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Katch Up on the Origins of Idioms: Unravelling the Quirky Language Tapestry

by Paudie Marum | 11th March 2024 | Communication,Disruption,Public Relations
Confused looking at board

This blog is going to be a piece of cake as we hop down off the fence, stop beating around the bush, and break a leg while divulging the unique origins of some of the world’s most well-known idioms

We’ve all been barking up the wrong tree at some stage in our lives, but where did this phrase come from and what does it actually really mean? At Katch International, we love some good wordplay, and with this in mind, throughout this blog we'll explore the origins and meanings behind some of these commonly used expressions. From the chaotic state of being "at sixes and sevens" to the intriguing concept of living "like a maggot in bacon," we aim to unravel the stories behind these idioms, adding a splash of wit and wisdom to your linguistic repertoire. While we regularly use these idioms in our everyday speech, this is your chance to not only decipher the roots of some well-known English phrases but also take a delightful detour around the globe, discovering how various cultures colour their communication with unique and amusing expressions. Get ready to feast on the delightful tapestry of idiomatic language and, perhaps, gain a newfound appreciation for the richness of global communication.

Pile of opened booked

Disarray and Disorder Prevails: At Sixes and Sevens

Ever found yourself in a state of disarray? Well, then you might be considered at Sixes and Sevens. This quirky little phrase has its origins dating back to the 14th century, emerging from an old dice game where throwing a six or a seven was laden with risk and uncertainty.

Chaucer, in his work "Troilus and Criseyde" in 1374, immortalised the expression with the lines, "Lat nat this wrechched wo thyn herte gnawe, But manly set the world on sexe and seuene." The idiom describes a situation marked by chaos or disagreement, reflecting the unpredictability associated with a throw of the dice. So, the next time you're caught in a perplexing scenario, embrace the historical whimsy of being at Sixes and Sevens.

At a Loss For Words: Cat Got Your Tongue

Curious why someone might ask, "Cat got your tongue?" This peculiar expression finds its roots on English sailing ships, where divulging a secret entrusted by a higher officer was met with the threat of "the cat." Sailors were warned not to spill the beans (we’ll get onto this one later), symbolised by the feline enforcer. If you find yourself momentarily speechless, you might just be under the influence of the notorious shipboard cat.

Cat got your tongue

Once in a Blue Moon: Rare Occurrences Unveiled

Blue moons are a rare celestial spectacle, and the phrase "Once in a blue moon" captures the essence of extreme rarity. The term's first recorded use dates back to an anti-clerical flyer in 1528, criticising priests for convincing laymen of absurdities like the moon turning blue. Fast forward to today, and the idiom is a lighthearted way to describe events or occurrences that happen extremely rarely, akin to witnessing the elusive blue moon.

Once in a blue moon

By the Skin of Your Teeth: A Narrow Escape Through Time

Imagine surviving by the skin of your teeth. This idiom finds its ancient roots in verse 20 of chapter 19 of the Book of Job in the Bible. Job describes his illness, proclaiming, "My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth." The phrase conveys a narrow escape, showcasing the intensity of survival when only a sliver of hope remains.

Best Thing Since Sliced Bread: A Toast to Innovations

Have you ever declared something the "best thing since sliced bread"? The idiom traces back to 1928 when the Chillicothe Baking Company introduced sliced bread. Advertising boasted, "The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped." From there, the expression took on a life of its own, with comedian Red Skelton solidifying it in 1952. Now, anything revolutionary or groundbreaking is compared to the ingenious concept of sliced bread.

Sliced bread

Under the Weather: Nautical Roots of Discomfort

If you’re not feeling at your best, you might just be under the weather. This idiom's maritime origins lie in sailors seeking stability below decks during rough weather. Being "under the weather rail" became synonymous with feeling seasick or unwell. The next time you're feeling less than stellar, blame it on the turbulent seas (and not the previous night’s indulgences).

Spill the Beans: Ancient Greek Election Mishaps

"Spill the beans" takes us back to ancient Greek elections, where black and white beans were used to cast votes. Knocking over the jar prematurely revealed the results, making spilled beans synonymous with revealing secrets. Be careful, because someone accidentally spills the beans, brace yourself for unexpected revelations.

Spilled coffee beans

Bite the Bullet: A Historical Coping Mechanism

Sometimes you really do just have to bite the bullet. This phrase, first recorded by Rudyard Kipling, has been suggested to have historical ties to patients clenching a bullet in their teeth during surgical procedures without anesthesia. It symbolises enduring pain with resilience, a testament to facing challenges head-on.

Play It by Ear: The Evolution of Improvisation

The original meaning of 'play it by ear' was to play music without sheet music, relying on memory or improvisation. From music to general decision-making, the phrase has evolved to signify making things up as you go along. Whether it's a quarterback deviating from the called play or navigating life's uncertainties, playing it by ear is all about adaptability.

On the Fence: Straddling Middle English Origins

The idiom 'on the fence' has its roots in Middle English when the word 'fens,' short for 'defens,' defined ownership. Metaphorically, sitting on the fence means straddling the position between two ideas without committing to either. Whenever you find yourself hesitating between two choices, you're metaphorically perched on the fence, embracing the uncertainty.

On the fence

Idioms Worldwide: A Global Tapestry of Expressions

Idioms are not exclusive to the English language; they weave through the rich tapestry of cultures globally. Each culture seems to have discovered its own unique way of expressing itself, not only through different languages but also through different expressions and amalgamations of words.

As we traverse the globe we can quickly stop off in Armenia, where they say "Stop ironing my head" when someone is annoying, before jumping to the Czech Republic, where you are encouraged not to "walk around in hot porridge" when avoiding direct communication. In France, "Having other cats to whip" mirrors the English of "Having other fish to fry," emphasising different priorities, while Mongolia's unique idiom wishes blessings on your moustache after you sneeze, and Germans would suggest living "like a maggot in bacon" for a luxurious lifestyle.

Concluding our trip across the globe, China advises us to "inflate a cow" to talk something or someone up, and in Russia, you might hear someone say they'll "hang noodles on your ears" when attempting to fool you. This non-exhausted list of quirky idioms highlights the universal charm of figurative language across cultures and how playing with words is not a new fad, but one that has existed for centuries.

Cow in a field

If you want to get a grip on some interesting wordplay, why not drop us a line and see how we can bring your messaging to life. For more related updates and to Katch us covering similar topics, watch this space!

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