May 7, 2009
Idiom (noun): An expression whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up
Idioms. We all use them. We all know what they mean. But do we know where these far-out phrases came from? I decided to find out. Here are a few of my favorite idioms and their origins:
The bee’s knees: excellent
American, circa 1920.
There’s no definitive origin for this one. Some ascribe it to the fact that bees carry their valuable pollen in sacks on their legs. Others believe it came from world-renowned Charleston dancer Bee Jackson.
Three sheets to the wind: drunk
British, circa 1820.
Nautical. On ships, “sheets” are the ropes that hold the sails in place. If three sheets are loose, then the sails will blow haphazardly, and the ship will stagger like a drunk.
Down to the wire: until the last possible moment
American, late 1800s.
From the sport of horse racing, in which close races were determined by a wire strung across the track above the finish line.
Long in the tooth: old
British, circa 1850.
Another phrase with equine origins. Apparently, horses’ teeth grow with age.
Raining cats and dogs: raining very heavily
British, circa 1700.
This one is gross: When it rained heavily in jolly old England, dead animals would wash down the streets with other garbage.
The whole nine yards: all of something
American, circa 1964.
There are a lot of conflicting origins for this phrase, but most folks believe that it came out of the American military. Other proposed sources: It comes from the 9-cubic-yard capacity of concrete trucks and it was a medieval test requiring a person to walk nine paces over hot coals.
Sources: Webster’s New World College Dictionary, www.phrases.org.uk, www.thefreedictionary.com, www.goenglish.com, www.wikipedia.org