462456

Blog posts : "Etymology"

close but no cigar

mad as a hatter

It isn't a great mystery what is meant when someone calls you "mad as a hatter".

What is more of a mystery is the origin of this insult. It is widely accepted that the phrase has its origin from the fact that as far back at the 18th century, mercury was used in the production of hats. It is well es…

Read more

getting off scot free

"Getting of scot free" is used to refer to someone's ability to get away with something without being held accountable or having to "pay a price".

This idiom hasn't strayed far from its origin. A "scot" is in fact a tax, those who were lucky enough to not have to pay were said to "get off scot free…

Read more

saber rattling

The term "saber rattling" refers to a show of power or  threat to use force (usually military).

It is believed that it originated from the actual act of rattling (shaking) one's saber while in its sheath on one's hip before the beginning of a fencing match in an attempt to psych out one's opponent…

Read more

shoo-in vs shoe-in

I'm not sure what people think this expression has to do with footwear but it doesn't.

If someone is the obvious choice as the winner they are a "shoo-in" not a "shoe-in"


  • This phrase began to describe a horse that was a sure winner based on the idea that it could easily be "shooed" across the fin…
  • Read more

    whet your appetite

    Although it is commonly believed that the logical phrase would be "wet your appetite" because food can be mouth- watering but it is, in fact, "whet your appetite".

    whet means "to sharpen"

    getting down to brass tacks

    The most popular etymology for this term actually deals with the purchase of fabric.

    A customer buying fabric would take the entire bolt (not unlike today) to the counter to have it measured out by the yard.  While we now have rulers at fabric counters then they used brass tacks set into the counte…

    Read more

    motherload vs mother lode

    You haven't discovered the "mother of all loads" and thus, the motherload.

    The proper term is actually "mother lode" in reference to an old mining term "lode" meaning "vein" of ore".  So, you discovered the "mother of all lodes".

    Twiddling your Thumbs

    Since this is likely to be the only time you ever use the word "twiddling" or "twiddle" people aren't really sure how to say it. Instead you hear "twittling" and I even heard someone today say, "twittering". But the actual word is "twiddling".

    You twiddle your thumbs when you are bored.

    There isn'…

    Read more

    Throwing down the gauntlet; picking up the gauntlet

    The idiom; "throw down the gauntlet" came from a literal action of throwing a gauntlet to the ground.

    During medieval times if a knight wanted to make a challenge he would literally throw his gauntlet (glove) to the ground in front of his competitor. If the challenge was accepted the opponent would…

    Read more

    Catching Flak

    During WWII airman called the shells being fired at them "flak".

    This is how the idiom; "catching flak" came about to mean feeling like you're dodging bullets.

    Flash in the Pan

    This term comes from the day of flintlock firearms.  A gun was discharged using a small charge of gunpowder in the primming pan.  It didn't always ignite the main charge  and instead only produced a bit of smoke and a noise in the primming pan, hence the flash in the pan.

    Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

    Most people think this is in reference to the Trojan horse but most research shows this isn't the case.

    Most likely this is recalling the need to look at a horse's teeth in order to determine it's age before purchasing it.
    If the horse was a gift it would be the same as trying to figure out what it…

    Read more

    Put in your two cents

    Most likely the idea of needing to "put your two cents in" comes from the requirement to ante up in order to be a part of the action. The two cent ante was common during the 19th century (some home games still start that way). So in order for your comments to be considered an important part of the c…

    Read more

    Pay Under the Table

    There are two common stories behind the use of the phrase "getting paid under the table".  It is impossible to know for certain which one is the actual originator so I will include both.

    This first is; before paper money gold itself was used as currency. Most people would have gold coins, bars and…

    Read more

    Not So Windy City

    Chicago has been known as the Windy City for about 150 years. The strange this is; Chicago is really no windier than any other US city.

    So what's up with that nickname?

    Although it has a somewhat complicated history the basic idea behind calling Chicago is  in reference to the highly corrupt polit…

    Read more

    Chip on your shoulder

    Has anyone ever told you; "that guy has a chip on his shoulder"?

    Surely you know that it means that guy is likely to be in a bad mood or ready to fight at the drop of a hat. Either way, you know to stay away from him. That's probably a good instinct.

    The origins for the expression "a chip on your …

    Read more

    I don't give a damn

    In 2005 American Film Institute voted Clark Gable’s line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” as the number 1 movie quote. Of course we all know these immortal words are from the 1939 film Gone with the Wind.

    Did you ever wonder where the term “I don’t give a damn” came from? And what …

    Read more

    18 blog posts