Idiomatic expressions have become a big part of our daily conversations. Most English speaking countries practice and use common idioms in their everyday interactions. In this article, we’ll be discussing five of the most common idioms and their origins.
1. Elephant in the room
When someone says something is an elephant in the room, they don’t mean that a big mammal is actually sitting on your couch and maybe even reading some magazines or watching your favorite TV shows. An elephant in the room means that there is an obvious problem that people tend to ignore.
But where does it come from?
To be honest, the exact origin is unclear. However, the Oxford English dictionary records the first use of the the expression as a simile and not an idiom. The first earliest recorded appearance of ‘elephant in the room’ dates back to June 20, 1959 when The New York Times said,
“Financing schools has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.”
However, a few uses of the phrase has been prevalent long before 1959 as it appeared in the ages of a British journal in 1915 where the expression was asked to British schoolboys as “Is there an elephant in the class-room?”
Unrelated but noteworthy: An Elephant rarely forgets. In fact, they can remember friendly elephants even if they just spent short periods of time together.
2. Apple of my eye
Being someone’s ‘apple of my eye’ is sweet. It means you are someone’s center of attention, probably because you are cute or charming.
But where did this expression come from?
To answer this, let’s go a few years back, or maybe even more:
The apple of my eye expression roots back to Old English (and I mean really old!). The expression first appeared in a work attributed to King Aelfred (the Great) of Wessex in 885 AD:
hwæt on ðæs siwenigean eagum beoð ða æpplas hale, ac ða bræwas greatigað, forðam hie beoð oft drygde for ðæm tearum ðe ðær gelome of flowað, oððæt sio scearpnes bið gewird ðæs æpples.
Ha! Told you it was old. Okay, if you can’t understand this, it just says:
The pupils of the bleared eyes are sound, but the eyelashes become bushy, being often dried because of the frequent flow of tears, until the sharpness of the pupil is dulled.
Okay, apple of the eye might not have appeared in its modern translation, but the origin really dates back there. It was later re-used by Shakespeare in his work A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1600:
Flower of this purple dye,
Hit with Cupid’s archery,
Sink in apple of his eye
Unrelated but noteworthy: Contrary to popular belief, the type of English Shakespeare uses is not Old English. It’s actually an earlier version of the Modern English.
3. Skeleton in the Closet
If someone ever discovers your skeletons in the closet, it would be an awkward experience. Skeletons in the closet are secrets so shameful and potentially destructive, that you keep so deep.
So where did the skeletons come from?
The answer is England. The time, 19th century During that time, the word ‘closet’ was commonly used to mean ‘water closet’ (or lavatory). It was used in a figurative one piece written by William Hendry Stowell of the UK monthly periodical in 1816. In this earlier version, the word ‘skeleton’ meant something different: a disease that is infectious or hereditary.
This of course evolved differently, and the reason is pretty simple. Because of the stigma of having an infectious or hereditary disease, people who had been infected by such dreaded to be rejected socially thus hiding it. Eventually, the usage of having skeletons in closets changed.
Unrelated by noteworthy: Speaking of secrets, Google has a few skeletons of their owns. We’ve uncovered a few in our previous article.
4. Bring home the bacon
We all love bacon, so as much as we wouldn’t want to bring it home (because we have to eat it on the way). But when someone says you have to go and ‘bring home the bacon’, you bring accolades but no bacon.
Its origin actually dates back to the story of the Dunmow Flitch, a tradition held every four years in Essex. According to tradition, a local couple in 1004 impressed the Prior of little Dunmow with their fidelity to one another that they were awarded bacon! (Yes, bacon! Imagine if this is the price of fidelity, divorce rates might even go lower than they are today!) And as the ritual went on by time, couples of great loyalty to marriage won the prize of a slice of bacon.
Even Chaucer mentions it in his The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Prologue in 1395:
But never for us the flitch of bacon though,
That some may win in Essex at Dunmow.
One more possible origin is being held by boxing fans where it was became popular. Back then, the world lightweight belt was up for grabs and Joe Gans and Oliver Nelson were vying for it. The day after the bout, 4th September 1906, the New York newspaper The Post Standard wrote:
Before the fight Gans received a telegram from his mother: “Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon.”
Unrelated by noteworthy: Bacon has been around even before Christ was born (1500 years before!)
I love declaring shotgun! For those who doesn’t know what riding shotgun is, it’s when you sit beside the driver (in the front seat).
But have you ever wondered why it’s called shotgun? Well, if you’re thinking it has something to do with an actual shotgun, then you’re in the right track.
The expression’s origin dates back when stagecoaches (usually carrying money or important things) are still prevalent and the “express messenger” (who rides alongside the driver) carries a shotgun to provide security in case bandits attack.
Unrelated but noteworthy: One of the youngest and wealthiest bandits known is Colton Harris-Moore a.k.a. “The Barefoot Bandit”. He is 19 years old and have stolen five planes, cars, boats and a hundred more robberies.
These idioms have been part of our language for a long time now. And everyday, more and more idioms are being created and inculcated as part of our daily language.
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