Where did that come from?

By Eileen Wiseman

Did you ever wonder where some of the phrases we use every day originated? Here are some examples of those sayings.

“Bite the bullet” — Before anesthetics, when a soldier needed emergency surgery on the battlefield, he was given a bullet to bite on to ease the pain.

“Crocodile tears” — An old belief is that a crocodile cries when he kills and then eats someone.

“Swan song” — Another old belief is when a swan is dying he bursts into a beautiful song.

“Put a sock in it” — Old gramophones had large horn to amplify sound. There was no volume control, so to make the sound lower, they stuffed a woolen sock in the horn.

“Butter someone up” — An ancient Indian custom of throwing balls of clarified butter at statues of gods to seek their favor.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” — In olden times, the whole family took their weekly or monthly bath in the same tub of water. The men went first, then the women and finally the babies. By the time everyone was done, the bathwater was disgustingly dirty, so the lady of the house had to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“The whole nine yards” — World War II fighter pilots received a 9-yard chain of ammunition. When he used all his ammunition on one target, he used the whole nine yards.

“Jaywalkers” — When Jaybirds wandered into urban areas, they were dazed and confused by all the strange things in the city, especially the traffic. As they tried to they were unaware of potential dangers awaiting them. Bystanders were amused and started calling people who also dodged in and out of traffic Jaywalkers.

“It’s raining cats and dogs” — Houses used to have thatched roofs with no wood underneath. This was the only place for small animals like cats, dogs, mice, etc. to keep warm. When it rained, the thatched roofs would get slippery and the animals would slide off. Hence the saying.

“Give someone a cold shoulder” — When an unwanted guest came over they were given a cold shoulder of mutton instead of a hot meal as a hint not to call again.

“Katy bar the door” — Story of Kathryn Douglas and her attempt to save the life of Scottish king James I. King James was attacked by a group of discontented subjects. The room he was in had a missing locking bar. Kathryn tried to bar the door with her arm, but her arm was broken and the King was killed.

“Mad as a hatter” — In the 18th and the 19th century, hats were treated by mercury. Inhaling mercury was said to cause mental illness.

“Cat got your tongue?” — There are two possible explanations of the origin of this phrase. The first has to do with cat-o-nine tails which were used for flogging by the English Navy. The beating was so severe it left the victim speechless. The second has to do with the practice of cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and feeding them to cats.

“86” –This refers to getting rid of something. One explanation is that during prohibition, a New York City speakeasy named Chumlees had an unusual association with the police. It was reported that some cops were “on the payroll.” The police would call ahead before a raid and tell the owners to 86 the customers. This meant to get the customers out the door at 86 Bedford St., while the police entered from Pamela Court.

“Leaning toward Shiverdecker’s” — My grandfather’s Darke County farm, was next to the Shiverdecker’s farm. An old outbuilding was leaning and my Grandpa said it was leaning toward Shiverdecker’s. This turned into a phrase used by my family every time something leaned one way or another. I did not realize until a few years later that everyone did not use that saying! I still use it to this day.

I hope this helps you understand some of our most common phrases.


By Eileen Wiseman

The writer is the executive director of the Sidney-Shelby County Senior Center.

The writer is the executive director of the Sidney-Shelby County Senior Center.