Monday, June 18, 2012


This word is used to indicate an outline, and originates from 18th century France. 

Silhouette of Jane Austen
Etienne de Silhouette (1709-67) was the protégé of Madame de Pompadour, who was the mistress of Louis XV. Pompadour managed to secure Silhouette’s appointment as the Finance Minister of France in 1759. Due to the ravages of the Seven Years War (1756-63), Silhouette was tasked with securing funds to rebuild the French Army. His plan involved the implementation of new taxes on the nobility, which amounted to a luxury tax. Unfortunately, Silhouette’s new taxes were not popular with the nobility of France and he was soon forced into retirement within months.

After this incident, anything done on the cheap was said in France to be à la silhouette. This included the new popular black-profile portraits that were becoming very popular in France.

This should be a lesson to anyone doing something that might end up having his or her name attached to it. For poor Silhouette, he is now synonymous with anything cheap.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Big Stink

We use this phrase today in reference to a major scandal or uproar. It is usually used when referring to political scandals, although, this phrase had a more literal use.

The Big Stink
The Big Stink occurred in London in the summer of 1858 when the smell of untreated human waste permeated the city air. Just before 1858, the introduction of flush toilets increased the use of sewers, which before only carried runoff rain water. The increase of human waste in the Thames River and the unusually hot summer increased the smell in the city. Originally, the city had cesspits to deal with waste, but the cost of a shilling often meant that people could not afford to empty the cesspits.

The Big Stink caused a great political scandal in London and pushed for new sewers to be built. This is why we call political scandals a big stink because originally it was. Thankfully political scandals today are not accompanied by a foul odour, at least most of the time.  

Thank you Brendan for suggesting this phrase.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Dressed to the nines

We use this phrase to denote someone who is elegantly dressed. It generally indicates wearing clothing of fine quality or can refer to someone who is just dressed smartly.

99th Regiment of Foot
It appears that the ‘to the nines’ part of the phrase is in reference to scale. Since one cannot obtain absolute perfection, nine appears to be the best. As well, nine is the highest single digit and perhaps this is why it symbolizes perfection. The origin of this phrase is difficult, as are many phrases that involve the word nine. Some claim that it refers to tailors who would use nine yards of material to make a suit. Others say it refers to the 99th Regiment of Foot for their sharply dressed uniforms. However, the term predates these examples.

One of the first written accounts of ‘to the nines’ comes from William Hamilton's Epistle to Ramsay, 1719:

The bonny Lines therein thou sent me,
How to the nines they did content me.

It appears that the term began in the 1700s, but no one knows the origin of this phrase. All I know is that if you have something important to attend, just make sure you are dressed to the nines.

Thank you Alexandra for suggesting this phrase.

Monday, May 28, 2012


This term has two uses today. Hootenanny can refer to items that people forget the name of, in the same way that we use the terms thingamajig or whatchamacallit. The second way that this term is used is in reference to a party or, in particular, a folk-music party.

It was a little difficult trying to find the origin of this term, but one possible origin comes from the 1920/30s. A political party in Seattle held monthly music fundraisers for their organization that were called hootenannies. However, it is likely that the term was used before the 1920s in smaller regional areas to refer to jazz and folk music gatherings.

In 1963, ABC aired a musical variety TV show called hootenanny that featured popular folk music acts. The show only lasted a year before being cancelled. It appears that you can buy those long lost episodes, check out the video.

Today there are a number of different folk music festivals in North America that are called hootenannies. Despite the abundance of folk music festivals, I think I’ll continue to use the word hootenanny to describe items that I can’t remember.

Thank you Amanda for suggesting this phrase.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ship-shape and Bristol fashion

Many in North America have heard the term ship-shape in reference to high quality, but the Bristol fashion part is often not used. This phrase originates from the United Kingdom.

Bristol is a city in the U.K. that has served as a seaport for thousands of years. The city is several kilometres from the ocean and has a river where ships enter the seaport. Bristol harbour is susceptible to drastic water level changes with the tides, so much so that before the 18th century ships would be beached during low tide. This meant that ships that were not of sound construction would be destroyed in the process. Furthermore, sturdy ships needed to ensure that their cargo was secure in order to prevent their contents from shifting during the beaching process.
Bristol harbour

Ship-shape and Bristol fashion are two phrases merged into one. Ship-shape was first used in the 17th century and the Bristol fashion part was added in the early 19th century. Originally, the term was used to indicate the need to secure a ship's cargo during transport to being used today to indicate something of high quality.

