History & Culture

Origins Of Common Idioms & 21 Most Common Sayings

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Idiom spelled out in blocks with random letters scattered around the background.

Have you ever used an idiom? The truth is you most likely use them all the time. I know I do. The origins of common idioms are as varied as the idioms themselves. Below, I take a look at the history of some of the world’s most popular idioms, including armed to the teeth, a backhanded compliment, to bleed like a stuck pig, blowing off steam, once in a blue moon, let the cat out of the bag, and to chew the fat.

I also discuss some common idioms for kids. Let’s get into it and learn what some of these popular sayings mean.

What Is An Idiom?

You may be wondering, “What is an idiom anyway?” These are sayings we use all the time but may not know they fall into the category of an idiom. An idiom is an expression or phrase that has a meaning that cannot be deduced from the expression or phrase itself. An example of this is the use of the term “chewing the fat” as a means to describe passing time. Idioms generally have culturally specific meanings. I often use idioms without even realizing it.

Idiom vs Metaphor

Idioms and metaphors get confused a lot, but they are not the same thing. A simple definition of an idiom vs. metaphor is: An idiom is a phrase or saying used to describe a situation or event that takes on a different meaning than its literal meaning. Metaphors are figurative language, comparisons of two unrelated things. A simple metaphor example: “My home is my castle.” Another example is ” the world is a stage” or “those words cut deeper than a knife.”

21 Of The Most Common Idioms

The list of idioms used in English and other languages is vast. Below, I explain the origins and meanings of several of the most common idioms that are used every day. Of course, there are plenty more, so if I didn’t get to your favorite, let me know in the comments.

1. Armed To The Teeth

The term armed to the teeth is used to describe someone who is heavily armed. The origin of this phrase is from the 1600s in Port Royal, Jamaica. It’s considered a “pirate” phrase. Since many of the weapons used by pirates at this time relied upon a single shot of black powder, pirates would have to carry multiple weapons to protect themselves in a fight. Often, one of these weapons was a knife that was carried between their teeth.

2. A Backhanded Compliment

A backhanded compliment is a compliment that insults the recipient at the same time that it compliments them. For example, if someone says, “These cookies have a really interesting taste. Did you make them?” They are not really paying you a compliment. The same goes for common sayings like, “You sure clean up nice” or “You look great for your age.”

The origin of this idiom comes from the fact that the term “back-handed” is synonymous with something left-handed. Throughout history, the left side of the body has been connected with devious or sinister actions, as the Latin word for left is sinister.

3. To Bleed Like A Stuck Pig

The idiom, to bleed like a stuck pig, refers to someone who is bleeding heavily. The origin of this phrase comes from the slitting of a pig’s throat for slaughter. Hunters or farmers would cut the throat of a pig to hasten its death, but it also results in a significant amount of blood loss. Stuck refers to the pig being stabbed or sliced, not being physically stuck anywhere.

4. Blowing Off Steam

Blowing off steam is a phrase used to refer to someone who relaxes by enjoying mundane or “normal” activities. The origin of this idiom comes from traditional boilers that run on heated water that turns into steam as it heats. Steam builds up in the boiler, and so does pressure. In order to prevent an explosion, a valve must be opened to blow off steam.

5. To Chew The Fat

The term to chew the fat is used to refer to people talking about mundane or everyday things. The origin of this phrase comes from the Inuit culture, which used to chew on whale blubber. Being so thick, the blubber would take a long time to disappear. As they waited, groups of Inuit would stand around and talk about anything and everything.

6. Clean Bill Of Health

The term a clean bill of health refers to people who have been found to be healthy by a doctor. This idiom originated in the days of sailing ships that carried and transported goods. Before a ship was allowed to dock or unload in a destination port, it had to present a “bill of health” that proved that all aboard were disease-free when they left their port of departure.

This practice was implemented to reduce the spread of severe diseases and plagues carried from port to port by ship crews. There was one problem with this process, though: it didn’t take into account small rats and fleas that could easily stow away.

Today, getting a clean bill of health is far more accessible than it used to be. In fact, you don’t always have to go to the doctor in person due to the rise in telehealth. Learn more about online doctors in our guide.

7. Cut From The Same Cloth

The term cut from the same cloth refers to individuals that are similar in specific ways. The origin of this phrase comes from the fact that suit makers cut the trousers and jacket of a suit from the same cloth in order to have them match. A parent might say, for example, that their children are cut from the same cloth, meaning they are alike in many ways.

8. Down The Hatch

The phrase down the hatch is used when eating or drinking. The origin of this phrase is from shipping sea freight. The cargo was lowered into the hatch to be stored below the ship’s deck. As this cargo is loaded, it gives the image of the ship “eating” the cargo being loaded.

9. Dressed To The Nines

Dressed to the nines is a phrase used to refer to someone who is dressed very well. It used to be said that tailors making more exemplary suits would use more fabric than they would when making lower-quality suits. The amount of fabric tailors would use for the top-of-the-line suits was nine yards. “To the nines” is a variation used to refer to something being done to perfection.

10. Face The Music

Face the music is a term used to refer to someone who must face the truth of a situation. The origin of this phrase comes from the British military when a drum squad would play music as an individual was court-martialed.

