Have you ever walked into a tiny room and thought ‘I couldn’t swing a cat in here?’ Have you ever ‘rubbed someone up the wrong way?’ These are examples of phrases we use all the time, but do you know their origins?

I love words. I love metaphors, words that come from foreign languages, I love how words shape our minds, how we use them to influence people, they’re just so powerful.

Lately, I’ve been looking into the origins of phrases and have found some really interesting ones I thought I’d share with you. I hope you find them as fascinating as I did.

14 Little-Known Origins of Popular Phrases

  1. Not enough room to swing a cat

A very small space

This is a nautical term and derives from a ‘cat-o-nine-tails’, a whip used to punish sailors onboard ships. Sailors would usually receive punishment below decks. However, quarters were cramped, hence the saying, ‘no room to swing the cat‘.

  1. Rubbing someone up the wrong way

To irritate or annoy

In America in the 16-century, slaves had many tasks to carry out. One was to rub the wooden floors of their master’s houses, first with a wet cloth, then with a dry one. If they went against the natural grain, it looked unsightly and annoyed the master.

  1. Lost your bottle

Cowardly behaviour

You’ll never guess where this phrase originates from. It comes from bare-knuckle fighters in the 20-century and their bottle men.

Each fighter had their own bottle man to provide them with water between rounds.  Managers with poor fighters would instruct the bottle man to disappear. This would stop the fight. ‘Lost your bottle man’ was eventually shortened to ‘lost your bottle’.

  1. Let your hair down

To relax

In Parisian society, it was the done thing to have an elaborate hair-do. These hairdos took hours to achieve so at the end of the evening it was a huge relief to let them down.

  1. Take the upper hand

To gain an advantage

This phrase originates from the 15-century and comes from a game involving two or more people and a long stick. The first person places their hand on the stick at the bottom, the next person places their hand just above and so on until the last person to reach the top of the stick wins. They have the upper hand.

  1. Rule of thumb

A broad principle

In the 17-century, an English judge ruled that British men could legally beat their wives with a stick, so long as the stick was less than the width of the husband’s thumb.

  1. Blackmail

To demand money by threats

This is one of those phrases you’d never guess the origins unless perhaps you are Scottish. It originated in the Scottish Highlands in the 16-century.

In those days, ‘mail’ was an old word which meant rent. Farmers paid rent in silver coins. The rent was known as ‘white mail’. Certain clans started racketeering in the farming areas. They threatened farmers with violence then offered them protection but only if they paid. Farmers called this extra payment ‘black-mail’.

  1. Saved by the bell

Rescue from an unwanted situation

Before advances in modern medicine and technology, it was quite common for doctors to pronounce people dead. The problem was, these people were not dead and some were being buried alive.

Fear spread amongst towns and cities. Stories passed around of gravediggers hearing screams from below the ground at night. To combat the problem, a special coffin was made with a bell that could be rung from inside that would alert people above ground. Hence, ‘saved by the bell‘.

  1. You’re fired!

Given the sack

No, this phrase does not have its origins in the Whitehouse or anywhere near Donald Trump. It’s much older than that. It’s a mining term.

A miner caught stealing would have his tools burned or ‘fired’. It meant he couldn’t work anywhere. It was so effective a punishment that other trades adopted the phrase.

  1. Get the sack

Lose your job

Speaking of getting the sack, that’s another one of our phrases that has unusual origins. Today, getting the sack has unpleasant connotations, but in actual fact, in the past, it was a positive sign.

Centuries ago, craftsmen and labourers would expect to work on a job for a few days or a week at most. They would carry their tools in a sack, which the owner would stash for them for safekeeping. The sacks were returned when the labourer finished the job. They got their sack back.

  1. Spill the beans

To reveal a secret

This is another one of those phrases that you’ll never guess its origins in a million years. In ancient Greece, people voted in elections using beans. If they liked a candidate, they used a white bean. If they disapproved, they would place a black bean in the container.

If these containers were knocked over, everyone could see how the voting was going. Therefore, if someone ‘spilled the beans‘, the secret was out.

