FLY OFF THE HANDLE
Meaning: Get very angry, very quickly.
Origin: Refers to axe heads, which, in the days before mass merchandising, were sometimes fastened poorly to their handles. If one flew off while being used, it was a dangerous situation ... with unpredictable results.
HIGH ON THE HOG
Meaning: Luxurious, prosperous.
Origin: The tastiest parts of a hog are its upper parts. If you're living high on the hog, you've got the best it has to offer.
PULL THE WOOL OVER SOMEONE'S EYES
Meaning: Fool someone.
Origin: "Goes back to the days when all gentlemen wore powdered wigs like the ones still worn by the judges in British courts. The word wool was then a popular, joking term for hair ... The expression 'pull the wool over his eyes' came from the practice of tilting a man's wig over his eyes, so he couldn't see what was going on."
Origin: Although occasionally used before the Civil War, its widespread popularity can probably be traced to General Joseph Hooker, a Union soldier who was well-known for the liquor and whores in his camp. He was ultimately demoted, and Washington prostitutes were jokingly referred to as "Hooker's Division."
LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG
Meaning: Reveal the truth.
Origin: Refers to a con game practiced at country fairs in old England. A trickster tried to sell a cat in burlap bag to an unwary bumpkin, saying it was a pig. If the victim figured out the trick and insisted on seeing the animal, the cat had to be let out of the bag.
STEAL SOMEONE'S THUNDER
Meaning: To preempt; to draw attention away from someone else's achievement in favor of your own.
Origin: English dramatist John Dennis invented a gadget for imitating the sound of thunder and introduced it in a play in the early 1700s. The play flopped. Soon after, Dennis noted that another play in the same theater was using his sound-effects device. He angrily exclaimed, "That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play." The story got around London, and the phrase grew out of it.
PAY THROUGH THE NOSE
Meaning: To pay a high price; to pay dearly.
Origin: Comes from the ninth-century Ireland. When the Danes conquered the Irish, they imposed an exorbitant Nose Tax on the island's inhabitants. They took a census (by counting noses) and levied oppressive sums on their victims, forcing them to pay by threatening to have their noses actually slit. Paying the tax was "paying trough the nose."
Meaning: A muscle cramp.
Origin: In 1640, Charles I of England expanded the London police force. The new recruits were nicknamed "Charleys." There wasn't enough money to provide the new police with horses so they patrolled on foot. They joked that their sore feet and legs came from riding "Charley's horse."
NOT UP TO SCRATCH
Meaning: Inadequate, subpar.
Origin: In the early days of boxing, there was no bell to signal the beginning of a round. Instead, the referee would scratch a line on the ground between fighters, and the round began when both men stepped over it. When a boxer couldn't cross the line to keep a match going, people said that he was not "up to the scratch."
Meaning: Caught in the act.
Origin: For hundreds of years, stealing and butchering another person's livestock was a common crime. But it was hard to prove unless the thief was caught with a dead animal ... and blood on his hands.
GIVE SOMEONE "THE BIRD"
Meaning: Make a nasty gesture at someone (usually with the middle finger uplifted).
Origin: There are many versions. The "cleanest": Originally "the bird" referred to the hissing sound that audiences made when they didn't like a performance. Hissing is the sound that a goose makes when it's threatened or angry.
LAY AN EGG
Origin: From the British sport of cricket. When you fail to score, you get a zero - which looks like an egg. The term is also taken from baseball, where a zero is a "goose egg."
BURY THE HATCHET
Meaning: Make peace with an enemy.
Origin: Some Native American tribes declare peace by literally burying a tomahawk in the ground.
CHEW THE FAT
Meaning: Chat; engage in idle conversation.
Origin: Originally a sailor's term. Before refrigeration, ships carried food that wouldn't spoil. One of them was salted pork skin, a practically inedible morsel that consisted largely of fat. Sailors would only eat it if all other food was gone... and they often complained as they did. This (and other) idle chatter eventually became known as "chewing the fat."
TO THE BITTER END
Meaning: To the very end - often an unpleasant one.
Origin: Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with bitterness. It's a sailing term that refers to the end of a mooring line or anchor line that is attached to the bitts, sturdy wooden or metal posts that are mounted on the ship's deck.
HAVE A SCREW LOOSE
Meaning: Something is wrong with the person or mechanism.
Origin: The phrase comes from the cotton industry and dates back as far as the 1780s, when the industrial revolution made mass production of textiles possible for the first time. Huge mills sprang up to take advantage of the new technology (and the cheap labor), but it was difficult to keep all the machines running properly; any machine that broke down or produced defective cloth was said to have "a screw loose" somewhere.
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL
Meaning: Someone appears after you mention them.
Origin: People once believed that you could actually summon the Devil by saying his name.
BORN WITH A SILVER SPOON IN YOUR MOUTH
Meaning: Pampered; lucky; born into wealth or prosperous circumstances.