11. High On The Hog

Someone who is said to be living high on the hog is someone who is living extravagantly or beyond their means. The origin of this phrase comes from the fact that the best meat of a pig is found on the top of the pig, whereas the “scraps” are found at the base of the pig, for example, trotters.

12. Jump On The Bandwagon

To jump on the bandwagon is a phrase used to refer to people who are doing whatever is popular at the moment or whatever others are doing. This phrase comes from a political age when political candidates would throw parades to drum up supporters. These parades would often include a band if the candidate was popular, and someone who jumped to support this candidate was said to be jumping on the bandwagon. Today, this phrase is often used when people start supporting a sports team that is winning despite not rooting for them before.

13. To Let The Cat Out Of The Bag

Cat sitting on top of a bag.
Photo by Danielle DeGroot for SafeSmartLiving.com, © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

To let the cat out of the bag is to reveal a secret. This phrase comes from medieval times when con men would display healthy pigs for sale in the marketplace. As customers came by to purchase a pig, they would receive their purchase inside a bag and be told not to open it until they were home. Once the customer was home, they would open the bag and find a cat rather than a pig. This discovery of the cat would reveal the secret of the con man’s routine.

14. Once In A Blue Moon

The phrase once in a blue moon refers to an exceptionally rare event. It’s a poetic phrase that has been used since the early 1800s. It was meant to imply something was so rare it might not ever happen. Astrologically speaking, a blue moon refers to the occurrence of a second full moon in a month. They happen about once every 33 months or once every two or three years.

15. Taste Of Their Own Medicine

Giving someone a taste of their own medicine means treating them the way they have treated you. Generally, this is not a positive thing. It is often retaliatory, a way to bite back (another idiom) after being wronged. The taste of their own medicine reference comes from one of Aesop’s classic fables. The story is of a swindler who sells fake medicine. When he falls ill, he is given the same medicine he sold the people, which he knows is fake. It is the same vibe one gets from the phrase, “Two can play at this game.”

16. In The Same Boat

Being in the same boat refers to being in the same bad, unpleasant, or unfortunate situation as someone else. The use of this idiom can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. It was a term used when traveling over stormy seas and facing unknown dangers. Today, it is often used in a bonding way. For example, if one person says, “Look, it’s sunny! Bummer, I have to work all weekend,” and a coworker responds, “Me too. At least we are all in the same boat,” that is a way of showing support and togetherness.

17. Up The Wrong Tree

Barking up the wrong tree is an idiom that has been around since at least the early 1800s. It refers to making a mistake or being wrong about someone or something. It is an American term used when hunting dogs would mistakenly think their prey was up a tree, but the critter had actually escaped by jumping to another tree.

18. Raining Cats And Dogs

Raining cats and dogs shirt in black.

You’ve likely heard the expression “It’s raining cats and dogs” during a heavy downpour. There are a few different ideas of where this expression came from. One is that it is derived from the Greek term ‘cata doxa,” which translates to “contrary to experience or belief.” The connection is that when it’s raining cats and dogs, generally, it is an unusually heavier rain than usual. Similar phrases have been used in English poetry and play scripts as far back as the 1650s.

A false origin story of this idiom refers to cats and dogs hiding in thatch roofs to get cover from a storm and then falling through when the water washed them out. There is no proof of this idea, and thatched roofs, when properly built and cared for, are naturally water resistant.

19. Bigger Fish To Fry

“Hey, leave that alone. We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” might be something you’ve heard before. This expression means that there is something more important or of higher priority to worry about. The exact origin is unknown, but this idiom has connections to the fishing industry and culture.

Another common fish-related idiom is that there are other fish in the sea, which means there are plenty of people out there and potential love connections. This is often said when a person has gone through a breakup or realizes the object of their affection does not feel the same.

20. Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

Other than being literally true most of the time, the expression “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” means that if there is evidence or signs of something, it’s probably partly true. Smoke does not come from nothing. It’s caused by fire. Rumors and suspicions (smoke) are caused by something that is a legitimate concern (fire). This phrase actually dates back to ancient times and has been used in many cultures and old texts. Sometimes, this is also phrased as “there is no smoke without fire.”

21. Cost An Arm And A Leg

‘Ugh, these groceries cost an arm and a leg,” is a phrase you might hear uttered at the checkout line these days. The idiom costs an arm and a leg means something is very expensive, even outrageously so. It is connected to the pensions paid out to Civil War soldiers in the U.S. who had lost a limb or been injured in the war.

12 Idioms For Kids

When around the younger folks, we adults often find ourselves using these common idioms without even realizing it. Below, I break down the origin of some of the most common idioms used around kids in school and at home.

1. As Easy As ABC

“You can do it. It’s as easy as ABC.” This phrase refers to something being very easy or basic. The alphabet, or ABCs, is one of the very first things children learn in school. Referring to the ABCs of something means covering the basics or fundamentals. This is often used in book titles, like “ABCs of Art.” When working with kids, this expression is one of encouragement, comparing something hard to something they are very good at or know well.

