The Bizarre Origins of Some Common Phrases

Every language has its fair share of bizarre, common sayings which people, over time, have forgotten where the phrase originated. When we say something like "gets our goat," or "the cat’s pajamas" or is "willy nilly," we usually do so without with out really knowing the original source behind the phrase. Every common phrase or idiom has a time and place where it began. Often, knowing the origins of common (though unusual) phrases will add a whole new layer of meaning to both the phrase and our appreciation for the English language. Here are a few examples of common phrases and their history.

"Draw a blank" – In the 16th century England, the monarch Elizabeth I found her government to be lacking in money. She thereby created a national lottery in which participants would buy a "ticket" which was a slip of paper onto which they wrote their names. All the names were put it into a "lot pot". A second lot pot was filled equally with slips of paper, some of which had prizes written on them and others of which were blank. Tickets were drawn from both pots and the prizes were awarded to those who did not "draw a blank". Over time, the phrase began to be associated with failure in a risky undertaking. Others use the express when trying to remember something and suddenly can’t recall the information as in, "I know who she is but right now I’m drawing a blank".

"Bite the bullet" – The phrase that has come to be synonymous with accepting an unpleasant situation and keep moving on has its origins in war times. When soldiers were wounded on the battlefield and needed surgery (like an amputation), they would have to do so without anesthesia. To distract the wounded warrior from the pain of medical care (such as it was on the battlefield), soldiers would be stabbed in an unaffected appendage to distract them from the pain. Later this was deemed too barbaric, so instead, soldiers were given a bullet to bite down on while their limbs were severed, both to distract them and to stop them from screaming.

"Let the cat out of the bag" – This phrase, which is commonly used to describe revealing a secret, originated in the 16th century. Piglets were commonly sold in bags at market. Occasionally, an untrustworthy merchant would substitute a cat for the piglet as a means of tricking their customers. The phrase refers to someone realizing the switch had been made before the trick could be completed and, hence, ruining the sale of false goods.

"By hook or by crook" – In medieval England, peasants could only take deadwood from the royal forests as long as it could be gotten down using either a shepherd’s crook or a reaper’s billhook. The expression has since evolved to mean "by whatever means necessary" and was first used in that context in the late 1500s.

"Through thick and thin" – This expression, which is used to describe getting through any situation that one encounters, actually is derived from a more descriptive phrase. In a time when England was still predominantly wooded, there were areas where trees grew and open areas where animals grazed. The expression originally went "through thicket and thin wood", which literally described what someone would have had to pass through to get anywhere within the country. It was shortened as early as the late 17th century and has remained the same ever since.

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