25+ Old Sayings That Have Surprising Origins

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25+ Old Sayings That Have Surprising Origins

Language can be confusing at times, especially as common phrases and idioms tend to get distorted over time. Regardless, old sayings and proverbs are a crucial part of communication that can help us connect better with others. So let’s dig into some popular old sayings and their meanings.

Language changes with time

The way we communicate and the language we use has evolved gradually. Can you imagine terms like “Vibin’,” “Lit”, “Sus” or even “What the F!” being spoken by noblemen of yore?

Even though language has become significantly bastardized now, we still use famous idioms, phrases and sayings at times to express ourselves in the best way possible.

But what do these old sayings and proverbs actually mean? Do you know wheredo old sayings come from?

Although we have a general idea about these popular old sayings and origins, these sayings tend to miss some parts that can significantly change their meaning. But you don’t need to worry about it.

We have compiled a list of old sayings and their meanings – their real meanings, to be precise – so that you have a better idea about the expressions you use.

Related reading: 15+ Native American Quotes and Sayings On Wisdom, Love, And Respect

25+ Old Sayings That Have Surprising Origins
Some popular old sayings and their meanings

Common old sayings and their meanings

So what are the real meanings behind old sayings and idioms? Check out these 30 old sayings and their meanings-

1. Caught red-handed

What we think it means: 

To catch someone during the act of doing something illegal or wrong.

What it actually means:

This saying had originated back in 15th century Scotland. It is actually based on an English law from that period where someone could be punished for butchering cattle or any animal that they did not own.

However, a person can only be convicted of a crime and punished if they were caught ‘red-handed’, with the blood of the animal they slaughtered still on their hands. If the suspect was caught when his hands were clean, even if they were in possession of the meat, they could not be convicted nor punished. 

2. Go the whole nine yards

What we think it means: 

Giving your best effort to accomplish a goal

What it actually means:

This old proverb originated during the Second World War, when pilots of military aircrafts were provided with 9 yards of ammunition. When these fighter pilots exhausted their ammunition, it meant that the pilots had given their best effort to battle the enemies by using all of their ammunition.

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3. Rubbing someone the wrong way

What we think it means: 

To annoy or irritate someone 

What it actually means:

This saying originated in 1819 from Mary Hughes’ Aunt Mary’s Tales. It was originally referred to as rubbing a cat’s fur in the wrong direction which can annoy the animal.

However, an alternate meaning also exists where during the colonial period, early Americans instructed their servants to rub their floorboards in the proper way, by using wet fabric first and then dry fabric for wiping.

The wrong way of rubbing the floorboards could damage it, making the owner feel annoyed. This one had to be on the list of the most popular old sayings and their meanings.

4. Let one’s hair down

What we think it means: 

Dropping one’s guards & inhibitions or to relax 

What it actually means:

In medieval times, aristocratic women needed to appear proper in public with their hair perfectly pulled and tied up. However, when they were at home, they could let their hair down, which signified that they could relax and behave informally or casually.

Want to learn more about popular old sayings and their meanings? Read on.

5. Turn a blind eye

What we think it means: 

Pretending not to notice facts or avoiding reality

What it actually means:

British Naval commander, Admiral Horatio Nelson, had a blind eye. During a battle, his ship was to face off against a fleet from Denmark and Norway.

Legend says that when his senior officers ordered him to stop attacking and withdraw, Horatio used his blind eye to look through the telescope and said he could not see the signal from the British forces. He bravely attacked his enemies and won the battle.

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6. Cat got your tongue?

What we think it means: 

Asked to someone who chooses to remain silent when they should be speaking or when they are at loss of words

What it actually means:

There are two separate origins and meanings that can be associated with this old saying. The first one comes from ancient Egypt, where pharaohs would cut off the tongues of liars as a punishment.

Those tongues were then fed to the cats, who were considered to be sacred. Another explanation is that the English Navy used a whip named “Cat-o’-nine-tails” for punishing crew members. The pain from the whip was so intense that the victims would become speechless afterwards.

7. Sleep tight

What we think it means: 

Said affectionately to someone when they are going to bed, wishing them to sleep well

What it actually means:

Old sayings and their meanings may often seem simple, but they tend to have a completely different origin story. This particular old saying is actually related to the Elizabethan era when beds and mattresses were strung with ropes.

These ropes were required to be strung and fixed tightly so that they remained secured and in place under the mattress. When the ropes became loose, the person could not sleep properly. The phrase ‘sleep tight’ signifies a bed that is well-sprung leading to a good sleep.

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8. Bite the bullet

What we think it means: 

To accept pain or an unpleasant reality and move on

What it actually means:

During the 19th century, doctors could not procure anesthesia or pain relievers easily. Hence, when treating or operating on soldiers in the battlefield, doctors would ask the patients to bite on a bullet so that they were distracted and do not scream from their pain. Hence, the phrase, bite the bullet. 

