Language lessons across the USA and Canada

Call us! 1-877-566-9299 / 1-416-800-9242

What’s In A [Phrase]?

Having a way with words is not a skill we’re all lucky to have. But think about it: there are so many hidden meanings, and such downright silliness in our idiomatic language, that technically we all have a way with words. Even if we don’t know it. We’re betting you might not know the origins of half the things you say. So here’s some of our favorite sayings and where they come from.

1. Mad as a hatter – to act crazily.

Where’s it from?

The world and his wife are probably leaping up and down saying ‘I know this one! I know this one!’ Calm down, World. You do not. We know the association with Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland and yes, that’s what got our attention too. However, we actually have 17th century France to thank for this expression. Mercury was, at that time at least, often used for hat felt. Mercury poisoning presents as shyness, irritability and the shakes, and when 17th century hatters had a wibble, well, mad as a hatter.

Why we like it

Oh, go on then, Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland makes us very happy too.

The Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?
[Alice checks Hatter’s temperature]
Alice Kingsley: I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.

2. Give the cold shoulder – to ignore someone or be unwelcoming.

Photo_1 (1)

Photo via Wikipedia

Where’s it from?

We love this one, and it dates back to medieval England. At that time, it was customary to signal to guests that it was time for them to leave by giving them a cold cut of meat from a shoulder of mutton, pork or beef chop. So the next time someone offers you a ham and mustard on rye, ask yourself if you’ve outstayed your welcome.

Why we like it

When Phil thought Luke was giving him the cold shoulder in the Modern Family episode Rash Decisions, we didn’t know whether to laugh or reach through the screen and hug them both.

Phil: You’re not Andy
Luke: Sorry to disappoint you.

3. Rub the wrong way – to annoy someone.

Where’s it from?

If oak floorboards back in the Colonial US were washed the wrong way, which is to say not wiped dry after being washed, it left a streaky mess. This upset the owners very much indeed. Much like a cat will show its dislike of you rubbing its fur the wrong way with a quick swipe of the paw. We do not recommend it.

Why we like it

Jack Burton, Kurt Russell’s character in Big Trouble In Little China, rubbed everyone up the wrong way. He was very self-aware about it.

Jack Burton: Sooner or later I rub everybody the wrong way.

4. Once in a blue moon – something that happens very rarely.

Where’s it from?

Because sometimes even science makes no sense, this one refers to when we see the moon at its fullest twice in one month. Which is incredibly rare, and nothing at all to do with being blue. Blue in this instance comes from the word belewe, which means to betray. The ‘betrayer moon’ was an additional spring full moon which meant that those observing Lent would have to fast for an additional month. Thankfully this occurs only every two to three years. The expression was first recorded in 1821.

Why we like it

The song Blue Moon has been recorded by Billy Eckstine, Mel Tormé, Elvis Presley, and the Marcels. It was The Marcels version that was used in Grease when the students mooned at the televised dance. Now there is an image.

5. Revenge is a dish best served cold – getting your own back when the guilty party has long forgotten they’d wronged you, and foolishly thinks you’ve forgotten too.


Photo via Flickr / Flickr

Where’s it from?

In urban legend land, this is translated from the French phrase la vengeance est un plat qui se mange froide, appearing in 1782 in the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The phrase also appears as and then revenge is very good eaten cold, as the vulgar say in the D G Osbourne 1846 translation of Eugène Sue’s Memoirs Of Matilda.

Why we like it

Princess Bride! Princess Bride is the prime example of this phrase in action.

Inigo Montoya: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

6. Red herring – a false trail.

Where’s it from?

Herring, when smoked, turns red and gives off a very pungent smell. This fish was used when training hunting dogs, the idea being that the pungent smell would serve as a distraction that dogs needed to overcome and continue on their trail unaffected.

Why we like it

It’s tenuous link time! We can’t hear the phrase red herring without picturing Monty Python’s fish slap dance. We’re not sure why.

7. Raining cats and dogs – it’s raining very, very hard.

Where’s it from?

This phrase first appears Henry Vaughan’s poetry collection Olor Iscanus. It may originate from 17th/18th century England, when the streets were filthy and heavy rain washed dead animal carcasses down the streets. There is another possible poetic link here, in Jonathan Swift’s A description of a city shower.

Why we like it

Because it makes us think of the song It’s Raining Men. We just hope they’re not washed down the street as well.

8. Bite the bullet – to accept or deal with something you really don’t want to.

Where’s it from?

Battlefield surgery was not, historically, known for its availability of anesthesia. Patients were asked to bite down onto bullets as a way to distract them from the pain. We suppose breaking your teeth is an apt way of distraction. The phrase first appeared in Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 film The Light That Failed.

Why we like it

Machine Head’s Bite The Bullet. That is all.

9. No brainer – something that is obvious or requires little mental effort.

Photo_3 (1)

Photo via Wikimedia

Where’s it from?

The phrase first appeared in Carl Grubert’s cartoon The Berrys, seen in the Long Beach Independent in 1959. It also appeared in the context of an ‘easily made decision’ in The Lethbridge Herald in 1968 to report on an obvious ice hockey decision.

Why we like it

Because there’s a Fringe episode called The No-Brainer!

Peter Bishop: I’ve never had him in my life… Walter. And now, thanks to your insane freak show of an operation, I do.

10. Turn a blind eye – intentionally overlook something.

Where’s it from?

Admiral Horatio Nelson of the British Navy, during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, is thought to have deliberately raised his telescope to his blind eye to ensure he missed any signalling from his superior to withdraw from battle.

Why we like it

Because we love the Hurts song Blind.

What’s in a word?

There are too many phrases out there in everyday use for us to analyse the origins of in one go. So think about how a learner of English must feel when faced with our idioms. We like to think of idioms as a type of functional language. True, idioms aren’t technically functional, but getting to grips with certain phrases when learning a language can only instill confidence, even daft ones such as idioms. Want to see for yourself? Why don’t you contact us and see what languages we have for you to learn idioms for.