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25+ Old Sayings That Have Surprising Origins

popular old sayings with meanings

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

Old sayings and their meanings
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.

Related reading: 100 Best Zen Sayings And Proverbs That Will Make You Feel Peaceful

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.

Related reading: Hard Work Quotes: 40 Sayings To Strengthen Your Work Ethic

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Theo Harrison

Hey there! I am just someone trying to find my way through life. I am a reader, writer, traveler, fighter, philosopher, artist and all around nice guy. I am outdoor person but heavily into technology, science, psychology, spiritualism, Buddhism, martial arts and horror films. I believe in positive action more than positive thinking.View Author posts