11 more fun idioms explained

An idiom can be a strange string of words. We use them all the time, but often don’t know their origins. Here’s a follow up to my 10 Fun Idioms Explained, posted in April.

Busting your chops – It was en vogue at the turn of the century (the 1900 one) to wear long, sometimes bushy sideburns, called mutton chops or lamb chops. As I recall this was also popular in the early 70s! Getting hit in the face was a bust in the chops.

Clean bill of health – Bills of health were issued to ships showing they were free from infections or diseases at the time then pulled up the anchor. And the ship needed this Bill to get into and unload in the next harbor.

Close but no cigar – I suppose the carnival games of yore were for men only because I can’t see a barker handing a woman a cigar a century or more ago. Used particularly for shooting games, cigars were the prize. A contestant that didn’t hit the target might have been close, but did not win a cigar.

Dressed to a tea – Having tea used to be an elaborate, formal affair, dressing in all one’s finery, getting out the nice silver tea set, perhaps putting a few biscuits or scones on a doily on a silver tray. Men and women used to dress for a tea.

Dressed to the nines – You dressed to the nines to go to tea! The best suits were made from about nine yards of fabric, cut in the direction of the nap or warp. There was a load of waste in the fabric, but you had to accept it if you wanted to dress to the nines. These days it’s hard to get something in plaid where the plaid matches up!

Face the music – A lot of idioms come from the military or seafarers. The British military would play drums when someone was court marshaled. “Drummed out of the military” also originated from this practice. When your child or grandchild breaks the lamp in the living room, he’s got to face the music.

Passed with flying colors – Here’s a seafarer reference. Sailing ships of yore would hoist their nation’s flag if they wanted to be identified. Couldn’t trust pirates though – they had a crate full of false flags.

Room to swing a cat – Please chill animal rights people. The origin of this one has nothing to do with your putty-tat, though I think many people use it in that fashion. The ‘cat’ in this indiom refers to a cat-of-nine-tails, a type of whip used to discipline sailors for a poor job of swabbing or when the sails got all tangled. The cat-of-nine-tails has a handle attached to nine thin strips of leather, each a few feet long. Since there was not enough room below deck, the punishment would take place above deck, where there was enough room to swing a cat.

With a grain of salt – Used as “approach with suspicion or caution” – like when you get an email with an attachment from a stranger. Salt is cheap now but it didn’t used to be. Some thought salt should be used for healing, a poison anecdote.  If you were to eat or drink something “with a grain of salt” was to practice cautious medicine.

Rule of thumb – I found all sorts of supposed origins for this one. An antiquated English law said it was illegal for a man to beat his wife with a switch or stick thicker than the width of his thumb. That’s comforting. Wood workers are said to have used the width of their thumb for measuring. In agriculture – stick your thumb in the dirt up to your hand, pull thumb out, plant seed.

What idioms do you use? Can you explain them? What idioms are you curious about?

“You can’t buy time or save it, common idioms notwithstanding. You can only spend it.”  – Eric Zorn



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Filed under Words & Vocabulary

8 responses to “11 more fun idioms explained

  1. Fun as always. Didn’t know the one about “dressed to the nines.” Must have been rag-pickers heaven on Saville Row back in the day….

  2. This was a fun way to start my day! Thanks a bunch Karen. 🙂

  3. I feel like I’m about to “Face the Music” a lot. I like to believe I get into a little mischievous here and there. It makes the day go by faster.

  4. Wonderful read, thank you, Karen.

  5. Karen, you are to be commended for your interest in idioms. Thank you again for sharing some and their meanings. Since my surname as a married woman is Whitt, I have a long-held liking for “dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s.” And as a writer “i’s and t’s” reminds me of “p’s and q’s.”

    As you know, I have a diary blog where I am transcribing the pen and ink diary entries I wrote 50 years ago to the night. I am now writing about the beginning of my college years in September 1961. I was very careful with my diary entries (I dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s both literally and figuratively), and as a college student I tried to “mind my p’s and q’s” (as my parents wanted me do.

  6. I use idioms a lot, and I think they are sometimes quite funny. My mom used to say, “A man on a horse won’t see it” when I was worried about a wrinkle in my dress or a spot on my jeans. I’m not quite sure how that one originated, but she meant, “Don’t worry about it, nobody will see it!”
    Thank you everybody for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  7. Love it! Keep ’em coming 🙂

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