Ever wonder why a bride carries flowers? Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. By the way, if you want more information on weddings, check out the book, Wedding Traditions and their Meanings">Wedding Traditions and Their Meanings.

Big Wig  -  In the 18th century when many men wore wigs, the most important men wore the biggest wigs. Hence today important people are called big wigs.

Bite the Bullet -  Means to grin and bear a painful situation. It comes from the days before anaesthetics. A soldier about to undergo an operation was given a bullet to bite.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water -   Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children - last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

It’s raining cats and dogs  -  Houses had thatched roofs - thick straw - piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof - hence the saying “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

Crocodile Tears  - This is an insincere display of grief or sadness. It comes from the old belief that a crocodile wept (insincerely!) if it killed and ate a man.


Canopy Beds -  There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy came into existence.

Dirt Poor  -  The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying “dirt poor.”

Escaped by the skin of your Teeth  -  This phrase comes from the Bible, from Job 19:20.

The Thresh Hold  -  The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway, hence, a “thresh hold.”

Peas Porridge Hot  -  In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for quite awhile. Hence the rhyme, “peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.”

Chew The Fat  -  Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man “could bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and “chew the fat.”

Poison Tomatoes  -  Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Trench Mouth  -  Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale bread which was so old and hard that they could be used for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy, moldy trenchers, one would get “trench mouth.”

Upper Crust  -  Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or “upper crust.”

Holding a Wake  -  Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a “wake.”

Giving them the Cold Shoulder  -  When an unwanted visitor came you gave them cold shoulder of mutton instead of hot meat as a hint that they were not to call again.

Saved By the Bell - or - Dead Ringer  -  England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a “bone-house” and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the “graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be “saved by the bell” or was considered a “dead ringer.”

Baker’s Dozen  -  Means thirteen. It is said to come from the days when bakers were severely punished for baking underweight loaves. Some added a loaf to a batch of a dozen to be above suspicion.

Beat About The Bush  -  When hunting birds some people would beat about the bush to drive them out into the open. Other people would than catch the birds. 'I won't beat about the bush' came to mean 'I will go straight to the point without any delay'.

Kick The Bucket  -  When slaughtering a pig you tied its back legs to a wooden beam (in French buquet). As the animal died it kicked the buquet.

Know The Ropes    -  On a sailing ship it was essential to know the ropes.

Knuckle Under    -  Once knuckle meant any joint, including the knee. To knuckle under meant to kneel in submission.

A Leopard Can’t Change His Spots  -  This is another phrase from the Bible. This one comes from Jeremiah 13:23 'Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots?'.

Let The Cat out of the Bag  -  is probably derived from the days when people who sold piglets in bags sometimes put a cat in the bag instead. If you let the cat out of the bag you exposed the trick.

Lick into Shape  -  In the Middle Ages people thought that bear cubs were born shapeless and their mother literally licked them into shape.

Lily Livered  -  Means cowardly. People once believed that your passions came from you liver. If you were lily livered your liver was white (because it did not contain any blood). So you were a coward.

A Little Bird Told Me  -  This phrase comes from the Bible. In Ecclesiastes 10:20 the writer warns us not to curse the king or the rich even in private or a 'bird of the air' may report what you say.

A Long Shot -  A long shot is an option with only a small chance of success. In the past guns were only accurate at short range. So a 'long shot' (fired over a long distance) only had a small chance of hitting its target.

Long in the Tooth  -  When a horse grows old its gums recede and if you examine its mouth it looks 'long in the tooth'.

Mad as a Hatter  -  Some people say the phrase comes from the fact that in the 18th and 19th centuries hat makers used mercury nitrate in their work. Exposure to this chemical does indeed send you mad. However according to some people the origin of this phrase is much older. Hatter is a corruption of the Saxon word 'atter', which meant adder or viper. Furthermore 'mad' originally meant poisonous. So if you were mad as an atter you were as 'poisonous' (bad tempered or aggressive) as an atter (adder). It goes to show that often it is impossible to be certain where old sayings come from.

Pot Luck  -  In the past all kinds of food went into a big pot for cooking. If you sat down to a meal with a family you often had to take 'pot luck' and could never be quite sure what you would be served.

The Powers That Be  -  Comes from Romans 13:1 when Paul says 'the powers that be are ordained of God'.

Pride Goes Before a Fall  -  This phrase comes from the Bible, from Proverbs 16:18 'Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall'.

Pull the Wool over my Eyes  -  In the 18th century it was the fashion to wear white, curly wigs. they were nick named wool possibly because they resembled a sheep's fleece.

Rub Salt Into A Wound  -  Is derived from the days when salt was rubbed into wounds as an antiseptic.

Rule Of Thumb  -  Comes from the days when brewers estimated the temperature of a brew by dipping their thumb in it.

Scapegoat  -  In the Old Testament (Leviticus 16: 7-10) two goats were selected. One was sacrificed. The other was spared but the High Priest laid his hands on it and confessed the sins of his people. The goat was then driven into the wilderness. He was a symbolic 'scapegoat' for the people's sins.

Scot Free  - 
Has nothing to do with Scotland. Scot is an old word for payment so if you went scot-free you went without paying.

To See A Man About A Dog  -  This phrase first appeared in 1866 in a play by Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) called the Flying Scud in which a character makes the excuse that he is going 'to see a man about a dog' to get away.

Show Your True Colours  -  Pirate ships would approach their intended victim showing a false flag to lure them into a false sense of security. When it was too late for the victim to escape they would show their true colours-the jolly roger!

Start From Scratch   -  This phrase comes from the days when a line was scratched in the ground for a race. The racers would start from the scratch.

