Cat Got Your Tongue? Spill the Beans: Origins of 10 Common Sayings
Cat Got Your Tongue? Spill the Beans: Origins of 10 Common Sayings

It is often difficult to trace the origins of words and sayings with complete certainty. Some of the origins of these phrases may be disputed, but they are presented here as likely explanations. Some of the sayings we have today have really become incomprehensible if taken literally, being so far removed from their original meaning. Some of the sayings seem to make more sense literally, nonetheless, they have surprising stories behind them. 

1. Cat Got Your Tongue?

Black and bronze cats via Shutterstock

Meaning: A question posed to someone who is being especially quiet
History:  The origin of the saying is uncertain, but it may have been derived from sailors being punished with cat-o-nine tails; it was so painful, they were speechless.

2. Caught Red-Handed

Hand print with red color via Shutterstock

Meaning: To be caught in the act while committing a bad deed
History: It likely originated from Acts of Parliament of James I, 1432, which alluded to a person having blood on his hands after committing an evil deed. 

3. Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

Little girl bathes in a blue bath with a toy via Shutterstock

Meaning: Don’t throw away something valuable along with something undesirable
History: During 16th century, when this saying is said to have first appeared, the bathing water was so scarce that by the time the baby (the last person to bathe) took a bath, the water was murky. It was really hard to see clearly, so people said one could mistakenly throw the water and the baby out together.

4. Spill the Beans

Coffee beans spilled out of the bag via Shutterstock

Meaning: To reveal secrets
History: It is said that this expression originated from a voting system in ancient Greece. White beans indicated votes “for,” black beans “against.” The voting had to be unanimous. If some one accidentally “spilled the beans” before the vote was completed, a black bean or white bean may be seen in the bunch and the voting was stopped.


5. Sleep Tight

Sleep Tight via Shutterstock

Meaning: Sleep well
History: It is said that this phrase came from a time when mattresses were supported by ropes. To make the mattress evenly balanced, the ropes has to be pulled tight.

6. Rule of Thumb

Thumbs Up via Shutterstock

Meaning: A common benchmark and ready, practical rule
History: In 1782, Judge Sir Francis Buller  reportedly ruled that a husband could beat his wife with a stick as long as the stick was not thicker than the husband’s thumb.

7. Let Your Hair Down

Woman with long, straight hair via Shutterstock

Meaning: To be relaxed
History: In the 17th century, when this phrase is said to have appeared, most European women wore their hair intricately styled and pinned up when they went out. When they were back in their homes, they were able to let their hair down and relax.


8. Kick the Bucket

Metal bucket via Shutterstock

Meaning: To die
History: This saying may have originated from the idea that a person places a bucket under his feet when he hangs himself so he can kick the bucket away. Once he kicks the bucket, he dies. 

9. Saved by the Bell

Calling service bell Via Shutterstock

Meaning: Saved at the last moment
History: During the 17th century, a bell would often be attached to a grave along with a mechanism that would allow the person in the coffin to ring it if he or she were mistakenly buried alive. 

10. Break the Ice

Icebreaker in the Antarctic via Shutterstock

Meaning: To break down social formality and stiffness
History: During the winter, breaking a path through thick layers of ice is needed for navigation of boats and trading boats to go into ports.

  • M.A.

    While I appreciate Mr Kim tackling this subject, since I’ve long wondered about some of these strange expressions, the headline promises us the ‘Origins of 10 Common Sayings’, which had me all excited, but then we get a string of non-committal ‘it may…’ or ‘it’s likely….’, most of which we lovers of language have heard before as being one of several possible explanations, so we’re not actually much the wiser. But nothing that simply changing the headline to : “10 possible / likely origins…..” wouldn’t resolve!

    • tincho81

      yes, that is surely a catchy title *rolls eyes*

  • thinkingwomanmillstone

    I just read somewhere the origin of the phrase “costs an arm and a leg” is from the way a commissioned portrait was priced by the artist. Each limb to be painted cost extra…it ended up with a lot of people standing behind desks or somewhat concealed by a chair or a group portrait with people in the back so that there would be fewer limbs to paint. It is also why many portraits were just faces or from the waist up.

  • Gin1234

    What is a cat-o-nine tails,and why would they bath the baby last in really dirty water? ick.

    • JP boi

      That was during the stinky baby age!

    • rg9rts

      Cat o nine tails was a whip with 9 strands usually tipped with metal. The baby was the smallest and had no choice. thats also when children knew their place.

      • Gin1234

        Thanks. The parents had a choice though, and made a bad one.

        • rg9rts

          Infant mortality was so high back then they probably thought why waste the water

  • JP boi

    Interesting!! Particularly the one that says….Rules of thumb!! I hadn’t heard of that before and may think twice now before using it. But one saying that I’ve always liked hearing though not sure of its origin is, The proof is in the pudding.

    • M.A.

      In case you haven’t had a chance to look it up yourself….

      ….(quote) ‘The proof is in the pudding’ is just shorthand for ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. In other words : To fully test something you need to experience it yourself.

      • JP boi

        Aha! Thanks M.A.! I haven’t looked it up, so I’m glad you shared that with me! I like the expression even more now!! It seems like something mostly old timers would say.

  • rg9rts

    More information to store for use at some distant time to annoy people

  • Canukistani

    Interesting. I’ve always enjoyed learning about turns of phrase like these and their origins. I can contribute one as well. To pass with flying colors indicating success comes from the days of 19th century naval battles, where a ship that lost a battle was forced to lower its flag (its colors). So to sail into port with your colors flying high was a signal of victory.

    • Winky Cat

      Good one Canuk!

    • JasmineStarlight

      Canuk good one….how about “at the drop of a hat” mmmmnn. quite a few! “put that in your pipe and smoke it” some crazy ones.

      • Canukistani

        I had thought that ‘at the drop of a hat’ meaning do something instantly without a lot of preparation might be a reference to old west horse races that were started by dropping a hat. On doing a bit of research, though, it seems that it may have been the signal to start a fight. I hadn’t really thought about the pipe one.

        I like to try to intuit how these things might have gotten started and then follow up with a bit of research to see if I’m right. Sometimes I’m right on, sometimes I’m away out in left field, but that’s what makes it an interesting game.

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