News flash: the English language has never been a pure language. It is the current result of hundreds and hundreds of years of linguistic mishmash; like other languages it draws from a lot of sources and barely even resembles its earlier forms.
Needless to say, time travel would not go well for you and me, even if we traveled back to England just several hundreds of years ago. With that in mind, try and understand that words and phrases, even ones that were incorporated into more modern forms of English, can quickly lose their meaning.
Below is a list of idioms and other phrases and their real meaning. You won’t believe it when you read it.
1. “Cat got your tongue?”
Meaning: Why are you unable to articulate?
Now, some people claim that the term comes from the English Navy, where they would flog people as punishment with a whip called a cat of nine tails.
In actuality, the phrase comes from ancient Egypt, where cats were worshiped. It was so important for cats to get whatever they wanted, (food, petting, beds, first-born child, etc.) that people would joke about a cat taking their tongue as tribute.
2. “Mind your P’s and Q’s.”
Meaning: Be on your best behavior.
This phrase has a lot of theories about its origin. One of the more popular theories is that bartenders would warn people about how many pints and quarts they would drink.
It’s a lot simpler than that, however. The earliest use of the term, before it was stolen by bartenders, was that you should mind your pillows and quilts. In other words, make your bed and keep your life in order.
3. “Flying off the handle”
Meaning: Becoming enraged.
This phrase is often associated with axe heads loosely adhered to their handles flying off when swung.
Beekeepers used to use special handles coated with a thin layer of honey to attract bees as they collected the honey from the comb. If they sneezed because they were allergic to the pollen, that would enrage the bees and they would fly off the handle, swarming around and stinging everything.
4. “Put out feelers”
Meaning: Discreetly try to learn some new information.
Most people almost have the meaning right about this phrase, when assuming it is a reference to insects and how they feel everything with their antennae before engaging with it.
However, this term was coined in the late 14th century, when it was popular among socialites to attend silent parties wearing blindfolds, holding a fancy stick and gently swinging it around to find other party goers. Once they did, they would then feel the other person’s stick, and if it was to their liking, they would take their blindfolds off and go together to another part of the house to schmooze.
5. “Sleep tight!”
Meaning: Sleep soundly.
This is another case of common wisdom almost being right. Most people think that because beds were once supported by ropes, that a tightly supported bed would mean sounder sleep. While ropes are involved in this phrase’s history, it’s not quite like this.
In truth, poor hygiene used to be such a leading cause of sleepwalking that people would need to be tied into bed each night to avoid major mishaps. If you were not tied down, there was a good chance that you would end up peeing in some neighbor’s closet.
6. “Take a chill pill.”
Meaning: Calm down.
You might think this term was first used when ADHD medication first started being prescribed. Pretty straightforward, right?
Actually, this term comes to us from Saudi Arabia in the early 1930s. Because of the sweltering heat of the desert, people often look for different ways to cool off. The most popular way to keep cool during this era? Ice cubes.
7. “Barking up the wrong tree”
Meaning: Pursuing a misguided action.
Sure, this one seems obvious. We’ve all seen a dog chase after a squirrel which ultimately climbs a tree, having the dog bark at it incessantly as if that was going to coax it to come down. The phrase, then, may mean that the dog is barking up a tree that the squirrel isn’t even in. But that’s not the original meaning.
However, this is actually an old arborist phrase. Arborists who specialize in grafting different scions onto rootstocks have to make sure to pick the best combination possible for this horticultural art. If you pick the wrong rootstock for a tree, you may soon realize that the wrong kind of bark is growing up your new tree.
8. “Having a bone to pick”
Meaning: Needing to discuss something in detail.
Some say that the phrase comes from when dogs would clean a bone of all of its meat until it is nothing but bone. However, the term is Biblical.
Adam was alone until God took his rib bone and created Eve, according to the Book of Genesis. According to early tellings of the story, Adam was lonely and frustrated in a way a single guy can be, and he told God that he wanted him to do something about it. God then told him that if he wants a companion, he would have a bone to pick with him. Adam, of course, chose the rib.