The Origins of Ten Popular Sayings

What is a saying?

A saying is an expression we use to give advice or information about human life and experiences. We often refer to sayings as idioms, adages, proverbs, expressions or turn of phrase.

Once students understand what a saying means, they are often curious about where the saying came from. Let’s explore the origins of popular phrases.

The walls have ears

Walls have ears saying

“The walls have ears” means be careful what you say as people may be eavesdropping.

The origin of this saying dates back to 16th century France. The Louvre Palace in Paris, France, was believed to have a network of listening tubes installed in the walls. This made it possible to listen in on conversations in different rooms. Historians believe this is how Queen Catherine de’Medici discovered political secrets and plots.

Raining cats and dogs

Raining cats and dogs saying

“Raining cats and dogs” means to rain very hard.

There are two stories to explain this idiom’s origin.

The first story dates back to the Viking times: 793 – 1066 AD. In Norse mythology, cats would symbolize heavy rains and dogs were linked with Odin, the main God of war and poetry. In this case he is referred to as the God of storms.

The second story dates back to 16th century England. During that time, houses had thatched roofs. Right under the roof would be the warmest place in the house and would often be where pets would often climb up to stay warm. When it rained heavily the thatched roofs would be slippery and the cats and dogs would slide off. It looked like it was raining cats and dogs.

Turn a blind eye

Turn a blind eye saying

“Turn a blind eye” means to pretend not to notice, or a willful refusal to accept a particular reality.

The origin of this saying dates back to a battle in 1801. British Naval Admiral Horatio Nelson ships were pitted against a large Danish-Norwegian fleet in what we call the Battle of Copenhagen. His officer flagged for him to withdraw as they were clearly outnumbered. The one-eyed Nelson brought up his telescope to his blind eye and proclaimed: “I do not see the signal’.

The British Navy went on to win the battle.

Read the riot act

Read the riot act saying

“Read the riot act” means to give a stern telling off or warning of consequences.

This saying dates back to 18th century England, the Riot Act of 1715 specifically. The Riot Act gave the British government the authority to label any group of more than 12 people a threat to the peace. When this happened, a public official would read a small portion of the Riot Act and order the people to “disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations.” Anyone who remained in place after one hour could be arrested or removed by force.

Break a leg

Break a leg saying

“Break a leg” means to wish someone good luck.

This phrase dates back to World War 1 and Germany. It dates to a saying used by two actors Hals and Beinbruch: “a broken neck and a broken leg”. How do we make the connection between wishing someone good luck by breaking a leg, something bad happening?

If we look back at folklore, there are many instances where people wished each other bad luck instead of good luck. The belief was that wishing someone good luck would tempt evil spirits. So people started wishing each other to break a leg in order not to.

Give the cold shoulder

Give the cold shoulder saying

“Give the cold shoulder” means to reject or be deliberately unfriendly.

This saying dates back to Medieval times. Although it’s considered rude today, back in the day it was act of kindness. At that time, in England, after everyone had finished dinner, the host would give a cold piece of meat (usually beef or pork shoulder) as a departing gift.

Put a sock in it

Put a sock in it saying

“Put a sock in it” means to tell someone to stop talking.

This saying dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, gramophones were popular. However, they did not have volume controllers, so people would stuff socks into the horn to lower the sound.

My ears are burning

Ears are burning saying

“My ears are burning” means you are subconsciously aware of being talked about.

This idiom dates back to Roman times: 26 BC – 286 AD. The Roman believed that a burning sensation in many parts of the body had different meanings. They believed that if your left ear was burning someone was harboring ill will towards you, and if the right ear was burning you were being praised by someone.

Every cloud has a silver lining

Every cloud has a silver lining saying

“Every cloud has a silver lining” means a negative event may have a positive aspect to it.

This saying is directly attributed to John Milton. In 1634 he wrote a piece called Cornus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle. He spoke of a silver lining of brightness behind every cloud. The proverb was popularized in the 1800s Victorian England which experienced a time of optimism and positivity among its upper classes.

Piece of cake

Piece of cake saying

Piece of cake means something is achieved easily.

This saying is directly attributed t American poet Ogden Nash, who, in 1930, said, “Life’s a piece of cake.”

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