Straight Laced   -  This phrase was originally STRAIT laces. The old English word strait meant tight or narrow. In Tudor times buttons were mostly for decoration. Laces were used to hold clothes together. If a woman was STRAIT laced she was prim and proper.

The Straight And Narrow -  Comes from Matthew 7:14. In the King James version of the Bible, published in 1611, he says: 'Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth to life'. The old English word strait meant tight or narrow but when it went out of use the phrase changed to 'STRAIGHT and narrow'.

Swan Song  -  Comes from an old belief that swans, who are usually silent, burst into beautiful song when they are dying.

Swashbuckler  -  A buckle was a kind of small shield. When men wanted to impress people they would stride around town with a sword and buckler on their belts. The buckler would 'swash' against their clothes. So they became known as swashbucklers.

Swinging The Lead  -  On board ships a lead weight was attached to a long rope. A knot was tied every six feet in the rope. The lead weight was swung then thrown overboard. When it sank to the seabed you counted the number of knots that disappeared and this told you how deep the sea was. Some sailors felt it was an easy job and 'swinging the lead' came to mean avoiding hard work. In time it came to mean feigning illness to avoid work.

Take Somebody Under Your Wing  -  In Luke 12:34 Jesus laments that he wished to gather the people of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings but Jerusalem was not willing.

Taken Aback  -  If the wind suddenly changed direction a sailing ship stopped moving forward. It was 'taken aback', which was a bit of a shock for the sailors.

Tawdry  -  Is a corruption of St Audrey because cheap jewelry was sold at St Audrey's fair in Ely, Cambridgeshire.

Thorn In My Side  -  Comes from the Bible. In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul states that he was given a 'thorn in my flesh' to prevent him becoming proud. We are not told what the 'thorn' was, perhaps it was some form of illness.

Throw Down The Gauntlet  -  In the Middle Ages a gauntlet was the glove in a suit of armor. Throwing down your gauntlet was a way of challenging somebody to a duel.

Tongue In Cheek  -  In the 18th century sticking your tongue in your cheek was a sign of contempt. It is not clear how speaking with your tongue in your cheek took on its modern meaning.

Touch And Go  -  Probably comes from ships sailing in shallow waters where they might touch the seabed then go. If so, they were obviously in a dangerous and uncertain situation.

Touch Wood  - or - Knock on Wood  - 
In Celtic time’s people believed that benevolent spirits lived in trees. When in trouble people knocked on the tree and asked the spirits for help.

Have No Truck With  -  Truck originally meant barter and is derived from a French word 'troquer'. Originally if you had no truck with somebody you refused to trade with him or her. It came to mean you refused to have anything to do with them.

True Blue  -  Was originally true as Coventry blue as the dyers in Coventry used a blue dye that lasted and did not wash out easily. However the phrase became shortened.

Turn The Other Cheek  -  Jesus told his followers not to retaliate against violence. In Luke 6:29 he told them that if somebody strikes you on one cheek turn the other cheek to him as well.

Turn Over A New Leaf   -  Means to make a fresh start. It mean a leaf of page of a book.

Turned The Corner  -  Ships that had sailed past the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn were said to have 'turned the corner'.

Up The Pole  -  The pole was a mast of a ship. Climbing it was dangerous and, not surprisingly, you had to be a bit crazy to go up there willingly. So if you were a bit mad you were up the pole.

Warts And All  -  When Oliver Cromwell 1599-1658 had his portrait painted he ordered the artist not to flatter him. He insisted on being painted 'warts and all'.

Wash My Hands Of  -  The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, refused to be involved in the death of an innocent person (Jesus). So he washed his hands in front of the crowd, symbolically disassociating himself from the execution.

Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve  -  In the Middle Ages knights who fought at tournaments wore a token of their lady on their sleeves. Today if you make your feelings obvious to everybody you wear your heart on your sleeve.

Weasel Words  -  Are said to come from an old belief that weasels could suck out the inside of an egg leaving its shell intact.

Weigh Anchor  -  The 'weigh' is a corruption of the old word wegan which meant carry or lift.

Went West  -  Once criminals were hanged at Tyburn - west of London. So if you went west you went to be hanged.

Wide Berth  -  A berth is the place where a ship is tied up or anchored. When the anchor was lowered a ship would tend to move about on the anchor cable so it was important to give it a wide berth to avoid collisions. Today to give someone wide berth is to steer clear of them.

Willy-Nilly  -  This phrase is believed to be derived from the old words will-ye, nill-ye (or will-he, nill- he) meaning whether you want to or not (or whether he wants to or not).

Win Hands Down  -  This saying comes from horse racing. If a jockey was a long way ahead of his competitors and sure to win the race he could relax and put his hands down at his sides.

Wheat From The Chaff  -  In the ancient world grain was hurled into the air using a tool called a winnowing fork. Wind separated the edible part of the grain (wheat) from the lighter, inedible part (chaff). In Matthew 3:12 John the Baptist warned that on the judgement day Jesus would separate the wheat from the chaff (good people from evil).

Whipping Boy  -  Prince Edward, later Edward VI, had a boy who was whipped in his place every time he was naughty.

White Elephant  -  In Siam (modern day Thailand) white or pale elephants were very valuable. The king sometimes gave white elephant to a person he disliked. It might seem a wonderful gift but it was actually a punishment because it cost so much to keep!

A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing  -  In Matthew 7:15 Jesus warned his followers of false prophets saying they were like 'wolves in sheep's clothing' outwardly disarming.


Roberts Family Tree
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Old Sayings and Wives Tales
This page is dedicated to, Virginia Roberts, because she often quoted "old sayings" that many of us have never understand.