10 Unexpected Origins of Common Phrases


The English language is replete with curious ancient phrases, many of which have bizarrely unexpected derivations. Others retain their literal meaning while their origins have been obscured, often by erroneous (but entertaining) folk etymologies.

The following 10 words and phrases have nothing much in common–except that each falls into one of those categories.

10. Dead as a doornail

There are many things deader than a doornail. “As dead as mutton” and “as dead as a dodo” both make a lot more sense. Even if we’re forced to go with nails, surely (as Dickens pointed out), a coffin nail is “the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.”

But “dead as a doornail” dates back centuries. Perhaps the earliest use of it in print was in 1350, in William Langland’s translation of the poem Guillaume de Palerne. He used the same expression in The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman (1362), although his “ded as a dore-nayl” became “deed as a dore-tree” in later editions. It’s not clear why. Maybe it refers to a tree that’s been chopped into timber for doors–something certainly much deader than the nails hammered through them.

Anyway, “dead as a doornail” is the phrase that caught on. Even Shakespeare used it in Henry VI, Part 2 (1591): “I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.”

We know what doornails are: The heavy studded nails driven through medieval doors. They were essentially a form of riveting, giving strength to wooden constructions. But what’s less clear is what makes them so “dead.” One explanation is that doornails looked old–rusted and worn away like a miniature metal corpse. Another is that “dead as a doornail” refers to one type of doornail in particular: The one on which the door knocker rested. The idea here is that so many whacks on the head with wrought iron would surely be enough to kill anything.

The most likely explanation, however, comes from carpentry, and in particular the technique of “clinching.” When a nail is hammered through a piece of wood and bent to fasten it on the other side, it’s effectively useless for anything else and is therefore said to be “dead.” Since screws weren’t in use until later, doornails in the Middle Ages were largely secured, or “killed,” in this way.

9. The Land of Nod

As you might have guessed, ‘the Land of Nod’ (the place we drift off to in our sleep) comes from the phrase ‘nodding off’—which can be traced back to Chaucer, who used it in The Manciple’s Tale (c. 1390): “A thief might easily rob him and bind. See how he’s nodding!”

But Nod is also a region in the Bible. And far from a place of rest, it was “a place of anguished exile.” Located ‘east of eden’, it’s where God sent Cain after he murdered his brother Abel. In Hebrew, nod is the root of the verb ‘to wander’, so ‘the Land of Nod’ suggests a place of restless wandering.

Jonathan Swift may have been the first to equate the two ‘nods’, introducing ‘the Land of Nod’ as a pun in A Complete Collection of genteel and ingenious Conversation (1738). He used it alongside a number of other bed-related puns, such as heading off “for Bedfordshire,” a county in England.

8. Dead ringer

There’s a persistent myth that ‘dead ringer’, meaning a person who looks eerily like another, comes from the historical practice of burying corpses with ropes connecting the hands, feet, and head to bells above ground. The idea was that if anyone was buried alive, their panicked movements would signal their need for a rescue.

However, while these ‘safety coffins’ did apparently exist, they were never in widespread use. Not only were they rather unnerving, but they were also practically useless. After all, dead bodies can be animated too—bloating, swelling, and bursting as they rapidly decompose. In any case, this macabre invention—which has also been linked (erroneously) to the phrases ‘graveyard shift’ and ‘saved by the bell’—rings false as an origin for ‘dead ringer’. At a stretch, we might imagine a person so rescued returning to their friends and family only to be mistaken for an uncanny lookalike, but the phrase has a more obvious derivation.

A ‘ringer’ refers to a fast horse secretly substituted for a slow one before a horse race, defrauding bookies by way of its similar appearance. It was originally called a ‘ring-in’, with the word ‘ring’ (as a verb) long being synonymous with ‘exchange’ or ‘substitute’. The ‘dead’ part just means ‘exact’, as in ‘dead right’ (or ‘dead wrong’). So ‘dead ringer’ literally means ‘exact substitute’.

7. Spitting image

Another phrase for a lookalike is ‘dead spit’. As above, ‘dead’ means ‘exact’, but there’s some contention over why we say ‘spit’. Some say it’s a corruption of ‘spirit’, which makes sense—except there’s no record of the uncorrupted form. Others say it’s always been ‘spit’ in the literal sense, suggesting an appearance so similar to someone else’s that it might as well have come out of their mouth. And while there’s plenty in the record to support this, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Maybe it has something to do with mouth-breeders (creatures that give birth through the mouth), such as the gastric-brooding frog—or classical mythology and mouth-breeding deities, like Eileithyia the Greek goddess of childbirth. It could also have something to do with the medieval idea of ‘homunculi’, miniature people made in a lab with bodily fluids and horse dung (and sometimes believed to spit acid). It might even just derive from the word ‘spat’, as in the offspring of oysters, which naturally look alike.

