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Why Would You Want To "Ride Shotgun"? (And Other Weird Idiom Origins)

Ever wonder why we shout "shotgun!" to claim the front seat, or why someone who comes in second comes "close, but no cigar"? The origins of popular idioms are almost always fascinating — and often bizarre.

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The Best Idioms, Hands Down

An idiom is a figure of speech that means something other than its literal meaning. But where do these weird phrases ("break a leg," "silver lining," "beat a dead horse") come from? Here are a few explanations:

"Riding shotgun": English speakers use it to mean is sitting in the passenger seat of a car. The phrase dates back to the early 1900s in the Wild West, when the person sitting beside the driver in coach would often carry a shotgun for protection.

"Win hands down": Refers to the fact that a jockey far enough ahead can still win a race even if he took his hands off the reins.

"Close, but no cigar": In the 1930s, cigars were given as prizes at fairs.

"Barking up the wrong tree": In the early 1800s, dogs were more commonly used for hunting. When a dog would identify prey that had run up a tree, the dog would bark upward toward it. When the prey jumped to a different tree, the dog would be left at the base of the original tree, confused, barking up to nothing.

The Whole Kit and Kaboodle

You probably use more idioms that you ever realized. Every time you tell someone to break a leg, or complain that something gets your goat — you're employing idioms that, more literally, don't really make sense. But noticing them, and understanding where they come from, will help you understand language in a whole new way. (Also, it makes for great "did you know?" dinner table conversation the next time someone tells you not to upset the apple cart.)

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Videos About Idioms

42 Idiom Origins

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. An idiom is a figure of speech used to mean something other than its literal meaning. 00:02

  2. In the Wild West, the person sitting next to the driver would carry a shotgun, hence why sitting there is "riding shotgun." 01:34

  3. The phrase "close, but no cigar" was popularized in a 1935 screenplay about Annie Oakley. 05:14

25 More Origins of Popular Idioms

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