If words and grammar represent the main ingredients of a language, then idioms are surely the secret recipe of herbs and spices that are added to give the language its distinct flavor. They are bizarre, sometimes nonsensical, and almost always lost in translation, but they add color to anyone’s vocabulary.
In the past, we have taken a look at the strange and obscure origins of ten such idioms that we use in our day-to-day lives, and today, it is time for ten more.
10. Bring Home the Bacon
To bring home the bacon means to earn money, especially in order to support a family. While its meaning is clear and straightforward, its origins are not since there are several stories of how this idiom came to be. Some say the phrase came from county fairs, where people chased around a greased-up pig, and whoever caught it got to keep it as a prize, thus bringing home the bacon.
Another story takes the practice back all the way to 12th-century England, to a tradition that is still present in parts of the country – that of the Dunmow flitch. It is said that the Prior of Little Dunmow was so moved by the devotion of a newly-married couple that he awarded them a flitch aka a side of bacon. His act of generosity proved popular enough that it turned into a regular tradition, and became well-known enough that Chaucer even referenced it a few centuries later in his Canterbury Tales when he wrote “The bacon was not fetched for them, I believe, That some men have in Essex at Dunmow.”
But although this might show us the origin of the practice of bringing home the bacon, it does not conclusively attest to the use of the idiom. For that, we only have to go back a hundred years or so, to the 1906 championship boxing match between Joe Gans and Oscar Nelson. In a telegram, Gans’s mother reportedly wrote to him to bring home the bacon. After winning the fight, he replied that he had not only the bacon but the gravy, too. It seems that sportswriters of the day loved this little story and used the expression liberally, thus entering it into the common lexicon.
9. Growing the Beard
In the previous list, we mentioned the television idiom jumping the shark, referring to a definable point in a series where the quality goes down drastically. Well, there is also the idiom growing the beard which means the exact opposite – the turning point where a TV series sees a dramatic increase in quality. It is common for a show to grow the beard after one or two seasons and the reasons can be multiple. Maybe a problematic producer is fired. Maybe a minor character becomes a breakout star. Or maybe the writers and showrunners simply get a better grasp on the story and the people.
The name of the idiom comes from TopTenz… no, wait, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Fans of the show believe that the series really hit its stride in the second season, which coincided with Commander Riker growing a beard. As to why he did it, Riker’s actor Jonathan Frakes had a simple explanation – he hated shaving.
8. Turn a Blind Eye
The phrase to turn a blind eye means to purposely ignore something even though you know it’s wrong and some believe that its origins are rooted in one of the most celebrated acts of disobedience in history.
The year was 1801 and Britain went to war with Denmark-Norway to prevent the Danish fleet from allying with France. The British side was led by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, who was seconded by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, even though the two disagreed on the best course of action to take.
At the Battle of Copenhagen, the Danish fleet had the early advantage, so much so that Parker gave the signal to retreat. Nelson, however, wanted to push on, so he took advantage of the fact that he had lost sight in his right eye and said to his flag captain: “You know, Foley, I have only one eye – and I have a right to be blind sometimes… I really do not see the signal.” Therefore, Nelson turned a blind eye to his admiral’s order, pressed the attack, and emerged triumphant, scoring one of the victories that defined his career.
It is a tantalizing tale and would make for a great origin story for the idiom but, unfortunately, it is not where the phrase turn a blind eye was born. We’re not sure actually how it came to be, but we know that it does make an appearance in the novel Men and Manners by Francis Lathom, published one year before the Battle of Copenhagen.
7. The Proof Is in the Pudding
You might have heard from friends or colleagues about that popular new restaurant that opened up just a block from you, but you have decided not to form any opinions about it until you got a chance to eat there yourself. After all, the proof is in the pudding.
That bizarre phrase means that you can only judge the true value of something from firsthand experience, not from rumors, theories, or hearsay. It is an idiom that has been around for a while, making its first written appearance in William Camden’s 1623 study Remains Concerning Britain. Back then, pudding was not the delicious dessert we all know and love today, but rather something similar to haggis or sausage – an animal intestine stuffed with minced meat, spices, and other ingredients.
Also, the saying itself was a little different back then. The original proverb was “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and, as you might imagine, it was completely literal. The only way to know if the pudding was good or not was to try it. Over the centuries, it shortened a little; by the mid-19th-century, it had transformed into the idiom we still use today.
6. Get Your Goat
If something really annoys or angers you, you could say that it gets your goat, described by a lexicographer in 1927 as “one of the most absurd slang phrases in the English language.”
Not only is it absurd, but it is also mysterious as its origins appear to be shrouded in fog. Lexicological snoops have scoured old books and newspapers and, so far, the earliest written example of the idiom comes from a 1905 edition of the Washington Times, where the journalist described a boxing match in the US Navy. He wrote:
“I think the crowd got his goat, or the idea of fighting – one or the other – because he did not say boo and sat down like a mope.”
There are several ideas regarding the origin of the expression, but none of them are backed by evidence. The most popular one comes to us courtesy of horse racing and the supposed practice of keeping a goat in the same stall as the horse to act as a friendly companion. If a ne’er-do-well wanted to affect the outcome of a race, he would sneak into the stable beforehand and steal the goat to cause undue stress to the horse who had just lost his little buddy. As we said, it’s a good story, but with nothing to back it up.
