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The Real Stories Behind 7 Everyday Expressions

Many of our everyday phrases come from Shakespeare, while others have more gruesome beginnings.

But some widely repeated phrase “origins” are folk etymologies that have been passed on by word of mouth and AOL spam emails. 

Keep reading to see seven everyday phrase origins that are complete myths according to historical linguists, from “rule of thumb” to “raining cats and dogs.”

1. “Rule of thumb”  

James gillray sir francis buller judge thumbNational Portrait Gallery‘Rule of thumb’ does not come from a misogynistic British law.

Many people believe that the phrase “rule of thumb” dates back to when a 18th century judge ruled that it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife as long as he used a stick no wider than his thumb. 

But the phrase, which today means “to do something the way it has always been done,” was already in existence by the late 1600s. It originates from the human thumb’s long history of being used to estimate measurements, from alignment to distance. 

We can thank a satirical cartoon artist named James Gillray for the confusion, who published a harsh cartoon of a judge named Sir Francis Buller in 1783. It shows Buller carrying bundles of sticks while a man beats a woman in the background with a caption that reads, “Thumbsticks — for family correction: Warranted lawful!”

Yet despite multiple scholarly investigations, no evidence suggests that a judge has ever said this — let alone Buller — and there are no cases in British common law that have ever held that it was legal for a man to beat his wife with a stick of any size.

It is, of course, entirely plausible that Buller may have said or joked about such a thing, and for that he certainly deserves Gillray’s derisive cartoon (as well as a good whacking himself).

2. “Paying through the nose” 

Apollinary Vasnetsov (1856-1933). Arrival of Rurik to Ladoga.Wikimedia CommonsVikings never slit people’s noses.

The internet has a few fake etymologies for “paying through the nose,” the most gruesome of which says that Vikings used to slit conquered villagers’ noses if they could not pay their taxes. They were “paying through the nose” or paying handsomely.

This is extremely unlikely given that the idiom surfaced eight centuries after the Vikings’ raids, but if it does come from the Vikings, the origin is probably much more boring. 

The most plausible explanation given by Anatoly Liberman from the Oxford University Press blog is that when the Danes conquered Ireland, they wanted to make money off of their new subjects and imposed a tax like any other conquering ruler. This was known as a poll-tax or “nose-tax.” 

It had nothing to do with an actual nose in the same way that a “head count” does not refer to counting dismembered heads. The nose was a synecdoche for a person — the Danes wanted to tax every person in Ireland, or all of their “noses.”

Some historians disagree and argue that “paying through the nose” comes from a 1898 essay by a former sailor named Richard Edgcumbe who claimed the expression was originally used on board ships where “nose” referred to the bow of a ship:

It does not seem very difficult (at all events, for a sailor) to associate extortionate disbursements with handsome payments — such, for instance, as paying out a chain cable (through the nose), especially when the order is conveyed in such a language as this, ‘Pay out handsomely.’  At all events, I can speak on this matter from personal experience as a midshipman.  To my mind, ‘paying through the nose’ for anything has always been associated with the rattling of a ‘payed out’ chain cable, after the anchor has gripped the ground.

Whether it’s boring taxes or sailor slang that reached the mainland, it certainly has nothing to do with actually slitting noses.

3. “Pulling one’s leg” 

PickpocketsMuseum of London‘Pulling one’s leg’ does not relate to pickpockets.

A popular fake etymology for “pulling one’s leg” claims that street thieves in London (from the Victorian or Medieval period, depending on the story teller) would trip their victims to more easily rob them. 

Another tale was that “pulling one’s leg” dates back to when people would pull on the legs of those hanged in Tyburn, England (the principal place for execution in the 1700s). While this did happen to speed the deaths, it is implausible as a source because it has nothing to do with the phrase’s current meaning and was not popular when these hangings took place.

As far as etymologists can tell, the phrase is most likely American. It was first printed in an Ohio newspaper called The Newark Daily Advocate in February of 1883. The paper treated it as a new phrase, meaning the citation is probably close to the phrase’s actual origin.

And though some etymology experts believe the phrase may have originated from “playfully tripping” someone, the actual origin remains somewhat of a mystery.

4. “Raining cats and dogs” 

Norse god odin mythologyWikimedia Commons‘Raining cats and dogs’ does not come from ‘Norse mythology.’

