9 Strange Expressions and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
From “throwing the baby out with the bath water” to “painting the town red,” we’ve done a little digging and solved some of the more bewildering expressions in common use.
If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone whose second language is English, you’ve likely thoroughly confused them with a common expression that—taken literally—makes little, if any, sense.
Offering a sufficient explanation—especially for those expressions that are particularly obscure—can be challenging, to say the least.
To help you out, we’ve uncovered the origins of nine of the more confusing expressions in common use.
2. Turn a blind eye
Meaning: To willfully ignore something.
This expression originally took root in the 1800s with the British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was blind in one eye. After receiving a flag signal from his commander to disengage during a battle against a joint Danish-Norwegian enemy, he held a telescope to his blind eye and claimed he couldn’t see it.
3. Never look a gift horse in the mouth
Meaning: When you receive a gift, be grateful for whatever it is. Questioning its value implies that you wished for something more.
As a horse ages it grows more teeth and its existing teeth change shape and protrude forward. This is why getting “long in the tooth” refers to getting older.
4. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water
Meaning: Don’t get rid of valuable things along with the unnecessary ones.
This one is a little disturbing: In the early 1500s, people only bathed once a year. Even worse, the entire family used the same bath water. And as chivalry wasn’t quite common in those days, the men (who were likely the grungiest) bathed first. Next were the women, followed by the young children and last, of course, were the babies.
5. Go the whole nine yards
Meaning: To try your best at something.
It’s widely believed that this expression comes from the Second World War when fighter pilots were given nine yards of ammunition. If they returned having fired the entire nine yards, they were said to have fought their hardest.
6. You stole my thunder
The story behind this expression comes from John Dennis, a literary critic and playwright. In 1704, he created a mechanism to mimic the sound of thunder and unveiled it during a production of his play, Appius and Virginia.
Sadly, the play was not well-received by the public and was soon closed. His thunder machine, however, proved very useful and was later used in productions of Macbeth.
7. Paint the town red
Meaning: To enjoy a night out on the town.
The birth of this phrase is owed to an epic booze bender in 1837. The Marquis of Waterford—known for getting soused and causing mischief—led his friends on a drunken night of vandalism that included knocking over flower pots, ripping knockers off of doors and breaking windows.
8. Three sheets to the wind
Meaning: You’re drunk.
9. That’s all she wrote
Meaning: It’s all over.
This expression, often delivered with satisfaction, is rooted in an unfortunate tale about John, an American fighting overseas in the Second World War.