History of Idioms

Part 1 of our Etymology series covered the history of proverbs, and we’re continuing part 2 of the trend with a history of idioms.

“A Chip on Your Shoulder”

If you ‘have a chip on your shoulder’ you are holding a grudge or feeling resentment that means you may act out. It is believed that this idiom may have its origins in the Royal Navy Dockyards of the 18th century. Shipwrights were given an allowance of offcuts of timber that they could take home each day. However, by 1756 shipwrights started taking advantage of this rule and were taking more than their fair share and it was therefore costing taxpayers too much.

The Navy Board then had to reevaluate and limit the amount that shipwrights could take. This was done by making the shipwrights carry the timber under their arms rather than on their shoulders, as less could be carried this way. This revision, among other things, eventually lead to a strike by the shipwrights. This said, there is actually no evidence of the phrase ‘chip on your shoulder’ used figuratively in this context until the 1930s when it was written in Somerset Maugham’s ‘Gentleman in the Parlour’.

However, there are also discussions of the phrase originating from the U.S. practice of starting a fight by placing a chip of wood on one’s shoulder and daring somebody to knock it off. This practice can be traced back to the 19th century (so fits the timeline) with The Long Island Telegraph reporting in 1830 “when two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be placed on the shoulder of one, and the other demanded to knock it off at his peril” and this is the not only instance of this phrasing being used in a similar context within the 19th century.

“A Piece of Cake”

If something is ‘a piece of cake’ it is easy to do. It is thought that this phrase originated in the 1870s when cake was often given as a prize in competitions. In parts of the U.S slaves would partake in ‘cake walks’ (cakewalk is another idiomatic phrase used to mean something that is easy to do), where they would perform dances mocking the mannerisms of their masters and the winner would receive a cake as the prize.

It is believed that the first written version of this idiom is from American poet and humorist Ogden Nash’s ‘Primrose Path’ in 1936 where it was written as “her picture’s in the papers now, And life’s a piece of cake.”

“A Taste of Your Own Medicine”

Sometimes known as “a dose of your own medicine”, this means that you are sampling the unpleasantness that you have been giving to others. This phrase comes from one of Aesop’s fables, ‘The Cobbler Turned Doctor’ which is about a fraud who sells fake medicine, with claims that it will cure anything. However, he then falls ill himself and people give him his own medicine, which of course, he knows won’t work.

However, the fable itself doesn’t actually use the phrase ‘a taste of your own medicine’ and it’s first known use seems to be unknown.

“Barking Up the Wrong Tree”

If you are “barking up the wrong tree” you are making a mistake or a false assumption. The context of this phrase is believed to be early 1800s America, when hunting dogs were commonly used. These dogs would be hunting prey that would escape up into the trees, jumping from one tree to the other confusing the dog and therefore the dog would be ‘barking up the wrong tree’.

The earliest known printed citation is from 1832 in James Kirke Paulding’s ‘Westward Ho!’ written as “… so I thought I’d set him barking up the wrong tree a little, and I told him some stories that were enough to set the Mississippi a-fire; but he put them all down in his book”. It appeared quickly afterwards in many American Newspapers such as the Gettysburg newspaper where the phrase was written as “gineral you are barkin’ up the wrong tree this time, for I jest see that rackoon jump to the next tree, and afore this he is a mile off in the woods”.

“Beat a Dead Horse”

“Beating a dead horse” (alternatively flogging a dead horse, or beating a dead dog) is an idiomatic expression that means to waste time doing something even though the outcome has already been decided.

The context is thought to be the practice of flogging horses during horse races to make them go faster. Obviously flogging a dead horse would be pointless. It is believed that the first recorded use of this expression was in the mid 19th century by English politician John Bright when referring to the Reform Act of 1867. In his speech he said that trying to rouse Parliament would be “like trying to flog a dead horse to make it pull a load”.

However, some believe that this phrase has an even earlier origin, from the 17th century when ‘a dead horse’ meant work that was paid for in advance but the meaning of this phrase and the phrase we use now don’t seem to be related.

“Beating Around the Bush”

Sometimes phrased as “beat about the bush”, this phrase is used to describe someone who is avoiding the main point in a conversation and failing to say what they mean.

It is thought that this phrase originates from hunting, where men would be hired to flush out animals from underneath bushes using a stick. However, they had to be cautious in order to not disturb the more dangerous animals, so they would literally ‘beat around the bush’. This would then allow the other hunters to more easily catch the animal therefore the ‘beating around the bush’ was a ‘preamble to the main event’.

The first use of this phrase as an idiom is believed to be from a medieval poem ‘Generydes: A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas’ where it is written as “butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo, some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take”.

“Go Out On a Limb”

To ‘go out on a limb’ means to put yourself in a risky situation or taking a ‘wild’ guess.

It is likely that this phrase refers to climbing trees and the danger involved in climbing on the branches (or ‘limbs’) that are further out. However, the first known use of this phrase in a figurative sense has no reference to tree climbing. It is from the 19th century in the Steubenville Daily Herald where it is written as “we can carry the legislature like hanging out a washing. The heft [main part] of the fight will be in Hamilton country. If we get the 14 votes of Hamilton we’ve got ’em out on a limb.”

“Head Over Heels”

The phrase ‘head over heels’ is now usually used to mean ‘head over heels in love’ but when it was first coined it simply meant ‘being the wrong way round’, similar to ‘upside-down’ nowadays.

The first known citation of this phrase is Herbert Lawrence’s ‘Contemplative Man’ from 1771, written as “he gave [him] such a violent involuntary kick in the face, as drove him head over heels”.

The first mention of it with reference to love is from the Indiana newspaper ‘The Lebanon Patriot’ in 1833, written as “about ten years ago Lotta fell head over heels in love with a young Philadelphian of excellent family”, it is believed by then this phrase was in common use.

When you think about it, the phrase as it used now doesn’t make any sense, as our head is normally over our heels. It is believed that the original phrasing was ‘heels over head’ which dates back to the 14th century which was usually in reference to someone doing a cartwheel or a somersault.

“Kick the Bucket”

The literal meaning of ‘kick the bucket’ is simply, ‘to die’. A common theory about the origin of this idiom is that it is a reference to hanging but there is no evidence to support this.

It is believed that the earliest appearance of this phrase came about in the 1785 ‘Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’ where it is defined as ‘to die’.

The explanation that is given in John Badcock’s slang dictionary of 1823 is that ‘bucket’ actually refers to a ‘beam’ that was to hang or carry items and was sometimes used to hang slaughtered pigs. The animals may have struggled and ‘kicked’ as they were dying hence the phrase ‘kick the bucket’.

“Stealing My Thunder”

The phrase ‘to steal someone’s thunder’ means to overshadow someone or to use their ideas for your advantage.

The story goes that an actor and manager called John Dennis came up with a new way of creating the thunder sounds on stage. He used this method for the first time in his own play but the play didn’t do well and was closed down shortly afterwards. It was replaced by Macbeth, in which, Dennis’ method of creating thunder sounds was used.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary the earliest use of this phrase was 1900, but it is likely that it was used in conversation (particularly within theatrical circles) long before then.

Keep reading to discover the history of portmanteaus.

One response to “Etymology Series: Part Two – History of Idioms”

  1. Great piece of writing, really enjoyed the history and origin of these famous idioms.

    Thank you, Alicia, UK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *