Words, Words, Words Week kick off – Idioms explained


Those sometimes 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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Busting your chops chops

It was en vogue at the turn of the century (the 1900 one) wearing long, 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.

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.

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.

cigarClose 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 dressed 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 salt-shaker

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.


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


Pride Unlimited


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Filed under Special Events, Words & Vocabulary

17 responses to “Words, Words, Words Week kick off – Idioms explained

  1. These are always fun, Karen!

    • I agree, D.! I wonder about idioms. So I look them up. And now, I realize that regions of the U.S. have their own idioms, which is interesting in itself. What I hear here in ND, I never heard before in NM or DE. What I heard in DE, people in ND look at me like I’ve got two heads. Fun!

  2. I haven’t run into that many idioms here in VA that I didn’t already know but certainly pronunciations are different here and some words are used differently. Every other place I’ve lived, you “turn off” the light or the tv or whatever. Here you “cut” it. I can’t think of any others now…guess I’ve lived here long enough not to notice the differences much any more.

  3. Great fun! One of my favorite, much used reference books is Brewer’s Phrase and Fable, a blast to peruse on a lazy rainy day…a font of information.

  4. Love these, Karen! I helped a client named Irvin Magin self-publish a book many years ago called Reminiscences of WWII. It was chock full of common expressions and terms that began during that war. It’s fascinating to learn the derivation of things we take for granted.

  5. I love the history of idioms! Thanks for compiling these!

    • Glad you liked the post, Christi! I think idioms are fascinating. There are so many more, too. If you go to my sources (listed above) and type in ‘idioms,’ you will find pages and pages of them.

  6. These are fascinating! I’m going to use them for an upcoming writing class. THANKS. 🙂

  7. Carla Evans

    Such fun! Thanks for the history lesson.

  8. Pingback: You Are Your Words | Heartspoken

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