries.  The first form of legal contracts used a knot that was tied to show that the contract was binding.  In many ancient civilizations, the marriage ceremony used a cord, yarn or string to tie the couple together in a knot.  This was symbolic for unity. Today in several cultures, there is a cord, yarn, string, or cloth used to bind the couple together.  It remains a symbol of unity.  So if a couple is getting married, you could ask them when they plan to “tie the knot” and they would tell you the date of the wedding.

Sports Players

  • Tennis: Back-handed compliment (a compliment that is insulting at the same time so you don’t expect it) refers to left-handed hitting in tennis.  In tennis, a “backhand stoke” is a strike from the left side of the body from a right-handed player. The left side of the body has always been seen as sinister. The Latin word for left is sinister. Hence, back-handed means round-about, indirect, or devious.
  • Golf:  Down to the short strokes (approaching the end of a long process). When the golf ball is on the green, the golfer must get the ball in the hole by taking "short" strokes. Now the expression is used in any situation where the majority of work is already done, and just a few things are left to do.  For example, this blog is getting “down to the short strokes” as I am almost finished.  If someone were to ask you how you are doing on a project at home, school or work and you were almost finished, you could reply by saying, “Great!  I’m down to the short stokes” or “Good! I have a few short stokes left”.
  • Horse-racing: Down to the Wire (at the last minute; undecided until the end). This phrase refers to races – often horseraces or foot races) where the winner is whoever crosses the finish line first. A string called the wire or tape is stretched across at the end of the racetrack to help the judges see who crosses first. Whoever crossed over first breaks the wire which is really just string, tape, or paper and not a metal wire.
  • Cricket: Hat trick (three successes or wins is a "Hat trick"). Originated from the English game of cricket, the expression originally referred to a bowler retiring three consecutive batsmen with three consecutive balls. Seen as quite an accomplishment, the bowler was traditionally rewarded with a hat. The term is now used for other sports, always referring to an accomplishment of three. You may have heard this expression when a hockey or soccer player scores three goals in a game.
  • Baseball: On the ball (to pay attention).  Since the early days of baseball, a pitcher who "had nothing on the ball" meant that he did not have control of the ball.  He was not doing a good job. If someone is “on the ball”, the opposite is the case. That person is doing well, and they can handle the job, etc. Upper hand (control of a situation). This phrase began with the sport of baseball. In order to determine which team bats first, one player grasps the baseball bat at the lower end. A player from the opposing team places his hand directly above the first player's hand. They alternately keep putting their hands on the bat until the end of the bat is reached.  Whichever player’s hands are last has the "upper hand". Today you might say that your boss has “the upper hand” which means he is in control of the company, etc.
  • Boxing: Roll with the punches (weather through tough times; try to minimize the trouble). Rolling with the punches is a technique used in boxing to avoid receiving a direct hit. In other words, it is better to take a lesser direct hit of a punch than to be hit forcefully.  Nowadays if you “roll with the punches” you take things in stride, you don’t get stressed out, you handle things as they come, etc. Take a dive (to intentionally fail in competition; to throw a game; to not do well). Boxers (e.g. prizefighters) are sometimes bribed to throw a fight – which means that they intentionally lose but make it appear that they are trying in the fight.  They “dive” to the mat after being hit to make themselves look like they were really hit hard.  If you use this expression today in any of number of settings, it means that you are not doing well. For example, your grades “took a dive” or your business is “taking a dive”.
  • Billiards: Put English on it (To impart a spin to something in an effort to make it hard to control, usually a ball in sports like tennis)."The English way" or "English" comes from the British game of Snooker. Snooker is a forerunner to the game of Billiards or pool. It also uses cue sticks, balls, and a table however the table has no pockets for the balls to go down. In Snooker, a ball is often hit with a spin to maneuver it to a certain spot.  That would be “putting English on it”.  So if you intend to do something on purpose with a ball in any sport, then you can say “I put the English on it” or you can shout to your partner to “put the English on it!”


Please write to me using the comments below and share any interesting history tidbits of your own. Or tell me when if you have used any of these expressions. You might also want to check out some of the other recent blogs related to idioms on this site. Next week, I will write “brand spankin’ new” copy about more idiomatic expressions and the history behind them. Until then, take care.

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