I’M JUST CURIOUS: What are idioms?

by Debbie Walker

I like words, groups of words and their meanings. I didn’t know for years, what an Idiom was. I had to learn it while working with first and second graders! So here goes, let me give you what I learned, and it is in the Mary Jane’s Farm magazine from the July 20-21 issue. Sorry, but I don’t know who submitted it.

For anyone who is out of touch with these things, an Idiom is a group of words that convey a meaning not quickly figured out. For instance, if you are talking to someone new here from Chile and you tell them it’s ‘raining cats and dogs today’, what do you think the picture will be in their mind? Oh, yeah, questions I believe.

I am giving you some of them and the history of the saying:

“I can be ready AT THE DROP OF A HAT”: (quickly) 1800s when the drop of a hat was a signal for the start of a race.

“Stop BEATING AROUND THE BUSH”: (avoid getting to the point) Dates back to the 1400s. Wealthy hunters would hire men to literally beat the bushes to draw out the birds.

“I can see you have a BEE IN YOUR BONNET” (Obsessed with something). You can’t stop thinking about something. First used in 1500s, likening the busyness of a beehive.

“Don’t try to BUTTER ME UP”: (to flatter). Came from ancient India, where it was custom to throw balls of butter at the statues of gods to seek their favor, forgiveness, and fortune.

“Let’s CUT A RUG”: (dance). Phrase from the 1920s invention of the jitterbug, a vigorous dance, would make carpet look cut.

“Don’t LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG” (Tell a secret): Originates in the 1700s, street vendors would sell pigs and present them in a bag. There was a fraud, the vendors would replace the pigs with cats. Wasn’t discovered until they reached home.

“Use some ELBOW GREASE on that”: (apply physical effort). First used in 1600s, a term for working in a sweat.

“PUT A SOCK IN IT!” (stop talking): 1800s people used socks to stuff the horns of their gramophones to muffle the sound (early volume control).

“Don’t SPILL THE BEANS” (tell a secret): Ancient Greek, voting process of placing beans in a container, if someone spilled them the results would be prematurely revealed.

“That new tool just doesn’t CUT THE MUSTARD.” (live up to expectations): Thought to have come from the phrase “pass the mustard” when solders are assembled for inspection. Also, as early as the 1600s phrases like as ‘hot as mustard’ or ‘as strong as mustard’ were used to describe something powerful or enthusiastic and to measure up would be to cut the mustard’.

“I have a NEST EGG (Savings)”. This is thought to have originated from the practice of placing fake eggs in hens’ nest to encourage them to lay more eggs, resulting in more income for the farmer.

Can you imagine if you are struggling with the language here as it is and then we throw in a few of these idioms, that’s just not fair. I’m just curious if you ever questioned an idiom. Feel free to send me your comments to DebbieWalker@townline.org. Have a great week and thanks for reading.


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