Culture

These 10 Common Phrases Have Unexpected Origins

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There are a lot of sayings in English that seem a little ... off. What crude mind insisted that a person undertaking something with great intensity was going "balls to the wall"? Well, we have good news: That particular phrase doesn't have an inappropriate origin at all. Here's where it comes from — and a handful of others for good measure.

Related: 12 Surprising Origins of Popular English Phrases

Balls to the Wall

No, it doesn't have anything to do with anyone's anatomy. The phrase originates in 20th-century military aviation. See, most planes had a ball-shaped grip atop the controls for both the throttle and the joystick. Push both all the way forward to the firewall, and the plane goes into a dive at maximum speed, preventing enemy fire from hitting the pilot. Hence, going "balls to the wall" means doing something intense with as much power as you can muster.

Beat Around the Bush

These days, "beat around the bush" generally means to delay on arriving to the point, or to waste time on irrelevant details — perhaps in an attempt to avoid your stated goals. But in its original sense, it was a necessary preamble to the main event. To hunt birds in medieval Europe, some participants would beat the bushes and the ground around them to send the avians flying into the air. The rest of the hunters would then be able to take aim at the target. Incidentally, those actually firing arrows (and later, bullets) would be said to have "cut to the chase."

Cat's Out of the Bag

Another phrase with medieval origins, "cat's out of the bag" refers to a popular scam perpetrated on unwary buyers. It used to be that a piglet sold at market would be tied up in a bag to prevent its escape. Unscrupulous merchants could place a cat in the bag instead, and as long as their buyer didn't look inside, hear the yowling, or get scratched through the burlap, they might make it all the way home before they realize that they'd been had. But if the cat escaped (and they're pretty good at escaping), well, the secret's out and the jig is up.

Can't Hold a Candle To

If somebody "can't hold a candle to" somebody else, then the latter is much better than the former. Which is kind of strange, since holding a candle isn't too difficult. But that's kind of the point. The phrase originates from the days before electric light, when a master artisan might work under the light of a candle held by their assistant or apprentice. The learning partner performs a valuable service and gets to see how the craft is done — but only if they're worthy of doing so.

Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

If somebody gives you a bottle of whiskey, free of charge, it would be bad form to complain about its quality — just say "thanks" and pour a drink for yourself and your benefactor. To "look a gift horse in the mouth" means to be overly judgmental about a gift given freely. It refers to the fact that you can check a horse's age by looking at their teeth, which get longer with the years. Sure, that horse might be a little old. But you didn't pay a thing for it, so don't be so picky.

On a Soapbox

Ever meet somebody with a holier-than-thou attitude, who can't help but deliver impassioned speeches at the drop of a hat? They sure love to get on their soapbox, and about 100 years ago they might have done so literally. Soapboxes — wooden crates used to ship or carry soap — would have made for a pretty good makeshift podium when you wanted to address a crowd. It might have been a union organizer rallying their people, a traveling salesperson making a pitch, or a pastor suddenly moved to deliver a sermon. Whatever the motivation, a soapbox was the perfect venue to get on a roll about a topic you care deeply about.

Winning Hands Down

When you win "hands-down," it generally means that you were way ahead of all of the competition. But in its original meaning, it doesn't just mean that you were the winner by a long shot. It means you were showboating while you did it. The first recordings of the phrase come from mid-19th-century horse races. A jockey has to keep their hands up on the reins to keep their horse moving at top speed. But if a jockey is able to win hands-down, they're so far ahead they can kick back, relax, and still come in first place.

Resting on Your Laurels

There are a lot of things we modern English speakers say that have their origins in the ancient Greek practice of awarding victorious athletes a crown of laurels. What do you call someone who's won an award? A laureate, of course. You might even laud them with praise. But if they're just coasting on recognition they earned long ago, well, they're resting on their laurels.

Read the Riot Act

When someone "reads you the riot act," it generally means they're angrily chastising you for some sort of wrongdoing or faux pas. Something like that has generally been true since the origin of the phrase — but the police officers who would have been screaming the actual Riot Act were likely only doing it to be heard over the crowd. The Riot Act was a British law that allowed the authorities to scatter any crowd they felt was getting unruly, but to do so, they would have to literally read the act out loud.

Turn a Blind Eye

To "turn a blind eye" means to willfully ignore something that you'd rather not acknowledge. Frankly, it doesn't feel like it needs a whole lot of explaining, but the story behind the phrase is just too good to pass up. Admiral Horatio Nelson was on the vanguard of the British Navy assailing a Danish/Norwegian fleet in the 1801 battle of Copenhagen when his superior officer, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, signaled to retreat from another ship. But Nelson wasn't having it. Having lost one eye at Corsica, the legendary seaman put his telescope up to his glass eye and remarked, "You know, Foley, I have only one eye — and I have a right to be blind sometimes ... I really do not see the signal." That decision swung the battle in favor of the British. No, Nelson didn't use the phrase specifically (and truthfully, others had used it before him), but it exploded in popularity after the story made the rounds.

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There are a lot more famous phrases where those came from. "The Ultimate Book of Quotations," compiled by Joseph Demakis, is a great way to spice up your speech with the wisdom of the ancients. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 29, 2018

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