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10 Ordinary Phrases With Extraordinary Histories

Most English speakers are accustomed to the numerous quirky sayings and phrases in the English language, but those of you for whom English is not your first language will know that it’s sometimes difficult to understand why one “gets on a soapbox” when they force their opinions onto someone, or why someone who unexpectedly managed to avoid danger was “saved by the bell”. The truth is that many of these phrases and idioms have a fascinating history behind them, which can definitely shed light to their seemingly strange choice of words in these phrases.

1. To turn a blind eye

phrase origins To turn a blind eye

Meaning: pretend not to notice

Origin: This phrase takes us back to the distant year of 1801, when the legendary British naval officer Horatio Nelson defeated the Danish-Norwegian fleet by refusing to comply with his superior officer. The story goes as follows: at the Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson’s ships fought against a much larger fleet, and his superior made a sign to retreat.

In response, Nelson, who was blinded in one eye early in his career, brought up his telescope to his bad eye and said that he doesn’t see any signal, refusing to surrender and subsequently emerging victorious from the battle. It is disputed by historians whether this bold event actually took place, but the phrase definitely stuck and became widely used.

2. Get on a soapbox

Meaning: to tell other people your opinions in an annoying way.

Origin: You might wonder, how can a person get on a soapbox, isn’t it too small for a human, and why would a person have to balance on that thing to express their opinions anyway? The backstory of this idiomatic expression actually dates back to the late 19th century, and back then, a soapbox referred to a big crate that was used to transport shipments of soap.

It just so happened, that many public speakers, vendors and salesmen used these soapboxes as makeshift podiums for public speeches. People were often annoyed by these boring and intrusive people, and so “to stand on a soapbox” soon became synonymous with forcing one’s strong opinion on a topic.

3. Saved by the bell

phrase origins Saved by the bell
Kenneth C. Zirkel/ Wikimedia Commons

Meaning: escape from danger narrowly or by an unexpected intervention.

Origin: There is dispute as to how this phrase actually originated, with some sources pinning its beginnings in boxing, but there is also a particularly interesting and somewhat gruesome alternative theory, that takes the phrase back to the Medieval times.

In the distant past, doctors sometimes couldn’t distinguish a comatose state from death, with several instances being recorded of people being buried alive, which soon became a common fear. To solve this problem, people built mechanisms that connected a coffin to a bell using a string. These safety coffins enabled a person who supposedly woke up from a coma to pull at the string, and the ring of the bell would then alert other people, resulting in the unfortunate victim's rescue.

However, there is no evidence of people being saved by using these contraptions, and so most historical linguists lean towards the boxing slang theory that originated at the end of the 19th century. A losing boxer can be “saved” from defeat by the bell ring signaling the end of a round. In our opinion, both theories are equally fascinating.

4. Push the envelope

Meaning: approach or extend the limits of what is possible.

Origin: Unlike many of the phrases on this list, this one is a fairly recent one, and it originates from an aeronautical term. In aviation, a “flight envelope” is the speed and elevation limit of a specific aircraft, and pilots would push, or try to extend the capabilities of an aircraft as they were testing them.

For a while, the term persisted as aviation slang, but Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book ‘The Right Stuff’ about experimental aircrafts made it popular.

5. Crocodile tears

phrase origins Crocodile tears

Meaning: a display of superficial or false sorrow.

Origin: The phrase can be traced back to a Medieval adventure novel called “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville”, which was wildly popular at the time, but in reality, most of the stories and facts in this book were completely made up. In one of these supposed adventures throughout Asia, the narrator describes crocodiles as serpents that slay men, and eat them weeping, and they have no tongue.

This myth of reptiles that cry while devouring their victims persisted through the centuries, with Shakespeare popularizing the idea of “crocodile tears” and essentially turning it into an idiom, which holds strong to this day.

6. Hands down

phrase origins hands down

Meaning: easily, without question.

Origins: This expression comes from horse-racing slang. In this sport, jockeys have to keep a tight rein to encourage their horse to run faster, with their hands pointing up as they grip the rein with force. However, a definite leader in the race can often relax their grip  and lower their hands, so this gesture eventually came to signify an easy and certain victory, and is no longer limited to horseback racing.

7. My ears are burning

Meaning: I’m aware someone is talking about me behind my back.

Origin: This phrase stems from the Ancient Roman superstition, where a tingling or burning sensation in your left ear meant that someone is saying bad things or plotting against you. The same kind of sensation in your right ear, on the other hand, meant that someone was praising you or a sign of good luck.

With time, we simplified this superstition to any kind of concealed discussions about a specific person.

8. Called on the carpet

phrase origins Called on the carpet

Meaning: to scold, rebuke, or reprimand someone, usually a subordinate.

Origin: While the word “carpet” today is reserved only to an object that covers the floor, in the past, it used to mean any thick cloth that covered anything from a bed to a table. And, somewhat unexpectedly, the first mentions of this phrase weren’t a reference to the floor carpet, but rather to a tablecloth, as most important matters were usually discussed at the table.

By the way, this type of change in the meaning of a word where a general term becomes more specific (which in linguistics is called semantic narrowing) isn’t unique to the word “carpet”, the word “deer”, too, used to mean any animal in general in the past, for example.

9. As mad as a hatter 

phrase origins As mad as a hatter

Meaning: insane.

Origin: You might think you know this one, but this simile hadn’t actually originated from ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’. Instead, it marks its beginnings in the 19th century, when hatters often used mercury, a toxic heavy metal in their trait, idle about its ill effects on the body.

As a result, many hatters suffered from mercury poisoning,  which affects the nervous systems, causing trembling, seizures and behavioral abnormalities, making the poor craftsmen appear insane. Even today, mercury poisoning is still known as 'Mad Hatter's disease'.

10. Running amok

Meaning: Behave in a frenzied, out-of-control, or unrestrained manner.

Origin: The last item on our list is also linked to erratic behavior, and, quite accidentally, it, too, has medical origins. The term dates back to the 18th century, when European colonizers to Malaysia learned about the strangest phenomenon: some previously-normal tribesmen would sometimes suddenly become aggressive, brutal, going on inexplicable killing sprees.

The local population called this phenomenon “amuco” named after a band of Javanese and Malay warriors particularly known for their violence. The condition was first recorded by Captain James Cook in 1772, and at that time, it was believed to be caused by the possession by evil spirits. Later on, amok found its way into psychiatric manuals, but to this day, the causes of this condition are unknown.

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