38 Literary Facts About Common Idioms & Phrases in English

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1What in tarnation?

The expression 'what in tarnation?' comes from 'tarnal' meaning eternal and 'nation' meaning damnation. The phrase effectively translates to ‘What the hell?’


2. The "thousand-yard stare" is a phrase often used to describe the blank, unfocused gaze of soldiers who have become emotionally detached from the horrors around them. It is also sometimes used more generally to describe the look of dissociation among victims of other types of trauma.


3. In Japanese, there is a phrase "Bushu-suru" (ブッシュする). In literal terms, this means "to do the bush thing," in reference to a bizarre 1992 incident where George HW Bush fell ill and vomited directly onto the Japanese prime minister.


4. The phrase '23 Skidoo', meaning "let's get out of here", was America's first truly national fad expression.


5. The phrase "Snipe Hunt" and the word "sniper" both derive from the difficulty in hunting a small wading bird called a snipe.


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6When my ship comes in

The idiom "When my ship comes in" originated with sailors' wives who promised to pay off debts when the sailors' ships returned to port.


7. The phrase "cool as a cucumber" is based on science. The inside of a cucumber can be up to 20 degrees cooler than the ambient temperature.


8. The phrase “kill them all, let God sort them out” comes from a Crusader in 1209 who wiped out a town of Cathar ‘heretics.’ They couldn't tell them apart from the Catholics, so they killed them all.


9. The idiom “break a leg” may have meant Take a Bow, as in, do well enough that the audience is happy with your performance. In this context break a leg would be a wish that an actor would give such a good performance that he would be forced to take many bows.


10. The phrase “o’clock” is short for “of the clock” and comes from a time when people had to specify that their time came from a clock instead of a sundial or other device.


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11A taste of your own medicine

The origin of the phrase, ‘a taste of your own medicine’ comes from Aesop’s famous story about a swindler who sells fake medicine, claiming that it can cure anything. When he falls ill, people give him his own medicine, which he knows will not work.


12. The phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ comes from a medieval job title. The ‘advocatus diaboli’ was the guy tasked with coming up with counter-arguments when a priest was nominated to be blessed or canonized.


13. The idiom "take with a grain of salt" dates to 25 A.D. and refers to an antidote to poison. To take a poison or an idea with a grain of salt means to reduce it's effectiveness.


14. The phrase "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" came from the practice of saloons offering a free lunch to patrons purchasing at least one drink. Lunch consisted of salty finger-foods, encouraging the drinking of more beer.


15. The phrase "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" was originally meant to describe an absurdly impossible action. The phrase is an adynation, a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility.


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16Didn't pan out

The idiom 'didn't pan out' came from miners during the California gold rush, where it would literally mean gold wasn't found in the pan.


17. Goodbye is a contraction of the phrase 'God be with you', originating in 1580.


18. "Lebe wie die Made im Speck" is a German idiom that means "to live luxuriously", but when translated word for word, means "to live like a maggot in bacon."


19. The common phrase "You can run but you can't hide" dates back to a taunt made by boxer Joe Louis during his fight against Billy Conn in 1941.


20. The idiom "drinking the Kool-Aid" comes from the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide, where over 900 people (almost 300 of which were children) deliberately or forcibly drank a powdered soft drink flavoring agent (Flavor Aid) mixed with cyanide.


21Knock on Wood

The phrase 'Knock on Wood' derives from the pagan belief that malevolent spirits inhabited wood and that if you expressed a hope for the future you should touch, or knock on, wood to prevent the spirits from hearing and presumably preventing your hopes from coming true.


22. The phrase "Until the bitter end" doesn't refer to feelings of bitterness, but instead is a Nautical term referring to the end of an Anchor, known as "The Bitter."


23. The phrase 'all the way to the bank' was popularized by Liberace. When a journalist implied Liberace was gay, he sent him a telegram saying "What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank." It became his catchphrase after repeating it to reporters while suing the newspaper.


24. While getting "long in the tooth" was originally an idiom regarding horses having less gum/longer teeth in older age, it is now slang in the dental field for gingival (gum) recession, where people, usually men, literally become long in the tooth in old age.


25. The phrase “Cut to the chase” comes from silent movies which often ended with a chase scene. When the film had boring, or too much dialogue executives would say this phrase to the directors.

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