March 3, 2024

You rise and shine for class feeling hunky-dory at the chance to paint the town red at swing-dancing tonight. Unfortunately, you soon find out that your friend spilt the beans on another secret of yours, making you lose your marbles and ruining the whole day. You knew it was inevitable- a leopard never changes its spots!

Case in point, this example shows that idioms are a part of our everyday life. Usually they are specific to a culture or language; people from other countries would be horrified to hear some American was running around with his or her head cut off. They are the secret “lingo” we hear, use and write amongst ourselves all the time- but how many do we actually know where in the world they came from? Some are self-explanatory but others have funny or unique stories that make using them that much better.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag
Disclose a secret. In medieval times piglets were frequently sold in markets. They were put into tied bags and given to their new owners, who were warned not to open the bag until they were home in case the piglet tried to escape. Some underhanded traders would put a street cat in the bag instead, and the buyer would not know until at home.

Close But No Cigar
An unsuccessful attempt that is not rewarded. When carnivals were an extremely popular pastime, cigars were given out as prizes for winning a shooting game. Those who came close to shooting the target were impressive contenders but did not receive a cigar.

Dead as a Doornail
Dead and unusable. Nails were once handmade and expensive. When tearing down an old building, all the nails were pulled out and saved for reuse. However, the nails in the door were bent around the door to ensure it would not slide out. Therefore, the doornails were not reusable and deemed dead.

A Fly in the Ointment
A small defect that ruins everything. Many religious ceremonies used ointments as a means of anointing someone. This idiom dates all the way back to biblical days. Ecclesiastes 10:1 states: “As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” Our modern version of the phrase evolved from this example over many years until it made its way into U.S. text in 1707.

Bury the Hatchet
End a quarrel with an enemy. This term originated from an old American-Indian tradition. When a peace treaty was formed between two feuding tribes, the tribal chiefs would signify an end to the argument by burying a hatchet. They believed the hatchet symbolized the vendetta, thrown deep in the dirt and never to be seen again.

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen
Give up and leave if you can’t stand the pressure. Known for his blunt ways of speaking, U.S. President Harry S. Truman is believed to have coined this term even before his presidency. When his staff raised concerns about serious country issues, he was known to relay this saying.

Good Night, Sleep Tight
Sleep well tonight. Mattresses in the colonial days were made of goose feathers, which many men felt was too soft for comfort. To make it firmer, they would tie ropes around the mattress- the tighter the ropes, the firmer the mattress. As a result, they were ensured a good night.

Mind Your Ps and Qs
Exhibit good behavior. In the earliest breweries, the barkeep would have a “tab system.” They would keep a record of sold pints (P) in one column and sold quarts (Q) in another. When someone had been drinking too much, the barkeeps were known to repeat this saying as a subtle hint to abstain from any more.

The following idiom origins were found through reliable internet sites, such as and the California Baptist University library database. Next time you use an idiom, feel free to look up their origins on your own!

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