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Three Popular Idioms and their Origin Stories


One of the reasons English is so difficult to learn is because it is a language full of idioms. An idiom is a combination of words that has a figurative meaning separate from the actual definitions of the words used. There are an estimated 25,000 idioms in the English language.

Here on the blog, in one of our regular features, we translate popular idioms into plain English. Today we are going to look at three common English idioms and how and why they came to be associated with their figurative meanings.

1) Bite the Bullet
If someone is described as biting the bullet, it means they are finally doing a difficult or unpleasant task they’ve been putting off.

One theory behind the origin of this phrase is that soldiers, in the days before anaesthetics were effective or readily available, would bite down on bullets to help them tolerate pain. However, the most frequently cited origin of the phrase is during the American Civil War which began in 1861 and at least ten years after military surgeons began using ether and chloroform to anaesthetise patients.

Another theory is that the phrase originated during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 when native Indian fighters, recruited by the British Army, were using rifles with greased paper cartridges which needed to be bitten to release powder. Hindu soldiers were concerned that the paper was greased with cow fat while Muslim soldiers worried that it was greased with pig fat. It is said that phrase comes from the expectation that soldiers ignored their religious concerns and ‘bit the bullet’ anyway.

However, the phrase appears before both the American Civil War and the Indian Rebellion in Francis Grose’s 1796 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Its true origin remains a mystery.

2) Caught Red-Handed
If someone is caught red-handed, it means that they are caught in the act of doing something they shouldn’t be doing. They phrase come from the idea of having blood on one’s hands after committing murder or poaching. The phrase was first used in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I in 1432 and has appeared in many legal documents since.

3) Keep at Bay
If you keep something (or someone) at bay, it means you are keeping it (or them) from approaching or having an effect.

It might seem that this phrase has nautical origins; the idea of keeping a ship at bay and not allowing it to enter port makes sense. In fact, the story behind this phrase is completely different.

The phrase entered English via the Old French ‘abbay’ which means ‘barking’ and evolved first into ‘abay’ and then ‘at bay’. In the fourteenth century, the term ‘at a bay’ was used to describe hunting hounds that were barking. The phrase also came to describe animals which were in a standoff with a barking dog that was intent on killing them. The first recorded use of the phrase in its figurative meaning was in the eighteenth century.

If you found this post interesting, you can read more about idiom origins here and here. You may also find our idiom translation articles useful:

Sources: The Phrase Finder


30 Jan 2018
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