Thank you Amanda for suggesting this phrase.

Monday, May 14, 2012


I’m not referring to the citrus fruit, but rather the use of the term lemon in reference to defective cars or other flawed products. We use the term lemon to denote the sour taste in our mouths after making a distasteful deal.

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of this term, but I was able to find some information. In the early 1900s, a pool hall hustle was called a lemon game and around the same time in Britain the term ‘to hand someone a lemon’ was slang for "to pass off a sub-standard article as a good one."

Volkswagen Ad
The word lemon for substandard cars gained popularity in the 1950s with one of Volkswagen’s ad campaigns. Volkswagen used the term lemon to denote any car that did not pass their thorough inspections. This campaign was considered a huge success and because of this campaign the use of the term lemon for cars became popular. You can view the ad here.

Canada and the U.S. have lemon laws in place to protect consumers who purchase defective cars. Click here to learn more about lemon laws. Although, if you want to buy a car and you are not sure, I recommend you read this blog to distinguish between cars that are gems and those that are truly lemons.  

Thank you Lauren for suggesting this word.

Monday, May 07, 2012


This is a term used to describe someone as open and honest. We also use this term to indicate when we want to be open and honest with someone. This term originates from the Frankish tribe.

During the Middle Ages, most Germanic tribes were known by their weapon of choice. The Saxons were named after their preference for the sax, or short sword. No, the Saxons did not fight with saxophones. The Francs, on the other hand, favoured the frankon, or javelin, as their weapon of choice.

The Francs were proud of their freedom and the term ‘Frank’ came to mean ‘free and open’ in English as early as the 1300s. There are some other words that use Frank, such as franchise, which means the holder is allowed to exploit the market as they see fit.

Be sure to think of the javelin when you describe someone as Frank.

Monday, April 30, 2012

I heard it through the grapevine

Are you singing the song? That’s good, but this phrase did not come from the popular song. Today, the phrase means to acquire information from an informal source. The term originates from the 1840s with the creation of the telegraph.

The telegraph introduced a means of rapid communication. The proliferation of poles and wires for the telegraph spread across regions like a giant grapevine. This led to the term ‘grapevine telegraph.’ This new term distinguished between the new telegraph system and the old word-of-mouth means of communication. People would utter 'I heard it on the grapevine' to indicate that they received genuine news, instead of unsubstantiated gossip.

In Australia, the term ‘bush telegraph’ persisted referring to networks of communication that passed on information about police movements to convicts.

That’s where the title of the popular song came from. Now you can listen to the Marvin Gaye version of the song.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Today we associate a curfew with parents imposing a set time for their children to come home or to go to bed. In some areas a curfew can have serious consequences for those who do not obey, such as a curfew imposed by the military in some countries. This term actually does have a military origin.
William the Conqueror

After the Norman invasion of England in 1066, William the Conqueror required civilians to remain indoors after dark. Soldiers patrolled during the night yelling out “Couvre feu” which means to “cover the fire.” All candles and fires were to be put out and everyone was to go to bed.

Eventually the term Couvre feu became curfew, as we know it today. However, one of the main differences between the curfew that your parents gave you and the one that the Normans imposed was that the Normans were not as forgiving if you missed your curfew.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Peeping Tom

I’m sure you have heard this phrase before, but I hope you haven’t been called it. A Peeping Tom is a man who is a voyeur. This person observes naked people for his own gratification. This term’s origin goes back to the 11th century.

Lady Godiva
Legend has it that Lady Godiva rode through the streets of Coventry, U.K., naked on horseback in order to convince her husband to remove the harsh taxes imposed on the town’s poor. Lady Godiva completed this task without being seen by anyone. Her husband thought this was a miracle and decided to remove the harsh taxes. Apparently, this ride through the streets is commemorated to this day; however, the participants are fully clothed.

This story did not have a Peeping Tom until the 18th century. The new addition to the story is that one of the townsfolk, Tom, peeped a look at Lady Godiva as she rode naked through the city. Due to this transgression, the harsh taxes were not removed.

I’m not sure what to say about Peeping Tom. Don’t be a Peeping Tom. Well, I guess that works.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Rest on one’s laurels

This phrase means to be satisfied with ones previous achievements to the point of considering further achievements unnecessary.

