How 27 Idiomatic Expressions Made My Day!

It was a great day.  Let me tell you about it.

First, I took my mother for her annual checkup and the doc issued her a clean bill of health.  He said, ‘Knock on wood, your mother couldn’t be healthier for her age.’ Then, it was time to eat lunch at mom’s favorite restaurant. The server greeted us and gave my mother a compliment, (‘so dressed to a tea’). After enjoying a healthy lunch my mother opted to pack half of her tuna salad sandwich into a doggie bag as I heard her mumble under her breath, “Well, I guess my eyes were bigger than my mouth!”  Then it was a quick stop at the grocery store before dropping her off at the apartment complex.  As I drove back home, I thought of the idioms that I had just heard and couldn’t wait to do some more research.  So just like last week’s blog, I am tracing the history behind some of these idioms and trying to understand how these expressions were first used.  Maybe you would like to hear what I’ve learned.

Clean bill of health This term was first used in the “Bill of Health”, a document that was given to a ship to show that the port of departure had no infections or epidemics.  Today it means that you are healthy.

Knock on wood This saying was first used in the middle ages when pieces of the Holy Cross were circulated among communities.  To touch this wood where Jesus was believed to be crucified was thought to bring good luck.  Today this expression means that something looks like it will happen except for an unforeseen circumstance.

Dressed to a tea, dressed for a tea or dressed to go to a tea During Victorian times, people often dressed up and had high tea.  This was a formal affair. Tea and desserts were served on the finest china among friends or acquaintances.  Now this expression is used if someone is dressed up and looks nice no matter where he/she is going. And you don’t need to be going to someone’s house for tea.

My eyes are bigger than my mouth! This statement first meant that a person was immature or greedy.  But now it means that a person sees things that he/she wants but then after awhile realizes it’s not exactly what was needed or wanted to begin with.  The expression is often used in reference to food, but it can be used in other situations involving a quantity of things that are just too many.

Well, I have some time. You know to search for the history behind a few more idiomatic expressions. These are some of my favorites…

In literature

Absence makes the heart grow fonder In Davison’s Poetical Rhapsody in 1602, it was the first line of an anonymous poem.  Two years later, Shakespeare borrowed this phrase in Othello while James Howell repeated it in Familiar Letters (1650). It means the same thing it always did…that often when you are away from someone you love you realize how much you love them.

Cut the mustard This expression was first used in an O. Henry story (1902). It may come from a cowboy expression meaning the genuine thing or from a combination of phrases like keen of mustard (1659) and the use of the word cut to mean a cut above from the 18th century.  This expression used today means that you make it. So if you are trying out for a track team and you cut the mustard you are on the team, but if you don’t cut the mustard, unfortunately you don’t make the team.

Straight and narrow This is a well-known Biblical phrase found in Matthew 7:14 that describes the path to heaven. (Broad is the way that is the path of destruction but narrow is the gate and straight is the way which leadeth to the house of God.) Now the expression in everyday conversation means that if someone is on the straight and narrow they are on the right road, they are going the right way in life and following the laws, etc.

Writing is on the wall This expression is from the Old Testament in the Bible. In the Book of Daniel, Belshazzar who is the King of Israel had stolen from the temple in Jerusalem. Someone at a party wrote on the wall that the King’s days were numbered. Soon thereafter the King was found inadequate and the kingdom divided between the Medes and the Persians.  That same night, King Belshazzar was killed. When we say the writing is on the wall, it means that we can predict what is going to happen.  It is certain that something will happen.

In reference to food

With a grain of salt Salt was once very expensive as it was very scarce.  It was highly valued as a food preservative, for healing properties, and to be an antidote to poisons. To take or eat something with a grain of salt was to practice preventative medicine.  If someone thought the food was spoiled or it was going to make them sick, they would eat a little salt with it.  Salt was so valuable that it was used in exchange for something.  For example, Roman soldiers were given a salt allowance as part of their pay.  The word salary comes from the Latin salarium meaning of salt. Today the expression means that you don’t’ necessarily have to believe it.  If you are advised to take the secretary’s words with a grain of salt, then everything she says is not exactly true.  Worth his salt To say that someone is worth his salt means he/she is worth it.  It is a compliment that you have done something to earn respect, recognition, your salary, etc.

