More weird phrases you always wondered about

Back by popular demand – more idioms!

Click the link to see the first Weird phrases you always wondered about.

Can’t hold a candle to

Before electric lights, the expert would perform the task while a helper would hold the candle. The helper was non-skilled or less skilled.

Busting your chops

It was en vogue at the turn of the century (the 1900 one) wearing long, sometimes bushy sideburns, called mutton chops or lamb chops. As I recall this was also popular in the 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.

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.

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, with dressing in all one’s finery, getting out the nice silver tea set, perhaps putting a few scones on a doily on a silver tray. Men and women used to dress for a tea, hence “dress to 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 the waste if you wanted to dress to the nines.

Face the music

The British military would play drums when someone was court marshaled. Now, when your child or grandchild breaks the lamp in the living room, he’s got to face the music.

Passed with flying colors

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 “cat” here refers to a cat-of-nine-tails, a whip used to discipline sailors for a poor job of swabbing. 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.

With a grain of salt

Used now as “approach with suspicion or caution.” Salt used to be darn hard to come by. Some thought it should be used for healing, even as a poison anecdote. If you were to eat or drink something “with a grain of salt” was to practice cautious medicine.

Rule of thumb

An antiquated English law was 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.

In agriculture – stick your thumb in the dirt up to your hand, pull thumb out, plant seed.


For the first idioms post, click on Weird phrases you always wondered 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

14 responses to “More weird phrases you always wondered about

  1. delightful and informative!
    Though I won’t mention the room to swing a cat in this house–too many chances to be misunderstood. 🙂

  2. Thanks Karen. These are great. I use them when teaching ESL classes as it is the idioms that confuse people the most when learning English.

    • Darlene, as a person who has studied a few foreign languages as well as learned American Sign Language, I can attest that idioms are so confusing! I cannot imagine trying to learn English as a second language!

  3. haha, loved reading about this, always wondered about them 🙂 Thank you

  4. nancyelizabethlauzon

    These are very cool. I find some of the younger generation look at me funny when I say things like this =)

  5. Great information, Karen! Thank you.

  6. Those are fun…maybe I’ll win a trivia prize someday because of you! 😉

  7. I’m glad when I can share fun, great information! Good luck with the trivia, Denise!

  8. We writers who have a love affair with words will enjoy this tremendously, Karen. You’re an awesome word sleuth!

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