Weird phrases you always wondered about

Photo by Jolene Canaga

The Word Shark is not just about editing and proofreading.

I conduct historical research and read classic novels.

When I see or hear a phrase like “Mind your Ps and Qs” or “Reading the riot act,” I’m inclined to start digging.

Idioms – Those sometimes silly, obscure phrases that we use in everyday conversation.

A lot of idioms originate from nautical and military origins, Shakespeare and Olde English pubs, or from life as it was known a century or more ago.

Mind your Ps and Qs – I found 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.

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 actual events. 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.

Raining cats and dogs

I found many explanations on this idiom. This explanation is the most fun (and the most gross). Sanitary conditions in previous centuries were 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.


Beer photo via Jolene Canaga, Kaiserslautern, Germany.

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

Stay tuned for Halloween Fright Week starting Monday, October 22, with posts by Mairi McCloud, Tonia Marie Harris, and others.


Filed under Words & Vocabulary

18 responses to “Weird phrases you always wondered about

  1. Fun as always–It is a marvel how the language develops. One of my favorite books for a casual perusal has always been Brewer’s Phrase & Fable. Great stories tucked away….
    I always thought hold your horses came from the old racing world before they had starting gates–lots of anxious mounts, champing at their bits and jockeys trying to hold their horses….:-)

  2. Great fun, Karen! I love this stuff. In relation to bandwagoning, people often say they’re ‘on the wagon’ when they give up drinking alcohol, and it refers to the temperance movement. Before Prohibition, the ladies of the movement wouuld employ those same techniques you describe above, and a serious hangover might incline someone to join their ranks against demon rum.

  3. Sometimes water spouts pick up fish, frogs, and other creatures which then rain down later. And tornadoes also pick up a variety of materials to creates “rains” of acorns, grain, or the like. I have to wonder were a tornado to go over a city pound if one might not have it raining cats and dogs downwind. Of course I have no reason to think this is the actual explanation for the phrase “raining cats and dogs.” But it is grizzly fun to imagine.

  4. Such phrases fascinate me, too. Thank you for this enlightening (and fun) post!

  5. Stacy S. Jensen

    Now, I never thought about the cats and dogs one. Yikes. I hope I never have to see that.

  6. Great post, Karen. I’m glad I found you (via your comment on my post). I love crazy old sayings like these. One of my favorite is “hell-bent for election,” which basically means determined beyond all reason. Our forefathers used much more colorful language than do we, I’m thinking.

  7. LOVE these, Karen! One of my clients compiled a book of phrases that came out of WWII — don’t have time to look it up today, but I will. Thank you!

  8. I had also heard that “raining cats and dogs” referred to thatched roofs. (or should that be rooves? Ha!) The cats and dogs used to climb into the hay of the roof to keep warm. When it rained, they would fall out of the thatching. Such fun to read about where these phrases originate! Thanks Karen

  9. Pingback: More weird phrases you always wondered about | Karen S. Elliott's Blog

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