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5 Idioms with Unexpected Origins

Idiom: Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while

Clichés may be an undesirable ingredient for your prose (in fact, AutoCrit even has a report dedicated to that specific curse), but there’s no denying that, used sparingly, idioms can make for a fun way to color characters.

Every language and culture on Earth has its own set of idioms. Some are shared across entire populations, while others live on at smaller regional or community levels. They can be pretty fun to play with – offering the reader some shared amusement or surprise as characters react to the sayings and proverbs of others.

Dutch idioms, for example, are often hilarious-sounding to the ears of native English speakers. Translated, ‘Wie boter op zijn hoofd heeft, moet uit de zon blijven’ means ‘He who has butter on this head should stay out of the sun.’ It’s the equivalent of ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,’ but the imagery is much higher on the hilarity scale.

And what if you heard someone loudly sigh and say, ‘Wat heb ik nou aan mijn fiets hangen?’ Well, they’d be saying ‘What have I got hanging on my bike now?’ – the equivalent of ‘Oh, what do I have to deal with now?’, yet framed with a different cultural lens owing to the Dutch affinity for bicycles.

If you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, or any other type of story set in a world distant from our own, creating your own idioms for the nations that live there can help add plenty of color, life, and differentiation to your setting.

Going one step deeper in your world-building, it’s also worth conjuring a back- story for these sayings. Where did they originate? What set of (potentially hilarious) circumstances led to their creation? When they’re used today, are they still reflective of their source, or have they taken on a meaning all their own?

This is no mere fluff exercise – rather, it can help you quickly come up with customs and events in your world’s history. These will often be things that may not be around anymore, but still provide a lasting influence on the thoughts and actions of the people there today. Even the silliest-sounding saying can actually be a reflection of a deeper past – and small touches like this can subtly breathe a real sense of life and authenticity into your story.

That said, today we’re here for a bit of fun – so we’ve picked out five different English-language idioms that have origins you may not expect. Did you already know these?


1. That gets my goat

If someone is telling you about something that annoys them, they’ll often say it gets their goat. But what does that mean? Well, this expression actually comes from the world of horse racing.

Being smaller and easier to transport than another horse, goats were ideal companions for racehorses throughout their frequent travels. As the herd animals they are, horses find relaxation in the company of others – and the presence of a friendly goat in the stable could keep even the antsiest of thoroughbreds in a state of calmness.

With devious intent, racing rivals would sneak in and steal their opponent’s goat on the night before the race, in an effort to unsettle the horse and lessen its chances of winning.


2. Winning hands down

Speaking of horse racing, here’s another English idiom that comes from that world. To keep control on the racetrack, jockeys obviously need to keep a tight grip on the reins… but if a particularly cocky jockey found himself so far ahead that winning was a given, they’d slack off and let their hands drop as they approached the finish line.

Hence the term ‘winning hands down’ – an obvious, indisputable (if even easy) victory.


3. My ears are burning

Overheard someone talking about you? Then you might walk in and exclaim that your ears are burning.

Of course, they aren’t literally on fire… so where does this phrase come from?

The answer lies in ancient Rome, where priests (known as augurs) believed one could predict events based on the body’s behavior. Specifically, a burning or ringing in the ears was a sign that people were talking about you.

If the left ear was burning, then someone was saying bad things about you. If the right ear burned, then you needn’t worry – you were receiving praise, somewhere out there.


4. A chip on your shoulder

We all know at least one person we’d describe as walking around with a chip on their shoulder. The meaning of the saying is well known, but where does it come from?

Apparently, this saying goes back at least as far as 1800s dockyards. A “chip” is a piece of heavy timber, often carried on the shoulder of workers as they left for home. It became a noticed practice that those who were looking for a fight with a certain individual would place one of these chips on their own shoulder and dare the opponent to knock it off.

Forcibly knocking the chip from their shoulder would infer an agreement to a physical fight, and based on writings from the time, it would seem that the technique was used so the aggressor could claim self defense – they were merely defending their property. This can be seen in an example from the Onondaga Standard of Syracuse newspaper, New York, in 1830:

“’’He waylay me’, said I, ‘the mean sneaking fellow – I am only afraid that he will sue me for damages. Oh! If I only could get him to knock a chip off my shoulder, and so get round the law, I would give him one of the soundest thrashings he ever had.’”

Nowadays, we don’t walk around with a block of timber on our shoulders to show that we’re itching for a fight – our attitude does that for us – yet the saying lives on.


5. Show your true colors

Sticking close in meaning to its origins, this reflection of someone’s deceptive nature comes from the naval adventures of the 1700s. To move hidden through rival waters, or just to get the jump on their enemies, some ships would fly the flag of a different country or allegiance.

When it came time to attack, they would pull down the flag and raise their own – showing their true colors – before the barrage of cannon fire began.


So, there you have five idioms with origins you may not have expected. Did you know them already? Can you think of any more that have weird or hilarious stories behind them? Share them in the comments below!

And why not think about injecting a few cultural idioms of your own into your stories? Down below, you can download our free World-Builder’s Workbook, which will help you create your very own worlds step by step.



Join the Discussion on “5 Idioms with Unexpected Origins”

  1. Levi Bullock says:

    Most cliches are really not acceptable unless your doing a specific genre in which the characters are prone to use cliches in their speech. For example if you were doing a book about nerdy geeks then I should think using LOL would be acceptable.

    Try writing a short story with cavemen. People that have no idea of what the modern world is like and certainly would not be using cliches. I found this particularly enticing when warming up for the real work before me. It puts me in a frame of mind to think about what I’m writing from an entirely different perspective.

    Show them, dont cliche them. A chip on her shoulder could easily be written as “Nothing managed to escape her disdain for the little things in life.”

    One of my favorites for showing your true colors in my most recent novel is: “He was never one to be trusted. When confronted he would turn the best of us against each other while he slipped away content with the knowledge he had won yet again.”(I really like to put short sentences inside a longer paragraph.)

    These are just some of the ways that I sail around cliches.

  2. Laura VAB says:

    Putting a goat in a horse’s stall wasn’t a superstitious one-off the night before a race; horses are herd animals who bond closely, and with a race horse’s frequent travel to new stables and new locations, it was good to have a friend along. A goat was an easier companion for travel and space than another horse. Stealing a rival horse’s goat was not robbing him of a silly superstition, but depriving him of his only friend and companion in an unfamiliar place, making the horse restless and anxious and thus less competitive on the big day.

    Likewise, hands down was not dropping the hands to the sides — a fairly untenable position for a jockey — but keeping the hands in a neutral position instead of pushing hard or using the whip.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Oooh, lovely. Thanks, Laura! That makes perfect sense. 🙂 The post has been corrected.

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