Origins Of Sayings

Have you ever wondered from where certain phrases, idioms, or sayings originated? No? Then what are you doing here?

PhraseWe all quite often utter a saying in everyday conversation – if we didn’t then it would no longer be a saying and would instead fall into the category of just being a writing – and it may surprise you to know that almost 100% of the one person I just asked about the meaning of the phrase "three sheets to the wind" wasn’t aware of its historical origin referring to drunken launderers losing bedding in gales thanks to rum. Such a high percentage of knowledge-lacking and my own genetic drive to help the mentally-deficient such as you has forced upon me this determination to provide meanings to some of the less well-known phrases and sayings.

Saying: Sick as a parrot
Meaning: Devastated
Origin: If you watch sport on TV in Britain then you will inevitably hear an interviewed loser exclaim how he or she is "sick as a parrot". While it has now come to be synonymous with a feeling of devastation its origin is in late 19th century botany when it was discovered that the coital engagement of parrots (the birds were observed to throw fondue parties and swap wives) was rather at odds with the more prudish level of acceptable marital behaviour of the time. By the 1970s, however, this attitude to parrot sex was completely reversed and the phrase’s association shifted for reasons unknown to its current standing.

Saying: The cut of your jib
Meaning: Your attitude or behaviour
Origin: A jib is another word for "foreskin" and this phrase has its origin with the Jewish faith. Young circumcised men would proudly display their cut genitals to women in attempts to woo them. If a Jewish girl liked the cut of the man’s jib then she would proceed to issue a detailed audit of his personal wealth before consenting to be his business partner. Men who passed this vetting process were subsequently sufficiently cocksure of themselves (no pun intended) to cause this particular metaphor to enter into general usage.

Saying: Not enough room to swing a cat
Meaning: A small space
Origin: When they weren’t engaged in wars with their neighbours many European countries during the 17th century engaged in occasionally less violent competitive behaviour in the form of indoor animal playpark-construction. The French were particularly well-respected for their rodent see-saws while the Belgians demonstrated their prowess at wonderfully-ornate parakeet slides. The 1690s saw the English gain widespread admiration for their ceiling swings for cats and the rest of Europe adopted the design into many of their houses with the exception of the Spanish whose rooms were traditionally narrow (and therefore impractical) to prevent the famously obese Moors from invading. This led to continent-wide mocking of Spain and the start of fifteen years of harsh conflict that culminated in a general demise in popularity of animal playparks in favour of painting war veterans to make them look like trees.

Saying: Burn both ends of the candle
Meaning: Stay up late
Origin: Welsh philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously had a fascination with travelling to Australia and wrote a number of books on the subject, never making use of the same method of travel twice. In his final book in the series he discussed tunnelling through the centre of the Earth with a team of trained moles. Such a journey, he concluded, would take all day and require a candle the diameter of the planet to provide light, lit at the journey’s commencement from both ends. When it was pointed out after publishing that this would mean the candle would burn out at the Earth’s core and leave half the journey to be completed in darkness Sartre grew despondent and fled to France, eventually taking up nationality.

Saying: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
Meaning: Be grateful for what you get
Origin: Giving horses to friends was a popular pastime during the Renaissance period but the Great Pony Famine of 1655 threatened to put a stop to this friendly practice until horse costume technology had advanced to the stage where a couple of immigrants could be persuaded to dress up and live out their lives in an equine fashion convincingly. Despite this enterprising solution there were a number of instances of receivers of gift horses checking out their surprise present only to discover a scruffy face and wild eyes staring back at them from inside the beast’s head. Naturally, this could be quite shocking for the delicate ladies and gentlemen of the age and the saying spread far and wide to protect them.

Saying: Red herring
Meaning: Something misleading
Origin: In the tenth century the red herring once filled the Mediterranean but it was deliberately un-fished as it tasted of cheese. To counter the population explosion of the randy fish, evolution gave the foul-tasting swimmer the ability to shape-change. The red herring would often appear as a more tasty scaled meal such as cod, tuna, or iguana in order to control its own numbers but this made fishermen – an already easily-angered sort – quite annoyed when they would try to sell their catches at the market and so they released a bio-engineered toxin into the world’s oceans to eradicate the piscine pest for good.

Saying: The penny dropped
Meaning: Suddenly understand something
Origin: Sir Isaac Newton claimed in his memoirs that it was the act of pushing his maid Penelope off the local church’s spire that gave him the inspiration for his theory of gravity.

Author: Mark

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  1. And I am guessing "with a grain of salt" has nothing to do with Type VI Diabetes or spice suggestions for enhancing the flavor of store-bought pretzels…thus helping to create a circular reference to my first improbable meaning.

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  2. Mark (not me): "Gone pear shaped" was originally "gone spear shaped" and referred to the Babylonians’ weapon of choice: the spear (which was shaped like a pear, but only coincidentally). The phrase has always meant "things have gone wrong in a big way" but it was notably much more serious in Babylon than it is nowadays.

    Cheeba: You guess right. Or wrong. When I work out what you said I’ll make a firm decision on that.

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  3. Marvellous.

    I hear that the phrase ‘to spend a penny’ came from Sir Isaac Newton double-checking the gravity theory by urinating on the said dead (spent) female. His urine did indeed travel downwards.

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  4. What is the origin of the expression ‘as happy as larry’? Is this a British phrase or is it known worldwide?

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    • The phrase “as happy as Larry” refers to the classic children’s character of Larry the Lamb, whose white fleece was the perfect storage medium for top grade cocaine which he sold to Colombians disguised as shepherds and used the proceeds thereof to fund his hedonistic lifestyle of hookers and fast cars.

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