Weird Origins of 15 Expressions

Posted on March 10, 2011
Views: 18,036

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Have you ever heard people say things like “it takes two to tango” or “that man has a huge chip on his shoulder” and wondered how the hell such expressions came about? What’s even odder is the fact that, despite not knowing what these things literally refer to, you somehow know exactly what these mean proverbially. You will probably even repeat them over and over throughout your life like a trained parrot.


Anyway, let’s get to it. What follows are fifteen weird origins of popular expressions.


“If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you”


Lets begin with a common expression that’s still trotted out whenever the stench of bulls*** has hit new levels of ridiculousness. The proverb in question originated in the 1800’s, thanks to the shady/hard work of infamous con man George C. Parker. The notorious swindler made a fortune “selling” New York landmarks such as The Statue of Liberty, The Met, Madison Square Garden and Grant’s Tomb to tourists dumb enough to believe he owned the property. His number one item of course was the Brooklyn Bridge which he sold twice a week for years. Parker convinced people they could make a mint controlling access to the bridge. He reportedly received as much as $50,000 for the bridge. On an unrelated note; Weirdworm has recently decided to sell the Internet at a special discount price. Please contact us for further details.


“You certainly had the wool pulled over your eyes”


More than just being a declaration of you being fooled, this snarky expression also seems to invoke a mocking delight of your gullibility. Interestingly, the expression originates from the eighteenth century and later British courts. Back then distinctive (girly looking) wool wigs were worn by attorneys and judges. Whenever a slick lawyer won a case, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, it would signify that he had blinded the judge with his own wig. Thankfully, lawyers today no longer resort to lies and deceitful tactics to win their cases.



“Never look a gift horse in the mouth”


The origin of this ancient saying is fairly straight forward. True to form, the expression involves an actual horse. The proverb dates back to 400 A.D. when St. Jerome wrote a heated letter to an unappreciative recipient of a horse, which he’d given as a gift. St. Jerome believed it polite to simply accept the horse as is. That is to say, he thought the man should have accepted his gift without any pissing and moaning. As a side note, it’s always been commonplace to check out a new horse’s mouth so that you can tell its age and condition by its teeth. However, the person who received St. Jerome’s gift apparently inspected the hell out of the horse right in front of him and was pretty much a total dick about it. If that one angry letter gave us this timeless proverb, just imagine how many bitter nerd rants from the web could potentially inspire future expressions.


“A Bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”


A recent Geiko commercial which took this proverb quite literally has given this old proverb some new life. The expression goes back to mediaeval falconry where a bird in the hand (meaning the falcon) was considered highly valuable and worth more than two in the bush. So what the hell does it mean? Basically it means that it is better to have a small, but real advantage rather than the possibility of a greater one. This is a subtle but wise notion that degenerate gamblers tend to shamelessly disregard.



“I heard it through the grapevine”


Sadly this expression has nothing to do with the singing California Raisins. However, we didn’t let that stop us from using their image, as all the internet traffic that’s not driven by lust is driven by nostalgia. Typically, people take this expression to mean that they heard some sort of news via rumors or general gossip. However, its origins actually date back to the American Civil War. In 1859, Colonel Bee set up a rudimentary telegraph line between Placerville and Virginia City by stringing wires from trees (seriously). These wires hung much like wild grapevines, hence the expression. Naturally, by the time news actually filtered through the grapevine it was outdated, inaccurate or flat out bull****…much like the information reported through gossiping Twitter accounts, old ladies playing Pinochle and Fox News.


“This is my wife…she’s my better half”


This sickening…we mean… charming expression of love is typically thought to be self explanatory. However the expression actually derives from an ancient Middle Eastern legend. Supposedly, a Bedouin man was sentenced to death but his wife pleaded with the tribal leader not to punish him. Her reasoning was that that because they were married they were “one” and so punishing him also meant punishing her (her being his innocent half). The tribal leader shockingly bought the ridiculous argument and the man was set free. Thus, the man’s life was saved by his “better half”. The story isn’t that unbelievable considering how easy it can be for some women to get out of traffic tickets.



“That dude has a serious chip on his shoulder”


You know the type. The person who stomps through life being annoyingly confrontational and aching for a fight. These types of d-bags tend to have severe anger management issues and their excessive attention whoring lets everyone know it. The expression which describes such people came from old England. We’re talking the days when a man would challenge another man to a duel by slapping his face with a glove. Well another thing such men would do was place a wooden chip on their shoulder. Anyone who dared to knock off the wooden chip was in for a brawl.



