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Unexpected Origins of Common English Idioms

Idiom is a fixed expression with a figurative meaning. Idioms serve to make language bright and emotional. Very often it’s better to use an idiom in common speech to illustrate a particular situation, rather than describe it through specific details.

The English language is full of weird idioms. Let’s look back through history to find the origin of a few of them.

‘To Blackmail’ means to demand money from somebody by means of immoral measures like violence, threats, or the potential to disclose private information. The idiom originated in Scotland around 1600. Scottish farmers paid the rent in silver coins. They were known as ‘white money’ and spelled like ‘mail’ or ‘male’. Additional payment, which clan chiefs extorted from the farmers using violence and threat was known as ‘blackmail’. Later, this word was adopted when around 1900 criminals started to send letters demanding money in order not to reveal personal secrets (Dalton, 2014).

The expression: ‘In a nutshell’ is used to say that some idea is explained in a very precise way with just a few words. The history tells that a long time ago many significant documents were transported inside a shell of a walnut. According to another version, the important documents would often be shortened; thus only vital points were included into handwritten copies (Delton, 2014). In such a way their size also could fit in a nutshell.

The meaning of the idiom: ‘Let the Cat Out of the Bag’ is commonly referred to as a phrase that means an information leak. This expression was coined in medieval times to speak about dishonest market sellers, who cheated naive buyers. Unfair merchants would place a cat in the buyer’s sack instead of a piglet (Delton, 2014). The substitution was discovered only when the sack was taken home and a cat jumped out of it!

The expression: ‘Mad as a Hatter’ is usually used to describe somebody whose actions are absolutely unpredictable. The idiom is well-known from a novel written by Lewis Carroll. But few people realize that it was used even before that. In the Middle Age, felt hats were made with the help of extremely toxic stuff. It was called marcurous nitrate and it often led to trembling in master’s body, as if he was mad. Besides that, there’s one more fact connected with this phrase. Robert Crab, who lived in the 17th century and gave all his money to poor people, wore a rather bizarre hat and was often called ‘the mad hatter’ (Delton, 2014).

The idiom: ‘Red Herring’ is used to describe misleading information. However the explanation for the origin of this idiom is closely connected with hunting. Herring was widely caught in Britain during the 18th century. To keep it eatable for some period of time people would salt it and smoke, thus as a result, fish changed its color from gray into a dark brown, and acquired spicy smell. People used the smoked fish during the hunting season; they dragged it along the hunting paths and away from fox holes, so that the dogs could feel the smell of herring instead of fox (Delton, 2014).

Using idioms in your everyday communication can show high level of your general knowledge and showcase your sufficient immersion in the cultural background. Just make sure you know the exact meaning of the idioms you use!

Works Cited
Dalton. 36 Unexpected Origins Of Everyday British Phrases. 17 Apr. 2014. <>

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Jan 20, 2016