The literal roots of common idioms

We all use idioms; we wouldn’t know what to do without them, but if we take them literally, we may sometimes miss their intent. On the other hand, the literal background of certain sayings may help us better understand them.

Have you ever claimed to have correct information by promising that you got it straight from the horse’s mouth? This saying actually did come from those who looked into a horse’s mouth to ascertain his age. It was important to validate the age of the race horse, and its owner might not be trusted to give it correctly. An examination of his teeth, especially of the lower jaw, could tell: the horse’s first permanent teeth do not appear until he is two and a half years old. A year later the second pair begin to come through, and when the horse is between its fourth and fifth year, the third pair appears. Thus the examiner could get the information he needed first hand, straight from the horse’s mouth.

When we say someone is a chip off the old block, we see a youngster as very similar to his parent. The original allusion was to a block of stone; if one knocks a chip from it, the chip will carry all the characteristics of the larger portion.

Though sold down the river is now used with humor, such as a player whose contract is sold to a team of lower standing or of an employee who is transferred to a more humble position, it was once very literal. It was used in connection to the domestic slave trade in the United States. Because cotton and sugar plantations of the South and Southwest were expanding, slaves from the worn-out tobacco belt of the upper South were purchased by dealers and were transported down the Mississippi River to markets at Natchez or New Orleans.

If someone calls you an eager beaver, should you feel complimented or insulted? The beaver has often had a reputation for persistent industry. This gave us the simile “to work like a beaver.” Since industrious persons have been likened to the beaver, and an English-speaking individual is known for rhymes (hodge-podge, helter-skelter, pell-mell), the individual who is particularly, and sometimes offensively, avaricious in his industry may be called an eager beaver.

The lame duck often refers to a congressman who having been defeated in the election still has several months of his term to serve. But why lame, and why duck? It comes from Exchange Alley where London stockbrokers conducted their business prior to 1773. Like our Wall Street being called the Street, the British exchange was referred to as the Alley. This was where the two classes of stockbrokers were known first as bulls and bears. The third class, those cleaned out, were known as lame ducks because they “waddled out of the Alley.”

Maybe that class wandered away feeling they might as well kick the bucket. Though there are a variety of theories for the origin of this saying, one common idea is that of prisoners being made to stand on upturned buckets with nooses around their necks. When the bucket was kicked out from under them, they would be hanged.

That brings us to the idea of the bucket list, things one wants to try or accomplish before his death. And since one never knows just when that time will come, some say that having a bucket list is to have a life and utilize it fully before it is knocked out from under your feet. Go for that list and that life.

— Sandi Ekberg taught high school English in Medford for 30 years. If you have grammar questions, email her at ifixgrammar@charter.net.

Share This Story