Either way, one of the earliest uses of ‘spit’ to mean ‘a close likeness’ was in George Farquhar’s 1698 play Love and a Bottle: “Poor child! he’s as like his own dadda as if he were spit out of his mouth.” Its earliest use as a metaphor appears to have been in The Newgate Calendar (1824-1826), which refers to “a daughter, … the very spit of the old captain.”

Later texts use ‘spit and image’ (or ‘spit an’ image’), which by the turn of the 20th century became ‘spitting image’—as in A.H. Rice’s Mrs Wiggs (1901): “He’s jes’ like his pa – the very spittin’ image of him!”

Interestingly, other languages have versions of their own. The French talk of a portrait craché (‘spitting portrait’), while the Norwegians think of lookalikes as something blown ut av nesen (‘out of the nose’).

6. Run amok

‘Running amok’ means chaotic, frenzied behavior, usually of kids, that leaves a bit of a mess. It sounds like, and is often spelled as, ‘running amuck’. Hence, many people assume it derives from ‘muck’ (from Old Norse myki, ‘cow dung’), either in the sense of an out-of-control boat running aground, i.e. ‘amuck’, or in the sense of ‘mucking around’.

Really though, the phrase ‘run amok’ comes from the Malay word mengamok, meaning a bloodthirsty, frenzied attack. More specifically, it refers to the sudden massacre of one’s fellow tribesmen, often resulting in the death of oneself.

It was first mentioned in The [Portuguese] Book of Duarte Barbosa (c. 1516):  “There are some of them [Javanese] who … go out into the streets, and kill as many persons as they meet. … These are called Amuco [Amok].” But it was Captain James Cook who popularized the term in English when he defined “run amock” as “to get drunk with opium … to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage.”

The Malays themselves attributed this frenzy to possession by the evil tiger spirit hantu belian. As a result, runners amok weren’t held responsible for their actions and, assuming they survived, appear to have been tolerated in the tribe.

5. Go berserk

In general usage, ‘go berserk’ has a much stronger implication of madness and rage than ‘run amok’. But it actually has a tamer derivation (or at least it has nothing to do with killing friends and family). Still, its namesake Norse ‘berserkers’ could be dangerously unpredictable on the battlefield.

Much like the ‘wolfskins’ or ‘heathen wolves’, these elite Viking warriors were essentially human tanks, deployed to absorb enemy attacks or to launch devastating attacks of their own. And they were notoriously difficult to control. Olav Haraldsson (Olaf II or St. Olav of Norway) found this out the hard way; having ordered them to hold the line in front of his own phalanx at the 1030 Battle of Stiklestad, he was ultimately defeated when they decided to advance instead.

Their allegiance was primarily to Odin, whose protection rendered them invulnerable to pain. Otherwise, they were said to be mercenaries, traveling around the country offering their services to various chiefs. They owed their brute strength to a kind of battle trance, which saw them biting their own shields and attacking boulders and trees in their fury.

In 1784, the Swedish naturalist and theologian Samuel Ödmann suggested they were actually intoxicated with toadstools, or fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushrooms. But while this might explain their delirium, it’s not in the historical record. Instead, it was likely a kind of self-hypnosis, a near-mystical state induced by religious fervor, the biting of shields, and the wearing of bear skins or sarks. In fact, ‘bear sark’, (ber, serkr) is the most likely etymology of the name. But the cold might have contributed too. According to Sir Walter Scott in The Pirate (1822), the ‘berserkers’ were “so called from fighting without armour” (i.e. from ‘bare sark’, even though the Norwegian for ‘bare’ is really naken).

In any case, Rudyard Kipling was among the first to use ‘berserk’ outside of the context of the Vikings: “You’ve gone Berserk,” said one of his characters in A Diversity of Creatures (1917) “and pretty soon you’ll go to sleep. But you’ll probably be liable to fits of it all your life.”

4. Crocodile tears

Strangely enough, the phrase ‘crocodile tears’, meaning an insincere expression of sorrow, literally derives from weeping crocodiles.

Describing the creatures in his travel memoir circa 1400, Sir John Mandeville wrote: “In that contre [probably Ethiopia, the land of the apocryphal Prester John] … ben gret plentee of Cokadrilles [crocodiles] … Theise Serpentes slen men, and thei eten hem wepynge.” Although Mandeville may have been a little preoccupied with tears and weeping in general—having earlier described a lake in Indonesia as one hundred years’ worth of Adam and Eve’s tears—the idea that crocodiles weep as they eat is one that has persisted for centuries. Hence in 1563, the Archbishop of Canterbury Edmund Grindal was quoted as saying: “I begin to fear, lest his humility … be a counterfeit humility, and his tears crocodile tears.” In fact, the idea persists even to this day and for good reason too: It’s true.

According to herpetologists, crocodiles huff and hiss as they eat, forcing air through the sinuses and possibly the tear glands as well. Tears are especially visible on crocs that have spent a long time out of water, serving to lubricate the eyeball for the movement of the nictitating membrane, i.e. the lid that sweeps across the eye to clean it and protect it underwater.

