We Use These Popular Phrases Everyday, But Where Did They Come From?

English, as a language, is full of phrases that have survived through time and are still prevalent in 2016. Despite their popularity, there’s a huge collection of them that we do not have even the slightest clue what they originally meant.

So, I’m here to dive into a few of the more notorious ones in an effort to make us not feel quite as stupid every time we feel compelled to throw one into conversation. Worst case scenario you’ll come away with a few fun facts for use at parties when someone inevitably utters one.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

So, back in the day (like way back, like mediaeval times back), when falconry was a big deal, a falcon would be worth twice as much as an asset in comparison prey or the animals lurking in the bushes. This one was the inspiration for this little adventure and while I’m glad to finally get some answers I’m also very sad falconry has gone by the wayside as a pastime.

Long in the tooth

Apparently as horses age their gums recede making their teeth appear longer. This is something we probably don’t realize now since all modern horses die prematurely at racetracks (looking at you, Saratoga) and end up inside bottles of Elmer’s glue.

An arm and a leg

“I paid an arm and a leg for it.” This stems back to when having your portrait done was all the rage (definitely want to bring this back) and the reason so many portraits only contain the head and shoulders is because artists would hike up the price as you included more of the body.

Scot-free

“He got off scot-free.” This was one refers to skipping out on your taxes since taxes were once referred to as a “scot.” Church scot, Rome scot, Soul scot, etc. Here’s a list of 10 people who failed to pull this one off (shoutout to Wesley Snipes, White Man Can’t Jump will forever be the best hoops movie of all-time and as a result he never should have spent a single second behind bars).

A chip on your shoulder

The original hardo move of the 19th century. Bros would walk around with a literal wood chip on their shoulder daring anyone to knock it off in order to get a fight rolling.

This is the most insane thing I’ve heard in a minute, the whole idea of grabbing a wood chip and walking around just looking to scrap seems like a real scrub move. Especially when you consider this was popular in the 1800’s when people would regularly have duels, if you want to get in altercation then go big or go home (and take your wood chips with you).

The cat is out of the bag

I particularly like this one, it’s got a bit of everything – bizarre animal treatment, a little swindling and a heavy dose of overall nonsense.

Once upon a time, merchants would sell piglets in bags, seemingly completely sealed bags, and on occasion would place a cat inside instead (since it was the less valuable of the two animals). Often the consumer wouldn’t realize that instead of getting a walking block of bacon they got a feline until they took it out of the bag…

Honestly, if you handle a cat stuck in a bag for just one second and don’t immediately realize it is most definitely not a pig then you deserve anything that comes your way including eradication from the Earth via Darwinism.

Beat around the bush

Let’s head back to my new favorite time period, medieval times. Hunters would hire men (I’m assuming peasants) to just go around and whack bushes with sticks to try and stir up some “game,” that they would then go ahead and unload on. The phrase actually began as “beat about the bush” but slowly transferred to “beat around the bush” as of 1980

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Data of the terms used in print 

Hit the hay

Well before we had the luxury of sleeping on clouds plucked from heaven in the form of tempurpedic mattresses, the typical mattress consisted of a sack stuffed with hay. In order to manage the most optimal sleep possible you’d have to give that “bed” a few proper smacks to get it just right and to ensure no bugs were hanging out inside…

We’ve come along way from sleeping on animal food to having high quality mattresses, sans hay, being delivered right to our doors with the option to insert a discount code at check out.

The bee’s knees

This one doesn’t quite have the thorough explanation that accompanied the others on this page… basically back in the 1920’s in the midsts of dancing and get blackout drunk people found a love for slapping two ridiculous things together and letting them mean anything they felt like.

Other such examples include the cat’s pajamas, the monkey’s eyebrows, the snake’s hips, and the kipper’s knickers (a kipper is a herring, which makes this one particularly good, just take a moment and imagine a fish putting on trousers and try and tell me it wasn’t worth it).

In a pickle

I’m not proud of it, but the imagery that has come to my mind my entire life when I hear this is is my body stuck in a literal pickle, just my head and appendages poking out of a pickle shaped prison.

Somehow the real meaning is way crazier than that. I hate to admit it, but I wasn’t exactly up to date on the evolution of the word pickle before this little adventure and apparently at one time pickles referred to spicy sauces that accompanied meat dishes.

So, how does this “in a pickle” fit into this? Well, in a pickle references the unfortunate few who would find themselves CHOPPED UP and included amongst the mixed veggies that made up the aforementioned spicy sauce. In 1440 it was a famously (relatively..) written that King Arthur just straight up feasted on “rascal” children in this way on a regular basis.

Make a bee-line for

I would have put my money on the fact it was “B-line” but nope, it’s bee-line and it’s definitely about bees.

The phrase derives from the behavior of bees. When a forager bee finds a source of nectar it returns to the hive and communicates its location to the other bees, using a display called the Waggle Dance. The other bees are then able to fly directly to the source of the nectar, that is, ‘make a beeline’ for it.

Break a leg

Break a leg, said my Mom before literally any sort of performance my school would force me to participate in.

Theatrical types are well known for their belief in superstitions, or at least for their willingness to make a show of pretending to believe in them. The term ‘break a leg’ appears to come from the belief that one ought not to utter the words ‘good luck’ to an actor. By wishing someone bad luck, it is supposed that the opposite will occur.

Most of the definitions come from here in case you get a jonesing for a little further explanation.


There you have it, we have become so lazy as a society we’re still reppin’ the most outdated phrases possible. Next time your parents tell you that “your generation is lazy,” maybe let them know that them and those before them failed to coin a popular phrase at any point in the last 100+ years that was more relevant than references to falconry and the earliest use of the word “pickle.”