8 unexpected origins of everyday phrases
Let’s take a look at some phrases whose origins might not be quite what you think…
1. Pass the buck
We all know that buck is informal American English for a dollar. Indeed, it can also be used for an Australian dollar, a New Zealand dollar, a South African rand, and an Indian rupee – but none of those senses are related to pass the buck, meaning ‘shift the responsibility to someone else’.
This particular buck is ‘an article placed as a reminder in front of a player whose turn it is to deal at poker’ – which means passing it makes much more sense. This item also gives us the phrase the buck stops here; both figurative phrases have moved far beyond their poker origins.
2. Turn over a new leaf
You might have wondered what raking the lawn had to do with the decision to ‘start to act or behave in a better or more responsible way’. Well, it has nothing to do with foliage, in case you were wondering, but relates to another common use of leaf: one of the pages in a book. A similar derivation gives us to take a leaf out of someone’s book, meaning ‘imitate or emulate someone in a particular way’.
3. Push the envelope
To push the envelope means ‘to approach or extend the limits of what is possible’. Shoving stationery across a desk doesn’t feel particularly risky, and there’s a reason for that; this envelope isn’t the sort you’d put letters in. As we discovered in a post about the linguistic influence of aviation, push the envelope was originally aviation slang relating to graphs of aerodynamic performance and exceeding the set of limiting combinations of speed and altitude.
4. Ring the changes
An editor might ring the changes in red, but this phrase – meaning ‘vary the ways of expressing or doing something’ – has nothing to do with pen and paper. Instead, it came originally with allusion to bell-ringing and the different orders in which a peal of bells may be rung.
5. Leave someone in the lurch
You might have made a mental connection between the phrase leave someone in the lurch (‘leave an associate or friend abruptly and without assistance or support when they are in a difficult situation’) and the common noun lurch (‘an abrupt uncontrolled movement, especially an unsteady tilt or roll’). It turns out that they’re unrelated; the word lurch in this phrase derives from the French lourche, which is the name of a game resembling backgammon. In French, you might find it in demeurer lourche, ‘be discomfited’.
6. Lick into shape
You could be justified for thinking that lick into shape – ‘act forcefully to bring someone or something into a fitter, more efficient, or better-organized state’ – was connected with the equally forceful use of lick as a verb to mean ‘overcome decisively’ or ‘beat or thrash’. Well, perhaps unsurprisingly this lick is the more common tongue-related variety, but the animal in question might not be what you expected. In Medieval Europe, it was believed that bears’ young were born shapeless, and licking into shape refers to the alleged practice of bears licking their offspring into ursine form.
7. Flash in the pan
A flash in the pan is ‘a thing or person whose sudden but brief success is not repeated or repeatable’, but where does the term come from? If you’re thinking anything to do with cooking or panning for gold, then you’re barking up the wrong tree: flash in the pan is with allusion to the priming of a firearm. The flash arises from an explosion of gunpowder within the pan, which was a part of the lock that held the priming in old types of gun.
8. Pull out all the stops
Pull out all the stops means ‘make a very great effort to achieve something’ or ‘do something very elaborately or on a grand scale’, and makes figurative reference to the stops of an organ. These stops are organ pipes of a particular tone and range of pitch and the handles which control them; by pulling all the stops out, you would create a louder, more elaborate sound.