Category Archives: Idioms & Their Origins

I thought it might be a nice change of pace to trace the history of some of the phrases I use from day to day without having any clue whatever about the origin of their meaning.

I knew a few of these already, but most of the information either comes from wikipedia or from this handy little website –

Pulling Someone’s Leg

The idioms are back again, hurray! Today’s instalment is all about the naughty side of tomfoolery. That’s right, although the phrase ‘to pull someone’s leg’ now denotes a friendly bit of banter, meaning something like ‘to make fun of somebody by making them look foolish’, it actually used to have criminal undertones.

There are many proposed origins for the phrase, but my research suggests that pulling someone’s leg was originally a method used by thieves to entrap their quarry and thereby relieve them of their valuables. One thief would be assigned ‘tripper up’ duty, and would use various instruments (usually a wire) to knock the target to the ground. Whilst the hapless victim crawled about on the floor, the other members of the gang would rush in to complete the robbery.

It is not difficult to see how the comical effect of somebody being tripped over during the course of bit of skulduggery might have given rise to today’s meaning of the phrase.

I am not American (praise Jebus) but I gather that ‘pulling someone’s leg’ in American English retains a sinister edge, alluding to an element of trickery or deception in the part of the leg puller. Perhaps this might be a lingering connotation from the idiom’s less than Christian origin.


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Roger (as used in radio commands)

So my sister set me this challenge. Actually I knew it already, so ’twas no biggie.

Roger is used on the radio to mean ‘message received’. But why? Was there some larger than life radio control man called Roger? Sadly not. Well there might have been, but it certainly was not he who sired the phrase.

The use of Roger  comes from military pilot radio transmissions in the Second World War. In 1941, before the now internationally accepted alpha, beta etc.  both British and American phonetic alphabets used Roger as the standard abbreviation for R, as in Received.

Incidentally, if you ever find yourself on a US military radio channel, do not say ‘repeat’ unless you want to see ash and brimstone fall from the sky. Repeat is only used to request additional artillery fire (you would say ‘say again’ if you wanted somebody to repeat their last message). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


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A Square Meal

An easy one today children, but some people were asking me about it, and, as you well know, I live to serve.

The phrase ‘a square meal’, meaning, ‘a substantial, nourishing meal’ is often said to have originated from the Royal Navy, as originate the majority of the interesting idioms I have encountered. More specifically, it is rather rashly claimed that the phrase comes from the Royal Navy’s practise of  serving its sailors their meals on square wooden plates.

This explanation sounds likely, but hang on a minute there at the back, I’m not quite finished. You see sometimes these things are just too neat to be true. For one thing, I doubt that the meals the Royal Navy fed to its sailors would have been anything approaching substantial or nourishing, which meant that some bright spark on board would have had to have coined the term with a sarcastic meaning in mind. A tall order for your average C19th sailor. And that’s the other thing – the first recorded instance of the expression is in 1856, in an advertisement for the Hope and Neptune restaurant, in the California newspaper The Mountain Democrat, November 1856. It goes as follows:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the ‘Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice.”

Now if the phrase was indeed a child of the Royal Navy, then surely it would have been recorded somewhere in the Royal Navy’s logbooks sometime before 1856. The fact that it is not mentioned suggests an alternative derivation.

As we can see from the above, ‘a square meal’ is an American expression, which means that it is likely to have a simple origin (Americans being themselves simple). Indeed for our answer we need look no further than the word ‘square’, which has many meanings, including ‘proper, honest, straightforward’. And there we have it. We are not talking about a meal served on right-angled crockery, but a proper, honest feast.


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On Tenterhooks

For some reason this idiom, meaning ‘nervously waiting to find out what is going to happen’, appears in my novel. At that time I believed the phrase was, ‘on tenderhooks’. The fact that a mind as great as mine could have been confused in this way can only mean that the idea behind the phrase is dark and mysterious. But tenters and hooks were once a part of one of the trades that in the C18th and C19th helped transform this little island the most powerful force in the world. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about the wool trade.

After it has been woven, woollen cloth still contains oil from the fleece, mixed with dirt. It was traditionally cleaned in a fulling mill, but then it had to be dried carefully or it would shrink and crease. So the lengths of wet cloth were stretched on wooden frames, and left out in the open for some time. This allowed them to dry and straightened their weave. These frames were the tenters, and the tenter hooks were the metal hooks used to fix the cloth to the frame.

In the good old days, these tenters would have been a common sight. It is easy, in this context, to understand why describing somebody as being ‘on tenterhooks’ means that they are in an state of anxious suspense, stretched like the cloth on the tenter.

However it is not easy to understand, in any context, why WordPress has deemed it fit to suggest ‘Monday Night Football’ as a tag for this post.


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Taken Aback

All the best phrases have nautical origins. So it is with taken aback, meaning ‘surprised or startled by a sudden turn of events.’ Aback means in a backward direction. Like ‘adown’ and ‘around’, it was originally two words, but these became merged into one in the 15th century.