5. The Elephant in the Room
Another animal-based idiom with uncertain origins is the elephant in the room, referring to an important topic that everyone knows about but no one wants to discuss openly because it is awkward or controversial.
The idea of not spotting an obvious elephant probably originated with Russian author Ivan Krylov, who published a fable in 1814 titled The Inquisitive Man, where the main character wanders around a museum and sees all sorts of small creatures, but misses the giant elephant. The concept was renewed a few decades later by Mark Twain in a short story titled The Stolen White Elephant where an entire police force searches for a lost elephant only to discover it was in their basement all along.
In the early 20th century, the idea of pretending not to see an elephant made several appearances, including in the 1935 musical Jumbo, but it wasn’t until the ’50s that we spotted a definitive use of the actual idiom elephant in the room with the meaning it has today.
4. Baker’s Dozen
Everyone knows that a dozen means 12 of something, so then why does a baker’s dozen mean 13? It’s got nothing to do with him being bad at counting, but more with him trying to avoid a fine and a flogging.
Throughout history, bread was a food staple of many civilizations. Easy access to bread was considered an important function of a stable society, so bakers who tried to cheat their customers with undersized loaves were typically subject to harsh punishments.
While we’re not exactly sure when the idiom baker’s dozen appeared, the practice probably traces its origins to 13th-century England, in the times of King Henry III. He passed a new law called the Assize of Bread and Ale, which strictly regulated the weight and quality of bread and beer.
This posed a problem for bakers since even the honest ones could sometimes accidentally produce a lighter loaf. Rather than risk the punishment for breaking the law, it became much more sensible for them to include 13, even 14 loaves for every dozen, just to make sure that they were never underweight.
3. Mad as a Hatter
The expression mad as a hatter is a tricky one. Its meaning is fairly obvious – it is used to describe a person who is acting crazy or unpredictable. Its origins, however, might surprise you. Most people would assume that the phrase comes from Lewis Carroll’s iconic 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but they would be wrong. The idiom first made it to print at least a few decades before Carroll’s book, and its origins might even be a few centuries older than that.
The most popular story claims that the expression, unsurprisingly, came from the hat-making industry. Starting with the 17th century, hatters developed a technique of separating fur from animal skin called “carroting,” which required the use of mercuric nitrate. Let’s just say that inhaling the stuff wasn’t good for them, and prolonged exposure led to depression, irritability, apathy, and even death.
You can see why they developed a reputation for unpredictable behavior, but another possible origin story claims that the idiom was birthed not from hatters, plural, but from a single hatter named Roger Crab. He lived in Chesham in the mid-17th century and he was considered eccentric because he was a hermit, an ascetic, and a vegan during a time when such characteristics branded you as being a bit loony.
2. The Whole Nine Yards
The expression the whole nine yards means “everything you can possibly want, have, or do in a particular situation.” It is a simple phrase with a very complicated history, described by the New York Times both as the “Bigfoot of word origins” and “one of the great etymological mysteries of our time.”
The reason for this is plain. There are many hypotheses regarding the origin of the expression, and yet all of them are probably wrong. The most popular version claims that nine yards was the length of ammunition belts on World War II fighters and that going the whole nine yards meant that the planes kept shooting until they exhausted their ammo. Others believe the saying has to do with cement trucks because the standard truck carried nine yards’ worth of concrete. Some think the expression comes from fashion since nine yards of cloth were needed to make a genuine Scottish kilt.
For decades, most people felt that the World War II-era explanation was probably the correct one, until one day in 2009 when an amateur sleuth found the lexicographical equivalent of a pipebomb – an article in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal titled “The Whole Six Yards of It,” dated to 1921. After that revelation, even older references were discovered going back to 1912. Since the number changed, something which lexicographers insist has happened with other idioms, they believe that the meaning was never about accurately measuring anything, but the search for the source of this elusive expression continues.
1. Screw the Pooch
We end this list with a strange idiom – to screw the pooch, meaning to commit a giant, humiliating mistake. Some of you might have some slight concerns now because, as we’ve seen with our previous entries, many of these phrases started out quite literal. However, as far as we can tell, no canine companions were actually besmirched in the creation of his idiom.
There is no doubt that the expression was popularized by Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff about the Mercury space program, where he wrote: “Grissom had just…screwed the pooch, that was all.” Wolfe did extensive research for the book and likely heard or read the phrase which was popular in NASA circles, perhaps in the 1977 memoir of astronaut Walter Cunningham who used the expression when talking about fellow astronaut Gene Cernan having a helicopter accident.
That seems to be the earliest written example we have of the idiom, but its creation might go back a few decades and could be credited to radio DJ Jack May aka “Candied Yam Jackson.” There already existed a different, more vulgar phrase, which was to f**k the dog, except that it meant to loaf around doing nothing. In 1950, May used this colorful expression on his roommate, to criticize him for not working on his project. Chastised for being coarse, May then modified the idiom into the more polite screwing the pooch, which got a good laugh out of his roommate. That roommate’s name was John Rawlings, and he later enlisted in the Air Force and would go on to work for NASA, designing some of the earliest space suit prototypes, and likely introduced the idiom to his astronaut buddies