My Grandfather Said What? 5 Famous Sayings and How they Started
In our daily verbal back and forth, sometimes we use terms that native speakers of English understand, but which sound ridiculous to others who look for a literal translation. These idioms often have some logical beginning which has gotten lost in the sands of time. Have you ever said these old favorites?
1. Die Hard.
Thanks to the series of Bruce Willis movies, this expression is unlikely to die out. Nowadays it means to fight strongly for something you believe. Its beginnings weren’t so pretty. Originally it referred to condemned criminals who were hanged. If they took a long time to die, they were called ‘die hards.’ Later the term took a more noble meaning when a British officer named William Inglis exhorted his 57th Regiment during the Battle of Albuera in 1811. Mortally wounded, he shouted to his men, “Stand your ground and die hard! Make the enemy pay dearly for each one of us!” The unfortunate regiment lost 75 percent of its men that day and earned the nickname ‘the Die Hards.’
2. Don’t Let the Cat Out of the Bag.
Today this odd expression means not to tell someone a secret. Back in merry old 1700’s England, some street vendors weren’t honest. In those days little suckling pigs were sold in rough-hewn bags. Naughty vendors would put a cat into the bag instead of a pig and get away before the cheated customer noticed.
3. As Happy as a Clam.
Not all English sayings originated in England. Americans have come up with a few of their own. If someone is as happy as a clam, he is about as happy and content as he could possibly be. This saying owes its thanks to the New England colonies, where fishing was a mainstay of the economy. Some say it comes from the idea that a partially open clam looks like it’s smiling if you look at it front-edge on. More likely, however, it’s a shortened version of ‘as happy at clam at high tide,’ which is when no predators could find clams to eat them.
4. More Bang for Your Buck.
Use these words today and you mean that you’re getting more value for your money. But during Cold War of the 1950s, when the phrase originated, it had a more specific meaning. President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced a familiar dilemma: he wanted to increase U.S. military power but he had to cut spending. So the Joint Chiefs of Staff created the program called “New Look,” which was a policy to use nuclear weapons in medium to large scale conflicts. This would be less expensive than maintaining a large army. The idea got shortened into the phrase, “Getting more bang for your buck,” though who actually coined it is up for debate.
Nowadays we focus on the money and not the nuclear power.
5. Eat Humble Pie.
If you eat humble pie now, you have embarrassed or even humiliated yourself publicly. As bad as that may be, it’s better than really eating the original humble pie. The phrase actually comes from the days of umble pie. Umbles were akin to entrails, the intestines and less pleasant parts of an animal. When a deer was killed, the poor person or servant got the umbles and the nobility got the venison. The umbles became the filling of the pot pie. Over time, ‘umble’ blurred into ‘humble’ and entrails were forgotten in favor of remembering lowly status. Probably best to forget umbles.