As a native speaker, one rarely stops to think about what it literally is that we’re expelling from of our mouths. We talk about ‘getting up on the wrong side of the bed, and being ‘under the weather’. To be honest, before it even starts we should decide whether we want to ‘call it a day’ or ‘bite the bullet.’ Looking back on this wonderfully confusing language of ours, you have to wonder how anyone trying to learn it ever actually does. Are we intentionally trying to talk nonsense? To clear some of these little oddities up, let’s look at the supposed beginnings of a few popular idioms.
1. It’s Raining Cats and Dogs!
How we use it: Grab your coats! Grab your umbrellas! It’s raining cats and dogs outside!
Now while a good few random objects have been know to fall from the skies, it’s pretty difficult to picture our beloved domestic pets hurling themselves from up high. So where did we pick this saying up? Apparently it originates in the 1500s where the townsfolk used to live in houses with thatched roofs. When it got cold, the animals – not allowed inside – would crawl up into the spaces in the thatch to keep warm. The torrents started, washing away everything in its path, including the pets trying to find shelter. Looking out your window, you would literally see cats and dogs falling from the sky – imagine this the next time torrential rains kick in.
2. Red Herring
How we use it: And the mystery became clearer as we worked our way around the red herrings.
What does this mean? It’s a phrase used to symbolize something that throws someone off-course – a trusted go-to for sly lawyers, good novelists, and cheating boyfriends. But how did it come to be? The red herring is a type of kipper preserved in brine, a process that makes the fish particularly strong smelling. One story tells us of the times of fox-hunting in England, where early animal-rights activists used to hide behind trees and wait for the foxes to dash past. Before the dogs had time to follow, they would run across the ground, trailing the stinky fish behind them. The hounds would hit this boundary and be accosted by a new smell, essentially throwing them off their trail.
3. Graveyard Shift, Saved by the Bell
How we use it: Right, I’m off! Working the graveyard shift tonight, see you all in the morning!
Class ended before my oral exam! I was totally saved by the bell, dude.
These sayings are both connected to the same old tale. Long before the days of modern medicine, and arrests for the drunk and disorderly, men would head out to the pubs and streets for a night of heavy boozing. The effects of alcohol taking control, the rowdy fellows would give in to the pull of sleep. Drifting into a near comatose state, passers-by would think they were dead, and naturally, a funeral commenced. Whether the coffins were exhumed later to find the marks of nails, or whether the men would awake during the procession (scaring the life out of everyone there), people thought it less traumatising to tie a bell around the wrist of every ‘dead’ body. They also put a guard on duty over the graveyard at night to listen for possible tinklings, hence the terms ‘working the graveyard shift’ and essentially quite literally being ‘saved by the bell’.
4. Good night, sleep tight!
How we use it: Well… this one’s a little self-explanatory, to be honest.
There’s nothing better than unwinding from a long day and settling into your bed for what you know will be blissful sleep. But life wasn’t always this simple. A good mattress (or any) was hard to come by back in the day. Instead, beds were made out of wooden frames, woven through with ropes that you would spend the night on. Think of sharing a hammock indoors with your other half. In order to sleep well, you would have to ensure that the ropes did not sag in the middle by pulling on them from either side – literally making them tighter. While the Oxford English Dictionary disagrees, saying that ‘tight’ is simply related to tightly, meaning ‘properly’, ‘effectively’ or ‘well’, the hammock thing makes for a better story.
5. Let the cat out of the bag
How we use it: I can’t believe she let the cat out of the bag! It was supposed to be a surprise party!
This age-old term for telling a secret (or spilling the beans, to use another strange saying) has more to it than simply saving a cat from possible claustrophobia and suffocation. In the market places of old, pork was popular. Pigs were sold in big bags, tied up with string. Customers would approach the farmers to buy the bag, pig still inside, and head off home to cook a tasty meal. Simple, right? Wrong. Cats, apart from being much smaller (and less tasty, I’m assuming), were not as sought-after as their chubbier counterparts, and sneaky stall owners used to pile them into bags and sell them off as pigs. Buyers, eventually copping on to the new tricks of the market, would open the bags to check the goods beforehand, either revealing the bacon they asked for, or releasing a feline back into the wild, literally ‘letting the cat out of the bag.’
Now these stories could very well be just that – stories. There are tons of theories about the humble origins of these fine phrases. ‘Saved by the bell’ could also possibly be traced back to boxing rings where boxers were saved from losing the round by the bell, for example. The English language is a history in itself, a collection of stories, created and written and spoken by men. The joy is in telling them.
Tell us – do you know of any other origins to these 5 sayings?