In the days before mass merchandising, poorly fastened axe heads would fly off while they were being used. The result was dangerous, hence why the phrase is used to describe risky behavior with unpredictable results.
2. Steal Someone’s Thunder
In the early 1700s, English dramatist John Dennis invented a device that imitated the sound of thunder for a play that he was working on. The play was a disaster. Soon after, Dennis noted that another play in the same theater was using his sound-effects device. He angrily exclaimed, “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play.” This story made its way around London, and the idiom was born.
4. Chew the Fat
Originally a sailor’s term, this phrase refers to the days before refrigeration when ships carried food that wouldn’t spoil. One of them was salted pork skin, which consisted mostly of fat. Sailors would only eat it when all the other food was gone…and they often complained as they did. This idle chatter eventually became known as chewing the fat.
Originally, sailors used the phrase “under the weather bow” to refer to the side of the ship that would get the brunt of the wind during storms. To avoid getting seasick when the waves got rough, they’d bunker down in their cabins – literally under that bad weather until the storm passed.
6. White Elephant
Legend has it that kings of Siam (now Thailand) used to give actual white elephants to people they wanted to punish. Yes, the elephants were valuable and respected, but that also meant that they were expensive to take care of, so the kings hoped the gift would drive the recipient into financial ruin.
Surprisingly, this doesn’t just refer to turning your back on someone. Etymologists believe that the phrase originated from medieval etiquette. After a feast, hosts in England would subtly signal that the meal was over and that it was time to leave by serving a cold slice of pork, mutton, or beef shoulder.
8. By and Large
Sailors were the first to refer to things as “by and large.” The first part of this phrase refers to the nautical term “full and by,” meaning a boat was traveling into the wind. On the other hand, “large” means the wind is coming from behind. Therefore, to be “by and large” would mean the wind is coming from any direction – giving rise to the current meaning of “in general.”