10 Fun Idioms Explained

Edwinton Brewing

Photo courtesy Edwinton Brewing

This was originally posted on April 7, 2011. I thought some new subscribers might enjoy, and my faithful subscribers enjoy again. I’m working on another “Idioms Explained” as a follow up.

***Idioms – those sometimes silly, sometimes point-on, sometimes obscure phrases that we use in everyday conversation. They originate from Shakespeare and Olde English pubs, from nautical and military origins, and from life as it was known centuries ago.

Mind your Ps and Qs – Two explanations on this one

From an old printer’s tenet. Back in the early days of printing presses, each letter of text had to be set up by hand. Since the letters in the press were reversed, the printer or typographer had to be careful not to confuse one letter for the other. He had to mind his Ps and Qs.

The more accepted historical meaning for this idiom (and one that’s a little more fun) dates back to ye Olde English pubs of yester-year. A bartender would use chalk and board to record the number of Pints (Ps) and Quarts (Qs) a patron had consumed. This chalkboard allowed said patrons to keep up with their tab, to not get too drunk to pay the tab, and prevented disagreements between bar and patron.

Saved by the bell – Again, I found two really cool explanations on this one.

Boxing slang … a boxer who is in danger of losing a bout can be ‘saved’ from a beat down by the bell that marks the end of a round. There is a reference to this idiom in the Massachusetts newspaper The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, February 1893: “Martin Flaherty defeated Bobby Burns in 32 rounds by a complete knockout. Half a dozen times Flaherty was saved by the bell in the earlier rounds.”

Imagine being buried alive and having no means of communicating with those that are walking about the cemetery. A person would be buried, a string available or attached to a wrist. The string would be fed through the top of the coffin, through the dirt, and attached to a bell on top of the grave. The recently buried person would wake up, ring the bell, and be saved from an unpleasant death.

Hold your horses

Most accepted – the term originated from the men serving the artillery. These soldiers had horses. When the cannon went kaboom, the horses bolted and ran off. Thus, hold your horses was created. This idiom is also attributed to the use of horse and carriage. Imagine the under-paid carriage driver, waiting at the curb, while Scarlett put the finishing touches on her petticoats; he was holding his horses, waiting.

“I can remember hearing hold your horses on many Christmas mornings when I was a kid. I always had to wait at the top of the stairs until Mom put on her robe and slippers and Dad turned on the Christmas tree lights; then I could go down to see what Santa had delivered.” – Susan, Middletown, Delaware

Cut and run

You’re an 18th century sea captain on a large schooner filled with spices and silks and jewels. You just dropped anchor along the coast and are about to let the crew go ashore. You look to the horizon and here comes a ship flying the Jolly Roger! You don’t waste a moment getting outta there. You slice the anchor rope and get a move on. You cut and run.

Armed to the teeth

The pirates bearing down on the schooner have the single-shot weapons of the day. And they each have a couple of them – stuffed into their belts, their vests, their pockets. In addition to the guns, they have a knife. Where to hold the knife? Open your mouth and bite down – armed to the teeth.

Blow off steam

This idiom was frequently used when steam engines were the locomotion of the day. Blowing off steam prevents explosions by relieving the pressure in an engine or boiler by venting excess steam and pressure.

Reading the riot act

This refers to an actual event. Bobbies in Britain used to read a proclamation – known as the Riot Act – before they were permitted to break up or arrest rioters. This Riot Act was used in the same fashion as the current Miranda Rights in the US. The Bobbies would approach the crowd, read the Riot Act out loud, and then disperse the crowd (or arrest them).

Jump on the bandwagon

Old-time political campaigns would attempt to gather supporters by driving through town with a vehicle announcing (through loud-speakers) the candidate’s schpeel. Usually these wagons also carted a small band playing patriotic music. Jumping on the bandwagon was akin to providing your support for this popular candidate.

Upper hand 

You see a bunch of kids with Converse high-tops and crew cuts in a park and they want to play baseball. A player from Team A would throw a bat to a player from Team B. The Team B guy would catch the bat. Then the other player would put his hand directly above the other kid’s hand. The kids would alternate hands up the bat until the end was reached. The player with his hand on top had the upper hand, or the advantage.

Raining cats and dogs

I found many explanations on this idiom. But this is the most fun (and the most gross). Sanitary conditions previous centuries was often abysmal. When torrential rains began, the water –coursing down the streets – would often carry small creatures with it. As a result, cats and small dogs would be carried along the streets.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” – William Shakespeare

Edwinton Brewing – Photo

BrainyQuote, The Phrase Finder, The Free Dictionary, Pride UnLimited

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7 Comments

Filed under Words & Vocabulary

7 responses to “10 Fun Idioms Explained

  1. Ray Anderson

    What an interesting post!

  2. karenselliott

    Thanks, Ray. This one was fun – the worst part was paring the idioms – I had dozens!

  3. karenselliott

    Tom – Thanks!

  4. Pingback: These homophones give me such a headache | Karen S. Elliott's Blog

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