The Origins of 9 Commonly Used Phrases

You use these idioms all the time, but did you ever think about where they came from?

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Wooden axe on tabletop
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Fly Off the Handle

In the days before mass merchandising, poorly fastened axe heads would fly off while they were in use. The result was dangerous, hence why the phrase is used to describe risky behaviour with unpredictable results.

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Seating in opera house
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Steal Someone’s Thunder

In the early 1700s, English dramatist John Dennis invented a device that imitated the sound of thunder for a play he was working on. The play flopped. Soon after, Dennis noted that another play in the same theatre was using his sound-effects device. He angrily exclaimed, “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play.” The story got around London, and the idiom was born.

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Salted pork fat
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Chew the Fat

Originally a sailor’s term, this phrase refers to the days before refrigeration when ships carried food that wouldn’t spoil. One of them was salted pork skin, which consisted largely of fat. Sailors would only eat it if all other food was gone…and they often complained as they did. This idle chatter became known as “chewing the fat.”

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White elephants
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White Elephant

Legend has it, kings of Siam (now Thailand) used to give actual white elephants to people they wanted to punish. Yes, the elephants were valuable and respected, but that also meant they were expensive to take care of, so the kings hoped the present would drive the recipient into financial ruin. Now, of course, a white elephant exchange is meant for useless (though probably cheaper) gifts.

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Steering wheel of old ship
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By and Large

Sailors were the first to refer to things “by and large.” The first part of the phrase refers to the nautical term “full and by,” meaning a boat was travelling into the wind. On the other hand, “large” means the wind is coming from behind. To be “by and large,” then, would mean the wind is coming from any direction—giving rise to the current meaning of “in general.”

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Cigars in traditional holder
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Close But No Cigar

Carnival games nowadays give out stuffed animals as prizes, but in the late 19th century, the games were targeted to adults, not kids. Instead of getting a giant teddy bear, winners might get a cigar. If they almost won but didn’t earn that prize, they’d be “close, but no cigar.” By the 1930s, the phrase extended beyond fairgrounds to every day close shots.

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Full blue moon
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Once in a Blue Moon

A “blue moon” is a real astronomical phenomenon, referring to the second full moon in one month. It’s a rare occurrence—usually just once every 2.7 years—which is how the phrase came to be. Usually, a blue moon just looks gray or white like any other full moon, but on even rarer occasions, the moon actually does seem to change colour.

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Vintage ship with sails at sea
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Under the Weather

Originally, sailors used the phrase “under the weather bow,” referring to the side of the ship that would get the brunt of the wind during storms. To avoid getting seasick when the waves got rough, they’d bunker down in their cabins—literally under that bad weather—to let the storm pass.

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Raw pork shoulder
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Give the Cold Shoulder

Surprisingly, this doesn’t just refer to coldly turning your back on someone. Etymologists think the phrase originated from medieval etiquette. After a feast, hosts in England would subtly signal that the meal was over (and time for guests to leave) by serving a cold slice of pork, mutton, or beef shoulder.

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Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest