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The History of Sayings

The History of Sayings



The English language is full of weird and wonderful phrases; but have you ever wondered where they come from? Etymology is the history of words, their origins, and how their form and  meaning have changed over time. There is often more than one theory to the origin of a phrase and some are still not known at all, but here are the meanings of a few still very much in use today.





To bite the bullet

When you have to knuckle down and get on with something you really don’t want to do. This saying originated in field surgery before the use of anaesthetic. A surgeon about to operate on a wounded soldier would give him a bullet to bite on to distract him and make him less likely to scream.


Bob’s your uncle!

This dates back to 1887 and is a phrase often used after you have explained how to do something to emphasise that it will be simple and success is guaranteed, for example ‘You simply put on the stain remover, leave it for an hour and Bob’s your uncle, the stain will be gone’.



Both these are nicknames for policemen and come from Sir Robert Peel who founded the first modern police force in 1829.


Born with a silver spoon in your mouth

This term refers to people born into wealth and privilege, insinuating they don’t need to work for their money; they have it given to them. This dates back to the tradition of when a child was christened, the godparents would give them a silver spoon as a gift. However a child born into a rich family did not have to wait. He or she had it all from the start so they were therefore 'born with a silver spoon in their mouth'.


Cat got your tongue?

A way of asking someone why they are silent. There are a couple of theories to the origins of this phrase. Some suggest that it stems from Middle Eastern punishment techniques when liars’ tongues were ripped out and then fed to the kings’ cats, while others say it refers to the cat-o-nine-tails that was used to flog sailors and force them into silence.


Dutch courage

Referring to foolish courage or misplaced confidence inspired by drinking too much alcohol. In the 17th century England and Holland were rivals and fought several wars during that time. It was said, very unfairly, that the Dutch had to drink alcohol to build up their courage, hence the phrase still used today.


For the high jump

Slang for being in big trouble. The phrase refers to the hanging of a convicted criminal, the gallows being the ‘high jump’.


Flying colours

When someone successfully achieves their objective, i.e. passes an exam with distinction, you may say ‘they passed with flying colours’ to show not only did they pass, but they did so easily and extremely well. This originates from the practice of a victorious fleet sailing back to port with their colours proudly flying from their masts.


Gone to pot

We use this phrase to indicate something or someone is no longer useful or has fallen apart. This comes from the idea that any farm animal that had outlived its usefulness such as a hen that no longer laid eggs would literally ‘go to pot’. It was put in a pot, cooked and eaten!



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