50 Interesting Facts about Popular Idioms and Phrases

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1 Return of post

Return of post

In Victorian London, mail was delivered to homes 12 times a day. “Return of post” was a commonly used phrase for requesting an immediate response to be mailed at the next scheduled delivery. It was quite common for people to complain if a letter didn’t arrive within a few hours.

2. Instead of using the idiom, “It’s all Greek to me,” when something looks like gibberish, the Greeks themselves often say, “It’s Turkish,” Turks say, “It’s French,” the French say, “It’s Hebrew,” Hebrew speakers say, “It’s Chinese,” and Chinese people say, “This looks like its from Mars.”

3. We call people with red hair “redheads” as opposed to “orange heads” because the phrase has been around longer than the color orange. The color orange was described as red up until the 1500s when the first reference of orange in the English language can be found.

4. The idiom “to steal someone’s thunder” originated from the dramatist John Dennis who found out that his idea for a thunder machine for his play was stolen and used in a different play in the same theater.

5. A Listerine mouthwash ad from the 1920s coined the phrase, “Often a bridesmaid but never a bride” to describe women with bad breath.

6 This Too Shall Pass

This Too Shall Pass

An ancient Persian poet recorded the fable of a King who challenged wise men to make him a ring that would make him both happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. They succeeded by giving him a ring etched with the phrase “This Too Shall Pass.”

7. The idiom “Turning a blind eye” is attributed to Admiral Horatio Nelson who, in the midst of battle and given the permission to retreat by his superior, lifted the telescope to his eye (blinded from an earlier injury) and said “I really do not see the signal” and pressed on with the attack.

8. “Daughter from California syndrome” is a phrase which is often used in the medical profession to describe the situation in which a long-absent family member arrives while a patient is dying to demand inappropriately aggressive care.

9. The apples in the phrase “how do you like them apples” refer to World War 1 trench mortars nicknamed “toffee apples” used by the British.

10. The phrase “pull out all the stops” derives from pipe organs. Organ stops, the knobs around the organ console, are pulled or pushed to control whether or not a section of pipes produce sound, and consequently the volume. When you need to play the organ at full volume, you pull out all the stops.

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11 Seeing is believing

Seeing is believing

The often-quoted idiom “seeing is believing” leaves out half of the original sentence. The full quote from 17th-century English clergyman, Thomas Fuller, is “Seeing is believing, but feeling is the truth.”

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

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. The phrase ’23 Skidoo’, meaning “let’s get out of here”, was America’s first truly national fad expression.

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16 Snipe Hunt

Snipe Hunt

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

17. The idiom “When my ship comes in” originated with sailors’ wives who promised to pay off debts when the sailors’ ships returned to port.

18. 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.

19. 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.

20. 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.

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21 O’clock


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.

22. 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.

23. 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.

24. 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.

25. 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.

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  1. Number 20 “Break a leg” I always thought the saying was from overusing the curtains during many encores. Break a leg is breaking the leg curtains from opening them over and over again for repeated encores.



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