When exactly do ‘the cows come home’? Who was the first person to ‘steal someone’s thunder’? English is full of colourful expressions that have lost the connection to their delightful origins. That said, when you learn the chequered past of some of these phrases, you might think twice about using them.
“To steal one’s thunder”
Thor and young-adult demigod Percy Jackson may be fiction’s most celebrated thunder stealers, but it was an 18th-century dramatist named John Dennis who popularised the phrase. Dennis invented a device to simulate the sound of thunder for his plays – so clever that a rival dramatist copied his method for a production of Macbeth. “Eternal curses light on these scoundrels!” Dennis is said to have declared. “They have stolen my thunder and don’t know how to roll it!”
“The cold shoulder”
Giving someone ‘the cold shoulder’ may have originally meant giving someone a meal – a lousy one. Serving a guest a cold shoulder of mutton (an inexpensive, undesirable dish in the early 19th century) was a subtle way to get rid of him or her. As Sir Walter Scott said in his 1823 novel St. Ronan’s Well, “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.”
“Till the cows come home’”
Clearly, this has to do with cattle curfews, right? It sort of does. Cows were often milked in their sheds at night, making that task one of the last on a farmer’s to-do list ( but let’s hope he wouldn’t wait forever to do the job, as the phrase implies now). The expression has been around since at least the late 1500s and is likely to continue until … well, you know.
‘Blood is thicker than water’
You probably think this means you should always put family ahead of friends. In fact, it originally may have meant the opposite. The full maxim was ‘ The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,’ with covenant referring to friendship. In other words, it was your friends – your blood brothers, if you will – who were with you through thick and thin.
“Let the cat out of the bag”
Who would even put a cat in a bag? The answer may lie in medieval markets, where people used to sell piglets tied in bags for farmers to carry home. A shady dealer might swap the piglet in the sack with a less expensive animal, such as a cat. So when you let the cat out of the bag, you were exposing the con to everyone.
“The seven-year itch”
Before the phrase became associated with Marilyn Monroe’s iconic skirt, the ‘seven-year itch’ felt much worse than a playful subway breeze. The term originally referred to scabies, an itchy infection caused by mites burrowing underneath a person’s skin. Its ‘seven- year’ moniker referred to how long the bugs could linger. Yuck! I’ve always associated it with the movie title though!
“You’re pulling my leg.”
Meaning to tease someone or jokingly lie to them, “pulling one’s leg” actually has sinister origins, rooted in the criminal world of the 18th century. Street thieves would literally pull victims down by their leg in order to more easily rob them.
“Close, but no cigar.”
Carnivals used to give out cigars as prizes, so almost winning would get you close to achieving a cigar, but not quite. The phrase evolved in meaning and now refers to coming close to a goal but falling short.
“Break a leg.”
The term “break a leg” originates in theater. Since superstitions run rampant in the theater, it’s not surprising to learn that wishing someone good luck outright is actually considered bad luck. Instead, it was more suitable to wish ill will on someone before a performance, since the opposite was supposed to occur.
“Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”
The short answer is that Aesop said it. He wrote of a young milkmaid balancing a pail on her head. The girl thought, The milk in this pail will provide me with cream, which I will make into butter, which I will sell in the market, and buy a dozen eggs, which will hatch into chickens, which will lay more eggs, and soon I shall have a large poultry yard. I’ll sell some of the fowls and buy myself a handsome new gown and go to the fair, and when the young fellows try to make love to me, I’ll toss my head and pass them by. At that moment, the girl tossed her head and lost the pail of milk. Her mother admonished, “Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.”
Solid advice, mom.
“Crying crocodile tears” means to fake being upset or force tears that are inauthentic. An ancient anecdote by Photios claimed that crocodiles weep in order to lure prey, which is most likely where the idiom comes from.
Which one is your favorite by the way?
Check out my related post: What are countries named after?