Using a verb to begin the expression

Blow off some steam or Blow off steam You may be familiar with boilers that are commonly used to heat steam for buildings and steam engines for a train.  The boilers are filled with water that is heated by oil or some other fuel.  The heated water turns to steam which either is used to heat something up for warmth or is harnessed so it can propel or move something like in the case of a train. The steam creates pressure in the boiler.  The boiler may explode if the pressure is too much.  So there are safety valves on the boilers that open if the pressure is too great.  Thus the expression blowing off steam means to prevent a possible explosion by venting the excess pressure.  So if you like to blow off steam or you know someone who does, it means you/they like to say or do things to get rid of strong feelings.  You may blow off steam when you are home after a long business meeting that seemed to drag on and on.  You may blow off steam when the electricity or water bill increases, etc.

Break a leg comes from a common practice for people to believe in “Sprites”.  “Sprites” were actually spirits or ghosts.  It was believed that the “Sprites” caused trouble.  It is rumored that if you asked for something or wanted something to happen, the “Sprites” interfered and did the opposite.  So if you told someone to break a leg, it was said to outsmart or trick the “Sprites” and it really meant that you hoped that something good happened.  Nowadays, this expression is often said before a play is performed or some other type of performance.  It means to do a great job and have fun doing it.  It has nothing to do with the literal meaning of really breaking part of your body.

Busting your chops At the beginning of the 20th century and from time-to-time after that, wearing long sideburns was popular.  The sideburns were called mutton chops or lamb chops.  So then a bust in the chops meant to get hit in the face. Today the expression is more figurative in that if you bust your chops, you work the hardest you can. It does not have anything to do with sideburns.  For example, the student needed to bust his chops to get his term paper in on time; the young salesman wanted to bust his chops to make a sale, etc.

Hold your/my feet to the fire During the Crusades torture was often used to make someone confess to a crime.  The person asking questions applied flames to the feet of the accused until they could not tolerate the pain any more.  They either confessed or upon refusing to do so, the fire would burn them until they died. The expression used today means to keep at it.  If I hold my feet to the fire, I keep trying in hopes of reaching my goal. If your boss says to hold your feet to the fire, it means to not give up and keep charging ahead.

Living hand to mouth This expression was first used during the Great Depression.  If someone was living hand to mouth, it describes how desperate they were for food.  They didn’t know where they would get money to buy food and what they would eat and feed their families.  Then if they got food, it would go from their hands into their mouths immediately.  The expression today means almost the same thing, but it is a somewhat broader in definition.  If someone is living hand to mouth, it means they don’t have enough money to live on.  They would not have many of the necessities that people need to live. They would not have enough food.

Sleep tight Today, beds are commonly made with box springs.  But before these were used, old bed frames used rope that was pulled tightly between the frame rails.  This supported the mattress.  If the rope became loose, the mattress would sag and it was not as comfortable for a good night’s sleep.  When the ropes were tightened, a good night’s sleep was sure to follow.  Today when someone says to sleep tight, it means to get a good night’s sleep.

I think that at the eleventh hour, I’ll call it a night and go to sleep before I am under the weather. So if today is any indication of what tomorrow will be like, then I can’t wait to discover more idioms and share some of those, too.

At the eleventh hour On a 12-hour clock rather than the 24-hour clock, the hours of 12 noon and 12 midnight hold special meaning as they mark from morning to afternoon and the end of the day.  These times are often used as deadlines (i.e., high noon, the stroke of midnight). This expression has always meant to the last hour before the deadline.  Historians believe that selecting "the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" as the time to end WWI, this was a perfect time as it was nearing the final hour (e.g., deadline) for the war to be over.  If you use this expression today, it means at the last minute and right before the deadline or due date.

Under the weather The sick passengers on a ship would often go below the deck as there was less rocking motion and they could get some rest.  This expression was first used to describe the passengers who sought refuge under the deck to prevent or lessen their seasickness during bad weather and rough seas.  Now this saying is used to mean that you are just not feeling well.


Did you find any of these idioms particularly interesting?  Have you tried using any of them?  Let me know how it goes.  In my next blog, I will share some interesting history behind some idioms that deal with animals, after all tomorrow is going to be another great day.  Until next time, take care and sleep tight.

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