What Do You Mean? Idioms and Their Origins

by Maggie Doyle | 3/6/19 2:15am

This week’s issue of the Mirror is themed “silver linings.” The phrase literally has nothing to do with silver, or linings, but somehow I didn’t think twice about what it meant. Idioms like this one are so ingrained in American English that as a native speaker, I never think about how neither “silver” nor “linings” individually have any meaningful similarity to what they signify together. It’s strange to me that words can lose their meanings entirely to serve the meaning of a phrase. That got me thinking — what does “silver linings” actually mean? Where did it come from? I extended those questions to 10 popular idioms to uncover their (often ambiguous) history. 

Silver linings

The phrase “silver linings” is likely related to the phrase “every cloud has a silver lining,” which generally means that you can always find some good in the bad. The phrase apparently comes from “Comus,” a masque (think early 17th century musical) by John Milton, in which he says, “Was I deceived? Or did a sable cloud/Turn forth her silver lining on the night?” 

Speak of the devil

“Speak of the devil” is the short form idiom for the phrase “speak of the devil and he doth appear.” It’s used when someone arrives just as or after they were being talked about. Unlike some of our other idioms, this phrase has been popular for centuries. Its first known textual appearance was in Piazza Universale in 1666, in which Giovanni Torriano writes, “The English say, Talk of the Devil, and he’s presently at your elbow.” This line references the phrase’s already existing popularity, which originated from the superstition that it was dangerous to mention the devil by name (think Voldemort). 

Raining cats and dogs

“It’s raining cats and dogs,” an odd but widely accepted way of saying that it’s raining very hard, is another idiom with unclear origins. The phrase first appears in “Olor Iscanus,” a collection of poems by Henry Vaughan in 1651, and it referred to a roof that was held against “dogs and cats rained in shower.” The phrase disappeared for a while, until it resurfaced in Jonathan Swift’s “Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation,” which was a satirical critique of the upper class, in 1738. One of his characters feared it would “rain cats and dogs,” marking the phrase’s popularity. Alternately, the idiom might have more ancient roots. Odin, the Norse god of storms, was often pictured with dogs (symbols of wind), and witches were often pictured with black cats, (signs of heavy rain for sailors). Therefore, “raining cats and dogs” may refer to a storm with wind (dogs) and heavy rain (cats). 

Under the weather 

The phrase “under the weather,” which generally means to feel sick, probably has nautical origins. When a sailor wan’t feeling great in the old days, he was sent below deck, far away from the weather. According to “Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions” by Bill Beavis, “originally it meant to feel seasick or to be adversely affected by bad weather. The term is correctly ‘under the weather bow ...’” The weather bow is apparently the side of a ship from which bad weather was coming.

Cold feet

The phrase “cold feet” refers to losing one’s nerve at the last minute. It’s often applied to a wedding,when a bride or groom may feel unable to go through with their commitment. The origin of the phrase is generally attributed to Stephen Crane, who wrote in 1896 his novel “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” “I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.” Though his meaning is unclear, the phrase could refer to having one’s feet “frozen,” in the sense that one would be unable to move forward.

Hold your horses

This phrase originally literally meant to pull up on a horse’s reins in order to halt it. When people were traveling on horseback or on a vehicle drawn by horses, “hold your horses” wasn’t an idiom. However, the phrase survived the industrialization of transport, and today it essentially means “wait.” By the 1840s the phrase “hold your hosses,” with hoss as a slang term for horse, was being used in a figurative sense to mean wait, stop, restrain yourself. By the 1930s, by which time horses had become largely obsolete as a mode of transport, the term become today’s version, “hold your horses.”  

Cat’s out of the bag

This idiom, meaning that a previously hidden secret has been disclosed, is also a metaphor. The cat is the secret, and the bag is the thing hiding it. When a cat gets out of the bag, it is out in the open, or revealed to the general public. The phrase first appeared in 1760, in a book review in The London Magazine, wherein the reviewer notes, “We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.” 

Pass with flying colors

To “pass something with flying colors,” or to succeed, is another nautical idiom. When naval fleets returned from their endeavors, they used flags, a.k.a. “colors,” to communicate how they’d fared at sea. If a fleet was victorious, they would sail into port with flags flying from the masthead - thus, “flying colors” became a symbol for success. By the 18th century, the phrase had evolved to a figurative one, applied to any kind of triumph.  

Break a leg

This popular theatrical idiom, used to wish actors good luck in their performance, likely comes from superstition. The most popular origin theory of the phrase surrounds the idea that actors were a very superstitious crowd back in the day and felt wishing someone “good luck” would inevitably doom them. Origin theories include the idea that if an actor puts on a good performance, they will have to bend their knee to bow or curtsy at the end. Some attribute the phrase as a reference to a performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” in which 18th century actor David Garrick was so invested in his performance he didn’t notice he broke his leg on stage. Less plausibly, there exists the idea that the idiom could reference to John Wilkes Booth, who broke his leg when jumping on stage and attempting to flee after shooting President Abraham Lincoln.