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How did they begin? The fascinating origins of 10 everyday sayings

Does the phrase ‘butter someone up’ have you picturing a spatula and tub of Dairy Soft?

What about the phrase ‘let the cat out of the bag’? Do you imagine a clever kitten prancing out of your mother’s purse?

On their own, idioms seem rather bizarre. But their origins are often surprising – and amusing. So if you’re curious about the birth of some of these fanciful phrases, let us take you on a trip down memory lane.

1. Butter someone up

What it means: to praise or flatter someone, usually to gain a favour.

Where it came from: This idiom has roots in ancient India, where people would throw butter balls at the statues of gods in hopes of good fortune and favour.

How to use it: Victoria wanted the last cookie. That’s why she was buttering Sara up all day.

2. Let the cat out of the bag

What it means: to mistakenly reveal a secret.

Where it came from: This idiom comes from the sixteenth-century fraud of substituting a cat for a piglet at a market.

When the cat was let out of the bag, the jig was up. And as humourist Will Rogers once put it (which still holds true today): Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.

How to use it: We planned a surprise party for Hannah, but I let the cat out of the bag when I left the invitations on the table.

3. Bite the bullet

What it means: to perform a painful task or endure an unpleasant situation.

Where it came from: Cleaning the bathroom can be a chore. But not as horrible as the experiences of patients in the 1800s who had to have surgery without anaesthesia. The patients would literally bite on a bullet to cope with the pain. Ouch! Smelly toilets never sounded better.

How to use it: Just bite the bullet and clean the toilet!

4. Pull someone’s leg

What it means: to tease someone, usually by lying in a joking manner.

Where it came from: There are two popular theories for the origin of this phrase.

The first one refers to how thieves robbed their victims by tripping their legs. And the second refers to people who were hired to hang on the legs of gallows victims – speeding up their fate.

So yes, legs were harmed in the making of this idiom. But luckily, the only thing bruised with this idiom today is one’s ego.

How to use it: Vikki cried when I said that I ate the last croissant… but I was only pulling her leg.

5. Barking up the wrong tree

What it means: to pursue a misguided course of action.

Where it came from: While this idiom doesn’t involve actual barking today, it originated from hunting in 1800s America. Prey would trick dogs into thinking they were up a certain tree, therefore making the dog bark up the wrong tree.

How to use it: You’re trying to say that feminism isn’t important? Well, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

6. Fly off the handle

What it means: to suddenly become enraged.

Where it came from: This phrase stems from the 1800s when a loose axe-head would fly off its handle, creating shock and anger. But when someone ‘flies off the handle’ today, we hope the consequences aren’t so dire.

How to use it: When I found out that Aaron had eaten the last piece of my cake, I flew off the handle!

7. Hit the nail on the head

What it means: to do or say something that’s exactly right.

Where it came from: It’s not entirely clear where this phrase came from, but its roots are definitely in carpentry. A popular analogy for it is that when hammering, you want to hit the nail exactly on the head to get the best result.

How to use it: So you’re saying I’m hilarious, intelligent and beautiful? You’ve hit the nail on the head!

8. Cost an arm and a leg

What it means: to see something as expensive or costly.

Where it came from: Don’t worry, this phrase doesn’t actually involve selling one’s arm and leg. This idiom comes from the early twentieth century when soldiers would lose a hand, arm, foot or leg. The war would literally cost the person their arm or leg.

How to use it: I’d love to take a trip to space but it would cost me an arm and a leg!

9. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

What it means: don’t discard something valuable along with something undesirable.

Where it came from: This comes from the times when a whole household bathed in the same water – and babies bathed last. The bath water and the baby are said to have been so dirty, people risked throwing both out.

How to use it: John threw the baby out with the bath water when he quit his job after his ex started working there.

10. Beat a dead horse

What it means: to waste effort on something when there is no chance of succeeding.

Where it came from: I’m sure we’ve all beat a dead horse before. Not literally – but figuratively.

This expression comes from the mid-nineteenth century, when people would make horses go faster by beating them. But to beat a dead horse? That would be pointless.

How to use it: The teachers lectured their students on the dangers of technology. But I think they were beating a dead horse.