I’m sure you’re aware by now that English is a pretty strange language. Learning English can be especially difficult at the higher levels, where you might be expected to understand some of these more unusual idioms and expressions.
What many native speakers don’t know is where some of these expressions came from. And trust us, the story behind the expression is often weirder than the expression itself!
Goodnight, Sleep tight
Meaning: Said to someone going to sleep; a wish that they get a good night’s sleep.
Origin: The more famous story of this saying goes like this. In the 1800s and 1900s, mattresses were held up by a bed made of ropes. These ropes often needed to be tightened to make sure the mattress didn’t move or fall, hence the famous saying.
In English we often add the expression “Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” Back in those days, bedbugs were common and the rope beds supposedly attracted them, so this would have been a more literal wish back then!
(The less interesting explanation says that “tight” is used to mean snug or cosy, therefore you are merely wishing someone a cozy night’s sleep).
Rule of Thumb
Meaning: A roughly accurate guide; an easily learned and applied principle that is useful but not exact.
Origin: Debated, but the most famous origin is that The Rule of Thumb was a British common law that a man was allowed to beat his wife using a stick, as long as that stick was not wider than his own thumb. While there is no evidence that this was a real law at any time in British history, there are legal cases from the 19th century where the rule of thumb was mentioned in legal cases.
Meaning: An impossible or unreachable dream or goal, especially if it sounds ridiculous or crazy.
Origin: In the 19th century, people liked to smoke opium, a drug that often caused delusions, hallucinations and vivid dreams. Opium was smoked through special pipes, hence the phrase “Pipe Dream.”
Wet Your Whistle
Meaning: Have a drink (usually alcoholic)
Origin: Another phrase where the real origin is disputed. Supposedly, in Ye Olde Times in Britain, pubs used to use beer mugs that had whistles built in to them. When you were out of beer, you would blow the whistle to be served more.
Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that this was a real thing that happened. It’s far more likely that “whistle” was a metaphor for the throat, so it literally meant to wet one’s throat with beer. There’s also the argument that it’s hard to whistle when your lips are dry, and people like to whistle when they’re drunk, so that’s the real origin of the phrase.
Like many famous sayings, no-one knows for sure where wetting one’s whistle came from, but the stories we tell ourselves about our language sure are fun to think about.
Meaning: A possession that is expensive or difficult to maintain and isn’t very useful; something expensive and pointless.
Origin: Our tale begins in the Kingdom of Siam (modern-day Thailand). In this culture, rare white (albino) elephants were considered sacred, and symbolic of the King’s justice, peace, and divine right to rule.
But here’s the funny part. When the King of Siam was annoyed with some lord in particular, he would present them the gift of a white elephant. As I’m sure you are aware, elephants are quite big and need to eat a lot of food. Since these particular elephants were albino, they also needed to be kept out of the sun. Moreover, because they were sacred, it was not permitted to make the elephant do any kind of useful work, and it was punishable by death to let the elephant die or cause it to suffer!
Therefore, the poor lord who had irritated his King was now stuck with a giant animal that was incredibly expensive to keep alive and healthy, which often ruined the lord financially.
The phrase is said to have been brought to the West when famous showman and circus owner P.T Barnum (the one from 2017’s The Greatest Showman) tried to purchase a white elephant from the King of Siam. After waiting a long time and spending a ridiculous amount of money, Barnum ended up with a normal gray elephant with a few pink spots. Poor guy.
Beyond the Pale
Meaning: Outside of what is considered acceptable behaviour.
Origin: We used to have something called “Paling fence” which was a kind of fence made out of pointy bits of wood. These kinds of fences were used as boundaries – between my land and your land, to denote the edge of the village (if there weren’t any walls), and somewhat metaphorically between civilization and the wilderness beyond. Decent, civilised people stay within the pale, whereas going Beyond the Pale meant to act in a way that didn’t belong in any civilised place.
(To give someone the) Cold Shoulder
Meaning: To be deliberately unfriendly to someone.
Origin: Ah, Great British manners. How wonderfully complex and mean-spirited they so often were. Basically, in Ye Olde Times, when a guest was welcome in your house you would give them a hot meal and probably a few drinks before they were on their way. But what if you had someone over who you didn’t like very much? To feed them nothing at all was out of the question, so you would give them a ‘Cold shoulder of mutton’ (mutton is meat from a sheep).
Meaning: False confidence gained when someone is drunk.
Origin: Some of my favourite expressions work like this. Essentially, this is the British insulting the Dutch people. During the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th and 18th centuries, we made up a lot of pretty nasty insults about the Dutch, including this one. “The Dutch aren’t brave, they’re just drunk all the time.” Pretty insulting if you’re talking about sailors in the Navy. Also pretty ironic, considering that sailors from most nations were famously sloshed all the time.
Not my Cup of Tea
Meaning: Not something I like.
Origin: It’s no secret that the British love their tea. In fact we loved it so much that in the early 20th century we used “my cup of tea” as a synonym for someone we really liked, such as a best friend. Later, in the 1930s, we started using it for objects or people in a more generalised sense.
Now, perhaps because of changes in the British national culture and psyche, we use the negative version far more often than the positive. I have to say though, this negative attitude is ‘Not my cup of tea.’
Rack your Brains
Meaning: To try extremely hard to remember something forgotten.
Origin: Life in Medieval times was hard. Backbreaking physical labour, deadly diseases floating around everywhere you went, and not enough food for most people to get by, but one of the most horrifying aspects of that world was the torture.
The Rack was an especially gruesome torture method, where the victims hands and feet were tied to ropes attached to wheels. Turning these wheels made the ropes pull on the victims arms and legs, often until they broke or even were wrenched off entirely.
From there, “to rack” became a verb meaning to cause pain or to torture, and it was only a matter of time before this grim idea made it’s way to brains (we hope only metaphorically… ew).