The English language can be pretty confusing at times. Maybe the peculiar spellings, grammar rules and borrowing from other languages have something to do with it. And then there’s the fact that we have phrases known as idioms that cannot be taken literally because they mean something else entirely. We use them on a daily basis in just about every conversation, but have you ever stopped to think about their origins? If so, have a look at the backstories of some of the most popular idioms you use every day.
1. Pardon my French
Where did we get the idea to say “pardon my French” after a couple of swear words slipped out of our mouths? Well, this one goes back all the way to the 1800s, where educated folks would throw in a couple of French phrases in their speech. After realizing that the other person did not pick up what was said, they would apologize by saying, “pardon my French.” Eventually, we started associating it with our colorful vocabulary rather than actual French.
2. To Hit the Hay
What does hitting hay have to do with going to sleep? For starters, mattresses used to be made of straw and not the soft, fluffy materials we’re used to today. Talk about uncomfortable… and itchy. So, it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch when someone mentioned they were going to “hit the hay” at bedtime. It must’ve been quite catchy, because the phrase stuck around even long after mattresses were no longer made of straw.
3. Bury the Hatchet
You may not have known this, but “bury the hatchet” comes from an ancient Native American custom. During a peace treaty ceremony, the two chiefs of warring tribes would literally bury their axes to symbolize the end of their feud. There is even an old Iroquois tribe legend that recounts how five nations formed an alliance and buried their weapons under a tree to officiate the new peace. What was once an act of peace among the native people, is now a common saying today.
4. Take a Rain Check
This one has its origins in baseball, well 1870s baseball to be exact. If you’re a fan of the sport, you’d already know how bad weather ruins everything. So when it rained out during a baseball game, the relevant teams would reissue tickets for the delayed games. As time went by, these tickets were nicknamed “rain checks” by fans. It wasn’t until the 1890s that the phrase became associated with turning down an offer with the implication of accepting it at a later date.
5. Bite the Bullet
Like many of the above listed idioms, this one started off with a more literal meaning. And there are at least two origin stories. The first is that as part of an old practice in battlefield medicine, patients were given either a piece of leather or a bullet to bite down on during surgery. The other origin story is that soldiers bit down on bullets to prevent themselves from crying out during disciplinary punishment as it was a point of pride in some regiments to remain stoic throughout the whippings. Doesn’t really matter which came first because the phrase quickly became part of our everyday speech.
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