  1. Kicking the bucket


You might not use this phrase after you learn of its origins. In slaughterhouses, when cows are killed, a bucket is placed underneath it to catch the blood when it dies. Sometimes, the cow’s legs would kick the bucket when it died.

  1. Let the cat out of the bag

Reveal a secret

Back in medieval times, the marketplace was rife with tricksters and fraudsters. One such deception was the sale of suckling pigs. Once the pig was purchased, the hapless buyer would be distracted by the seller.

The pig would then be swapped for a cat and which was placed in the bag, ready for the customer. The customer would only realise when he ‘let the cat out of the bag’.

  1. Cold Feet

Lose your nerve

German writer Fritz Reuter was the first person to use this phrase. Interestingly, Reuter uses the term in each of his books.

In the first, ‘An Old Story of My Farming Days’, he uses it to describe a poker player to wants to leave the game with his winnings intact. The poker player complains he has ‘cold feet’ and manages to leave without causing upset to the other players.  In the other, ‘Seed-time and Harvest’, it involves a joke made by a shoemaker.

Do you have any interesting phrases or words you’d like to share? Even better, do you know their origins? Let us know!


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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Richard chatcuff

    ‘Saved by the bell’, is a boxing term. When a fighter is in the ring, knocked down, there is a 10 count during which time if he, or she, can get up then the fight will continue. Should, however, the bell, signaling the end of the round, sound, the 10 count is nullified.
    The practice of placing a bell, with a string attached, in a person’s coffin, is the origin of the term, “dead ringer”. The practice of having an attendant spend the night in a graveyard, listening for dead ringers, as well as discouraging grave robbers, is the origin of the term, “graveyard shift”.

    1. AnneElena Foster

      I dont disagree with your explanation of “saved by the bell,” as this is well known and carries with it the implication that such salvation happened at the last second (which, if you were already buried, would be rapidly approaching, so her explanation is at least feasible, its just not accurate). Meanwhile, but your explanation for “dead ringer,” is plausible only until you try to tie it to its actual usage. The term is used to refer to someone or something that is a perfect copy of another, “She’s a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe.” Its origin is in British horse racing, where a ringer is a horse that is run under another horses name and pedigree, basically an imposter, but the horse has to look sufficiently like the papered animal it is standing in for. “Dead” is just short for “dead on”, which in British parlance means exact, hence a dead ringer, a twin, a perfect copy. That whole thing about coffins with bells lasted maybe 20 years at the end of the 1800s. It was just an anxious fad based on a scary rumor, but it was promoted by undertakers to sell fancier coffins (the ones with all the bells and whistles, you might say. It fits, but that doesnt mean thats the origin of that phrase.) Similarly, the use of belled coffins was not short-lived and not wide-spread, and I think you would be hard pressed to find a single cemetery that ever hired someone to sit around the boneyard and listen for a bell. I think I recall a story about a Russian merchant whose daughter had died and he buried her in one of those deluxe coffins and had her grave attended for a couple weeks, or maybe he sat there himself, hoping the bell would ring, but Im not too sure about that, and it seems like the sort of urban legend that might be made up to offer an interesting story at dinner parties.
      Or maybe Im NOT recalling it…maybe Im just pulling threads together myself and going, “yeah, yeah, that sounds familiar., I think I heard that.” Not trying to be smarmy, Im really not that certain about the story, and Im as impressionable as the next guy. Its so easy to plant false memories, people can do it to themselves. But “graveyard shift” was in wide use before those dumb coffins were invented and nobody was hired to listen to them, so thats a tale ya got there, but not a tale of that expression’s origins.

      1. AnneElena Foster

        I meant it WAS short-lived and was NOT wide-spread. Sorry.

  2. Richard chatcuff

    Thank you for your reply concerning ‘dead ringer’. I shall certainly be motivated to continue researching this phrase.

    As I should have perhaps stated, “graveyard shift” referred primarily to the duty of guarding against grave robbers, “Night watchman” in a graveyard, Indeed, cemeteries would often use that, the presence of night watchmen, as a selling point for persons who had the wherewithal to choose a final resting place for their relatives, etc. Thank you for your reply.

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