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?
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.