Here’s looking at common idioms
February 20, 2008
Have you ever called someone a “loose cannon?” Or been introduced to a person who is a “dead ringer” for another acquaintance? Have you ever been invited to a “white elephant” party? Or heard of someone accomplishing a “hat trick?”
Do you ever stop to wonder where these expressions came from? Here is a look at the origins of some of our common idioms.
To be a dead ringer for someone is to look just like him or her. This expression comes from the unscrupulous practice of keeping two racehorses that are almost identical in appearance. The owner runs the slower of the two until the odds reach a certain level, then enters the faster horse in the next race in order to clean up on a bet.
When someone is called a loose cannon, it means his behavior is out of control and unpredictable. Heavy cannons could wreak havoc on sailing ships traveling on rough seas unless they were lashed to the deck. And unless a cannon is secured, its recoil can cause injury or damage, both on land and on sea.
When we say someone has bought the farm, we mean he has died. This expression comes from the practice, during World War I, of giving the family of a soldier killed in combat a death benefit that amounted to enough money to buy a plot of farmland in the mid-west.
To be in the doldrums is to feel listless or depressed. The Doldrums are equatorial ocean regions noted for dead calms and lightly fluctuating winds. Sailing ships caught in the Doldrums can be stranded without the winds to propel them.
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A white elephant is something that costs a lot to maintain and generates little or no profit. The Burmese people believe that albino elephants are sacred and may not be used for work; instead they must receive a lot of special care and attention.
To pull off a hat trick means to accomplish three successes or wins. In the English game of Cricket, a bowler who retired three consecutive batters with three consecutive balls – similar to a baseball pitcher striking out three consecutive batters with just three pitches to each – was rewarded with a hat. Today the expression is used in other sports to mean three goals scored by a single player in one game.
To let the cat out of the bag means to reveal a secret. In medieval times, dishonest merchants would sell pigs packaged in a bag, instructing the buyer to keep the bag closed until he was well away from the market. When the unsuspecting customer opened the bag, he would discover that he had been duped: the beast wriggling in the bag was a cat rather than a pig.
Minding your Ps and Qs means to behave properly. Pub bartenders used to keep track of a customer’s beer and ale purchases – available in both pint and quart containers – on a chalkboard. To mind – or pay attention to – your Ps and Qs meant to control your consumption of alcohol and your behavior.
To paint the town red means to spend a celebratory night on the town. When Roman soldiers conquered a town, they used to coat the walls with the blood of the vanquished to celebrate their accomplishment.
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