We use them everyday, sometimes in conversation and sometimes in text. There are a ton of common popular phrases we use all the time in many different ways. The real question is, where do these phrases come from? What did they originally mean? Are we using them correctly now?
Before I go “the whole nine yards” on this topic, I should explain a few things. Common popular phrases and sayings can be interpreted many different ways. They can also be attributed to many different events throughout history. Most people explain the meaning of popular phrases with a story they heard from some unknown source. I will leave it up to you to decide if the origin of these common popular phrases and saying makes sense to you.
Common Popular Phrases
Popular Phrase: Running amok
Meaning: An aggressive activity that tends to ruin everything.
Origin: It originated in Southeast Asia where amok meant a murderous frenzy or rage. This came from a class of warriors, the Amuco, who believed failed missions of war were punishable by dishonor and death. Having nothing to lose, these Amuco warriors had maniacal and frenzied attacks.
Popular Phrase: Cool story, bro
Meaning: It is sarcastically used to indicate disgust or boredom with a story.
Origin: It is debated whether this came from the movie Zoolander in 2001, the 4chan website or YouTube. It is a replacement for the journalistic term “tl;dr” (To long, didn’t read). It is basically an Internet demand to stop wasting everyones time.
Popular Phrase: Bite the bullet
Meaning: To do something because it is right, even though the outcome may not be desired.
Origin: The common belief is that biting a bullet was used primarily during the U.S. Civil War. It eludes to the fact that biting on a lead bullet would help you cope with extreme pain during medical procedures. It is also sourced to the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The Sepoy Indians had to bite a greased paper catridge to release the powder for firing a new rifle. As Hindus, Sepoys objected to biting the bullet because it was made of cow fat.
Popular Phrase: In like Flynn
Meaning: To be successful very quickly, with special regard to sex.
Origin: This phrase is attributed to the Australian film actor Earl Flynn. Flynn was famous for romantic roles in film and his exciting private life. He had a reputation as a heavy-drinking ladies man and at one point faced statutory rape charges.
Popular Phrase: Common sense
Meaning: Common sense is what you think others should know.
Origin: The first use in the 14th century refered to ‘common sense’ as a sense like our other senses. It was regarded as a common bond between all of our other senses. Similar to what we would call “heart” now. It wasn’t until the 16th century that it took on it’s meaning of the plain wisdom everyone possesses.
Popular Phrase: Break the ice
Meaning: To end or avoid an awkward situation by starting a conversation about something.
Origin: The first use of the phrase meant “to forge a path for others to follow” and referred to the breaking of ice in a ship to allow more boats to follow. The saying re-evolved in the 19th century as ships began to break ice to reach the north and south poles. Soon after, these ice-breaker ships coined the phrase “ice breaker” for normal conversation. This is where the current meaning comes from as it relates to conversation starters.
Popular Phrase: Caught red-handed
Meaning: Caught in the act of breaking a rule or law.
Origin: The red hand is a cultural symbol of the Irish province of Ulster. A boat race determined the ruler of Ulster. The first to touch the shore of Ulster would be the winner. One contestant guaranteed his win by chopping off his hand and throwing it onto the Ulster shore.
Popular Phrase: Give the cold shoulder
Meaning: When somone completely ignores you or turns their back to you even if you are trying to talk to them.
Origin: One explanation is the way food used to be served to an unwanted guest. A cold shoulder referred to an inferior cut of meat, served cold, to the uninvited guest. It let guests know if they overstayed their welcome because the custom of the time was to offer a hot meal to a guest.
Popular Phrase: Go cold turkey
Meaning: An unpleasant, but fast, method of breaking an addiction.
Origin: It was meant as a description of drug addicts that were in the state of withdrawal. While in withdrawal, the addict’s blood is directed to the internal organs, leaving the skin white with goose bumps, like the skin of a cold turkey.
Popular Phrase: Whole nine yards
Meaning: To give it everything available.
Origin: There are many supposed origins. They include:
- Length of U.S. bombers’ bomb racks.
- Length of RAF Spitfire’s machine gun belts.
- Length of the ammunition belts on the anti-aircraft turrets.
- Tailors use nine yards of fabric to make a top quality suit. Dressed to the nines anyone?
- A medieval test required someone to walk nine paces over hot coals.
- The size of the sails for a ship. Most had three sails at three yards each, so to go the whole nine yards was to have all three sails fully utilized.
Popular Phrase: Kick the bucket
Meaning: To die.
Origin: The 16th century English definition of bucket had the additional meaning of being a beam or yoke used to hang or carry large items. This information leads us to the hanging of animals to be slaughtered on a bucket (beam). Sometimes, the animals were not completely dead and would kick the bucket that held them up.
