The Origins of Popular Phrases

AM I MY BROTHERS KEEPER? 

Like many old sayings in the English language this one come from the Bible. In Genesis Cain murdered his brother Abel. God asked Cain 'Where is your brother?'. Cain answered 'I don't know. Am I my brothers keeper?'. 

BEAT ABOUT THE BUSH 

When hunting birds some people would beat the bush to drive them out into the open. Other people would then catch the birds. 'I won't beat about the bush' came to mean 'I will go straight to the point without any delay'. 

CHOCK-A-BLOCK 

When pulleys or blocks on sailing ships were pulled so tightly together that they could not be moved any closer together, they were said to be chock-a-block. 

FROM THE HORSES'S MOUTH 

You can tell a horse’s age by examining its teeth. A horse dealer may lie to you, but you can always find out the truth 'from the horse’s mouth'. 

BY HOOK OR BY CROOK 

This old saying probably comes from a Medieval law which stated that peasants could use branches of trees for fire wood if they could reach them with their shepherds crook or their billhook. 

SPINNING A YARN 

Rope was made in ports everywhere. The rope makers chatted while they worked, telling each other stories while they were ‘spinning a yarn’. 

THROUGH THICK AND THIN 

This old saying was once 'through thicket and thin wood'. It meant making your way through a dense wood and through one where trees grew more thinly. 

BITE THE BULLET 

This old saying means to grin and bear a painful situation. It comes from the days before anaesthetics. A soldier about to undergo an operation was given a bullet to bite. 

WARTS AND ALL 

When Oliver Cromwell 1599-1658 had his portrait painted he ordered the artist not to flatter him. He insisted on being painted 'warts and all'. 

WASH MY HANDS OF 

The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, refused to be involved in the death of an innocent person(Jesus). So he washed his hands in front of the crowd, symbolically disassociating himself from the execution. 

CLOUD CUCKOO LAND 

This phrase comes from a play called The Birds by the Greek dramatist Aristophanes (c.448-385 BC). In the play the birds decide to build a utopian city called Cloud cuckoo land. 

DOWN AT HEEL  

If the heels of your shoes were worn down you had a shabby appearance. 

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