The laurels in this phrase refer to the leaves of the Laurus Nobilis tree. In ancient Greece laurel wreaths were a symbol of victory and statues. These laurel wreaths were associated with the god Apollo who adorned them upon his head. Laurel wreaths were often handed out to winners of the Pythian Games held in honour of Apollo.

Those who received laurel wreaths were referred to as a laureate. We still use the term laureate when someone receives a top honour, ex. a noble laureate. Although, noble laureates don’t receive a wreath today, they only receive lots of money.

By the 19th century, the term rest on one’s laurels began to be applied to individuals who had succumbed to laziness after a major achievement.

Once you achieve something great in life remember to continue to strive for greatness, and do not rest on your laurels. Now that you know a little more about this phrase, you can stop trying to rest on my friend Laurel.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Kick the bucket

I’m sure you have heard this phrase used before. Today this phrase means to die. This phrase is odd in that you may wonder, “why is kicking the bucket associated with death?” Well, let me tell you.

There seems to be two possible origins. One comes from the belief that those wanting to hang themselves would stand on a bucket with a noose around their neck. The act of kicking the bucket away completes the hanging. However, this theory does not appear to be the best, and really, who uses a bucket when they need to reach something?

The most plausible origin for this term goes back to the 16th century. Back then, the term bucket referred to a beam used to hang or carry items. The wooden frame used to hang animals up by their feet during slaughter was called a bucket. During the slaughter process animals would sometimes struggle and spasm causing them to kick the bucket.  

Now you know where this phrase came from. So when you eventually kick the bucket just be thankful that it will not come in this form. I hope.

Thank you Rachel for suggesting this phrase.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Son of a gun

Today this phrase is used as a term of affection or admiration. Originally, this phrase was used as a euphemism for a child born out of wedlock, in other words, a bastard.

It may come as a surprise to some that during the 16th and 17th centuries there were a number of women living aboard warships in the British navy. Some male crewmembers were ‘recruited’ into the Royal Navy through press gangs (basically you were snatched up and thrown into the navy). These men were not allowed to leave the ship, since they would run away, so a number of prostitutes served on these ships.

These women are responsible for giving us the term ‘show a leg,’ or as many know it ‘shake a leg.’ When the men were woken up in the morning those still in their hammocks were told to show a leg, this term meant ‘get to work.’ The women on the ship dangled their legs out of the hammock to prove that they were not a crewmen.

Pregnancy was inevitable and the only place for a woman to have any privacy during labour was behind a screen placed between two guns (or cannons if you prefer). If the child was a girl then the mother and child were dumped ashore at the earliest convenience. Male babies stayed with the ship, and since it was difficult to accurately know whom the father of the baby was, the child was listed in the ship’s log as ‘son of a gun.’   

If anyone calls you a son of a gun, you can just remember what that once meant and that to the best of your knowledge you have never served on the high seas.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Clean as a whistle

This term generally means that something is clean or spotless. We use this phrase to refer to things that are exceptionally clean. The origin of this phrase has a number of possibilities; I will look at three possible origins.

One possible origin comes from the whistle sound of a sword as it swishes through the air when decapitating someone. The thought is that the expression would be uttered if the decapitation was a clean cut. Although, I don’t really associate the word clean with a decapitation.

A second possible origin comes from a whistle made from a reed or a piece of wood. Small debris or moisture can adversely affect a whistle if it is not properly cleaned. In order for a whistle, or a similar instrument, to make proper sounds or tones it must be kept clean.  

Another possible origin comes from trains. Trains have, or had, brass whistles for signalling and warning people. These whistles were always kept clean and shiny, hence the phrase clean as a whistle.

This phrase has a number of different possible origins but just be thankful that we don’t use it for decapitations anymore.

I thank Danielle for suggesting this phrase.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Luck of the Irish

With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, I thought it would be prudent to find an appropriate phrase. Luck of the Irish is generally a phrase that you may hear on St. Patrick’s Day; however, this term actually meant bad luck.

As any true-blooded Irishman, which I am not, will tell you, the Irish have not had a particularly lucky history. This is where the term luck of the Irish applies to their long history of bad luck including conquest, famines and annoying leprechauns. Despite their unlucky history, Ireland and the Irish seem to be able to bounce back.

