The Origins of 15 Everyday Expressions We Still Use Today

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Have you ever wondered where certain sayings come from and why they’re ingrained in our culture and vocabulary? Sometimes they make sense, but often they don’t. That doesn’t stop us from using them, though.

These sayings often have intriguing, even morbid, origins. Some are rooted in a darker history, while others stem from military jargon that has seeped into everyday speech.

Regardless of their origins, these sayings have remarkable longevity, often spanning hundreds of years. They have become an integral part of our language and culture that we still use today.

1. Saved by the Bell

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The saying “saved by the bell” has an intriguing and quite morbid origin. Dating back to the 18th century, it was a time when the fear of being buried alive was so real that people took drastic measures to ensure their safety. Family would bury the deceased with a string inside the coffin that was attached to a bell on the surface. If they did wake up, they could ring the bell, alerting the gravedigger and ultimately being saved.

However, another theory of the origins of this saying dates back to the late 19th century. Many believe it refers to boxing slang and the fighter being “saved” from losing by the bell, indicating the end of a round.

2. Gone to Pot

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The term “gone to pot” refers to something losing all of its good qualities because it was ignored or not cared for. There are many morbid yet fascinating theories about how this term came into existence. Some believe it stems from a time when boiling someone alive was a legal punishment. This resulted in the wrong-doer being placed in a large pot or cauldron to ultimately meet their maker.

However, a less gruesome explanation is that it simply refers to meat being cut up and dumped into the cooking pot.

3. Pulling Someone’s Leg

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We’ve all heard or used the saying, “Oh, I’m just pulling your leg.” Today, this idiom means that they’re just joking or giving you a hard time in a friendly way.

However, the term originated in Victorian London during the mid-19th century, when thieves, usually pickpocketers, would pull at their intended victims’ legs to confuse them, allowing them an opportunity to rob them.

4. Paint the Town Red

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The American slang term “painting the town red” typically refers to having a wild night out on the town with reckless abandonment. However, the metaphor applied to bonfires being lit and illuminating the night sky in a sea of red flames.

Old Irish ballads depict this imagery with lines such as “The beacon hills were painted red/ With many a fire that night.” There are stories of boat captains on the Mighty Mississippi who would exclaim, “Paint her, boys!” when ordering their crews to pour fuel on the rivals’ fires.

5. Read the Riot Act

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As a child, I was often on the receiving end of being “read the riot act” when I was misbehaving and as a parent, I have definitely read the riot act to my kid. We’ve all probably been there and done that. However, have you ever thought about where the term comes from?

In the 18th century, the Riot Act was a genuine document read out loud to unruly and angry mobs. In 1715, the British government instituted the act, which gave them the authority to label any group of more than 12 people a threat to the peace.

6. Resting on Laurels

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The idiom “resting on laurels” derives its meaning from the athletes and leaders of Ancient Greece. In Hellenic times, laurel leaves were associated with the Greek God Apollo, who was depicted with a laurel leaf crown, symbolizing status and achievement.

The Romans eventually adopted the practice and presented their generals with wreaths when they were victorious. Today, the saying has a negative connotation, implying an individual is overly satisfied with past successes rather than pursuing new achievements.

7. Pressed for an Answer

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Deriving from a horrible and literal origin, “pressed for an answer” dates back to medieval times when captives were tortured for answers or information. Heavy stones or weights would be placed on their chests, causing excruciating pain, in order to garner a confession during an interrogation. I guess it beats being drawn and quartered, but both sound horrific.

8. Holding a Wake

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Although not an actual saying, but rather than an event that occurs, “holding a wake” originated from that same time when people were afraid of being buried alive. A party or gathering would take place to ensure the recently departed was genuinely deceased.

Family and friends of the loved one would gather for a period just in case the departed would actually wake up from a deep coma-like state rather than being dead.

9. Rule of Thumb

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Today, the saying “rule of thumb” suggests a practical approach to problem-solving. However, the meaning is rooted in something much more sinister. It is widely believed that in 1782, British Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled that a man could beat his wife, but only with a stick no thicker than his thumb.

