We’ve all used phrases like, “It’s raining cats and dogs” or “They threw the book at him!” (in my case, this was used literally in my 7th grade English class thanks to my teacher’s unconventional methods to make me stop talking), but did you ever wonder how these phrases came to be part of our accepted lexicon? Did domesticated animals ever really fall from the sky?
In this list, we explore exactly how some of these phrases came to be:
1. Break the ice
(1)To relax a tense or formal atmosphere or social situation; (2)To make a start on some endeavor.
This first meaning came into general use in English through Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” (1823) in the lines:
And your cold people [the British] are beyond all price,
When once you’ve broken their confounded ice.
The ice in question in the second meaning is derived from literally breaking the ice on a river or lake in early spring. To break the ice would be to allow boats to pass, marking the beginning of the season’s activity after the winter freeze. In this way, this expression has been connected to the start of enterprise for about 400 years.
2. Throw the book at someone
To punish someone severely.
This figurative book is presumably a book of rules or laws. Originally, and still in its normal usage, this expression is meant to impose the maximum penalty. For criminals this is likely to mean life imprisonment. Nowadays, the expression may be used more generally, often where the punishment or reprimand is far less extreme.
3. It’s raining cats and dogs
It is raining a lot!
The first known record of this phrase is in Dean Jonathan Swift’s “Polite Conversation” (1873). But it is questionable whether he originated this peculiar hyperbole. More than two centuries previously, Richard Brome wrote a play entitled “The City Witt” (c.1652) in which one of the characters, Sarpego, says:
The world shall flow with dunces…
And it shall rain…
Dogs and Polecats, and so forth.
4. Mad as a hatter
There is a number of theories about the root of this similie. Perhaps the most intriguing, and also plausible, was offered in “The Journal of the American Medical Association” (vol. 155, no. 3). Mercury used to be used in the manufacturing of felt hats, so hatters, or hat makers, would come into contact with this poisonous metal a lot. Unfortunately, the effect of such exposure may lead to mercury poisoning, one of the symptoms of which is insanity.
Famously, Lewis Carroll wrote about the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” (1865), but there is at least one earlier reference to the expression: in “The Clockmaker” (1817) by Thomas Haliburton.
5. Crocodile tears
Hypocritical grief or false grief
It was believed that crocodiles cry like a person in distress to lure men close enough to snatch and devour them, then shed tears over the fate of their victim. References to this proverbial belief are found in ancient Greek and Latin literature.
In a book entitled “Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville” (c.1400) it was written that:
Cokadrilles… Theise serpentes slen men, and thei eten hem wepynge.
The fable is found in the works of many early English writers, including those of Shakespeare.
6. No bones about it
To speak frankly and directly
A form of this expression was used as early as 1459, to mean to have no difficulty. It seems evident that the allusion is to the actual occurrence of bones in stews or soup. Soup without bones would offer no difficulty, and accordingly one would have no hesitation in swallowing soup with no bones.
7. Throw in the towel/sponge
To surrender; admit defeat
In its original form, to throw up the sponge, this appears in “The Slang Dictionary” (1860). The reference is to the sponges used to clean combatants’ faces at prize fights. One contestant’s manager throwing in the sponge would signal that they quit, that the sponge was no longer required. In recent years, towels have been substituted for sponges at fights, and consequently in the expression too.
8. Happy as a clam
Very happy and content
It has been suggested that open clams give the appearance of smiling. The derivation is more likely to come from the fuller version of the phrase, now rarely heard – ‘as happy as a clam at high water’. Hide tide is when clams are free from the attentions of predators; surely the happiest of times in the bivalve mollusc world. The phrase originated in the north-eastern states of the USA in the early 19th century. The earliest citation that I can find is from a frontier memoir The Harpe’s Head – A Legend of Kentucky, 1833:
“It never occurred to him to be discontented… He was as happy as a clam.”
The first record that I can find of the ‘high water’ version is from the Pennsylvania newspaper The Adams Sentinel, August 1844:
“Crispin was soon hammering and whistling away as happy as a clam at high water.”
9. Blonde Bombshell
A glamorous blonde
The phrase was first used to describe Jean Harlow. Her US film ‘Bombshell’ was released in 1933. The blurb that went along with adverts like this one was:
“Lovely, luscious, exotic Jean Harlow as the Blonde Bombshell of filmdom.”
By the time that the film was released in the UK the phrase had taken off and it was titled ‘Blonde Bombshell’ there.
10. Dead Ringer
An exact duplicate
A ringer is a horse substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies. This word originated in the US horse-racing fraternity at the end of the 19th century. The word is defined for us in a copy of the Manitoba Free Press from October 1882:
“A horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a ‘ringer.'”
Dead, in the sense of lifeless, is so commonly used that we tend to ignore its other meanings. The meaning that’s relevant here is exact or precise. This is demonstrated in many phrases; ‘dead shot’, ‘dead centre’, ‘dead heat’, etc.
So, ‘dead ringer’ is literally the same as ‘exact duplicate’. It first came into use soon after the word ringer itself, in the US at the end of the 19th century. The earliest reference I can find that confirms the ‘exact duplicate’ meaning is from the Oshkosh Weekly Times, June 1888, in a court report of a man charged with being ‘very drunk’:
“Dat ar is a markable semlance be shoo”, said Hart looking critically at the picture. “Dat’s a dead ringer fo me. I nebber done see such a semblence.”