Strange Origins of Common Sayings

I was working on a book recently and stopped myself when I realized I used an idiom which, on the face of it, I thought nothing about; I’ve heard it used for a long time and it’s worked its way into common usage, but in reality, it makes very little sense. So, in a mission of procrastination and Wikipedia link clicking, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of etymology, creating waves of “ooh” and “really?” on the way.

This is what I came up with:

“Under the Thumb” and “Wrapped around your Little Finger”

Both of these terms, surprisingly enough, come from the famous medieval pastime of falconry. I always imaged that wrapped around your little finger was self-explanatory, that it was referring to complete control over having someone neatly wound around a small and insignificant part of your body, but it actually refers to the process to make sure the bird stayed on the glove; wrapping string around its feet and then winding the string around your little finger to give you complete control of the falcon.

If you’ve ever held a mischievous or uncooperative parrot/bird, you’ll recognize under the thumb as the method of placing your thumb over its claws once it’s in your hand, ensuring that it doesn’t fly away.

“Basket Case”

Typically used to refer to someone as a lost cause, this saying allegedly comes from the Great War when soldiers who lost their arms and legs had to be carried around in baskets. Incredibly depressing, but there’s a lot of mystery surrounding this saying so there’s a good chance it isn’t true.

“Getting up on the Wrong Side of the Bed” and “Wrong End of the Stick”

These two come from the Romans. Getting up on the wrong side of the bed stems from their belief that it was bad luck to get out of bed on the left side; if you did, you were if in for one hell of a day.

Wrong end of the stick is a little more disgusting. As a substitute for toilet paper, the Romans used a sponge or a piece of cloth on the end of the stick. This often sat in a bowl of salted water before and after use, and was passed around when needed. If you weren’t paying attention when someone handed you the stick, there was a good chance you could grab the wrong end. I’ll leave the mental imagery with you.

“Mum’s the Word”

It seems that mum, meaning mother, has nothing to do with this saying. The mum here comes from an Old English saying which, simply put, means silence.

“Let the Cat out of the Bag”

This is another one that dates back to medieval times, this time in the fares and marketplaces where livestock was sold. Pigs were expensive and cats were cheap so after customers chose their pig to take home, an unscrupulous seller could bag it for them and switch it with a pre-bagged cat. If the buyer opened the bag there and then, they could expose the con by letting the cat out of the bag. If they left it until they got home, it was probably too late to do anything.


Now, back to writing:)



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9 responses to “Strange Origins of Common Sayings

  1. Words, meanings… amazing how it plays out in the game of ’round robin.’ Thought provoking write, thank you for sharing ~

  2. Reblogged this on Thoughts From a Mind Full of Dreams and commented:
    So,if we are at English lessons,this is a good one!

  3. I loved reading this. I enjoyed knowing how these idioms were coined. Currently writing a book based in old africa, and I’m realising I need to coin some idioms as there way of speaking.

    This was nice and somewhat helpful

  4. And there’s “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” or “dressed to the nines,” or, “the whole nine yards.” Doch! Whatever you do, keep writing and leave these, like “turning over a new leaf” for other days.

  5. You should look up its raining cats & dogs or why we hold wakes. I tell you it must have been quite a balancing act living in the “olden days” 🙂

    • I looked at the ‘cats & dogs’ one, very strange indeed, but there seem to be a number of different origin stories

      • Well the one I am familiar with is based on turf roofs. See in the early middle ages a lot of small houses were built into hills, this gave the home good insulation. As such the turf covering the roof top would stay warm due to the fire within. Animals tend to like to gather at warm spots and would often sit at the top of the sod covered roof/hill. If it should rain hard enough and fast enough the animals would slide off the roof. Thus an inhabitant could very well glance outside and see cats or dogs falling from above:-) I’m not claim this is more correct than any other possibility, but this one makes me smile.

      • Yeah, I saw that one. There was also a much more morbid one about heavy rain causing the rivers to flood and as dead cats and dogs (and other animals) were often just tossed into the rivers, whenever there was a flood there would be a stream of dead animals flowing down the street…Not a very pretty image:)

      • Yuck! Glad people at least pretend to have better sense now.

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