Buller was notoriously harsh in his rulings and punishments, but there is no clear evidence that he made the ruling for which he is infamous.

10. Bite the Bullet

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Long before anesthetic was readily available, hurt soldiers had to endure unbearable pain when their injuries and wounds were being treated. The wounded would receive a shot or two of alcohol, and a bullet was put between their teeth to bite down on when enduring an operation or having shrapnel removed from their bodies.

Others have theorized that the term comes from a time when troops had to bite a greased paper cartridge to release gunpowder.

11. Crying Crocodile Tears

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How often have you told someone to save their “crocodile tears” when expressing false or superficial sorrow or concern? But why tears from a crocodile? The saying dates back to medieval times when people believed crocodiles shed tears when killing their prey.

We can thank the 14th-century novel The Travels of Sir John Mandeville for this myth. According to the History Channel, one of the many fabrications in the book written in “Olde English” includes a description that states, “These serpents sley men and eate them while weeping, and they have no tongue.”

12. Get off Your High Horse

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Horses were the primary mode of transportation before cars, and if you were wealthy enough to own one, it was a sign that you were in society’s upper class.

“Get off your high horse” was a phrase used to express disapproval of someone’s haughty and better-than-you attitude. If you were on the receiving end of the words, you were being told to jump off your horse, humble yourself, and lose the entitlement.

13. As Mad as a Hatter

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If you’ve seen or read the classic Alice in Wonderland, you should know the mad hatter character. The eccentric and loony character was based on a common issue plaguing hatters in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The trade of making felt hats required the use of mercury. At the time, people didn’t know that exposure to this element was quite poisonous and resulted in the hatters going insane or “mad,” which was the preferred word during that time period.

14. Time to Face the Music

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Time to face the music is an old military saying dating back to the early 1600s. In early American Colonial times, disgraced military officers who were being discharged had to proceed down a path while a drumline beat out a song of dishonor.

While today, the phrase means to face your consequences, back then, it literally meant the bad officers had to “face the music.”

15. Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

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When you hear the saying “straight from the horse’s mouth” today, you know you are getting information from a credible source. But where did that saying originate from?

The origins date back to the early 1900s and describe how those buying horses would examine the inside of a horse’s mouth to determine general health and age. If the person trying to sell the horse was lying about the well-being and quality of the equine, the buyer merely had to look straight into the horse’s mouth to learn the truth.

15 Beneficial Habits That Can Change Your Life but Won’t Actually Solve Your Problems

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Exploring habits or acquisitions that seem life-changing but won’t necessarily solve deeper issues can be enlightening. Here are several things often considered transformative that, while beneficial, might not address underlying problems.

You’ve probably stumbled upon those flashy lists of life-changing habits that promise to catapult you into a vortex of success and happiness. And sure, tweaking your daily routine can spice things up—meditation might stop you from wanting to hurt someone, and waking up at 5 AM might give you a quiet hour before the chaos ensues.

This Is Why You’re Lonely…Even if You Have Lots of Friends

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Ever find yourself flipping through your contacts or scrolling down your social feeds, feeling like friends surround you and yet, somehow, utterly alone? You’re standing in a room full of people, but there’s this nagging feeling like you’re wrapped in a bubble nobody can pop. Why?

It’s not because you’re inherently unlovable or because everyone secretly hates you. It’s often because what’s going on beneath the surface of those friendships isn’t hitting the deeper notes of connection you crave.

Unfortunately, it’’s more common than you think. Here are 14 reasons why you’re lonely even if you have lots fo friends.

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With a passion for travel, great food, and beautiful art, Julie put aside her 15-year career in the tech industry and dove head-first into a more creative sphere. Utilizing her degree in Communications, she is pursuing freelance writing. An avid traveler, Julie has experience writing and documenting the amazing spots she has visited and explored, the delicious food she has tasted, and the incredible art she has admired and purchased! When she’s not writing, she can be spotted around Austin, TX, at various art gallery openings, having a delicious meal with her husband and friends, and playing with her two dogs.

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