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10 Common Idioms and Their Real Meanings

by Roberto
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You’ve heard them all before and probably say a few yourself. Idioms. But have you ever stopped to wonder where they originated and what they actually mean?

  • Break a leg,
  • it’s raining cats and dogs,
  • by the skin of your teeth,
  • cup of joe.
  • to name a few.

I did some Googling the other day and came up with this list of 10 common idioms, their origins, and what they really mean. So grab your cup of joe and get ready for a lesson in idioms.

1 Raining Cats and Dogs

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This is from the Library of Congress – Odin, the Norse god of storms, was often pictured with dogs and wolves, which were symbols of wind. Witches, who supposedly rode their brooms during storms, were often pictured with black cats, which became signs of heavy rain for sailors. Therefore, “raining cats and dogs” may refer to a storm with wind (dogs) and heavy rain (cats).

It basically just means it’s raining heavily.

2 Cost an Arm and a Leg

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This term originated after WW2. During the war, many men lost arms and legs, meaning the price of war was ‘an arm and a leg.’ It literally means something is very expensive.

3 Under the Weather

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Under the Weather has its roots in maritime language. When a sailor became ill or seasick, often because of violent weather conditions, that sailor was sent below decks to the most stable part of the ship, which was under the weather rail. The phrase under the weather rail was shortened to the idiom under the weather.

4 Penny For Your Thoughts

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At one time, pennies actually used to be worth something, so when you saw someone being pensive and wanted to know what they were thinking, offering them “a penny for your thoughts” was actually a good deal! Ironically though, now pennies are worthless, even nonexistent in some countries, so to say a penny for your thoughts is practically an insult.

5 Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

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According to idioms online, this idiom comes from an old proverb, most likely Spanish or Italian, and was first found in print during the 17th century. It alludes to gathering all the eggs from your hens into one basket so that if you should drop the basket, you lose all your eggs.

I figured a chicken or hen was involved in the making of this idiom.

6 Kick the Bucket

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We already know that when someone or something kicks the bucket, they’re dead, but what poor soul died for this to become an idiom, and what’s the story behind it? The following is from wiktionary.org:

An archaic use of a bucket was a beam from which a pig is hung by its feet prior to being slaughtered, and to kick the bucket originally signified the pig’s death throes.

Phew, thank God it was just a pig. 

7 Beat Around the Bush

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This from gingersoftware.com > The origin of the idiom ‘beating around the bush’ is associated with hunting. In medieval times, hunters hired men to beat the area around bushes with sticks in order to flush out game taking cover underneath. They avoided hitting the bushes directly because this could sometimes prove dangerous; whacking a bees nest, for example, would put a swift and unwelcome end to the hunt.

How cool is that?

8 Cat Got Your Tongue

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The origin of the idiom ‘cat got your tongue’ is an intriguing one. Although many believe the “cat” in question is of the feline variety, it’s actually the cat o’ nine tails, a whip commonly used to flog sailors who misbehaved.

On English sailing ships, anyone entrusted with a secret by a higher officer would be threatened with “the cat” for telling; thus, the saying ‘has the cat got your tongue?’ became slang for ‘are you afraid to tell?’

9 Head in the Clouds

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In the early 1600s, this phrase was used to describe a person who was really disconnected from the real world.

Clouds are associated with heaven, as well as fog and fuzziness, and clouds are also high up in the sky. Someone with their “head in the clouds” has lost sight of reality on the ground and has entered a dream-like state. So…like they’re stoned?

10 Cup of Joe

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Many believe this is the most likely explanation for the term. Josephus Daniels was the U.S. Naval secretary between 1913 to 1921. When he accepted his title, the Navy was notorious for free-flowing booze and had a bit of a rowdy reputation. In an attempt to clean up ship, Joe banned all alcohol in 1914. It’s at this time that many believe the term “cup of joe” surfaced by sailors who criticized the ban and were drinking coffee as a less than exciting replacement.

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