The fates of a sayings and phrases are largely determined by our collective whim. We just pick stuff up and throw stuff out whenever we please. We’ve mostly decided against saying things like groovy, and “pish-posh”, while picking up stuff like “legit and creeper.” Despite being under constant construction the English language (and many others) have somehow fossilized historical events, some of which have happened thousands of years ago. Many of these specters of the past get jostled back and forth without thought. Curiosity combined with free time led me into the archives at The Phrase Finder and pulled out some of the history behind our sayings. Please note the snippets below are just my condensed version of more in depth research contained on the site. Feel free to click the link above for more detailed explanations.
So, shall we “let the cat out of the bag?”
1. Let the cat out of the bag. (uncover a secret)
This saying goes back to the 1500’s when people would purchase pigs in burlap sacks at the marketplace. Every now and then some wily merchant would stuff a dead cat instead of a pig into the sacks to increase his margins. So if you didn’t trust the guy selling you pigs in burlap sacks (go figure) you could untie the twine and dump the contents at his feet and let the cat out of the bag!
2. Break a Leg. (good luck)
This one is heavily debated. Some say that “break a leg” was a term in the 40’s that meant to put “forth a maximal effort” or as we say today “go all out”.
Others claim that that phrase comes from actors’s heavy belief in superstition. They believed to wish someone good luck actually causes bad luck and in order to give someone good luck you should wish something them terrible like, “break a leg”. And who said actors are crazy?
3. Breaking the Ice ( to ease social tension)
This saying goes back to the 1500’s back when people were busting paths through ice so they could explore new territories. About a hundred years after people adopted it into the context of social situations.
4. Baker’s Dozen (the thirteenth or sometimes fourteenth bagel or loaf of bread)
In Medieval times when there were strict regulations on all trade. In order to avoid the penalties for shorting people on bread (which at the time was being whipped or sent to the stocks) bakers would throw an extra loaf or two into each dozen to ensure they had exceeded the official weight.
5. Gee Whiz (Wow!)
Dates back to the late 1800’s as a substitute for yelling, “Jesus!” thusly saving people from taking the Lord’s name in vain. It’s the same idea as yelling “shucks” instead of shit. All of the fun and none of the sin. Gee whiz!
6. More bang for your buck (Get more for your money)
Enter the world of President Eisenhower. Here was a man with a serious problem. Dwight D. needed to increase military power (to fight off the commies) while at the same time decreasing the national budget. His solution was to use nukes instead of conventional methods which were more expensive, which indeed gave him more “bang for his buck.” Thanks Dwight. Appreciate the constant state of global paranoia!
7. Honky (a white muthafucka)
If there’s one thing white people are good it’s coming up with racial slurs. In fact they’re so good they even coined one against themselves! A couple hundred years back, when Hungarians were immigrating over to the States, the “native-ish” white people already here didn’t like them. (Damnit they were taking jobs from good hardworking ‘Mericans.) So, they began calling the Hungarians “hunkies.” The black guys in the factory were quick to pickup on this but also confused as to who was a “hunkie” and who was just a mean white guy. So they called them all hunkies, which they pronounced as “honky”.
8. Hands Down (Undisputed)
This on has roots in horse racing. In order to go fast on a horse you need to keep you hands up to keep a tight reign. If you’re far ahead and kicking ass you can relax and win with your hands down.
9. Caught Red Handed (guilty when caught)
Latex gloves are relatively new. Back before the Dexter days you had to hurry up and go wash off the blood. And if you got caught before you made it to the stream you’d have been caught red handed.
10. Pardon My French (I’m going to curse and apologize right afterwards)
Apparently it was all the rage in the 1800’s to throw little snippets of French into your conversation and then apologize to the person you were speaking to if they didn’t understand it. I’m guessing this was some hot form of old-school snobbery used to put someone down for being unworldly. Now it seems like it’s the opposite. You curse on purpose and say, “Pardon my French” knowing the person that you are talking to is a tight ass and easily offended.
11. Sold Down The River (Screwed over)
This saying originates in the days of slave trading. If you were a slave up north and you got sold down the river to the south, where it sucked even worse to be a slave, well, then that was a bad deal.
12. Chop-Chop (Hurry up) read more about this.
In Pidgin Cantonese “chop-chop” literally means to hurry up. This hot slang was picked up by American missionaires and brought back to the states. I personally enjoy this saying and am very happy it has been integrated into the “Engrish” language
13. In The Limelight (Center of attention)
Back in the 1800’s people would create a flame from hydrogen and oxygen and then burn lime in it. Considering the times, this was a very bright source of light. Soon it was made utilized by the theaters. If you acted in the play then you were made visible thanks to this lime light.
14. Jump On The Bandwagon (join something because it’s successful)
The term “bandwagon” was coined by “Lord of all Carnies” PT Barnum. The bandwagon was the wagon that carried the circus band around from town to town. You can probably imagine that when the bandwagon rolled through your town it was probably a sight to behold. There was dancers, clowns, acrobats—all kinds of things that would make some small town forget about farming and jump on the bandwagon.
15. Take With A Grain Of Salt (Listen to something, but keep skeptical.)
Mithridates, King of the area that is now Turkey, was a major enemy to the Roman republic. After they finally killed him they found a scroll in his room that described an antidote to poison. The ingredients were walnuts, dates, rue, and a grain of salt. I don’t know about antidote, but that recipe would definitely keep a guy regular.