Popular Phrase: Sleep tight
Meaning: Sleep well.
Origin: Refers to a time when mattresses were supported by rope underneath. they had to be tightened every so often so people would get a good night’s rest by not sinking down on the mattress.
Popular Phrase: Spill the beans
Meaning: To give away something, like a secret.
Origin: This refers to an ancient Greek voting system with black and white beans. Votes had to be unanimous so, if someone spilled the beans before the voting was complete and everyone saw two colors of beans, the vote was halted.
Popular Phrase: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
Meaning: It is better to have one of something for sure than two of something possibly.
Origin: As a proverb from the medievel times, it referred to falconry. A falcon in the hand was worth much more than two prey in the bush.
More Common Popular Phrases
Popular Phrase: An arm and a leg
Meaning: Used to express a high cost for something.
Origin: Most people believe that this refers to the cost of a painted portriat. Often, in order to save money on a commissioned painting, the client would forego an arm and a leg because of the added cost to include them in a painting. This saying was mainly an American phrase after 1949, and likely has its roots in relation to the price of items. It seemed to go hand-in-hand with the large number of servicemen in WWII that lost a leg or an arm, as many amputees returned home around that time period.
Popular Phrase: Break a leg
Meaning: Good Luck!
Origin: Attributed to the superstition in theatre that wishing someone good luck would give them bad luck. Or:
- “Break a leg” also means to make a strenous effort, much like the saying ‘or break a leg trying’.
- A performance so good you injure your leg while doing a curtsy for the audience.
- A performer impresses the audience so much that you need to bend down to pick up coins they throw onto the stage.
- Go onto the stage for a curtain call (the side curtains were called legs).
- To go on stage and have your big break.
- Reference to John Wilkes Booth who jumped off the stage and broke his leg while fleeing after shooting President Lincoln.
Popular Phrase: Down to the wire
Meaning: The point in a game or competition when the outcome is about to be determined.
Origin: In horse racing, a wire was strung over the finish line so the camera above could take a picture and see the first horse to cross the finish line.
Popular Phrase: Eighty-six
Meaning: To throw out, take away or deny.
Origin: This term comes from the American restaurant industry and refers to something that was acceptable but is no longer.
- The origins are often attributed to the Chumley’s Bar and restaurant at 86 Bedford Street NYC.
- It also may reference article 86 of the New York Liquor Code which defines when bar patrons should be denied service.
- It may refer to Delmonico’s Restuarant in New York City. Number 86 on their menu was a house made steak which was often unavailable when the restaurant opened.
Popular Phrase: In the bag
Meaning: When you have secured something of great value.
Origin: It refers to the New York Giants baseball team and their twenty six consecutive wins during the 1916 season. It is said that someone would carry off the ball bag from the field at the ninth inning due to superstition. If they did so, then the Giants would continue to win.
Popular Phrase: Knock on wood
Meaning: A saying used when hoping something will or will not happen.
Origin: It stems from the old saying “touch wood” which related to touching wood from trees that had good spirits according to mythology.
Popular Phrase: It’s raining cats and dogs
Meaning: It’s raining very hard or in large quantity.
Origin: There are several possible origins to this one, but the most commonly accepted one refers to the dirty streets of England in the 17th and 18th centuries. It would rain so hard that dead dogs and cats would be washed around the streets.
Popular Phrase: X marks the spot
Meaning: A marking of where the item you are looking for should be found at.
Origin: Treasure Island 1883 – this book gave Long John Silver this line of dialogue for locating treasure, and the phrase has stuck.
Popular Phrase: Excuse my French
Meaning: Excuse my bad language.
Origin: It comes from the 19th century, when English people often used French expressions in conversation and apologized for it.
Popular Phrase: Bury the hatchet
Meaning: To settle your differences with an opponent.
Origin: Native American Indian chiefs buried hatchets when two tribes came to a peace agreement.
Popular Phrase: Every cloud has a silver lining
Meaning: A proverb usually said as encouragment to a person who has had difficulty and can’t see any positive way forward.
Origin: John Milton, a writer, used the phrase in Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634. From that point forward, the phrase “Milton’s clouds” was used up until the Victorian era where it became “every cloud has a silver lining”.
Popular Phrase: Off the record
Meaning: Something said in confidence that the speaker doesn’t want attributed to them.
Origin: This is an American phrase from the 1930s. First recorded use of it was by President Franklin Roosevelt to a reporter. Often attributed to being off the Record (as in recording device).
You may not always think about where these common popular phrases started, but you have to admit it is interesting to learn about. I know I enjoyed doing so. There are a lot of popular phrases and new ones are popping up all the time. I may look into many more in the future.
Do you use any of these phrases on a regular basis? Do you have any other favorites? Please share them with us in the comments.
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials.”