9. As Mad as a Hatter

What we think it means: 

To be totally mad or crazy

What it actually means:

Although we might be tempted to believe that this old saying originated from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the saying actually comes from the 17th-18th century. During this period in France, hat makers often used mercury for making felt hats.

This caused different types of side effects and could even result in insanity in the hat makers. Known as the Mad Hatter disease, a type of chronic mercury poisoning, it was characterized by tremors, twitching, excitability and irritability, which made the person seem “mad”.

You can now mark this off your list of old sayings and their meanings that you just had to know.

Related reading: 25 Heartwarming Love Proverbs

10. Break the ice

What we think it means: 

To start a conversation with strangers or to relieve tension in a difficult situation

What it actually means:

Back in the days of yore, when roadways were not that developed and transportation and trade was primarily dependent on waterways and ships.

However, during the winter these ships often got stuck in the ice formed in the ocean. Smaller ships were then sent to break the ice up and create a clear passage for the trade ships to enter the ports. This gesture helped to develop agreement and affiliation between the trading nations.

11. Bury the hatchet

What we think it means: 

To end a disagreement & make peace

What it actually means:

This old yet popular saying is based on a Native American practice. When two conflicting tribes decided to end a battle and declare a truce, the chief from both tribes would bury different weapons like, tomahawks, hatchets, clubs and knives in the ground.

This signified their decision to leave in peace and harmony. The buried weapons become inaccessible after being buried.

12. Barking up the wrong tree

What we think it means: 

To have a wrong approach or misguided efforts

What it actually means:

Some of the famous old sayings and their meanings have originated from the United States of America. This one is based on how hunting dogs chased their prey. During the 19th century, hunting dogs would often chase prey such as bears or raccoons up a tree.

The dogs would sit at the base of the tree and bark for their masters to come. However, often the prey would run away from the tree or the dogs would run up to the wrong tree by confusing the prey’s scent, but still bark for their masters, believing the prey was still on that tree. 

Related reading: 15 Native American Proverbs That Will Speak To Your Soul

13. Walls have ears

What we think it means: 

Be careful of what you say as someone could be eavesdropping

What it actually means:

It is believed that the Louvre Palace in Paris, France has a secret network of underground chambers, tunnels and tubes that were built by Queen Catherine de Medici. This was done for listening to political schemes, plots and secrets against her family. She could easily hear what was being said by people in every room.

14. Steal your thunder

What we think it means: 

To take the spotlight away from another person

What it actually means:

This is one of the most common old sayings and their meanings are actually what it sounds like. In the 18th century, a playwright named John Dennis planned to use the sound of real thunder in one of his shows. So he created a machine that could accurately mimic the authentic sound of thunder.

However, his play was not successful despite his invention. Eventually, he learned that the idea of his invention was stolen and a similar machine was used in another play, which gained more attention.

Although the copied machine was almost similar to the original, John Dennis was not named as the inventor. Someone had stolen his “thunder”.

15. Spill the beans

What we think it means: 

To reveal all secrets

What it actually means:

During ancient times in Greece, when elections were held, voters used to put beans in jars assigned to their chosen candidate. However, the jar would fall over at times and the beans would spill out. This would reveal the result of the elections before they were declared.

Related reading: Why Does the Tone of Your Voice Make Such a Difference

16. Show your true colors

What we think it means: 

To show one’s real intentions

What it actually means:

During the 18th century, flags on ships had different colors that bore a distinct identity. Pirate ships often changed the colors on their flags or lowered their real flags to trick other ships into believing that they were allies. However, once the unsuspecting ships got close to the pirate ships, the pirates would attack, revealing their true intentions.

17. One for the road

What we think it means: 

To have a final drink before starting a journey

What it actually means:

If you are looking for more old sayings and their meanings, then this one is certainly interesting. Originating in the Middle Ages, this saying refers to prisoners who were allowed to rest and enjoy a “final” drink before they were taken to be executed in London. The last drink before they set off for heaven (or hell).

18. Honeymoon

What we think it means: 

To go on a romantic holiday after getting married

What it actually means:

In ancient times, newly-wed couples were required to consume a lot of honey for around a month. This was a common tradition as it was widely believed that drinking honey could bring good luck for the freshly married couple in their new life together.

Related reading: 10 Phrases That Say A Lot More Than ‘I Love You’

19. Burning the midnight oil

What we think it means: 

To work hard on an assignment or a project till late night 

What it actually means:

Before the discovery of electricity, it was common for people to use oil lamps to light their houses and streets. When someone worked till late in the night, they would keep their oil lamps lit, burning oil past midnight.

