Thursday, August 25, 2011

11 Common American Phrases with Intriguing Origins

Are you "as happy as a clam?" Or "down in the dumps?" Did you "blaze a trail" and "paint the town red?" These familiar phrases make up an important part of our daily conversations and give us a quick way to sum up a story, emotion, action or thought. You may know the meaning of these popular sayings, but do you know who coined the phrase or where it came from? Probably not. So, go ahead and brush up on your English-language history with these 11 common American phrases with intriguing origins.

  1. "Saved by the bell"

    The phrase "Saved by the bell" was around way before the popular TV sitcom. The American saying originated as a boxing term in the late 19th century, and was used to describe a boxer who was in danger of losing, but was saved by the bell that marks the end of the round. The phrase was first recorded in print in the Massachusetts newspaper The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel in 1893.

  2. "Close, but no cigar"

    The phrase "close, but no cigar" originated in the United States during the mid-20th century. The saying was coined at fairground stalls where attendants would play games to win cigars as prizes. When a player came close to winning but fell short at the end, the stall owner would say "close, but no cigar." The popular phrase was first recorded in print in the 1935 film script version of Annie Oakley, which read, "Close, Colonel, but no cigar!"

  3. "Jump on the bandwagon"

    The phrase "jump on the bandwagon" originated from American politics in 1848, when famous circus clown Dan Rice used the bandwagon that carried the circus band to do his political campaign appearances. The bandwagon campaigns grew in popularity and became the standard campaign for politicians and presidential hopefuls. Now, we associate the phrase with joining a growing movement or getting involved with a popular activity.

  4. "Chip on your shoulder"

    To have a "chip on your shoulder" means you're angry or resentful about something and feel you've been treated badly. This commonly used phrase originated in the 18th century and referred to the working practices in the British Royal Dockyards, in which shipwrights would take home a daily allowance of offcuts of timber. The American origin of the phrase came about in the 19th century because people who wanted to fight would walk around with a chip of wood on their shoulder and challenge the other person to knock it off.

  5. "Graveyard shift"

    The "graveyard shift" refers to a late-night and early-morning work shift, but the phrase has a much spookier origin. The "graveyard shift" was said to have come about during the 16th century when people were sometimes accidentally buried alive. As the story goes, family members of the deceased would perform an all-night vigil, also known as "graveyard shifts," and watch over the graveyard in case there was any sign of life in the casket.

  6. "Once in a blue moon"

    The phrase "once in a blue moon" refers to an uncommon or rare event, such as two full moons in the same month. "Once in a blue moon" originated from the Maine Farmers' Almanac between the years of 1932 to 1957, in which farmers noted changes in the lunar cycle. If a season had four full moons rather than the typical three, then the third one was called a blue moon.

  7. "Cut to the chase"

    To avoid wasting time, the phrase "cut to the chase" originated in the U.S. film industry and was often used in early silent films that ended in chase sequences. The phrase was first recorded in a 1929 script direction from Joseph Patrick McEvoy's novel Hollywood Girl that said "Jannings escapes -- Cut to chase." Cutting to the chase or making a cut allowed directors to make an abrupt transition in a film.

  8. "Hold your horses"

    Today, we use the phrase "hold your horses" when we want someone to wait, but when the phrase originated during the 19th century, it had a more literal meaning. "Hold your horses" was said to horse riders and drivers of horse-drawn vehicles so that they would keep their horses in line and under control.

  9. "Heads up"

    The phrase "heads up" has several meanings and a few origins that come from American newspapers. The use of "heads up" to mean an advance warning was first recorded in The Washington Post in 1979 as a "heads up alert" for intelligence officials. It was also printed in 1914 as a football and baseball term that signified alertness.

  10. "It's Raining Cats and Dogs"

    The phrase "it's raining cats and dogs" has a few intriguing origin stories. The saying has been linked to the days when dogs and cats used to sleep on thatched roofs and would slide off when it rained really hard. The first recorded use of the exact phrase was seen in Jonathan Swift's 1738 satire, called "Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation," which referred to a character's fears that it will "rain cats and dogs."


  11. "An arm and a leg"

    One popular and intriguing explanation of the phrase "an arm and a leg" refers to portrait painters who used to charge a higher price for larger paintings and less for paintings that only showed the head and shoulders. However, a more likely origin of the phrase dates back to Civil War surgeons who joked about how expensive their amputation services were and how soldiers had to pay with an arm and a leg.

Taken From Online Degree

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