It appears that a likely origin for this phrase comes from the United States. During the gold rush many Irish people headed out West to find their fortune (or pot o’ gold). When the Irish arrived many did not like them and the Irish were generally treated badly. When the Irish found gold many would simply attribute their discovery to dumb luck instead of their skill. This is how the term luck of the Irish can also be used for someone who has dumb luck.    

This St. Patrick’s Day when you utter the phrase luck of the Irish you can attribute it to good luck, bad luck or just simple dumb luck.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Teddy bear

Everyone knows what a teddy bear is and I’m sure most of you have a childhood memory of having one. Of course, I’m sure there are some of you who still sleep with one at night time. The origin of this phrase comes from an incident involving former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

From The Washington Post, 1902
Roosevelt’s nickname was ‘Teddy’ in obvious reference to his first name. While on a trip to Mississippi in 1902 Teddy was invited on a bear hunting trip by the state’s governor. During the trip many other hunters managed to kill a bear or two, but Teddy was unable to find one. Some of the hunters decided to help the president by cornering, clubbing and then tying a bear to a tree. The president was encouraged to shoot the bear but he refused stating that it was unsportsmanlike. He instructed that the bear be put out of its misery.
Theodore Roosevelt

This incident became the topic of a political cartoon that inspired Morris Michtom to create a new toy. He constructed a stuffed bear cub and placed it in his store window with the name “Teddy’s bear,” after receiving permission from the president to use his name. The new toy became a resounding success.

Now you know where the name of your beloved toy came from and you can remember this story when you cuddle up in bed with your stuffed animal tonight.

Monday, March 05, 2012


This term means to put something to one side in order to come back to it later. It can also mean to classify something or someone into a specific category. For example, if you are good a performing a certain task you may find your boss always assigning that task to you.

In Medieval times (the actually time period, not the entertainment location) pigeons were kept as domestic birds for their meat. The pigeonhole referred to the openings in the wall or a hole in a specially made box for pigeons to live in.

By the late 18th century, the arrangement of compartments in writing cabinets and offices that were used to sort and file documents became known as pigeonholes for their resemblance to the old pigeon compartments.

By the 19th century, the term changed to refer to something that you would put aside to come back to later or to classify information.  

If you feel that you are being pigeonholed at work just be thankful that your boss doesn’t plan to eat you like the poor pigeon.

Thank you Lauren for suggesting this word.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Jump on the bandwagon

This term refers to people who join a growing movement in support of something or someone, usually in an opportunist way, when the movement becomes successful. This is very popular during election campaigns.

P.T. Barnum bandwagon
The term bandwagon originates from the 19th century in reference to the wagon that carried the band (people were really inventive when it came to names back then). These wagons were popular with the traveling circuses that traveled throughout the U.S. Many politicians noticed that circus workers were skilled at attracting attention so they decided to incorporate the highly decorated bandwagons into their election campaigns.

As the bandwagons went down the street many would jump on the bandwagon in order to show their support. Eventually the term switched to a more metaphorical use when bandwagons as a campaigning tool became less popular.

In an election campaign if you are tempted to jump on the bandwagon just remember your principles and don’t bow to popular demand. On the other hand, if you prefer, you can just imagine yourself at the circus since we all know that is what most election campaigns end up being.

Thank you to Darren for the suggestion.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Cut and run

This phrase means to run away with all haste. Today you may hear it used by someone encouraging you to finish a task and not to run away from it. This phrase originally had a more practical and deadly application.

Chesapeake and the Shannon
Cut and run was a tactic used by naval commanders on warships in the 17th century. Some believe that the phrase applies to ships cutting their own anchors in order to get away quickly; however, this is not the case. Warships were able to quickly retract their anchor in an emergency and cutting away their anchor was not necessary.

The term applied to ships that were setting an ambush. Warships might hide in a small estuary riding on their anchor. The sails would be furled and tied off with a light rope. When an enemy vessel was spotted the captain would order the cutting of the rope to allow the sails to fall down and give the ship maximum speed.  

A tactic from the 17th century employed to capture enemy ships is now used today to denote someone giving up. It’s interesting to see how this phrase once meant running towards something and now it means to run away.  

Thank you to Daryl for suggesting this post.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

You're the cat's pyjamas

This phrase generally means that something is good or of high quality. The phrase originates from the roaring 1920s.

