Origins of Common English Idioms

Ever wondered where some ever-present idioms originated from in the English language? Here are some interesting origins of common English idioms and their fascinating and sometimes bizarre history:

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride

Definition: Literally, always being a bridesmaid and never a bride. More figuratively, it is a forlorn saying for women when they can’t find love.

Origin: This gem of an idiom was first recorded in a Victorian music hall tune, “Why Am I Always A Bridesmaid?”, by Fred W. Leigh. However, the phrase garnered popularity after a retrospectively hilarious ad for Listerine mouthwash in 1924. The slogan, “Often a bridesmaid, but never a bride”, accompanied a picture of a forlorn ‘Edna’, who, because of her halitosis (bad breath), was never being able to find love. The solution: buying Listerine mouthwash in bulk.

Pull someone’s leg

Definition: Joking or fooling with someone.

Origin: To pull someone’s leg had much more sinister overtones when it first came in use. It was originally a method used by thieves to entrap their pedestrians and subsequently rob them. One thief would be assigned ‘tripper up’ duty, and would use different instruments to knock the person to the ground. Luckily, these days the saying is much more friendlier, though being on the end of a joke might not always be fun.

Meeting a Deadline

Definition: To finish something by a predetermined time.

Origin: This saying apparently stems from the prison camps during the Civil War, where a line was drawn to demarcate the boundaries for the prisoners. The line became to be known as a deadline because any prisoner who attempted to cross it was shot.

Basket Case

Definition: Someone who is unhinged.

Origin: According to undetermined reports, WW1 soldiers who had lost all their limbs were carried around in baskets. The actual term, ‘basket case’, however was coined by the US military – in denial of this practice – after WW1. In 1919, a bulletin was issued by the U.S. Command on Public Information, making use of the phrase:

“The Surgeon General of the Army … denies … that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated … of the existence of ‘basket cases’ in our hospitals.”

Close but no Cigar

Definition: Being near success, but just missing out.

Origin: Once upon a time, fairground stalls favored gifting cigars to winners rather than overstuffed, over-sized plush toys. Needless to say, winning was nearly impossible at the rigged carnival games and thus the idiom war born. The first evidence of the saying comes from a film script for Annie Oakley in 1935, after which it was frequently used in newspaper articles.

Bust your Balls

Definition: A slang term which can refer to a form of punishment, working hard, or being harassed or teased.

Origin: Believe it or not, the term actually comes from literally busting the balls of a calf. Rather than cutting them off or chemically sterilizing them, a method was developed to literally break a calf’s testicles to turn them from a bull to a steer. Thankfully, only the figurative version is used by humans.

Bark up the Wrong tree

Definition: To make the wrong choice or pursue the wrong course.

Origin: When hunting raccoons for fur was a popular sport, hunting dogs were used to sniff them out of trees. Being a nocturnal animal, the hunting party had to work at night, and the dogs would sometimes end up choosing the wrong tree, or as the idiom goes, ‘bark up the wrong tree”. The term was first printed in a book by Davy Crockett in 1833.

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