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The Origin of Expressions

Posted by Failed Success on 04/07/06 at 11:14 AM

Origin of ExpressionsSo many phrases and expressions have been passed down from generation to generation, what do they mean?

Throughout everyday conversation, you very likely hear at least one of many expressions used to describe a particular situation.

Many times these expressions don’t make very much sense on their own, but we understand their meaning because we have heard them used for years and it has become somewhat of a verbal tradition. If you are like me, and I’m sure you are, you most likely are inclined to ask, “What is the etymology of that idiom?”

The origins and histories of idioms, sadinys, phrases, and other expressions are often even more fascinating than the etymologies of the individual words themselves. Sometimes there are elaborate circumstances behind the formation of a popular phrase, other times it’s questionable as to how a certain phrase ever made it into our vernacular in the first place.

Let’s examine a few well known phrases and expressions and take a peek at the known history or their origin as well as what they stand for today.

Throw in the TowelTo Throw in the Towel

This popular phrase is pretty well known and not much of a mystery as to its origins. For the sake of thoroughness, however, let’s take a look.

When you throw in the towel what you are doing is giving up. You are quitting because you have decided that you can’t take it any more. You are admitting surrender or defeat.

“After staying up for 18 hours watching a marathon of The Mythbusters, James finally decided to throw in the towel and head to bed.”

In its original form, to throw up the sponge, this appears in “The Slang Dictionary” (1860). The reference is to the sponges used to cleanse combatants’ faces at prize fights. One contestant’s manager throwing in the sponge would signal that, as that side had had enough, the sponge was no longer required. In recent years, towels have been substituted for sponges at fights, and consequently in the expression too.

Where in the Sam HillWhere in the Sam Hill?

This is a rather old expression and isn’t used much anymore in typical conversation. You can still witness its use many times in older movies as well as the classic Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Yosemite Sam. It was used as an alteration of “Where in the hell”.

“Where in the sam hill did that little bugger run off to?”

The expression “Sam Hill” was born in early 19th century America. During that time, it was considered “vulgar” and “improper” to use profanity in civilized conversation. This included the word “hell”.

This expression was the result of altering the word “hell”, using “hill” instead to deem it proper to use in public. The use of the name “Sam” is believed to have been derived from Samiel, the devil in von Weber’s opera Der Freishuetz, first performed in New York City in 1825. Upon putting those two words together, listeners were able to quickly realize that the speaker was referring to hell.

Wet Your WhistleTo Wet your Whistle

This expression is used most commonly to refer to enjoying a beverage or liquid refreshment of some type. It still remains popular in some conversation today and can be found in movies and television shows quite often as well.

“You look parched, why don’t you come in and wet your whistle”

This expression is commonly believed to have begun many years ago in England. Pub owners had a whistle baked into the ceramic cups that drinks were served in.  When a patron of the pub finished their drink and desired a refill, they used the whistle to call for the barmaid indicating that they wanted another drink.

Break the IceTo Break the Ice

One of the more popular and commonly used expressions in today’s vernacular, this expression means; to relax a tense or formal atmosphere or social situation or to make a start on some endeavor.

“Talking about FailedSuccess.com is a great way to break the ice in social gatherings”

Centuries ago, the most common forms of travel and commerce were through the use of rivers and lakes. These bodies of water were the lifeblood for communities of all sizes. During the winter, they would freeze over in colder climates, making them impassable. Once spring arrived, these bodies of water would warm and the ice would break up, allowing boats to pass. This marked the beginning of the season’s activity after the winter freeze. This expression has been used to describe the start of an enterprise for about 400 years.

It became widely used to describe social situations and conversation in 1823, when the expression was used in Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” in this passage:

And your cold people [the British] are beyond all price,
When once you’ve broken their confounded ice.


Here is a quick breakdown of a few other expressions that pop up every now and then.

As Mad as a Hatter – This expression is used to describe utter insanity. Mercury used to be used in the manufacture of felt hats, so hatters, or hat makers, would come into contact with this poisonous metal a lot. Unfortunately, the effect of such exposure may lead to mercury poisoning, one of the symptoms of which is insanity.

Make No Bones about it – This expression means to speak frankly or directly. A form of this expression was used as early as 1459, to mean to have no difficulty. It seems evident that the allusion is to the actual occurrence of bones in stews or soup. Soup without bones would offer no difficulty, and accordingly one would have no hesitation in swallowing soup with no bones.

Once in a Blue Moon – This expression means something happens rarely. There are rare examples of the moon actually appearing blue, after volcanic eruptions or unusual weather conditions. The most likely origin is from The Maine Farmers’ Almanac. When there were two full moons in a calendar month the first was printed in red, the second in blue. A “blue moon” happens about once every 1.5 years.


GenerationsThese are just a few of the colorful expressions of our language that seem to pop up in conversation and culture over a century after their creation. It’s amazing that many of these terms are still used, considering that the circumstances of their origins no longer apply to today’s world for the most part. They have become a verbal tradition passed down from one generation to the next.

You may have used one of these phrases more than once throughout your own conversations because you heard it from your parents, or grandparents, or someone else. I’ve often wondered just how long many of these expressions will live on in our vocabularies.

Most likely they will still be in use, in some form or another, another hundred years from now. The people using them probably will have no clue why they are using the expression, other than the fact that they’ve heard others use it, and that is just the way that a particular situation has always been described.

- Even more idioms and their histories at Idiomsite.com
- Learn about more idioms and phrases and their respective origins at Phrases.org

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Previous Comments

  1. Where on earth was this invented as an alternative to calling a weddng day by its name? I mean think about it - it’s senseless. Since every single day is made up of 24 hours each, no more or no less. It puzzles me somewhat. I’m not aware of any other language that would call a wedding day, a “big day”. Please, if anyone knows the answer, do tell. Thankyou.

    Posted by "My Big Day"  on  03/26/09  at  12:47 AM
  2. charity starts at home first

    Posted by charity  on  02/05/09  at  12:54 AM
  3. pin money

    Posted by fanfare123  on  12/03/08  at  03:40 PM
  4. you explain the obvious ones,,,duh

    Posted by Tami  on  01/28/08  at  08:43 AM
  5. Two sheets to the wind?

    Posted by Ken  on  01/22/08  at  05:21 PM
  6. :) OMG U r so lame your mother has to help u with picking out your clothes.

    Posted by Brittany  on  05/05/06  at  11:15 AM
  7. Thanks for that link to Phrases.org, I just wasted over an hour digging through there :)

    Posted by william  on  04/09/06  at  12:05 PM