Origin: At one time, it was customary for godparents to give their godchild a silver spoon at the christening. These people were usually well-off so the spoon came to represent the child's good fortune.
TO CLOSE RANKS
Meaning: To present a united front.
Origin: "In the old-time European armies, the soldiers were aligned side by side, in neat rows, or ranks, on the battlefield. When the enemy attacked, officers would order the troops to close ranks; that is, to move the rows close together, so that the enemy faced a seemingly impregnable mass of men." (From Fighting Words, by Christine Ammer)
FOR THE BIRDS
Origin: According to Robert claiborne in Loose Cannons and Red Herrings, it refers to city streets as they were before cars. "When I was a youngster on the streets of New York, one could both see and smell the emissions of horse-drawn wagons. Since there was no way of controlling these emissions, they, or the undigested oats in them, served to nourish a large population of English sparrows. If you say something's for the birds, you're politely saying it's horseshit."
BEYOND THE PALE
Meaning: Socially unacceptable.
Origin: "The pale in this expression has nothing to do with the whitish color, but comes originally from the Latin palus, meaning a pole, or stake. Since stakes are often used to mark boundaries, a pale was a particular area within certain limits." The pale that inspired this expression was the area around Dublin in Ireland. Until the 1500s, that area was subject to British law. "Those who lived beyond the pale were outside English jurisdiction and were thought to be uncivilized." (From Getting to the Roots, by Martin Manser)
I'VE GOT A FROG IN MY THROAT
Meaning: I'm hoarse from a cold.
Origin: Surprisingly, this wasn't inspired by the croaking sound of a cold-sufferer's voice, but by a weird medical practice. "In the Middle Ages," says Christine Ammer in It's Raining Cats and Dogs, "infections such as thrush were sometimes treated by putting a live frog head first into the patient's mouth; by inhaling, the frog was believed to draw the patient's infection into its own body. The treatment is happily obsolete, but its memory survives in the 19th century term frog in one's throat."
SOMETHING FITS TO A "T"
Meaning: It fits perfectly.
Origin: Commonly thought of as a reference to the T-square, which is used to draw parallel lines and angles. But this phrase was used in the 1600s, before anyone called it a T-square. "A more likely explanation is that the expression was originally 'to a tittle.' A tittle was the dot over the 'i,' so the phrase meant 'to a dot' or 'fine point.'" (From Why Do We Say It, by Nigel Rees)
X X X
Meaning: A kiss, at the end of a letter.
Origin: In medieval times, when most people were illiterate, "contracts were not considered legal until each signer included St. Andrew's cross after their name." (Or instead of a signature, if the signer couldn't write.) To prove their sincerity, signers were then required to kiss the X. "Throughout the centuries this custom faded out, but the letter X [became associated] with a kiss." This is also probably where the phrase "sealed with a kiss" comes from. (From I've Got Goose Pimples, by Martin Vanoni)
READ BETWEEN THE LINES
Meaning: To perceive or understand a hidden meaning.
Origin: In the 16th century it became common for politicians, soldiers, and businesspeople to write in code. To ordinary folks, this writing was unintelligible. They concluded that the meaning was not in the lines of gibberish, but in the space between them.
YOU'RE NO SPRING CHICKEN
Meaning: You're not young anymore; you're past your prime.
Origin: Until recent generations, there were no incubators and few warm hen houses. That meant chicks couldn't be raised during winter. New England growers found that those born in the spring brought premium prices in the summer market places. When these Yankee traders tried to pass off old birds as part of the spring crop, smart buyers would protest that the bird was "no spring chicken."
SON OF A GUN
Meaning: An epithet.
Origin: In the 1800s, British sailors took women along on extended voyages. When babies were born at sea, the mothers delivered them in a partitioned section of the gundeck. Because no one could be sure who the true fathers were, each of these "gunnery" babies was jokingly called a "son of a gun."
PUT UP YOUR DUKES
Meaning: Raise your fists and get ready to fight.
Origin: In the early 1800s, the Duke of York, Frederick Augustus, shocked English society by taking up boxing. He gained such admiration from boxers that many started referring to their fists as the "Dukes of York," and later "dukes."
HAVE AN AXE TO GRIND
Meaning: Having a hidden agenda.
Origin: The expression comes from a story told by Benjamin Franklin. A man once praised Franklin's father's grindstone and asked young Benjamin to demonstrate how the grindstone worked. As Franklin complied, the stranger placed his own axe upon the grindstone, praising the young boy for his cleverness and vigor. When the axe was sharpened, the man laughed at Franklin and walked away, giving the boy a valuable lesson about people with "an axe to grind."
Origin: In the Middle Ages, the highest-level nobility and royal were served the choice part of a loaf of bread, the "upper crust," before it was offered to other diners.