2. Ants In Your Pants

If you’ve got ants in your pants, it means you are fidgety, restless, impatient, uneasy, and can’t hold still. The phrase started here in the United States, but there is no clear reason why. Pants were historically referred to as undergarments. So, ants in the pants might be a reference to having bugs biting at your legs and behind, making you dance and wriggle about. Kids often hear that they have ants in their pants when they are being unruly or won’t settle down.

3. Cross Your Fingers

Crossing your fingers is another way of saying hope for good luck, as well as a promise to tell the truth. Though it is common to use with kids, we adults use it all the time as well. It is unknown where exactly the idiom came from, but it may be historically connected to religious beliefs and making the sign of the cross. Some people associate crossing their fingers with warding off evil spirits and illness.

4. Bull In A China Shop

“My gosh, buddy, you are just like a bull in a china shop!” This means someone is out of place, destructive, or not very delicate. It is thought the phrase comes from 17th-century London. Farmers would bring their cattle to market, and some would wander into nearby shops, leaving a path of destruction behind them.

5. Wild Goose Chase

A wild goose chase means something is a waste of time or bound to be a failure. The phrase comes from 16th-century horse races in England. Participants would have to follow the wild and unpredictable course of a lead horse, compared to the way geese follow a leader in formation. Like looking for a needle in a haystack, this idiom refers to something that seems impossible and unrealistic.

6. Hold Your Horses

This idiom refers to the way riders or drivers of horsedrawn carriages use reins and ropes to control them. It’s a fairly literally meaning, and is said when someone needs you to be patient or calm. “Hold your horses. Students, we need to walk to the lunchroom in a single file line,” is commonly heard in the hallways of schools around the world.

7. A Little Birdie Told Me

This is an idiom used when someone has information, but they don’t want to say where it came from. “A little birdie told me it’s your birthday” is a fun example. It’s not known exactly where this phrase came from, but many believe it refers to birds being used as messengers, as well as how they pass information to each other.

8. Break A Leg

Break a leg is an idiom often associated with theater and performance. It means “good luck.” The saying has connections to the roots of theater when ensemble casts were common. The “leg line” was the place where performers not going onstage had to stay behind. Often, not performing meant not getting paid. Telling someone to break a leg was a way of saying you hoped they got picked to perform and get paid.

9. When Pigs Fly

Hot air balloon of a pig wearing sunglasses with sky background.
Photo by Danielle DeGroot for SafeSmartLiving.com, © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

When pigs fly refers to something that is unlikely to happen. It got its start from an old Scottish proverb in the 1500s. The phrase has been used in writings from different eras. One notable mention was in a dictionary written in 1616 by John Withals that translated proverbs from English to Latin. Another notable mention was in 1865 by Lewis Carroll in “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.”

10. Two Heads Are Better Than One

When assigned to work on a school assignment or professional project, you may have heard the idiom “Two heads are better than one.” This is a way of saying it is easier for two people to work together to solve a problem than going to it alone. It can be traced back to some very old writings. The earliest mention in print was in the “Book of Proverbs,” written by John Heywood in 1546.

11. Third Time’s A Charm

The third time’s a charm is an expression that means keep trying. If trying it twice doesn’t work, maybe one more attempt will be the one that works. This is a very old saying and is associated with the idea that good things come in threes.

12. Busy As A Bee

Busy as a bee is a saying that can be traced back to 1392. It was written by author Geoffrey Chaucer in the classic “The Canterbury Tales.” It refers to someone being very active and buzzing about, just like worker bees. We often say kids are as busy as bees because they have a lot of energy and bounce around a lot.

The History Of Idioms (VIDEO)

It’s fun to learn about the history and original meaning behind common idioms we use today. Did you know what these meant before reading this article? Even though we don’t use these idioms for their literal meaning, they still bring a lot to our language today. Check out this fun song about idioms that helps explain how they work a little more.

Other Ways To Expand Your Mind

If you are reading about idioms, chances are you are a pretty smart cookie. You may want to keep the learning going. If so, learn more about our experience with the top brain training apps. If you love language, you may want to consider trying out some language-learning apps. Or, if math is more your thing, check out these math brain training apps. Every day is an opportunity to learn something new, as another old idiom goes. knowledge is power.

Why Trust Safe Smart Living

Danielle is a dedicated researcher, educator, book nerd, and lifelong learner. She has spent many years working in education as well as over a decade of research. Danielle spends countless hours researching topics of interest and working to bring our readers the most recent, accurate, science-based, and data-driven information. Danielle works alongside a dedicated team of talented individuals who share the same goal.

Danielle DeGroot

Danielle has been a professional writer for many years, working with companies and brands all over the world. She holds a BS in Communication and Marketing from Colorado State University Global and uses her skills to help others share their voices. She has researched and covered a wide range of subjects, from eco-friendly living and burial to healthy living, technology, education, science, small business, and more. Her passion is connecting people with useful information and helping others find their voice. Prior to starting her writing career, Danielle worked in public education, where she worked to support and educate children with disabilities. She works hard to stay on top of the latest changes in safety, technology, and living, which allows her to continue researching and sharing pertinent information to better others’ lives.

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