The English language is constantly changing and evolving. This is easily seen through the origins and integration of phrases and idioms we use today. I didn’t remember I’d first heard holy guacamole on my favorite show as a child — “Batman” — and over half a century later, it’s my go-to exclamation. Robin used such bizarre phrases as holy dental hygiene! and holy contributing to the delinquency of minors! But the origin of holy (fill in something here) comes from as early as 1803. Holy cow became a baseball favorite in 1914 so players wouldn’t be fined for swearing. Uttered by Captain Marvel in the 1940s comic, some theorize holy moly (first used in 1892) is a cleaned-up version of holy moses. Read on and you’ll see the Bible is responsible for many phrases and idioms we use today.
Take the cake came from ancient Greece (400 B.C.), when whoever stayed awake at an all-night party received a cake as a reward. Square meal is a nautical phrase from British warships in the 17th century, when the main, nutritious meal of the day was served on a square tray. Hundreds of years later, we still use this phrase. Do you ever get on a soapbox, spouting an opinion? This is from the late 1800s when religious and political orators would stand on an actual soap crate to elevate them above the crowd. Riding shotgun comes from the Wild West and the hired gun sitting next to the stagecoach driver to ward off approaching thieves. The first deadline literally was — in the Civil War prisons included lines and any prisoner stepping over it was shot, no questions asked. The Bible has given us a plethora of phrases used today including rise and shine, seeing eye to eye, give up the ghost, go the extra mile, and a fly in the ointment, among many others.
How many phrases have writers brought us throughout history? Looking for Mr. Right is from 18th-century poet John Crane. John Milton coined the most new words for our language (pandemonium, debauchery and earthshaking, for example) and also penned by hook or crook and silver lining. And Shakespeare? In addition to adding words to our language such as bedazzled and critical, we have him to thank for all’s well that ends well, the game is afoot, neither a borrower nor a lender be, brave new world, break the ice, heart of gold, play fast and loose, and wild-goose chase, among others.
Sayings are usually dated to the first time they are found in a written publication, but the beginnings and original meanings behind the phrases are often subject to debate. Phrases, idioms and clichés may have interesting starts, but one thing to be aware of as you research: Not everyone agrees.
A fun book that sparked the idea for this article is “Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases” by Andrew Thompson. He organizes phrase origin stories into sections like animals and nature, law and order, military matters, literature, culinary delights, the political realm and more. Researching idioms and sayings brings a wonderful glimpse into history, culture and the meaning in our language.
Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There Is a River,” “Jasper Mountain” and “Theater of Illusion.” She writes, creates art and gardens from her home in Spring Green that she shares with her husband and kitties.