It’s time we let the cat out of the bag. If you take everything literally, you might be thinking why would someone put their cat in a bag? What did the cat do to them? Isn’t this animal cruelty? In fact, this crazy sounding sentence is just an idiom. What the saying actually means is to let a secret out to the public, that was supposed to be kept, well, secret. So the next time someone lets the cat out of the bag do not immediately pick up your phone and call the RSPCA.
Every culture has its own collection of wise sayings or idioms. They offer advice about how to live and also transfer some underlying ideas, principles and values of the given society. These sayings are called idioms – or proverbs if they are longer.
We don’t want to put all our “eggs in one basket” but some of our favourites are the common good luck call to “break a leg” and the classic thanks but no thanks “it’s just not my cup of tea”.
Here are a few common sayings explained and their origin:
1 / Steal someone’s thunder
Nothing to do with the weather…
Meaning: To use someone else’s idea or take attention away from him
Origin: In 1704, John Dennis, a British playwright, created a new technique for simulating the sound of thunder for his play, Appius and Virginia. The play flopped and quickly closed, but Dennis’ method of replicating thunder’s sound was used shortly after in a production of Macbeth. Dennis was upset that someone had poached his idea and was later quoted as saying, “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder”.
2 / Mad as a hatter
Meaning: Crazy or insane
Origin: In the 18th and 19th centuries, hatmakers treated hats with mercury. The mercury vapor affected the hatmakers’ nervous systems, causing them to tremble and appear mad.
3 / Paint the town red
Meaning: To have a big or a wild night out – usually alcohol related
Origin: In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford (a known troublemaker) took a group of friends out drinking in the English town of Melton Mowbray. During the evening, the crew created a path of destruction by breaking windows, tipping over flower pots and pulling knockers off doors. They ended the night by painting a tollgate, the doors of several homes and a swan statue red.
A second possible origin for this idiom is the American West, and it refers to men behaving as if their entire town was a red-light district.
4 / Wear your heart on your sleeve
Meaning: To make your feelings obvious
Origin: This idiom has a few possible origins. One theory is that it comes from the Middle Ages, when knights would dedicate their performance in a tournament to a woman of the court. The knight would tie a token from the woman, such as a handkerchief, to his arm to indicate his performance would defend her honor.
A second theory also originates in the Middle Ages. Emperor Claudius II believed men performed better in battle when they were not romantically attached, so he declared marriage illegal. However, as a concession, he allowed temporary coupling. Once a year during the Roman festival of Juno, men drew names to determine whom they would date for the year. The men would wear the names of their chosen women on their sleeves during the rest of the festival.
The third theory is that William Shakespeare invented the expression. He used it in Othello.
5 / Butter someone up
Meaning: To flatter a person
Origin: This idiom dates back to an ancient Indian custom of throwing balls of ghee (a type of butter used in Indian cooking) at the statues of gods to seek their favor. Tibetans also have a tradition of making butter sculptures each New Year in the hope that it will bring peace and happiness.
6 / Turn a blind eye
Meaning: To purposely ignore something
Origin: During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the one-eyed British naval officer Horatio Nelson ignored his superior officer’s signal to withdraw by moving his telescope to his bad eye and saying, “I really do not see the signal”. Nelson went on to win the battle.
7 / Once in a blue moon
Meaning: Something that happens rarely
Origin: A blue moon refers to when we see a full moon twice in one calendar month-not the moon’s color. This phenomenon occurs every two or three years. Some people believe “blue” may come from the obsolete “belewe,” which meant “to betray.” A betrayer moon was an additional full moon that appeared in the spring that meant Catholics would have to fast for an additional month during Lent.
We had a blue moon at the end of July, so it will be a while until the next one.
8 / Spill the beans
This has nothing to with lentils…
Meaning: To let a secret out
Origin: In ancient Greece, people would cast votes by placing black or white beans in a jar. If someone spilled the jar, the outcome of the election would be revealed prematurely.
9 / Bite the bullet
Origin: In the olden days, when doctors were short on anesthesia or time during a battle, they would ask the patient to bite down on a bullet to distract from the pain. The first recorded use of the phrase was in 1891 in The Light that Failed.
This is just a quick look at some commonly used sayings. These all stem from historical events, legends, important figures, and religion for the basis of many of these expressions. They are still “going strong” on todays everyday language.
10 / What’s your favourite idiom?
Do you know where it comes from? Please share in the comments.