20. Feeling under the weather

What we think it means: 

Being ill due to changing weather or feeling low

What it actually means:

This is another of the old sayings and their meanings that originate from our voyages into the ocean. Back when ships were the main mode of transportation, sailors tended to take rest under the ship’s bow when they became sea sick.

This was considered an ideal place as it kept the sailors protected from bad weather. Sailors who became sick were seen as being under the weather by the ship’s crew. 

21. Kick the bucket

What we think it means: 

Someone has died

What it actually means:

Although the actual meaning of the term is unclear, it is believed that when pigs were slaughtered, wooden beams were used to tie its back legs. As the animal died, it kicked the wooden beam, which in French is known as “buquet”.

Alternatively, when cows were slaughtered in the olden days, a bucket was carefully placed under the cow so that the blood does not spill into the floor. Most cows tended to “kick the bucket” while they were being slaughtered. 

Related reading: 22 Sarcastic Zen Phrases That You Need In Life

22. Resting on your laurels

What we think it means: 

Being complacent & lazy about future goals while basking in the glory of past achievements

What it actually means:

During the reign of ancient Greeks, laurel leaves were seen as a symbol of high rank, social status and accomplishments. In fact, champions of athletic competitions were gifted wreaths of laurel leaves to celebrate their victory. During the Roman period, crowns made from laurel leaves were offered to victorious generals.

Identified as “laureates”, the generals were permitted to retire due to their previous victories and accomplishments. Hence, they were allowed to ‘rest on their laurels’. The saying was associated with respect and positivity, but now it has a more negative meaning.

23. Paint the town red

What we think it means: 

Going out for a night of partying

What it actually means:

Some old sayings and their meanings are often literal. This old saying got associated with having a wild time and drinking thanks to the Marquis of Waterford in 1837. The Marquis was known to enjoy his drinks a little too much and was popular for his drunken, yet amusing behavior across Melton Mowbray, a town in England.

However, one night the Marquis, along with his friends, started vandalizing properties, including houses and statues, in his town using red paint.

24. Put a sock in it

What we think it means: 

Said to someone to stop talking 

What it actually means:

Here is one more old saying that originated in the 19th century. Gramophones, a type of old record player, played music through horns shaped like a trumpet. Unfortunately, the volume level in those gramophones could not be adjusted. Putting a sock into the horn was the only way to manage the loudness of the music. 

25. Son of a gun

What we think it means: 

Used as an affectionate and encouraging compliment

What it actually means:

Back in the old days, sailors often traveled with their wives when setting off on long journeys. Often, the women became pregnant during the voyages and they would deliver the babies in the area between the canons as it was considered a safe place.

These children were then called sons of a gun. That was one of the most interesting old sayings and their meanings that I would have never guessed.

Related reading: The Helicopter Technique Metaphor: 10 Useful Options For Navigating Difficult Conversations

26. By a long shot

What we think it means: 

A venture that has little chance of success or high risk or a statement that is unlikely to be accurate.

What it actually means:

Believed to have come into use during the 1700s, this old saying refers to guns of the past that failed to hit their target accurately when fired over a long distance.

They could only prove effective at a short range. Alternatively, the phrase could have originated during the 1800s and was associated with horse racing. It was used to refer to horses that were unlikely to win the race.

27. In the limelight

What we think it means: 

Being at the center of social attention or being popular.

What it actually means:

During the 19th century, stages of theaters were lit by a strong white spotlight using the mineral lime. This light was known as the limelight and the actors who performed on the stage were put directly under the spotlight, as they were the center of attention of the show.

28. In the nick of time

What we think it means: 

To do something just at the last moment.

What it actually means:

Some old sayings and their meanings can be hard to guess as they have such interesting origins. There are actually different views on what this saying actually means. 

According to one view, the saying can be traced back to the 1500s, when the phrase ‘life as in the nick’ was widely used. Nick in this context meant a crucial moment. Another belief claims that this saying started in the 18th century, when financial debt was tracked by people using a stick.

Then a nick was chipped into the stick to mark the passing of day and identifying the debt overdue. If money was paid back to the creditor before the due date passed, the point marked by the nick, then interest was not added to the money owed to the lender.

Related reading: Osho Quotes: 15 of The Wisest Quotes from The Spiritual Teacher

old sayings and their meanings.
Some popular old sayings and their meanings

These popular old sayings and their meanings are certainly fascinating. But there are many other popular old sayings and proverbs with intriguing origins and actual meanings that we may not be aware of. 

Do you know any interesting stories about some of the phrases and sayings we use on a daily basis? Feel free to add to the list by letting us know in the comments below.


popular old sayings with meanings sock
25+ Old Sayings That Have Surprising Origins
popular old sayings with meanings hatter
25+ Old Sayings That Have Surprising Origins
popular old sayings with meanings eye
25+ Old Sayings That Have Surprising Origins
popular old sayings with meanings barking
25+ Old Sayings That Have Surprising Origins
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