Where in the World Did That Come From?

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Oct 18, 2014

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Marcus Garvey

Today I would like to take you on a linguistic journey back to the origin of some of our most familiar sayings. Since we regularly use them, the link to how they got started is probably unknown to most of us. 

For example, we will have to Bite the Bullet. This saying, which means to accept something that is difficult or unpleasant, actually began on the battlefield. If a soldier was injured and he needed emergency medical care and anesthesia was not available, the surgeon had the soldier bite down on a bullet in an attempt to distract him from the pain he was about to experience.

Who of us has not said Cat Got Your Tongue to convey that person is at a loss for words?  There are two possible sources for this saying. The first refers to the cat-of-nine-tails, a whip used by the English Navy for flogging. The whip caused so much pain that the victims were left speechless. The second refers to the practice of cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and feeding them to cats.

Being Caught Red Handed refers to being caught doing something wrong. This saying originated because of a law. If someone butchered an animal that didn’t belong to him, he had to be caught with the animal’s blood on his hands to be convicted. Being caught with freshly cut meat did not make the person guilty.

Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water means that we want to hang on to valuable things when getting rid of unnecessary things. During the 1500s, most people bathed once a year. Even when they did bathe, the entire family used the same tubful of water. The man of the house bathed first, followed by other males, then females, and finally the babies. You can imagine how thick and cloudy the water became by that time, so the infants’ mothers had to take care not to throw them out with the bathwater when they emptied the tub.

We all know that to Give Someone the Cold Shoulder means that we are impolitely or rudely telling someone that they are not welcome. And, although today that is considered doing something negative, it was actually originally regarded as a polite gesture in medieval England. After a meal, the host would let his guests know it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton, or pork.

To Go the Whole Nine Yards describes someone who is trying to do one’s best. During World War II fighter pilots received a 9-yard chain of ammunition. Therefore, when a pilot used all of his ammunition on a target, he gave it “the whole nine yards.”

When someone Spills the Beans we are saying that we have revealed a secret. In ancient Greece, beans were used to vote for candidates entering various organizations. One container was used for each candidate and any group members could place a white bean in the container if they approved of the candidate and a black bean if they did not. Sometimes a clumsy voter would accidentally knock over the jar, revealing all of the beans and allowing everyone to see the otherwise confidential votes. 

Did you know that to say Show Your True Colors, which we all know means to reveal one’s true nature, came from warships that flew multiple flags to confuse their enemies. However, the rules of warfare stated that a ship had to hoist its true flag before firing and hence, display the country’s true colors. 

I am sharing a few of these to simply Break the Ice by trying to Butter You Up before I must Eat Humble Pie by going Cold Turkey to stop. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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