Of course, while crocodiles may also get sad (like many animals) crying probably isn’t a symptom. And they probably aren’t saddened by their food.

3. Cold turkey

If you or anyone you know has ever gone through sudden opiate (e.g. heroin) withdrawal, you may be familiar with the pale skin and goosebumps that go with it. The resemblance to a plucked turkey can be uncanny—and withdrawals can certainly make you feel cold and clammy.

But that’s not why it’s called going ‘cold turkey’ (although it may explain how it caught on).

In the US, at least, ‘talking turkey’ means ‘talking plainly’ or ‘getting down to business’. Some define it differently—such as grandiloquent speech reminiscent of a pluming male turkey, or as nonsense talk with “the silly airs of a turkey-cock”—but in general it’s understood as ‘plain talking’. It derives, allegedly, from something said by a Native American who once went out hunting with a white man. At the end of the day’s shooting, they had only a crow and a turkey between them. And, in the usual manner of bamboozling Indians with English, the white man proposed splitting the spoils as such: “Now Wampum,” he said, “you may have your choice: you take the crow, and I’ll take the turkey; or, if you’d rather, I’ll take the turkey and you take the crow.” Wampum didn’t have to think about it long. Seeing through the ruse, he said: “Ugh! you no talk turkey to me a bit.”

By the early 20th century, ‘talking turkey’ became ‘talking cold turkey’, as in a May 1914 edition of The Des Moines Daily News: “And furthermore he talks “cold turkey.” You know what I mean – calls a spade a spade.” The [UK] Daily Express was among the first to use the phrase overseas, reporting in January 1928: “She talked cold turkey about sex. ‘Cold turkey’ means plain truth in America.”

So if ‘talking cold turkey’ means ‘no-nonsense speech’, ‘going cold turkey’ just means ‘no-nonsense action’.

2. Coming out of the closet

‘Coming out of the closet’ appears to have a fairly straightforward, literal derivation: Revealing oneself from a place of hiding. But it’s a little more nuanced than that.

For example, the ‘closet’ in question probably isn’t just any old closet, but the one in which you might keep your skeletons (i.e. secrets). The phrase ‘skeleton(s) in the closet’ is often thought to derive from the historical practice of surgeons stockpiling stolen corpses for teaching and having to hide away the evidence of their crime. But in fact the earliest use of the phrase wasn’t in reference to secrets at all, but to something frightening that we don’t want to face. Specifically, in A Philosophical Treatise on the Hereditary Peculiarities of the Human Race (1815), Joseph Adams observed that “men seem afraid of enquiring after truth; cautions on cautions are multiplied, to conceal the skeleton in the closet or to prevent its escape.”

Anyway, ‘of the closet’ is a 1960s addendum to the phrase ‘coming out’ (as gay), which dates back to the 1920s or ‘30s at least. Of course, back then ‘coming out’ didn’t mean quite the same thing as it does now. After all, it wasn’t until 1962 that Illinois became the first state to decriminalize gay sex, so revealing one’s homosexuality in public was generally a bad idea. Instead, the phrase ‘coming out’ was used in much the same way as by the débutantes of the Victorian era—young ladies presented to high society for the first time since coming of age. The difference was that gay “débutantes” ‘came out’ to a far more clandestine society—specifically, to a society of their homosexual peers via the drag balls of New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, and elsewhere. A spring 1931 article in The Baltimore Afro-American describes one such event as “an outstanding feature of Baltimore’s eighth annual frolic of the pansies.”

In wider society, homosexuals felt compelled to ‘wear a mask’ or ‘wear their hair up’ as they called it, ‘dropping hairpins’ (i.e. signals) only to other gay men.

1. Cloud nine

It’s easy to see how a state of ecstatic bliss might be equated with sitting on a cloud (figuratively speaking, at least), but why is it always ‘cloud nine’? And who ever heard of clouds having numbers anyway?

Some people assume it must have something to do with the classification of cloud types; the earliest edition of the International Cloud Atlas apparently listed cumulonimbus (the huge, puffy, white type) as cloud number nine out of ten. Others think ‘cloud nine’ refers to a ninth stage of enlightenment, or to some other spiritual heaven, often citing the related phrase ‘seventh heaven’ from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

As it turns out, however, the number isn’t all that important. Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, ‘cloud eight’ was the place to be. It was apparently gangster slang for drunkenness, as well as another phrase for dreaming, as per the Chicago Daily Tribune in May 1945: “Any worth-while career takes years of patience and hard work, but why not stop day-dreaming, come in off cloud eight, and get started this year instead of next?” There was also a ‘cloud seven’, defined by The Dictionary of American Slang in 1960 as “completely happy, perfectly satisfied”—and even a ‘cloud thirty-nine’, a pinnacle of musical perfection.

It’s possible ‘cloud nine’ just caught on because ‘nine’ is the highest single digit number, and because it features in other phrases, such as ‘dressed to the nines’ and ‘the whole nine yards’, both of which suggest a superlative quality.

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