The Orgin of Common Phrases

Common Phrases Explained

Andria Intindola-Binns

Andria Intindola-Binns

It’s Raining cats and dogs

Meaning: It is pouring rain

There are a few theories behind the history of this saying. One of these states that a few hundred years ago, homes were made with thatched roofs. It was very common for the family pets to hang out on the roof nestled into the nooks and crannies. Well, when it rained really hard, these animals would fall through the tops of these homes to appear as if it was indeed raining cats and dogs. The other more popular theory is that dogs and cats would pass away along roadways and in the make-shift sewer shafts. When it rained really hard, these dead animals would wash up into the streets making it seem as though cats and dogs fell from the heavens.


Meaning: To tell a secret or reveal something confidential

This saying started in Ancient Greece. When candidates of the time period, wanted to enter into an organization, beans were used for voting. Each candidate had a container that was set out before the group members. These veterans to the group would place a white bean in the container if they approved of the candidate and a black bean if they did not. Once in awhile a voter would accidentally knock over the container. This of course would reveal all of the beans in the can and allow everyone to see the otherwise confidential votes.


Meaning: To reveal one’s real self/ true nature

As part of naval history, warships used to fly multiple flags as to create confusion for opposing ships. However, the rules of warfare stated that a ship had to hoist its true flag before firing upon another ship. So, the captain would wait until the enemy was close enough to shoot upon and then quickly display his country’s true colors before firing weapons.


Meaning: To be caught in the act of doing something wrong/ committing a crime

This saying originated because of a law back in the 15th century. In Scotland, it was determined that if someone butchered an animal that didn’t belong to him, he had to be caught with the animal’s blood on his hands to be convicted. Being caught after the fact, say with freshly cut meat, did not make the person guilty. So, if not caught with bloody hands, there was no chance of charging someone with the crime.


Meaning: Good luck to someone who is about to perform

This phrase originates in theater, which is full of superstitions. One of which, was the thinking that telling someone good luck would actually cause them bad luck. So, instead they started saying “break a leg” as a way of wishing good luck before a performance hoping that the opposite would happen.

Meaning: falling down drunk/extremely intoxicated

This phrase started with sailors who had their own lingo regarding drinking, all of which related, of course, to the ship. This one in particular, refers to the sheets which hold down the sails on the boat. There were three sheets to tie down each sail. If all three sheets were lose, then the sail would flap around in the wind like a drunken sailor. Who knew?


Meaning: To falsely accuse somebody of something/ a mistaken accusation

Hunters once relied on their dogs for a little extra help to track or find animals. Hunting dogs were trained to stop at a tree to bark when there was an animal there for the taking. Occasionally though, the dog was wrong because of a distraction, thus barking up the wrong tree.


Meaning: to give someone or something your complete self without distractions

The word pay is derived from the Latin word “pax” meaning, “to appease” or ” create peace”. This Latin word has given English numerous spin-off words such as peace, appease, and pacify. So, the idea behind all of this payment is one of duty, not a tangible money debt. To pay attention encompasses the idea that you “owe” someone your attention or respect, or it is your “duty” to give your full attention to them.


Meaning: no more messing around, time to start taking things seriously

Originating from a very long time ago, this saying was first noted as being used during the game of marbles, a very popular activity for young people back then. To start the game it had to be established whether you were playing for fun or playing for keeps. If playing for keeps that meant that when a player’s marble hit an opposing player’s marble, they could keep it, thus having more at stake.


Meaning: Stop being nosy and mind your own business

There are two closely related theories as to where this phrase got its start. A long time ago in the pubs of Great Britain this was a saying that bartenders would use. One theory is that tallies were kept for tabs according to how many beer pints (P’s) and quarts (Q’s) that a patron would drink. So, the bartender would say to mind your P’s and Q’s to let you know it was time to pay up. The second, and more closely related version is that when the pub started to get a little rowdy, the bartender would yell out, “Mind your P’s and Q’s” to the group to remind them to focus on their drinks and not the commotion.





