Hair of the Dog

As You May Recall,

I have something of a fascination with Idioms.  You know, those expressions that are near ancient in origin, which we toss out often enough to assure their permanence in the rhelms of common language.  And yet, when we take a moment to think about what it is we’re actually saying, uh well, What actually are we saying?

For starters, just how guilty are you of  Letting the Cat out of the Bag?  I know I’ve done it more times than I care to publicly admit. Or, maybe not, considering the true meaning of this odd little phrase. Let the Cat out of the Bag:  Possibly related to the fact that in England in the Middle Ages, piglets were usually sold in bags at markets. Sometimes, someone would try to cheat a buyer by putting a cat in one of the bags instead of a piglet. And if someone let the cat out of the bag, the fraudster’s secret was revealed.

And when was the last time your mother, husband, or BFF had to corner you with this particular admonishment:  Get off Your High Horse: Medieval soldiers and political leaders bolstered their claims to supremacy by appearing in public in the full regalia of power, and mounted on large and expensive horses, thus presening themselves as larger than life. The combination of the imagery of being high off the ground when mounted on a great war charger, looking down one’s nose at the common herd, and also being a holder of high office made it intuitive for the term ‘on one’s high horse’ to come to mean ‘superior and untouchable.’

Is it possible that a  little Moderation might be just the thing to keep the dog hair off your tongue:  Hair of the dog is a colloquial expression in the English language predominantly used to refer to alcohol that is consumed with the aim of lessening the effects of a hangover. The expression originally referred to a method of treatment of a rabid dog bite by placing hair from the dog in the bite wound. The use of the phrase as a metaphor for a hangover treatment dates back to the time of William Shakespeare, when it was a popular belief that “a few hairs of the dog that bit you applied to the wound will prevent evil consequences.” Applied to drinks, it means, if overnight you have indulged too freely, take a glass of the same wine within 24 hours to soothe the nerves. “If this dog do you bite, soon as out of your bed, take a hair of the tail the next day.”

As a kid I thought this sounded like a fun idea, but only because I believed real animals were involved:  The term Kangaroo Court may have been popularized during the California Gold Rush of 1849. The first recorded use is from 1853 in a Texas context. It comes from the notion of justice proceeding “by leaps”, like a kangaroo. The phrase is considered an Americanism.

Sadly familiar because it’s practiced so often: Lying through your teeth:  This also may be an expression describing the act of lying with a smile or other patronizing tone or body language.  It is very old, traceable to the early 1300’s.

So, what’s the most oft used idiom in your language closet? Do you know what it really means, or do simply enjoy it for it’s familiarity and the fact that regardless of true meaning everyone tends to “get it” when you say it?


Say What? 

Do you ever wonder why we say the things we do?  Not necessarily the open-mouth-insert-foot class of speech, but rather, idioms.  Those oh-so-familiar and oft used expressions that have been around so long and are such a part of everyday speech, yet, in many cases we haven’t a clue where they came from.

Sure, we generally know what someone is getting at when we hear these phrases, but do we really know what they mean? And then there’s the question of what these ancient nuggets are doing sitting smack in the midst of  our modern language.  Yes, there are any variety of nuances being added to our common tongue on a regular basis, but who’s to say what their actual lifespan will be?

It’s those expressions that have held on for decades, and in many cases centuries, that fascinate.  Consider the fact that so much of what we say doesn’t necessary make a lot of sense by definition, and yet we continue to use these phrases simply because they are so effective for expressing whatever it is we’re getting at.

Kicked the Bucket

We’ve all said or heard this one. And there’s no guessing over the implication when we receive the news that someone has Kicked the Bucket, but seriously?  What the heck does death have to with kicking buckets? And will such an action actually kill you?  A common theory is that this idiom comes from a method of execution such as hanging, or perhaps suicide, in the Middle Ages. A noose is tied around the neck while standing on an overturned bucket. When the pail is kicked away, the victim is hanged. Okay, so that would make plenty of sense in The Middle Ages!  But now?  Not so much.

The Apple of One’s Eye

A very nice thing to be back in the time when it was written, and still revelent today. A perfectly charming sentiment that comes from the Holy Bible, Psalms, 17:8

Need That Like a Hole in The Head?

Nope?  Well neither do I, considering  that the meaning is, Something so ridiculous that I definitely don’t want it. ( The expression originated as slang in the 1940′s.)


And asking screaming at someone to Pipe Down takes on a whole new meaning when you consider that the expression is rooted from the high seas back when boats had to blow whistles to send signals. The signals could mean “turn in” and “lights out.

Tempest in a Teapot

Tempest in a teapot, which dates back to the 1st Century BC, is an idiom meaning a small event that has been exaggerated out of proportion.  (Who even knew they were making tea in teapots back in the 1st century! Yes, well, I get it, many of you DID know that, but it’s news to me.)

Raining Cat’s and Dogs

There are several guesses as to how this one came about, but none more bizarre then this (which of  course explains why it’s the the one I chose to repeat here.) Nobody knows for certain where the phrase ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ comes from, though one possibility is that it originates from the 17th century in England when heavy rains would cause debris of all kinds, including animals, to wash out of the gutters. Eweeee …

And a word to the wise, A Stitch in Time Saves Nine

 The stitch in time is simply the sewing up of a small hole in a piece of material and so saving the need for more stitching at a later date, when the hole has become large. Clearly, the first users of this expression were referring to saving nine stitches. Well, heck, you see,  that’s just common sense, isn’t it?

To be continued in next weeks installment of, Idioms for Dummies 🙂

We use them. We might even love them. So what are some of your favorites?