People claim this phrase comes from Norse mythology and the storm god Odin whose animal attendants were cats (which represented heavy rain or wind) and dogs (another symbol for wind). So when it was raining hard, Odin’s “animals” were outside. 

But Anatoly Liberman from the Oxford University Press blog summed it up best why this theory gets the basics so, so wrong:

In Norse mythology, Odin is not a storm god, his “animals” are a horse and two ravens, cats have nothing to do with either Odin or witches, and rain is not connected with any divinity. Odin presides over the Wild Hunt in late Scandinavian folklore, not mythology. The Wild Hunt, which is known in most of northern Europe, is obviously associated with stormy weather, but Odin’s following is made up of flying corpses, not of cats, dogs, or witches.

So yes Odin is associated with stormy weather, but everything else is pretty much made up.

Liberman thinks that in all likelihood, it originated from a 1592 sentence by Gabriel Harvey (and documented by the Oxford English Dictionary) that reads: “Instead of thunderboltes shooteth nothing but dogboltes or catboltes.” The “dog bolts” were iron bolts to secure a door or a gate, while “cat bolts” were used to fasten together pieces of wood. In other words, they likened a heavy rainstorm to heavy metal bolts falling out of the sky. 

At some point, Liberman believes the “bolt” was dropped either as a joke or to make it easier to say, causing the phrase to make no sense today. 

5. “Saved by the bell”

Premature burial vaultWikimedia CommonsBeing buried alive was a very real fear.

It’s said this phrase dates back to a time when people were at risk of being buried alive. To keep from waking up inside a coffin (and then really dying), loved ones were buried with bell ropes so they could ring the bell if they woke up. Once someone heard them, they were dug up and thus “saved by the bell.”

And while that does match the phrase’s current meaning — saved by a last minute intervention — and even though being buried alive was a very real fear (with actual “safety coffins” designed at this time), this is not where the phrase actually comes from.

Instead, “saved by the bell” is boxing slang that became common in the late 19th century. A boxer who was about to be defeated would be saved if the bell that marked the end of a round rang out. Eventually, the phrase hit the mainstream.

6. “Dead ringer”

L'inhumation précipitée (1854) buried aliveWikimedia CommonsAnother false etymology about being buried alive.

Today, someone’s who’s a “dead ringer” for somebody else means that they look like an exact duplicate. 

But “dead ringer” is said to come from the same false source as “saved by the bell” — that people were buried with bells in case they weren’t actually dead. They were “dead ringers.”

But this could not be more wrong. Instead, “dead ringer” comes from US horse-racing when cheating owners would switch one horse with another and showcase it under a false name and pedigree in order to defraud bookies. 

The term “ringer” comes from an old slang usage of “ring,” which meant to exchange or substitute something counterfeit for something real. The “dead” was added for emphasis.

Because the horses would have to look alike to be switched, the phrase evolved to mean two things that look extremely similar.

7. “Upper crust”

Breaking bread cutting breadWikimedia Commons‘Upper crust’ is just a bread metaphor.

People who are “upper crust” are upper class, wealthy members of society.

The phrase was said to date back to a tradition where bread was divided according to everyone’s status. For instance, the burnt bottom would go to servants, the family would get the middle portion, and the honored guests would receive the top of the loaf, or its “upper crust.”

The only source that even hints at such a custom is a book called “Boke of Nuruture” dating from 1460 that says “cut the upper crust for your lord.” It’s the only one that mentions anything like this, however, and since the phrase became a slang term in the 19th century, it’s unlikely this is the source.

A more likely scenario is that since the upper class was the at the top of society, using bread as a metaphor they would be considered “upper crust.”

BONUS: “Bury your head in the sand”

Ostrich burying head in the sandShutterstockStop blaming ostriches for ‘burying your head in the sand.’

Today when you “bury your head in the sand” it means that you are wilfully ignoring a problem, usually with dire consequences. 

It supposedly comes from how ostriches hide their heads in the sand when they’re attacked by predators, something observed by Roman writer Pliny the Elder.

However, Pliny had it all wrong: Ostriches don’t bury their heads when they sense danger, but run away or lie down on the ground and play dead. Historians hypothesize that Pliny either saw an ostrich lying down and its light-coloured head merely blended in with the sand or he saw an ostrich eating

Either way, you can stop attributing this phrase to ostriches.

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