The origins of popular Idioms


Popular sayings have all manner of surprising origins, and often reflect unique features of the time and place in which they entered common speech. Some sayings, or idioms, are so ubiquitous that we will use them as part of our day-to-day vocabulary without any knowledge of their true origins.

Below we’re going to take a look at the intriguing background of some of the most common sayings and popular idioms that can be found in use today.

Under the weather

To feel under the weather is to feel unwell or sick. This unusual saying would appear to have a maritime basis. This is because crew-members who found themselves unwell would typically go below-deck to recover. When below-deck, under the part of the vessel known as the weather bow, one is protected from the harsh elements one finds out at sea.

Photo by Bruce Warrington on Unsplash

As such, one in this situation would literally be underneath the weather, safe and dry. As befitting its origins, this term appears to have first become popular in the early years of the 19th century, on the tail end of the age of exploration – according to the Google Trends search tool. Over time the phrase steadily grew in popularity, becoming particularly commonplace between the years 1914 and 1935, and again in the 1990s.

Doubling down

The meaning of “doubling down”, as it occurs in day-to-day speech, refers to a reaffirmation of your commitment to a specific position, perspective or choice. To double down implies a degree of certainty, and removes the possibility of back-tracking out of your decision.

Yet few know where the term itself comes from. To get to the bottom of this one we must turn to the world’s most popular card game, blackjack. In this game, a member of a large family of banking games that share a focus on aiming to score a hand with a total score of 21, doubling down is a type of bet strategy.

Much like the use-cases for the idiom it gives its name to, it is considered a high-risk/reward strategy. When one chooses to double down in blackjack, you double your original bet in exchange for a further card.

If this works, you have the chance to not only score a winning hand, but receive winnings equal to double of the value of your original bet. Of course, should it backfire you will quickly find yourself out of options.

When exactly this term made the jump from a referring to a specific betting strategy to becoming a part of common speech is hard to say, though appearances of the term in print jumped in popularity between 1981 and 1991 by over 60%, and from which time on the term has only become more popular.

To spill the beans

This idiom, which refers to the act of divulging a secret, can be traced all the way back to antiquity. In Ancient Greece, voting on public matters was typically done using dried beans as counters.

Not only were these readily abundant, but could be found in multiple colours, making them ideal for voting on outcomes with multiple choices. In this context, to spill the beans would mean to tip over the container holding the votes, thus revealing the outcome of the vote.

In the modern era, however, the term hardly ever appeared in print until the 1920s, and didn’t truly become a part of popular speech until the 1980s.

Give the cold shoulder

The etiquette of the mediaeval banquet hall was nuanced and highly symbolic, and many popular culinary sayings and statements, such as “eating humble pie”, come from this period. Another keen example is to “give the cold shoulder”. This is typically used today to mean you are ignoring someone, or turning your back on them in an expression of disinterest.

Historians believe the term itself was used to refer to the final course of a mediaeval banquet, which was a serving of cold shoulder meat for the guests to take home. To serve the cold shoulder could thus be interpreted as a signal that the party is over, and as a hint for any guests who are overstaying their welcome to leave promptly.

Disclaimer: Gambling involves an element of financial risk and may be addictive. Please play responsibly and at your own risk and subject to applicable law.


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