Here are the origins of 10 popular English idioms |

Ever wondered why we use idioms – like ‘under the weather’ – instead of saying that we’re sick? It may be just a habit, but it also gives a bit of prose to your sentence. All of these idioms we’re familiar with come from a place in history, so learning about where they originated gives us an insight into life back in the day. Here are the origins of 10 popular idioms:

Steal Someone’s Thunder

You may use this line when someone tries to hand off your work as their own, but this idiom has its origins in theatre. In the 1700s, an English playwright named John Dennis used a device to imitate the sound of thunder in one of his plays – his play flopped, but the device was used by other playwrights to much greater success. Poor Dennis.

Under the Weather

Feeling ‘under the weather’ means we’re not feeling well. This phrase was originally used by sailors for seasickness. The original word was ‘under the weather bow’ (the side of the ship that was worst affected) used during storms, when sailors head below deck and try and stave off seasickness.

Dog barking up wrong tree

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

A phrase used to suggest a mistaken emphasis in a specific context, it originated in the early 1800s when dogs were used for hunting. Dogs would normally chase a prey up trees, and would bark furiously at it – sometimes they would still bark at the same tree even though the prey has jumped to a different tree.

When Pigs Fly

We tend to use this a lot when we’re told something ludicrous, and the phrase has its roots in a dictionary from the 1600s where which describes that not only do pigs fly, but they fly backwards with their tails forward. In the UK, the term ‘pigs might fly’ is preferred.

Cost an Arm and a Leg

Meaning something very expensive, the origin is unknown although most people believe it was used around the time of WWI or WWII, when many soldiers lost an arm and a leg – a very ‘high cost’ to pay for their country.

Beat Around the Bush

When someone beats around the bush, it can get pretty annoying when they delay getting to the point with irrelevant details. Originally, this was another reference to hunting – hunters would literally beat the bushes to get the animals (usually boars) out of hiding.

Best Foot Forward

We should always ‘pout our best foot forward’ when we want to impress someone, but there are two origin stories. One came from the belief that ‘left’ was the realm of evil and misfortune, both in Latin and English. So it was advisable to step forward with the best (right) foot, and keep the left foot behind. The other came from the late 18th century, when people imagined that each leg was shaped different, so they’d put their ‘normal’ foot forward first.

A shepherd’s crook

By Hook or By Crook

Meaning to ‘achieve a goal by any means’, this idiom is associated with an old British custom when forests were once the exclusive property of royalty, so any commoner hunting or chopping wood in them was a crime. They were only permitted to remove fallen/withered timber from the ground, using either a hook or a crook.

Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

The phrase means being overly judgemental about something gifted to you, and it originates from a time when people would check a horse’s age by looking at their teeth. If the horse was given to them for free, one shouldn’t complain anyway.

Turn a Blind Eye

We often ‘turn a blind eye’ to something we would rather not acknowledge, and the most interesting version of its origin comes from the British Navy. Admiral Nelson was engaged in a battle with a Danish/Norwegian fleet in 1801 when his superior, Admiral Parker, signaled a retreat from another ship. Nelson disagreed, and having only one eye, he put a telescope to his glass eye and remarked “I have the right to be blind sometimes… I do not see the signal.” That decision spelled victory for the British.