origins of familiar phrases

i’m always intrigued by the etymology of words and phrases, especially odd phrases that are part of our normative language. so, i dug this list (which happens to be from uncle john’s bathroom reader!). there are a couple dozen phrases unpacked on this neatorama post, but i’ll only copy of a few of the juicy ones here:

HIGH ON THE HOG
Meaning: Luxurious, prosperous.
Origin: The tastiest parts of a hog are its upper parts. If you’re living high on the hog, you’ve got the best it has to offer.

PULL THE WOOL OVER SOMEONE’S EYES
Meaning: Fool someone.
Origin: “Goes back to the days when all gentlemen wore powdered wigs like the ones still worn by the judges in British courts. The word wool was then a popular, joking term for hair … The expression ‘pull the wool over his eyes’ came from the practice of tilting a man’s wig over his eyes, so he couldn’t see what was going on.”

STEAL SOMEONE’S THUNDER
Meaning: To preempt; to draw attention away from someone else’s achievement in favor of your own.
Origin: English dramatist John Dennis invented a gadget for imitating the sound of thunder and introduced it in a play in the early 1700s. The play flopped. Soon after, Dennis noted that another play in the same theater was using his sound-effects device. He angrily exclaimed, “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play.” The story got around London, and the phrase grew out of it.

GIVE SOMEONE “THE BIRD”
Meaning: Make a nasty gesture at someone (usually with the middle finger uplifted).
Origin: There are many versions. The “cleanest”: Originally “the bird” referred to the hissing sound that audiences made when they didn’t like a performance. Hissing is the sound that a goose makes when it’s threatened or angry.

TO THE BITTER END
Meaning: To the very end – often an unpleasant one.
Origin: Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with bitterness. It’s a sailing term that refers to the end of a mooring line or anchor line that is attached to the bitts, sturdy wooden or metal posts that are mounted on the ship’s deck.

SON OF A GUN
Meaning: An epithet.
Origin: In the 1800s, British sailors took women along on extended voyages. When babies were born at sea, the mothers delivered them in a partitioned section of the gundeck. Because no one could be sure who the true fathers were, each of these “gunnery” babies was jokingly called a “son of a gun.”

4 thoughts on “origins of familiar phrases”

  1. Mark,

    Love these phrases. I have Uncle John’s readers too. I also enjoy learning a great deal about the meaning of names. Interesting how many of these phrases you listed grew out of English heritage.

    Love your blog.

  2. Uncle John’s Bathroom reader is one of my favorite bathroom publications… I actually have the one that this article came from in my bathroom right now.

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