A closer look at 7 common cliches

Story by Danyelle Opp

For the most part, the majority of people use phrases, idioms and slang terms as a part of everyday vocabulary. However, not many stop to consider the origin and actual meaning of the phrases.

“Not only do words reflect history, but also gender, social class, racial and ethnic backgrounds, heritage, and culture, among others,” says Bridget Hoida Mulholland, an English instructor at Saddleback College who has studied the topic of words and their origins. “Slang, especially can provide insight into youth culture and counter-cultural movements.”

To fully understand the concept and context of idioms, it is necessary to look at their original roots. Here are some popular idioms and phrases and their surprising connotations.

Not only are the origins of these common phrases interesting, but can also help us reflect on our past history. This can give us a better understanding of the English language and the context surrounding it.

“It’s important for us to learn the history of our language, including word and phrase origins, so that we gain not only a better understanding of our language but also insight into the culture from where the words and phrases originated” says Koester.

“Red tape”

Meaning: The phrase “red tape” is used to describe a situation or obstacle in a metaphorical way.

Origin: Legal documents are other tied up with red tape, making them more difficult to open and access.

“It’s raining cats and dogs”

Meaning: It is raining heavily.

Origin: In England during the 1500s, a houses roof was constructed of straw. Many animals would find this a comfortable place to rest. When it rained heavily, many of these animals would fall and end up dead in the street.

“Bite the bullet”

Meaning: To do something you have to do but don’t want to.

Origin: When surgeons were operating on patients before anesthesia was invented, they would often give their patients a bullet or something to bite down on to help cope with the pain.

“The hair of the dog”

Meaning: This refers to drinking an alcoholic drink to cure a hangover from drinking the night before.

Origin: “It originates from a belief that people could be cured of rabies by drinking a concoction that contained the hair of the rabid dog that bit them”, says Saddleback English Professor Kristina Koester.

“I’m your Huckleberry” or “Huckleberry friend”

Meaning: Huckleberry is used to describe someone being their friend or significant other.

Origin: “Huckleberry Friend and/or Huckleberry in a Western context actually refers to a pallbearer,” says Mulholland. “Like the huckleberry bush that brambles next to a riverbed, a “huckleberry” friend is your closest friend. Someone who will stay with you to the end, and carry your coffin all the way down the river.”

“Rule of thumb”

Meaning: A guide or principle to follow.

Origin: “The phrase stemmed from an English law enacted in the late 1700’s where a man could beat with his wife but only with a stick that was no bigger than his thumb,” says Koester. “However, this etymology has been disputed. It may have simply originated from the history of using one’s thumb as a tool to estimate measurements.”

“Put a sock in it”

Meaning: Be quiet.

Origin: Gramophones and record players used to have large horns to produce sound and no volume control. To lower the sound, it was helpful to stuff a sock or piece of cloth in the horn.

(Photo credit: David Blackwell/Flickr. Used with a (CC BY-ND 2.0) license.)

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