English is full of some pretty strange sayings.
We typically use idioms without thinking twice, but when you consider certain phrases, it’s hard to imagine why we use them.
If you’ve ever wondered where our wacky idioms come from, here are 10 interesting origins:
1. Steal someone’s thunder
Meaning: To use someone else’s idea or take attention away from him
In 1704, John Dennis, a British playwright, created a new technique for simulating the sound of thunder for his play, “Appius and Virginia.” The play flopped and quickly closed, but Dennis’ method of replicating thunder’s sound was used shortly after in a production of “Macbeth.” Dennis was upset that someone had poached his idea and was later quoted as saying, “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”
2. Mad as a hatter
In the 18th and 19th centuries, hatmakers treated hats with mercury. The mercury vapor affected the hatmakers’ nervous systems, causing them to tremble and appear mad.
3. Paint the town red
Meaning: To have a wild night out
In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford (a known troublemaker) took a group of friends out drinking in the English town of Melton Mowbray. During the evening, the crew created a path of destruction by breaking windows, tipping over flower pots and pulling knockers off doors. They ended the night by painting a tollgate, the doors of several homes and a swan statue red.
Second possible origin for this idiom is the American West, and it refers to men behaving as if their entire town was a red-light district.
4. Wear your heart on your sleeve
Meaning: To make your feelings obvious to others
This idiom has a few possible origins.
One theory is that it comes from the Middle Ages, when knights would dedicate their performance in a tournament to a woman of the court. The knight would tie a token from the woman, such as a handkerchief, to his arm to indicate his performance would defend her honor.
A second theory also originates in the Middle Ages. Emperor Claudius II believed men performed better in battle when they were not romantically attached, so he declared marriage illegal. However, as a concession, he allowed temporary coupling. Once year during the Roman festival of Juno, men drew names to determine whom they would date for the year. The men would wear the names of their chosen women on their sleeves during the rest of the festival.
The third theory is that William Shakespeare invented the expression. He used it in “Othello.” red-light district.
5. Butter someone up
Meaning: To flatter a person
This idiom dates back to an ancient Indian custom of throwing balls of ghee (a type of butter used in Indian cooking) at the statues of gods to seek their favor. Tibetans also have a tradition of making butter sculptures
each New Year in the hope that it will bring peace and happiness.
6. Turn a blind eye
Meaning: To ignore something
During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the one-eyed British naval officer Horatio Nelson ignored his superior officer’s signal to withdraw by moving his telescope to his bad eye and saying, “I really do not see the signal.” Nelson went on to win the battle.
7. Once in a blue moon
Meaning: To refer to something that happens infrequently
A blue moon refers to when we see a full moon twice in one calendar month-not the moon’s color. This phenomenon occurs every two or three years. Some people believe “blue” may come from the obsolete “belewe,” which meant “to betray.” A betrayer moon was an additional full moon that appeared in the spring that meant Catholics would have to fast for an additional month during Lent.
We had a blue moon at the end of July, so it will be a while until the next one.
8. Give the cold shoulder
Meaning: To let someone know he is unwelcome
In medieval England, the host of a feast would let his guests know it was time to leave by giving them a slice of cold meat.
9. Apple of my eye
Meaning: Someone you cherish above all others
The Old English word for “apple” referred to both the fruit and eyeball. If you say someone is the apple of your eye, you’re saying he or she is as important to you as the organ that enables you to see.
10. Spill the beans
Meaning: To reveal a secret
In ancient Greece, people would cast votes by placing black or white beans in a jar. If someone spilled the jar, the outcome of the election would be revealed prematurely.