Where Did Those Old Phrases Originate?

If you’ve ever read any of my books, you know I use a lot of common phrases. Some I grew up with, having heard my parents or other relatives say so I tend to use them because they’re as natural as breathing. I think they add a lot of flavor to my stories. I sure hope so anyway.

A lot of these go back a very long way. I hope you have fun learning the origins.

IN TALL COTTON – Means successful. Goes back to 1800s. Crops were good and the farmer flush

CAN’T WIN FOR LOSING – 1960s… bad luck keeps showing up to ruin plans

SLEEP TIGHT – In middle ages and later before bed springs, the mattress sat on a latticework of ropes. To keep the mattress from sagging, the sleeper had to keep tightening the ropes.

TOOTH AND NAIL – Fight like a wild beast – with teeth and nails – 1500s origin

HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD – To describe exactly what’s causing the situation or problem

BY AND LARGE – 16th century nautical term – sailing into the wind—means all things considered

RUNNING AMOK – 18th century, wild or erratic behavior

READ THE RIOT ACT – in 18th century England, the Riot Act was a very real document. It was recited to crowds of 12 people or more then the official ordered them to disperse and go home

DIEHARD – Originated in 1700s, describing condemned men struggling the longest when hung

TURN A BLIND EYE – Dates back to Horatio Nelson who held a telescope to his bad eye and proclaimed he couldn’t see a thing

GETTING OFF SCOT-FREE – Originated in Medieval England when a scot was a word for tax. A person who gets off scot free gets away with things.

BURY THE HATCHET – During peace negotiations in early America, the Puritans and Native Americans would bury all the weapons. Now it means to make peace.

BIG WIGS – In old England, the more influential people had the biggest wigs

ONE FOR THE ROAD – During the middle ages, the condemned were taken to their execution down Oxford Street. The cart would stop and they’d give the person a final drink.

GIVE THE COLD SHOULDER – During medieval times in England, the host would cut off a piece of meat from the shoulder and give to guests he wanted to leave.

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR – Originated in late 1800s carnival games that used to be targeted to adults, not children. The prizes were cigars instead of stuffed toys.

WAKING UP ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE SIDE OF THE BED – Throughout history the left was considered evil. To keep guests from getting out on the left side, the bed was pushed against the wall so the sleepers had to both get out on the right side. Today it means to start the day in a bad temper.

GET ONE’S GOAT – Means to irritate someone. In horse racing, placing a goat in with a racehorse calmed it down. Rivals would steal the goat in hopes of upsetting the horse and winning the race.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these. There are tons more and probably 60 percent go back to the middle ages and earlier.

What ones surprised you the most? I think for me it’s Read the Riot Act and Get One’s Goat.

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

29 thoughts on “Where Did Those Old Phrases Originate?”

  1. I have heard of most of those.

    In Delaware, after an election, they literally bury the hatchet during a ceremony. The ceremony has been going on since 1812.

    And I learned it as in high cotton–same meaning.


    • Hi Denise….great to see you. I’m astounded at how long these ceremonies have been going on. I love this one though. We need to bury the hatchet a lot these days. 🙂 Thanks for coming.

    • Laura, I think it’s very interesting to learn what led to these sayings that I’ve been using all my life. Thanks for dropping by, Filly sister. 🙂 Love you.

    • Janine, this one surprised me too. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the guest when the host put a piece of cold shoulder meat on my plate! Ha! A clear message he wanted me to leave. Too funny. Thanks for coming.

  2. heard all of them before and seen many a goat out in the pasture with both cattle and horses!

    • Hi Debra, I always thought scot free was talking about Scottish men. LOL! I never knew a scot was a tax. And I didn’t have a clue about diehard. I guess getting hung would make you die hard. Thanks for reading my post.

  3. I have heard all of them except for in tall cotton. It’s fun to learn the origins of these sayings. Thank you.

    • Hi Julie, I think it’s a lot of fun to know how these sayings originated. I always thought In Tall Cotton referred to the workers picking cotton and not having to stoop over and hurt their backs. So this one surprised me. Glad you stopped by.

  4. I have used a lot of these myself. The meaning of giving the cold shoulder was a surprise to me. I didn’t know it had anything to do with meat.

    • Quilt Lady, that one surprised me too. I never knew about the custom of cutting meat from a shoulder. But guests knew immediately that the host wanted them gone. LOL You have a lovely day.

  5. Welcome Linda. This is a fun post. I grew up using a lot of these also. Diehard is the one that surprised me the most. I had no idea that was the original meaning. I grew up with the thought that it meant to keep persevering. I suppose in a way they mean the same. LOL

    • Hi Lori, I’m so happy you enjoyed my post. Quite a few of these turned out to be quite different from what I thought. But getting hung would be a hard way to die. Yes, they had no choice but to persevere. 🙂 I hope your day is filled with blessings.

  6. Ever since I married, I’ve been getting up on the wrong side of the bed. Ha! My favorite of the ones you mentioned is Big Wigs. I never thought about where that phrase came from, but it is so simple and makes perfect sense. Fun blog, Linda!

    • Hi Karen…..Yep, now you know. But I get very cranky when I have to make a bed that’s pushed up against the wall. My source for Big Wigs talked about how expensive hair was back then so only the wealthy could afford wigs. And the taller the wig, the more important the man was. So I wonder why just men could wear wigs back then. Plenty of women probably needed one. Love you, Filly sister.

  7. I enjoyed learning the meaning behind the many sayings I have heard and used through the years.

    • It’s really fun to learn what prompted these sayings we use in every day conversation, Maureen. I think people in the middle ages would laugh at us still using what they started. Have a beautiful day.

    • Trudy, I think that one surprised most everyone. I hadn’t a clue either. No one wants to see a cold shoulder. Nope! I’m happy you enjoyed my post.

  8. Great post, Linda! I’m so glad I have my computer back and can read and comment! LOL I’ve heard of all of these before, but didn’t know the origins of most of them. The cold shoulder and one for the road were the two that surprised me the most. I really enjoyed this! Thanks for a fun post–and hope everything is going well for you, my filly sis! We need to catch up! HUGS!

  9. It’s so interesting to take a look at where some of the phrases we grow up hearing originated from. I think the one that shocked or surprised me the most was giving someone the cold shoulder. That would certainly encourage me to leave. 🙂 Thanks for sharing, sister!

  10. The English language really is colorful, isn’t it?
    I also heard that to LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE was first used by Chaucer in 1374. Like a lot of theses sayings, they just use common sense if heeded.
    There is a wonderful little book filled with these adages called HEAVENS TO BETSY by Charles Funk

  11. Good morning Linda- this one floored me. I’ve used it before but did not know the origin.
    CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR – Originated in late 1800s carnival games that used to be targeted to adults, not children. The prizes were cigars instead of stuffed toys.
    I hope you had a great birthday Sweet Sister Friend. I love you so Dearly.

  12. I find “Turned A Blind Eye” interesting. Sounds like a military man who didn’t want to follow orders and it was a good way to deny there was an issue so they could do what they want.
    WAKING UP ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE SIDE OF THE BED – I vaguely remember hearing something about this. I do know that there were many references to the left being the side of evil. I was left handed as a child, but was forced to switch to the right hand because the left hand was the hand of the devil.

    Thanks for sharing these. We all use words and phrases that we have no idea what the origins are. It is interesting finding out.

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