What Are You Really Saying?

Cut to the Chase

Today’s definition: “Get to the point.”

In the early days of cinema, plots would deviate between romantic entanglements, bad guys with wiry moustaches tying women to train tracks, and a chase scene. It was a generally routine formula for early Hollywood directors to include the obligatory chase scene as a way of inducing some level of excitement in the film. Before long, a well-known maxim became popular amongst these directors, who would say: ‘when in doubt, cut to the chase.’

Put a Sock in it

Today’s definition: “Shut up.”

To ask someone to ‘put a sock in it’ is a relatively polite way of warning them to shut up before you punch them in the face. But there is a practical origin to the phrase, whereby parents of rebellious youths in the early 1920s and 30’s would literally jam a sock into the big speaker of a gramophone to dull the racquet of all that jazz.


Today’s definition: “A reliable assistant.”

Back in the industrial ages in London, every lad under the age of 12 who was not a soot-faced chimney sweep, was an audacious little pickpocket. People had names for their trouser pockets – and the ones on the side of the leg were called the ‘kicks’. It became known that the side kick was the safest place to store your shillings, as they were the hardest for the cheeky pickpockets to infiltrate. The faithful, reliable old pocket eventually became personified into the moderately wussy tag-alongs that accompanied spandex-clad superheros. Logical of course.

Get the Sack

Today’s definition: “To lose your job.”

This is derived from 18th century tradesmen, who feared being given an empty sack by their boss, as it meant they were to put all their tools and belongings into the sack and go home, jobless. Or, given the furious rate of land-grabbing from Victorian debt collectors, take their belongings to a rail underpass they were to call home from then on.

Hair of the Dog

Today’s definition: “Drinking whatever you consumed the night before as a way to cure a wretched hangover.”

This well-known and practice ‘remedy’ is actually a shining example of medieval medical science. Around the 1500’s doctors advised those who were bitten by a rabid dog to track the canine assailant down and extract a hair from it to apply to the wound. Usually the patient would return with another wound. The connection to drinking possibly came via the second recommendation from the doctor, which was to drink the pain away.


Keep the Ball Rolling

Today’s definition: “Maintain momentum and enthusiasm.”

Strangely enough this phrase doesn’t relate to sport – but originates from those with absolutely no aptitude for any sport whatsoever. Politicians. The phrase was a line in the 1840 US Presidential campaign slogan of General William Harrison, considered to be the first ever use of a political slogan. Harrison went one step further and even had a huge ‘victory ball’ prop made, and rolled it through towns chanting the phrase. It is not known when politicians then exchanged giant balls for babies to kiss.


Hands Down

Today’s definition: “A comprehensive victory”

The literal term ‘hands down’ is from horse-racing, for when a horse is so unbelievably good that the jockey doesn’t even need to whip it home to win. So when the lead is large enough, the jockey can loosen the grip on the reins and literally drop his hands down. Those who oppose the sport on the moral grounds of animal cruelty should note that if a horse would just really get a move on, there’d be no need to whip it.



Can’t Hold a Candle To….

Today’s definition: “To compare badly to someone or something.”

This is another term from the world of pre-industrial age trade, when apprentices were expected to hold candles for the masters to do their work. Those not even good enough to be trusted with the job of holding a candle were on the absolute lowest rungs of society. Even the candle was more important than them.


Spill the Beans

Today’s definition: “To divulge the truth, sometimes by accident.”

In ancient Greece, voting was done with beans. Citizens would drop either a light (in favour) or dark (against) bean into a jar to exercise their democratic right when it came time to vote in a new administrator or decide who wins the toga pageant. Often, during the ballot process, a particularly clumsy voter would knock over the jar and spill all the beans, giving a premature glimpse of the results.


Saved by the Bell

Today’s definition: “To be rescued by a last minute intervention.”

Although the phrase can be aptly used to describe a boxer being spared complete facial obliteration by the bell at the end of round, this phrase is actually derived from a deeply entrenched fear. No, not being forced to watch every episode of the cheesy mid-1990’s high-school sitcom Saved by the Bell; but rather being buried alive. In the 17th century, people were genuinely freaking out about the possibility of being buried in a casket without actually being dead. Frightful stories were spread about hapless souls waking up six feet under. Therefore, the somewhat ironic ‘safety coffin’ was designed with a small bell inside, so if the buryee did manage to revive themselves, they could ring the bell to be saved from certain, claustrophobic death.


Nothing to be Sneezed at

Today’s definition: “Something of significance.”

For some reason, Elizabethan nobility developed a hedonistic penchant for sneezing. Those mingling in the upper realms of society would often carry a box of spices and tobacco, so they could leisurely go about, sniffing the box and sneezing their faces off. It was something to do when you were bored. So if there was nothing around capturing your interest or attention, you might as well have a little sneeze or two to pass the time. Therefore it came to be that anything that kept you from sneezing was worth noting.

The Whole Nine Yards

Today’s definition: “Giving 100% effort.”

Back in World War II, many fighter planes were equipped with mounted machine guns, with an ammunition belt of about 9 yards in length. Particularly ruthless pilots would unload the entire length of the ammo chain upon an enemy, so they could later boast, over a dry ale and cigar, how they gave Old Jerry the ‘whole nine yards’ of their fury.


Stealing One’s Thunder

Today’s definition: “Taking success and veneration for another’s idea.”

In the early 1700’s, British playwright, John Dennis developed a new way to simulate the sound of thunder by rolling metal balls around in a large wooden barrel. He unveiled the new thunder sound as part of a new production. Unfortunately his play sucked and failed to draw much attention – but his thunder-sound method was taken and used successfully by a rival playwright for a production of Macbeth. Dennis was understandably furious and wrote a scathing message to the local press about it. And then everyone stole his complaint and used it metaphorically for themselves.


10 Comments on “What Are You Really Saying?”

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  9. […] that our pantaloon-wearing, lute-playing ancestors were saying the exact same things.   See Part I and Part […]

  10. […] What are you Really Saying? Part II Posted: May 11, 2012 | Author: chrisdbeaumont | Filed under: Lists | Tags: english, history, idioms, meanings, origins, phrases, shakespeare |Leave a comment » What’s one of the best things about the English Language? The fact that we often have no idea what we’re actually saying. We’re so dumb like that! See Part I […]


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