In the 1920s the term “cat” was used to denote the unconventional flappers from the jazz era. A flapper generally meant a women who smoke, drank, danced and even voted! These young girls grew out of the First World War and took up the ideals of the feminist movement. These young girls were the trendsetters of their day. The term “cat” was combined with pyjamas, which were a relatively new fashion, to form this phrase. It described something that is best at what it does.

In the 1920s it was popular to combine an animal with a part of the human body or an article of clothing. Generally, these phrases meant that something was excellent. Some examples include the monkey's eyebrows, the snake's hips, the clam’s garters, the eel’s ankles, the gnat’s elbow, the pig’s wings, and of course, the bee’s knees.

The 1920s was a weird time with some weird phrases. I’m sure these crazy phrases became popular in no small part to the moonshine consumed by the people who uttered these words during prohibition.

Thank you to James and Brad for suggesting the phrase. They are truly the bee’s knees.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Lock, stock and barrel

This term generally means the whole thing or everything and the original meaning of this term was very similar. Originally, this phrase referred to the three main components of the musket.

Flintlock mechanism
The lock refers to the firing mechanism. Throughout the history of muskets there have been a number of different variations of the lock mechanism, such as the matchlock or flintlock mechanism. The stock refers to the wooden butt end of the musket. The barrel refers to the barrel, obviously.

In the military muskets shipped to various locations with the lock, stock and barrel separated. I’m sure when the package arrived there was a sticker indicating “some assembly required” but their probably was a good instruction manual included. If you were a civilian and you wanted a gun you would have to obtain all three parts of the musket separately and then have them put together. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution you could go to a gunsmith to buy a fully ready weapon and you didn’t have to go through the process of obtaining the lock, stock and barrel separately.

Muskets firing in a volley

When you hear someone say lock, stock and barrel you can be thankful that you no longer need to assemble your own gun but you can buy a preassembled one. Wait, is that what we should be thankful for?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bite the bullet

"I guess I'll just bite the bullet and do my work." This is one way that you may hear this phrase uttered. In general, this phrase means to accept the unpleasant and the origin of this phrase truly lives up to its meaning.

Some War of 1812 Surgery Tools
There are a few possible origins for this phrase and one of them originates from 19th century military hospitals. During the War of 1812 military hospitals did not use anaesthetics when performing surgery on patients. One gruesome operation was the amputation of limbs. Part of the operation involved the patient being held to a table while he bit down on a strap of leather or a piece of wood. One possible origin of the bite the bullet phrase comes from the belief that surgeons would have patients bite on a musket ball if a leather strap or wood was unavailable.

This possible explanation does not seem to be accurate. For starters, patients often passed out during major surgery, such as amputations. In addition, surgeons would be unlikely to give patients a bullet to bite on since they could easily swallow it. Clearly, choking on a bullet is not conducive to healing a patient.

Another suggested origin for the phrase comes from the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The story goes that a group of soldiers recruited by the British, the Sepoys, refused to fight when a new rifle design was issued to them. The new rifle used a greased paper cartridge that the soldiers would need to bite in order to use. Many soldiers refused to do so because the Hindu soldiers feared the grease was made of cow fat and the Muslim soldiers feared that the grease was pig fat. The theory is that soldiers were told to ignore their religious beliefs and bite the bullet.

After looking at a number of different possible answers for the origin of this phrase I can't definitively say where the term came from but these are a few possibilities. Either way it is a good thing we don't use it today in the above circumstances. If you are procrastinating on doing your work and are encouraged to bite the bullet, just be thankful that you don't actually have to bite on one.

Monday, February 13, 2012


With Valentine’s Day upon us, I thought it would be best to find out a little bit more about Cupid. Today we associated Cupid with Valentine’s Day as a fat child who shoots people with his arrows causing people to fall in love. Well, not much has really changed.

In Roman mythology Cupid is the son of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Cupid is known for causing people to fall in love but he himself also fell in love. Cupid fell in love with a mortal named Psyche. Cupid married Psyche but Cupid’s jealous mother, Venus, would not allow Psyche to look at Cupid (not sure how Psyche fell in love without actually looking at Cupid).
Cupid and Psyche

One day Psyche could not resist and looked upon Cupid. As a punishment, Venus made Psyche perform three tasks each more difficult than the last. On Psyche’s third task she was required to visit the underworld in order to steal some of the beauty from Pluto’s wife. She was given a box to bring with her and told not to open it. Sadly, curiosity got the better of her, again, and she died from opening the box. Cupid found Psyche and shot an arrow through her heart to resurrect her. The gods, along with Venus, were so moved by Psyche and Cupid’s love that they made Psyche an immortal goddess.   

