Fun idioms, explained, Part 2

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. 

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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.

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) to sport 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. 

Clean bill of health 

Bills of health were issued to ships showing they were free from infections or diseases at the time they 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. 



Filed under Personal Articles, Words & Vocabulary

8 responses to “Fun idioms, explained, Part 2

  1. What fun. I didn’t know that about the 9 yards of cloth in a proper suit – or cats and dogs sluicing through the gutters of yore.

    • karenrsanderson

      Can you imagine? I recently read a book about “the good old days” (historical research) and it was gross back then! So cats and small critters surfing through the streets…I can see it.

  2. More cool idioms. I once saw an umbrella in Vancouver with cats and dogs painted on it. Perfect for when it rains “cats and dogs”.

  3. I didn’t know about the nine yards of fabric either. Or the rule of thumb. I heard a similar but slightly different explanation for “Close but no cigar”– Also a carnival game of strength (the “Highball” or “Hi-Striker”) in which the contestant hits a lever with a sledgehammer to try to drive a weight high enough up a column to ring a bell at the top. The standard reward for ringing the bell is a cigar.

  4. So much fun! You have the upper hand on explaining idioms, my friend.

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