Last year, we were in Edinburgh and we brushed up on our culture on a tour of St Mary’s Close – highly recommended if you’re there. On the tour, we learned that the term ‘daylight robbery,’ actually comes from the 17th Century when a Window Tax was introduced, which literally charged people for the privilege of daylight. Many less fortunate families bricked up their windows in order to avoid the tax. Inspired by this, we decided to find out where other common phrases originate from.
Break the ice
Originally, breaking the ice was a literal term that came from when ships called ice-breakers used to break through ice patches in the polar region to explore the area. It means “to forge a path for others to follow.”
Raining cats and dogs
The jury’s out on the definitive origin of this one, but the one that came up the most was this one from the 1500s. Cats and dogs would supposedly keep warm in the rafters of thatch rooves, but during really heavy storms, the rain would cause them to slip and fall out of the rafters, so it would be “raining cats and dogs.”
Buttering me up
No, people never actually used to butter people and expect it come across well, the phrase does come from an ancient Indian practice, where they used to throw balls of butter at statues of gods to ask for a favour.
Mind your Ps and Qs
People often think that the Ps and Qs are ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ but another explanation for its origin goes back to old English taverns when patrons were served pints and quarts. The bartender would warn them to “mind their Ps and Qs” in case they got too rowdy.
Wild goose chase
This one actually has very little to do with actual geese. The term comes from an type of horse race that involved the horses lining up in a formation, like migrating geese. There would be a lead horse and the others would follow – not much of a race, hence the meaning of “pointless exercise.”
Beat around the bush
This, along with “cut to the chase,” are both hunting terms, deriving from when hunters would beat a bush to rouse birds and other hunted animals out of hiding so they could be hunted. It was considered the preamble to the main event, which is why we now use to say “get on with it.”
Bite the bullet
Never a pleasant thought, and its origin is just as unpleasant to think about. It refers to when wounded soldiers would bite down on a bullet during painful medical procedures when there was no aesthetic available.
Three sheets to the wind
We’ve all been there after a few too many on a Friday night, but what does it actually mean? The phrase comes from sailors and the sheets refer to the ropes that secure the sails of a ship. If the three ropes were loose, the sail would flop around in the wind, much like we are after a few too many drinks.
Chance your arm
Chancing your arm supposedly comes from the military, and it’s not dissimilar to “stake your life on it.” In the military, your rank is worn on your arm, so to take a risk would be to stake your badge, or your rank on it, or “chance your arm.”
Take the piss
This one actually comes from the old expression piss-proud, which refers to the false pride a man might have from his, eh, morning glory, which is in fact a false erection. From the idea of being “piss-proud” or having false pride, taking the piss developed into making a mockery of someone. Sorry, lads.