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Common expressions…we all use them. I grew up repeating phrases I heard my parents and grandparents say. I understood the gist of the meanings even if the strung together words seemed bizarre. Occasionally I wondered where such interesting expressions came from.
Wonder no more. Check out the origins of common American expressions and see if your favorite made the list.
Once in a Blue Moon
Meaning: something that happens rarely
Scientifically, a blue moon is the term for a second full moon that occurs during a single month. We typically have only one full moon every 30 days. About every 2.7 years, two full moons fall within the same month.
Although a similar phrase appeared in a book in the 19th century, the phrase as we use it today began later, around 1946, with a reference in the Maine Farmer’s Almanac.
Meaning: riding in the front seat of a vehicle next to the driver
In the Old West, the person who sat next to the driver on a stagecoach frequently carried a shotgun to shoot any robbers who might attempt to stop the coach and steal from the occupants.
Today kids often shout out, “I call shotgun” as they race toward a car.
Flying Off the Handle
Meaning: unpredictable or sudden anger
Before items were mass produced in factories, they were handmade. Some items might exhibit better craftsmanship than others. This expression comes from poorly made axes, crafted during the 1800s, that came apart too easily. The axe heads literally flew off their handles. Such an accident could induce surprise and anger!
Under the Weather
Meaning: not feeling well…feeling sick
Originally, sailors at sea used the expression “under the weather bow”, referring to the side of that ship that caught the brunt of wind during storms. To avoid feeling sick during rough seas, sailors bunkered down in their cabins…literally under the bad weather…and allowed the storms to pass.
Close But No Cigar
Meaning: not quite winning or achieving success and therefore not getting the reward
Today carnival games hand out stuffed animals or trinkets as prizes for winning. However, in the late 19th century adults played most carnival games. Prizes included cigars. If someone almost won, but fell short they were “close, but no cigar”. By the 1930s the expression extended beyond fairgrounds to other types of near successes.
Bite the Bullet
Meaning: performing an unpleasant task or enduring a difficult situation
In the 1800s, patients literally bit down on a bullet to cope with the pain of surgery or medical procedures, without the benefit of receiving anesthesia.
Get Your Goat/Gets My Goat
Meaning: to irritate or annoy someone or become irritated or annoyed by someone
This expression originated at horseracing tracks. Jockeys placed goats in the stalls with their prize race horses to relax them. Competitors removed the goats of their rivals to spook their horses, hoping to win the race as a result.
Pull Out All the Stops
Meaning: do everything possible to make something successful
This phrase originates from the musical instrument, the organ. When all the stops are pulled out, the organ plays loudly with a lot of different sounds all at once.
Cost an Arm and a Leg
Meaning: very expensive
This phrase originates from the 18th century. When famous people such as George Washington had their portraits painted, they did so without showing all of their limbs. The more limbs painted into the portrait, the more the painting cost.
I have to admit…this is my favorite origin!
Let the Cat Out of the Bag
Meaning: to accidently reveal a secret
During the 1700s, a common fraud involved secretly replacing more valuable pigs with less valuable cats and selling them in bags. When the cat was let out of the bag, the secret was revealed.
Do You Have a Favorite Common Expression?
Did you learn the origins of any of your favorite expressions? I love the study of words and origins. It’s a fun way to learn a bit of history as well.
Check out my other posts sharing common sayings from Scotland, England, Italy and Ireland.
Do you or your family commonly use an expression? Share it below.
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3 Replies to “Origins of Common American Expressions”
I absolutely love this! I think I’ve used or heard every single one of these and never knew where they came from!! Thanks for sharing – it made for a fun dinner conversation with the kids this week.
I love learning where these all originated!
I use these expressions all the time…my kids laugh at me!