“I’ll be there with bells on”


This particular expression originated during the frontier days. Back then, peddlers would do their best to travel silently between settlements to avoid hostile forests. However, when they finally reached a safe settlement they would hang their bells around their horse’s necks. This was a way to cheerfully announce that they’d arrived and not been consumed by a bear during their journey. The peddler’s appearance often brought news, letters, packages and goods from the outside world. So a peddler arriving “with bells on” was an awesome event for the isolated settlers who were likely bored out of their minds since youtube and videogames had yet to be invented.


“Did you hear? Joey Whatshisface bought the farm”


Okay, maybe you don’t hear this one too much anymore but, damn it, we know you’ve at least heard it (don’t make us knock the chip off your shoulder). Basically the saying refers to someone passing away. During WWII, airmen began using the expression whenever a fellow pilot was shot down. It meant that if you gave your life for your country, your family would receive insurance benefits after your death. Dying for your country essentially implied that you were “buying the farm” for your loved ones by paying off the mortgage on the family farm.


“The proof is in the pudding”


Aside from simply making people hungry, this old adage has a unique origin. First, the phrase we tend to use is actually an abbreviated version of the term “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”…which actually makes a lot more sense. The obvious point of the term is that to fully experience something you need to test it out for yourself. The loose paraphrase has been credited to Cervantes in The History of Don Quixote. But seriously, aren’t you really in the moods for pudding now?


“That ***** was born with a silver spoon in his mouth”


Unless your last name is Trump or Hilton chances are you were not born “with a silver spoon in your mouth”. However we bet you can easily and angrily point out anyone who was. The term which is reserved for those born into wealth without having to earn it derives from a very old custom. Godparents used to give the gift of a spoon at babies christenings to signify their responsibility for the child’s well-being. If the Godparent was wealthy then the spoon would be silver. If they were broke then it would be pewter or tin…or perhaps just a note that said “IOU one spork”.


“Pushing the envelope”


Before this phrase became associated with obnoxious business-speak, such as “we’re forging ahead with a campaign that will push the envelope and increase our marketability”, it actually had a much more respectable connotation. The phrase was originally an aviation term that referred to instructions given to test pilots which challenged their known flight limitations. Such orders were often extremely dangerous and potentially fatal. Assignments of this nature were delivered in envelopes and silently pushed across a desk from man to another. Yup, just like something you’d see in a cheesy Hollywood action flick.


“She’s giving her the cold shoulder”


When someone is blatantly snubbing another person (high school style) this is the appropriate descriptive phrase. It originated in Europe during the middle ages. The term actually had two implications: the first instance referred to any guest who overstayed their welcome. Such people were promptly served cooked (but intentionally cold) beef shoulder for their daily meals. This passive aggressive action went on until the unwanted guest got the hint and finally left. The second instance of a cold shoulder referred to leftover mutton. This was food saved for the sole purpose of giving it to the poor to discourage them from begging. You know, because just ignoring them wasn’t any fun.


“Yo…Lets hang out”


The phrase “hanging out” is arguably one of the most popular on our list. Surprisingly, it dates back to when English shopkeepers would set up poles in front of their stores. They’d hang flags from these poles advertising their goods. Obviously this was long before commercial signs and it worked much better than just randomly screaming out your daily ads to anyone that happened to walk by. These flagged poles came to be known as hangouts. They were the spots that people (a.k.a. the cool kids) would come and waste time with their friends.


“Good night, sleep tight…don’t let the bed bugs bite”


We’re going to finish off our list with a phrase many parents whisper to their children before bed. That is, if their kid is actually quiet and going to sleep. Otherwise the only thing unruly kids will hear before bedtime is “Damn it, you are driving me f***ing insane! Go to sleep now before I put you up for adoption you monstrous little demon spawn!” Anyway, back in the sixteenth century, this expression was born when British farmers decided that sleeping in beds was probably more comfortable than sleeping on the ground. Unfortunately it wasn’t really much of an upgrade. Bedding consisted of straw-filled mattresses tied to elevated frames and bound together with rope. To secure the mattress before sleeping, you would tighten the ropes. As for the second part…


As we mentioned earlier, since mattresses back then were made of organic materials such as straw (as well as leaves, pine needles and reeds) such materials would often rot. Mattresses also formed mildew and became home to rats, mice and bugs. Basically when people stated, "don't let the bed bugs bite," they were as serious as a heart attack. A heart attack perhaps brought on by waking up with a rat chewing on your foot, baby mice nesting in your hair and bugs slowly devouring your flesh.

Sleep tight! Written by Anthony Quaglia – Copyrighted ©

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