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.

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