Taken aback, then, is an allusion to something that is startling enough to make somebody jump back in surprise. The first to be ‘taken aback’ were not people, but ships. The sails of a ship are said to be ‘aback’ when the wind blows them flat against the masts and spars that support them. In this way, if the wind were to turn suddenly so that a sailing ship was facing unexpectedly into the wind, the ship was said to be ‘taken aback’.

The figurative use of the phrase, meaning surprised rather than physically pushed back, came in the 19th century. It was used by the great Charles Dickens, amongst other people, who wrote in his American Notes of 1842: “I don’t think I was ever so taken aback in all my life.”


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Fingers Crossed

You’ll have to take this one with a pinch of salt (next idiom anybody?). The phrase finder website did not care to find this phrase, and with Wikipedia currently determined to prove how bad it is to suppress information by suppressing information I am not certain about the reliability of my sources, especially when Google forsook me and I was forced to turn to Yahoo, scarcely an adequate replacement.

Anyway, moving on. Crossing one’s fingers is supposed to bring one luck. It can be traced back to by gone days, when the cross was a symbol of unity and benign spirits were thought to dwell at the intersection point. A wish made on a cross was a way of ‘anchoring’ the wish at the intersection of the cross until the wish was fulfilled.

The superstition, which was once popular among many early European cultures, originally required two people. One well-wisher placed his index finger over the index finger of the person making the wish, with the two fingers forming a cross. Over centuries, the custom was simplified, so that a person could wish on his own, by crossing his index and middle fingers to form an X.

As some legend explains, “Customs once formal, religious, and ritualistic have a way of evolving with time to become informal, secular, and commonplace.” Thus, friends crossing fingers evolved to crossing one’s own fingers, and ultimately to the stock phrase, “Keep your fingers crossed,” with little to no actual finger-crossing at all.

Interestingly, some people cross their fingers behind their back when they are lying. Rather dubiously it was suggested to me by a rather enthusiastic young fellow that the origin of this gesture comes from religious persecution in pre-Christian (but post-Christ… obviously) Rome. In these dark times, when people were asked if they were Christians, they would lie and say no to escape Roman retribution, but make the sign of the cross behind their back to ask God’s forgiveness for the lie. But I thought He was all loving, why then do we need to seek His forgiveness? Alright now, there’s enough of that.

PS: my sister, ‘Nurdy’, wanted me to tell you all that this idiom was her idea.


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A Dab Hand At

The sky was black when first he came to me. A carrier in the night; the last survivor from a long forgotten era. An orphan of chance.

I was standing by the window – cloak misting around my shoulders – gazing out upon the deep when a man’s face loomed out of the fallow fields in front of me and pressed itself against the glass. The birds outside had long since taken up their grisly chorus – far fouler creatures than they would now be stirring, and so I rushed to admit the man into the safety of my abode.

What madness might have driven him to venture out at night? thought I as I strode to unlock the chain. What ill thoughts have led him to my door?

The stranger wasted no time, but burst past the threshold and into the light. From his build he must have been a man from the North; tall and broad as the mighty oak. His face was shaped like a King of Old, with a firm brow and keen eyes that shone in the dark. His nose was bent in ways that whispered ‘magic’ and there was a wiry growth of hair atop his lip. He seemed confused and would not look at me at first. Now here, now there, he roved about the room, in the very depths of some demented nightmare, muttering of secret desecrations, of restless motives and of the fall of man.

Suddenly, as if at last aware of his surroundings, he stopped his pacing. Then he turned to me and at once threw himself upon my mercy. He began to beseech me, first in the tongue of his mother, then in the tongue of mine, that I might be persuaded to aid him in his quest. White-knuckled, he grasped at the foot of my robes. I recognised nothing about his features, but I could not shake the thought that we had met before; that somehow he and I were brothers. I agreed to help him if I could.

Words failing him, the stricken man pressed a dirtied roll of parchment into my hands. Deed done, he sank back onto the floor. With trembling fingers I opened the parchment. It read as follows: Knowest thou the origin of the phrase – ‘a dab hand at…?’

Surprised, I turned to the man for elucidation, but I found a corpse where life had been. In a twisted act of kindness, death had chalked a smile upon his face. He had faded from this life trusting that I, the foremost scholar of the age, would be able to penetrate the mystery and return peace to the Kingdom of Man. It was clear to me what was at stake. I knew I could not fail.

Yet fail I did. I could find nothing of the phrase in the scrolls, save a tenuous mention regarding a link between ‘dab’ and ‘dapper’, scarcely enough to risk a mention. At the fundamental moment my mind had failed me. There seemed nothing I could do.

The sun did not rise that morning, nor has it risen since. Tonight I am to lead the men of Skia, the last great protectors of the Truth, against the forces of Despair. It is likely I shall fail. I give this account that any reading it might know the quest that claimed the life of my brother, and of so many after him, still burns brightly within my breast. I will conquer the Truth, in this life or the next. And then, when all is done, I will at last be able to answer that smile, which has haunted me to the ending of my days.

This fable is based on true events. My friend Tom, whose wonderful poetry can be found here, text me asking if I could shed any light on the phrase ‘a dab hand at’. As you can see, I couldn’t. I hope you can forgive me, and that this ridiculous excuse for a story has sufficed in place of information.


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