Meaning: You got close to your goal, but still didn’t achieve it.

A long time ago carnivals used to hand out cigars as prizes for winning those ever-so frustrating games. So, if you didn’t win it was common for the Carnie to say, “You got close, but no cigar.” Over time it has evolved to mean falling short of an achievement.

Meaning: When hung over your should drink what it was that got you that way to help you feel better

This medieval saying stemmed from the idea at the time that when someone was bitten by a rabid dog, the cure for it was the application of that same dog’s hair onto the bite wound. A bit later there came the idea that this might also work for hangovers??? Uh, huh? Well, in 1546 the first written evidence of this new application was found as written by John Heyward in one of his essays. He simply explained that a hangover could be cured just by drinking the same thing that got you drunk in the first place. Talk about putting off the inevitable.


Meaning: To be ecstatic or very happy

This one is probably why there are so many people out there who are scared of puppets. This saying is based on a 17th century puppet show for children called, “Punch and Judy”. It featured a puppet named Punch who would was a serial killer. The act of killing brought him pleasure, so he felt excited and pleased with himself afterwards. Thus, the phrase came about. Apparently, there were no ratings assigned to shows for children back then!


Meaning: Of a different subject matter/off topic

When horses are registered, their color and other characteristics must be recorded. Although, when ownership changes there are times when the color on the registration document does not match the actual color. As a horse ages, there is a slight change in hair color, much like humans. However, most of the time the horse they got is simply not the horse on the registration document. Ooops!


Meaning: On a path of self-destruction, headed for disaster

Get ready… this one is kind of gross! Back in the time of the guillotine, they used handbaskets to catch the decapitated heads. As sick as it is to us nowadays, it was how the people of that time period dealt with their most brutal criminals, much like our death row today. So this phrase was used to refer to a criminal that was destined for the guillotine, and obviously did not live a life worthy of heaven’s gates.


Meaning: To be called forward when accused of a wrongdoing

Starting out as a military term, this phrase comes from a time when the upper military ranks had offices with carpet, signifying a certain stature. So, when an officer was “called to the carpet”, that meant he or she was going to the office of their superior to be admonished for an offense. Not long after its military use was it translated into the business world, used in the same sense.

Meaning: To be dressed better than most, dressed especially well

As the stories are told, tailors of old had to use nine yards of fabric to make a high quality suit. The reason for this is because in order for the fabric to be cut in the same direction of the warp, there had to be a lot to cut from. Of course this led to a lot of wasted fabric, but if you are rich what does it matter? The huge amount of fabric is why it was so very expensive to have a suit made of this quality. In present time, the phrase refers to any man or woman who is dressed in expensive looking clothes.


Meaning: To be embarrassed

This is one of the more literal references on the list. If you were part of high society of old being served soft yolk eggs in little fancy egg cups, it was easy to get the yellow gooey parts in your beard or mustache. Males had to be careful of this little mishap, as it would cause a huge amount of embarrassment if seen in public with yellow egg on your face.

Meaning: to be surprised by something unexpected or to express disbelief

This phrase is a direct reference to the theory of evolution as written by Charles Darwin. When he first published his theory, it was not well received by the mainstream population. So this saying was used sarcastically to mock this new idea, and show how outrageous they thought it was.

Meaning: To take credit for something that wasn’t your idea/benefit from another’s invention by claiming ownership

In the 1700’s a playwright named John Dennis created a sound effect resembling thunder that he used in one of his plays. Being there were several methods for making this sound, he prided himself on having a new, more authentic way of creating it. Unfortunately, the play was short lived, as was this new sound effect, so he thought. Not long after, As Mr. Dennis watched a production of Macbeth; he realized they had stolen his idea for the thunder sound effect. It was then that he said, “Those villains will not let my play run, but they will steal my thunder.”  Thus, the phrase began.


Andria Intindola Binns