Common idioms and origins


Natalie Larimer, Staff Writer

I had a conversation the other day about the origin of “break a leg” and that got me thinking, why do we say the idioms we do? So I conducted some intensive research and this is what I found. Buckle up, you’re in for a crazy ride.

Break a leg: Used to wish actors/actresses luck before a production. This came to be because theatrical types are kind of known for their superstitions. It was believed to be horrible luck to wish somebody good luck, so they told them to break a leg instead.

Down to the wire: Still undecided or unfinished towards the very end. In horse races or foot races, they have a string, tape, or paper thing to stretch across the finish line that was called “the wire”, hence the undecided until the very end, or the wire.

Blow off steam: This is a phrase that is said when you need to do or say something that helps you get rid of strong feelings. This is taken from the steam engine, which needed to “blow off steam” so it wouldn’t explode having too much pressure.

Quitting cold turkey: Used when somebody is quitting an addiction, commonly smoking. Withdrawal from tobacco gives you goose bumps, making your skin resemble a cold, plucked turkey.

Crocodile tears: Fake tears used to manipulate people’s feelings. Crocodiles actually used their tears to moisten their food while they eat to make it easier to swallow, just like when you cry to make things (ideas) easier to “swallow”.

Woke up on the wrong side of the bed: Essentially, this means you’re having a bad morning. In Roman times, they thought it to be bad luck to exit the bed from the left side, and if you did, your day was “cursed” to be unlucky.

Apple of my eye: The person/object (usually person) that you love above all others. The “apple” is the aperture (you camera nerds will associate this with your pupil) or the center of your eye. It dates back to Biblical times, when in Deuteronomy 32:10 it is stated, “He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.”

Turn a blind eye: To act like something didn’t happen or you didn’t notice it. Apparently, the English naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, deliberately raised his telescope to his blind eye so he wouldn’t see the signal from his superior giving him discretion to withdraw from the battle.

Once in a Blue Moon: Something that happens very rarely. Blue moon doesn’t actually refer to the color of the moon, it actually happens when we see a full moon twice in one month, which is every two to three years. The word blue here is derived from the word “belewe”, which meant “to betray” because an additional spring full moon would cause Christians to have to fast for another month during Lent.

Know the ropes: This means you know what you’re doing, and is often said as “let me show you the ropes” to explain to you how to do something. This refers to sailing, where it is necessary to actually know what ropes do what.

These are the idioms that interest me. Note that these are American idioms and there are completely different idioms for other countries, so if you have any international friends, they will not understand any of these, making this column useful for explanation.