MEET A DEADLINE
Meaning: Finish a project by an appointed time.
Origin: The phrase was born in prisoner-of-war camps during the Civil War. Because resources were scarce, the prison camps were sometimes nothing more than a plot of land surrounded by a marked line. If a prisoner tried to cross the line, he would be shot. So it became known as the "deadline."
TOE THE LINE
Meaning: Behave or act in accordance with the rules.
Origin: In the early days of the British Parliament, members wore swords in the House of Commons. To keep the members from fighting during heated debates, the Speaker of the House of Commons forced the Government and Opposition parties to sit on opposite sides of the chamber. Lines, two sword-lengths plus one foot apart, were drawn in the carpet. Members were required to stand behind the lines when the House was in session. To this day, when a member steps over the line during a debate, the speaker yells: "Toe the line!"
Meaning: Replacement or backup.
Origin: You might have caught William Tell without an apple, but not without a second string. In medieval times, an archer always carried a second string in case the one on his bow broke.
IN THE LIMELIGHT
Meaning: At the center of attention.
Origin: In 1826, Thomas Drummond invented the limelight, an amazingly bright white light, by running an intense oxygen-hydrogen flame through a lime cylinder. At first, the bright light was used in lighthouses to direct ships. Later, theater began using the limelight like a spotlight - to direct the audience's attention to a certain actor. If an actor was to be the focal point of a particular scene, he was thrust "into the limelight."
FLASH IN THE PAN
Meaning: Short-lived success.
Origin: In the 1700s, the pan of a flintlock musket was a part that held the gunpowder. If all went well, sparks from the flint would ignite the charge, which would then propel the bullet out of the barrel. However, sometimes the gun powder would burn without igniting a main charge. The flash would burn brightly but only briefly, with no lasting effect.
HAM ACTOR (HAM)
Meaning: Someone who enjoys putting on a show, or who plays rather obviously to an audience (though not necessarily on stage).
Origin: An American phrase originating in the 1880s. Minstrel shows, the mass entertainment of the time, often featured less-than-talented performers who overacted. They frequently appeared in blackface, and used ham fat to remove their makeup. Thus, they were referred to as "ham-fat men," later shortened to "hams."
Meaning: A scapegoat, or something who is habitually picked on.
Origin: Hundreds of years ago, it was normal practice for a European prince to be raised with a commoner of the same age. Since princes couldn't be disciplined like ordinary kids, the commoner would be beaten whenever the prince did something wrong. The commoner was called the prince's "whipping boy."
Meaning: Go crazy or to act with reckless abandon.
Origin: Viking warriors were incredibly wild and ferocious in battle, probably because they ate hallucinogenic mushrooms in prebattle ceremonies. They charged their enemies recklessly, wearing nothing more than bearskin, which in Old Norse was pronounced "berserkr" or "bear-sark."
PULL SOMEONE'S LEG
Meaning: Fool someone.
Origin: Years ago back-alley thieves worked in pairs. One thief, known as a "tripper up," would use a cane, rope, or piece of wire to trip a pedestrian, knocking them to the ground. While the victim was down, the second thief would rob them. Pulling your leg originally referred to the way the "tripper up" tried to make someone stumble. Today it only refers to tripping someone figuratively.
RAINING CATS AND DOGS
Meaning: Torrential rain.
Origin: In the days before garbage collection, people tossed their trash in the gutter - including deceased housepets - and it just lay there. When it rained really hard, the garbage, including the bodies of dead cats and dogs, went floating down the street.
PIE IN THE SKY
Meaning: An illusion, a dream, a fantasy, an unrealistic goal.
Origin: Joe Hill, a famous labor organizer of the early 20th century, wrote a tune called "The Preacher and the Slave," in which he accused the clergy of promising a better life in Heaven while people starved on Earth. A few of the lines: "Work and pray, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die (That's a lie!)."
Meaning: Writer who churns out words for money.
Origin: In Victorian England, a hackney, or "hack," was a carriage for hire. (The term is still used in reference to taxi drivers, who need their "hack's licenses" to work.) Hack became a description of anyone who plies their trade strictly for cash.
LONG IN THE TOOTH
Origin: Originally used to describe old horses. As horses age, their gums recede, giving the impression that their teeth are growing. The longer the teeth look, the older the horse.
Meaning: Informer, traitor.
Origin: To catch passenger pigeons (now extinct), hunters would nail a pigeon to a stool. Its alarmed cries would attract other birds, and the hunters would shoot them by the thousands. The poor creature that played the traitor was called a "stool pigeon."
BEAT AROUND THE BUSH
Meaning: Go about things in a circuitous manner, go around an issue rather than deal with it directly.
Origin: In the Middle Ages, people caught birds by dropping a net over a bush and clubbing the ground around it to scare the birds into flying into the net. Once a bird was caught, you could stop beating around the bush and start eating.