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Common phrases and their origins

Common phrases and their origins

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From "bought the farm" to "in like Flynn," a look at forgotten meanings of popular sayings.

Bought the farm

Meaning: To die.

Origin: Not entirely clear. One theory is that the phrase originated in World War I. When an American soldier was killed, the government would pay his family death benefit -- basically enough to buy a parcel of land in the Midwest.

Source: Origin of Phrases,

Sihler, however, is skeptical. "I'm extremely doubtful about it, but I suspect that explanation is on the right track," he says. "It's obviously something about dying … but I always just assumed it had something to do with insurance."

Champing at the bit

Meaning: Impatient, eager to start.

Origin: The analogy is to a racehorse chewing at the bit in its mouth before the start of a race. "Champ" means to chew, bite or grind. Many people mistakenly say "chomping at the bit."

Source: "Have a Nice Day: A Dictionary of Cliches," by Christine Ammer.

Flying by the seat of your pants

Meaning: To improvise.

Origin: In the early days of aviation, pilots didn't have instruments in the cockpit to tell them what the plane was doing. Instead, they had to fly by feel alone, such as the vibrations the plane made and how it handled as they flew.

Source: "A Dictionary of American Idioms"

In like Flynn

Meaning: A real ladies' man.

Origin: The late movie star Errol Flynn was a notorious womanizer. He was also rather good at it, thus inspiring the phrase.

Source: "Brewer's Dictionary of 20th Century Phrase and Fable, 15th edition."

Keep your shirt on

Meaning: Settle down or be patient.

Origin: Started sometime in the mid-1800s. Before fighting, men would often take off their shirts to avoid damaging them. It originally meant don't rush into a fight. "Keep your pants on" is a spin-off of this phrase.

Source: "Have a Nice Day: A Dictionary of Cliches."

Knock on wood

Meaning: For good luck.

Origin: In medieval times, people believed that tree sprites would try to wreck a person's good fortune if they overheard him or hear talking about it. Knocking on wood was a way of deafening them so they couldn't hear.

Source: Origin of Phrases.

Kick the bucket

Meaning: To die.

Origin: There are few possibilities. One, "bucket" comes from the old French word buquet, which referred to the beam from which a hog was hung by its heels for slaughter.

Two, "bucket" refers to what a person hanging himself stands on before kicking it away.

Three, buckets used to be put out to collect money for widows. Some people kicked the bucket instead of tossing money in.

Source: "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable."

Let the cat out of the bag

Meaning: To tell a secret.

Origin: In medieval times, unscrupulous traders would claim to be selling a hog but would in fact give the customer a bag with a cat in it. The trader would tell the customer not to open the bag until he was gone. When the customer did learn of the deception by opening the bag, thus letting the cat out, it was too late. The phrase "pig in a poke" also comes from this practice.

Source: "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable."

Not fit to/Couldn't hold a candle to…

Meaning: Not good enough.

Origin: Hundreds of years ago, before the streets of London, England, were lit at night, young boys carrying torches hired their services out to light the way for people. London was a big city and its streets could be confusing, so the torch boys needed to know their way around. Not all of them did, thus, they were "not fit to hold the candle."

Source: "The Cat's Pyjamas," by Rudolph Brasch.

Put a sock in it

Meaning: Shut up, stop talking.

Origin: The earliest wind-up gramophones had no electronic volume control. The best way to muffle the sound was to put a piece of cloth, often a woolen sock, into the horn.

Source: "The Cat's Pyjama's."

Three sheets to the wind

Meaning: Really drunk.

Origin: In nautical lingo, sheets are ropes that adjust the position of the sail to the wind. Sheets that break free or are released are "in the wind." The image here is of a sail flapping wildly about and a ship being out of control.

Source: "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable."


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