Occasionally on Fridays I post facts for our interest or amusement. To begin the series in July 2017, I examined the little known origins of a dozen idioms still used in everyday conversation to explain different situations in a few words. Today I add another dozen to that list.
- Close, but no cigar: almost winning. Carnival games give out stuffed animals as prizes. In the late 19th century, however, adults not children played the games. Instead of getting a teddy bear, winners might get a cigar. If they didn’t earn the prize, they’d be “close, but no cigar.” By the 1930s, the phrase applied to everyday close shots.
- Pull someone’s leg: teasing someone, usually by misleading in an amusing manner. Although said in good fun now, the expression originally described thieves tripping their victims to rob them.
- Know the ropes: experienced, capable. This phrase originates in the golden age of sailing, when understanding how to handle the ropes necessary to operate a ship and its sails was an essential maritime skill. By the mid-19th century it was common slang that survives to this day.
- Riding shotgun: sitting in the front, passenger seat. In the Wild West, the person sitting next to the driver carried a shotgun to protect against outlaws who happened along.
- Show our true colours: reveal our true character. Pirates often sailed falsely under flags of different countries to approach their prey. Once they’d conquered a ship, they’d hoist their real pirate flags.
- Break the ice: commence a friendship. Ships provided the only transportation and means of trade before the advent of road transportation. When they got stuck because of ice formation, the receiving country sent small ships to “break the ice” to clear a way for the trade ships.
- Bury the hatchet: stop a conflict; make peace. This one dates back to the 17th century when the Puritans came into conflict with the Native Americans. During peace negotiations, the Native Americans would bury their hatchets, knives, clubs, and tomahawks, making their weapons inaccessible.
- Pull out all the stops: do everything to make something successful. Alluding to a pipe organ, this saying refers to an organist pulling out all the stops so the organ plays all variations of its sounds as loud as possible.
- Hands down: without a lot of effort; by far. Winning “hands down” once referred to 19th-century horse-racing, when a jockey could remove his hands from the reins and still win the race because he was so far ahead.
- Give a cold shoulder: be unwelcoming to someone. In medieval England, hosts would give guests a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of mutton, pork, or beef chop to communicate politely it was time for them to leave.
- Go the whole nine yards: try your best. During World War II, fighter planes carried nine yards of ammunition. If the pilots ran out, they had tried their utmost to fight off the targets by using the entirety of their ammunition.
- Armed to the teeth: well equipped. Weapon wielders would carry the maximum number of weapons, so many they would be forced to carry some between their teeth.
Feel free to share your favourite idioms in the comments. Or send me fun facts and topics for future post on Fun Facts Fridays! •