This Valentine’s Day if you see Cupid with his bow and arrow, he may be trying to spread love to you. On the other hand, it might just be a crazy fat guy in a cupid outfit.

Thursday, February 09, 2012


Many understand what this term refers to today by simply looking at anyone with facial hair. This term has a tragic and somewhat humorous origin.

General Burnside
The term originates from the U.S. Union General Ambrose Burnside (1824-81). Burnside stood out for two reasons: his enormous and hilarious side-whiskers and his military incompetence. One of Burnside’s major failures as a general came in 1864 during the American Civil War. While in Petersburg, Virginia, the general had the brilliant idea to dig a 150 metre long shaft leading to a point some six metres under the enemy’s position. After the digging was complete over 300 kegs of gunpowder were placed at the end of the tunnel.

On the surface this sounds like a brilliant tactical manoeuvre but when the explosives went off and Union troops rushed into the massive crater (which still exists today) they found themselves in a killing zone. Confederate troops took-up positions along the edge of the crater and began picking off the unfortunate Union troops. As many as 3,500 Union troops were killed, wounded or captured. The Battle of the Crater was the worst incident of the war.    

Originally, the mutton-chop side-whiskers had been known as “Burnsides” but after General Burnside’s very public fall from grace the term became reversed. Sideburns received their name because of the location on your face and for the general’s reputation for getting everything the wrong way around.

When you see someone with sideburns make sure you remember the Battle of the Crater and the hilariousness of General Burnside’s side-whiskers.  

Monday, February 06, 2012

Super Bowl

With the excitement of the Super Bowl behind us some may be asking: “Why did they name it the Super Bowl?” Although, it may be more likely that you are asking: “Why did I bet on them?” Either way, here is how the championship game got its name.

Super Ball Toy
Back in the 1960s the National Football League was the biggest football organization with the American Football League as its biggest rival. In 1966 both leagues decided to enter into a merger and it was decided that the champions of these leagues would play each other in a major game at the end of the year.

By the 1970s the two leagues finally merged and it came time to decided what the big game would be called. Suggestions ranged from World Championship Game to The Big One. The story goes that Lamar Hunt, the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, came up with the name Super Bowl after watching his kids playing with a Super Ball toy. Hunt suggested the name as a joke and it was quickly accepted as a temporary name until a better one could be found. Apparently, the media liked the name so much that they decided to use it and a temporary name became a permanent one.

After 46 games this temporary name has stood the test of time.

I thank Matt for suggesting this topic.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

It's raining cats and dogs

This phrase is used when you look outside and see an immense downpour of water. Although in reality, we are just thinking “I don’t want to go outside now.”

This phrase does not have a clear origin but one theory comes from a viral email back in 1999. The email circulated for some time and described how people lived in the 1500s. The email looked something like this:

1817 Caricature - Raining cats and dogs
I'll describe their houses a little. You've heard of thatch roofs, well that's all they were. Thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. They were the only place for the little animals to get warm. So all the pets; dogs, cats and other small animals, mice, rats, bugs, all lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery so sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Thus the saying, "it's raining cats and dogs."1

This email did not explain the true origin of this phrase because dogs did not live in thatched roofs. In addition, the dogs would need to be on the outside of the roof in order to fall off. Dogs were not stupid back in the 1500s. They knew not to sit on top of a roof in a torrential downpour.

One of the best explanations of this phrase comes from the filthy streets of England in the 17th century. The streets of England in the 17th century were filled with filth and when heavy rains fell the water carried away dirt and the corpses of dead animals. These animals did not fall from the sky but their appearance in the streets many have caused this phrase.

When you find yourself walking in a heavy downpour, be thankful that the streets are not littered with dead cats and dogs. If you want to read some positive stories about cats, you can visit my friend Laurel's blog.  

Monday, January 30, 2012


Most people have heard of this term before and many know the iconic look of the bikini (sorry, I'm not including a picture of one). Of course, this term denotes the two-piece swimming suit worn by women.

