11 popular expressions explained
Why do we bury the hatchet?
The phrase, meaning to end an argument or conflict, refers back to a Native American custom in the seventeenth century whereby a hatchet or tomahawk would be buried in the ground to signal the laying down of arms and the declaration of peace between warring groups.
Why do we talk about stealing someone’s thunder?
The story goes that an eighteenth-century actor manager, John Dennis, invented a machine that reproduced the sound of thunder for the stage. When a subsequent production used this invention, Dennis apparently shouted, ‘Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!’
Where does the expression ‘playing to the gallery’ come from?
From the mid-seventeenth century, the highest (and cheapest) seating in a theatre was called the gallery. This was where the least refined members of the audience were found, hence, to play to the gallery is to appeal to popular taste.
Who was the fat lady whose song meant the end of something?
It ain’t over till the fat lady sings is used to reassure someone that there is still time for something good to happen. The first example found to date comes from reporting on a 1976 basketball game: ‘The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings’. Operas, of course, frequently involve a well-endowed soprano closing the proceedings with a famous aria.
Why do we call hooligans yobs?
Yob is an example of ‘back-slang’—a form of slang in which words are spelt backwards as a code so that others are unable to understand them. ‘Yob’ is simply ‘boy’ spelt backwards.
Where does the expression ‘by the skin of my teeth’ come from?
Meaning ‘narrowly’ or ‘barely’, and referring usually to a narrow escape from disaster, the phrase comes from a translation of the Book of Job in the Bible, in which Job is subjected to horrible trials by Satan, to be relieved finally by God.
Does the word ‘bankrupt’ come from a literal breaking of a bank?
Not exactly, although the theory is on the right lines. In the sixteenth century, moneylenders or traders used to conduct their business on benches outdoors. The usual Italian word for such benches was banca—hence today’s ‘bank’. A banca rotta was a ‘broken bench’.
Why are French, Spanish, and Italian known as the Romance languages?
Historically, ‘romance’ means ‘of Rome’. As the Roman Empire disintegrated, the Latin word romanticus came to be associated with the languages that developed from the Latin of ancient Rome.
By the time romanticus reached Old French, as romanz, it was being widely used to refer to stories in the local language, as opposed to latinus. Since many of these tales told of brave knights and their chivalrous rescues of fair maidens, resulting inevitably in love, the words ‘romance’ and ‘romantic’ took on the meanings they have today.
Where does the phrase ‘in a nutshell’ come from?
The phrase, used when we want to sum something up in a concise way, originates in an ancient story. The Roman scholar Pliny describes the philosopher Cicero witnessing a copy of Homer’s epic poem the Iliad written on a piece of parchment small enough to fit into the shell of a walnut.
Where does the expression ‘apple of discord’ come from?
An apple of discord, also known as apple of contention or apple of dissension, is a cause or subject of strife or dissension. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the phrase alludes to the mythical tale of Eris, goddess of discord, who threw a golden apple inscribed ‘For the fairest’ among the guests at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, thus sparking a dispute between the goddesses Hera, Athene, and Aphrodite.
What is the origin of the phrase ‘the greatest thing since sliced bread’?
Although the bread slicer was invented by the American engineer Otto Rohwedder in the early 20th century, the expression didn’t come into prominence until the 1960s. Its general use harkens back to the impact the innovation of sliced bread had on society during the Great Depression.