An idiom is a word or phrase in which the figurative meaning is different than the literal meaning of the word. There are approximately 25,000 idioms in the English language.
As authors know, using clichés is considered a no-no. They are expressions, ideas or elements which have become overused, even considered trite and a mark of inexperience or lack of originality. However, used sparingly, such cliched expressions, particularly used in writing dialogue, is acceptable. When writing idioms or clichés in dialogue in historical settings, it’s useful and interesting to know when it was first used.
Looking up the origins of old and popular phrases, I could have easily “gone down the rabbit hole!” — Sorry, I couldn’t resist! Below is just a few of the thousands of idioms and clichés, many we still hear today. I should add that a few of the origins are speculative or could have come from more than one source.
Rabbit hole — comes from the Lewis Carroll 1865 classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In its opening chapter, “Down the Rabbit-Hole,” Alice follows the White Rabbit into his burrow, which takes her to the strange world of Wonderland. Over much of the 20th century, rabbit hole has been used to mean bizarre and irrational experiences. Now, more often, we say we fell down the rabbit hole, meaning we got interested in something to the point of distraction. Thanks to the wealth of information on the Internet, those “rabbit holes,” can be extremely engrossing and time-consuming!
Kick the bucket — taken literally, it means someone walked up and kicked a bucket out of his way. However, this common idiom is not taken literally, but implies that the person has died. The idiom originated from a reference to someone hanging himself by standing on a bucket and then kicking it away, thus “kicking the bucket.”
Burning the midnight oil — meaning working hard or late at night. Back before electricity, lamp oil was used for lighting and one literally burned the lamp oil at midnight.
Jumping on the bandwagon — In the mid-1800’s, circuses paraded around town before setting up with bandwagons leading the parade. Politicians started renting the bandwagons to speak to the crowds. Eventually, the phrase took on the meaning to go along with whatever became popular.
At the drop of a hat — In the 1800’s, it was customary to drop a hat to begin a race instead of a gunshot.
Heard it through the Grapevine — meaning something heard unofficially or indirectly. At the turn of the century, information was transmitted across the country via the telegraph system with thousands of miles of wire strung on poles at equal distances. People thought the wires and poles looked like the strings used to secure vines and began calling the telegraph lines “the grapevine.”
Straight from the horse’s mouth — meaning that you are getting the truth from an indisputable source. Its origin came from the fact that a horse’s teeth can tell you a lot about the age, health and general condition of the horse.
Bite the bullet — When there was no painkiller available, soldiers would bite down on a bullet during surgical operations to help withstand the pain. Bite the bullet now means to endure something necessary but displeasing.
Riding shotgun — I’m sure western authors know this meaning and where it came from. In the Old West, the person who sat next to the driver was often equipped with a shotgun to protect the coach from would-be robbers. So “riding shotgun” is a person riding in the front seat of a vehicle next to the driver.
Sleep tight — used to tell someone to sleep well. One possible origin of this phrase dates back to when mattresses were supported by ropes. To sleep tight, meant that the ropes were pulled tight, providing a firm bed.
Flying off the handle — meaning suddenly becoming enraged. This phrase is said to have come from poorly constructed axes of the 1800’s that would detach from the handle.
Cost an arm and a leg — meaning expensive. This strange phrase actually has a very interesting connotation. The story goes that in 18th century, people would have their portraits painted without certain limbs showing. Having limbs show is said to have cost more because it took the artist more time and effort to paint arms, hands and legs.
I found researching such phrases and idioms fascinating. I’ll end this post with one more interesting bit of trivia. Many phrases, expressions and proverbs in existence today either originated or popularized by their use in Shakespeare’s work. Whether theses phrases were already in use or he created them, his plays provide us with the earliest use of many of them.
All that glitters is not gold.
Be-all and end-all
Break the ice
Come what may
Forever and a day
For goodness’ sake
In a pickle
In my heart of hearts
Mum’s the word
Own flesh and blood
Love is blind
Neither rhyme nor reason
Too much of a good thing
Wear my heart on my sleeve
Thanks for stopping by and “Happy Trails To You,” My favorite expression of good will, taken from Roy Rogers’ theme song. For you young’uns, he was the iconic cowboy back in the 50’s & 60’s.