The origin of this term comes from the Bikini Atoll. This island chain in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean became famous for the location of the first peacetime atomic bomb tests by the United States. After the Second World War the United Nations developed a program where wealthy countries would ‘look after’ smaller countries and help them to develop. The U.S. decided to help the people of the Bikini Atoll by removing them from their island and proceeded to blast the island with more then 15 atomic bomb tests starting in July 1946. The people of the island chain were assured that they would be able to return to their island after the testing was complete. Clearly this was not the case due to the extreme levels of radiation left over from the tests.

After the publicity of the tests a French fashion designer named Louis Reard launched an aggressive marketing campaign for his revealing new swimsuit: the bikini. People loved the new swimsuit at first but it did not take long for Catholic countries to begin banning the new bikini and Hollywood also fell in line. By the 1950s the new bikini gained more popularity and the bans soon disappeared. In fact, Hollywood decided to put the new swimsuit in their movies beginning in the mid-1950s.
Atomic bomb tests on Bikini

As for the people of Bikini, they were soon forgotten. Many were resettled on other islands and the U.S. did try to bring them back to their island but many refused believing that it was not safe. The people of Bikini have launched a number of lawsuits before the U.S. Federal Court with the backing of the authorities of the Marshall Islands.

For all the women, and some men, who enjoy wearing their bikinis don’t forget about the people of Bikini and their sacrifice for fashion.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Don't let the cat out of the bag

This phrase generally means ‘to disclose a secret.’ You may hear this phrase used when you are about to reveal something and someone will tell you don’t let the cat out of the bag. The origin of this phrase appears to have two different sources.

The first source comes from around the 16th century when people bought pigs at the market. These pigs came in a bag and this lead to the expression pig in a poke (bag). Some unsavoury merchants would sometimes put a cat inside the bag instead of the whole pig, in order to trick unsuspecting buyers. This allowed the merchants to cut down on their costs.

The cat o' nine tails
The second source of this phrase comes from the cat o’ nine tails. This device, often known as the cat, was a common means of punishment in various militaries starting around the 17th century. When men broke the rules they would receive numerous lashes across the bare back. The cat was kept in a bag and would only be removed when someone was about to be punished. Applying the phrase don’t let the cat out of the bag is a little tricky because the meaning ‘to disclose a secret’ does not directly apply. However, in one regard this phrase does apply to the meaning because for new recruits the first time the cat was revealed to them it meant that the secret of the cat was now disclosed.

If someone is about to reveal a secret and you use this phrase don’t forget about the dead cat in the bag or the crack of the whip.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Rule of thumb

This phrase is used today to denote a rough estimate or it is used to indicate that a certain rule is the most important to follow.

The origin of this phrase has some controversy and it is not generally known for certainty were it originates. There are a number of different potential origins for this phrase but I will focus on one common explanation. One common explanation has to do with the custom that men were allowed to beat their wife as long as the item that they used was no larger than the man’s thumb.

It appears that this custom was in practice in the 17th century and perhaps even earlier. However, it does not appear that the rule of thumb was ever a set law in Britain or the United States. There was at least one instance where a husband was found innocent because the judge ruled that “the defendant had a right to whip his wife with a switch no larger than his thumb.”1 This case occurred in 1868 in the United States.

As the feminist movement evolved and women were granted more rights this phrase began to change and no longer referred to the beating of a wife. I am glad that this phrase has evolved over time and that its original meaning is no longer the common practice in most Western societies.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

That’ll be the day

Today this term simply means “never” and is used in a number of different circumstances. This line is particularly used by women when asked out by men they do not fancy. Despite its more mundane meaning today this phrase actually has a military origin.

During the First World War Prussian military officers believed in Der Tag (The Day), when the German military would rise to prominence and replace the British as the most important in Europe. Der Tag was a common toast of German officers and it was often the theme of many newspaper articles and books. The phrase became so popular that the British military countered it with “that’ll be the day.” British soldiers also used this phrase to yell across no-man’s land to taunt the Germans. Eventually this phrase became so popular that it was used as the title for songs, books and films.

One popular version of this phrase comes from the song That'll be the Day by Buddy Holly in 1957.

For all the men that are told by women “that’ll be the day” just remember that they are referring to the inconceivability of German military dominance and not any inadequacies that you may have.  

Friday, January 13, 2012

What does that really mean?

Hello everyone,

This blog will highlight some common words or phrases that are used today and describe their origins. When you hear a word or phrase we sometimes ask: "What does that really mean?" Follow this blog and you will learn what these words and phrases once meant.