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Why do we say that? 27 Origins of the phrases we love

Ah, the humble cliché! Some are so ingrained in our psyche, we don’t even know why we use them, but we know what they mean. The question is, do we know what we’re really saying?

1. Take a rain check

Meaning: to take advantage of a canceled invitation at a later date

Origin: The phrase is an Americanism that may have originated with professional baseball. If you purchased a ticket for a game that was later rained out (something you as a ticket holder had no control over), you were given a rain check, allowing you to come back to see a game on another day. Other possible origins are open-air markets where rain required vendors to leave or the issuance of tickets to claim property like coats and hats when one went to a restaurant or other venue.

2. Cat got your tongue?

Meaning: Is there a reason you aren’t talking?

Origin: Some say this phrase has to do with an old way to punish sailors into silence — to flog them with a cat-o-nine-tails. Others argue it has to do with an ancient Middle Eastern punishment in which a liar had his tongue removed and fed to the king’s cats.

3. Flavor of the month

Meaning: a short-lived infatuation or trend

Origin: In a 1930s and ’40s American advertising campaign, buyers were encouraged to try a different flavor of ice cream each month by various ice cream manufacturers.

4. Hair of the dog

Meaning: a hangover cure in which one drinks a mild alcoholic beverage the day after a drinking binge; treating an illness with more of what caused it

Origin: Most believe the phrase originated in the 16th century. During that time (and for 200 years thereafter), it was common practice for doctors to treat people bitten by rabid dogs by dressing the wound using burned hair from the animal that bit them.

5. Spin doctor

Meaning: usually in politics, the individual who attempts to manipulate public opinion to guide it in a new direction

Origin: A pitcher who can manipulate the spin on the ball in such a way as to confuse the batter.

6. Sold down the river

Meaning: betrayed, usually by deception

Origin: After slave importation became illegal in the U.S., slaves were traded internally, usually by way of the Mississippi River. Being sold down the river meant to be taken from your home and family.

7. Spill the beans

Meaning: to tell a secret

Origin: It’s said that in ancient Greece, they voted using black beans and white beans, one to represent yes and the other no. Each voter placed a bean into a pot or helmet secretly, then the votes were counted by spilling the beans out.

8. The cat’s pajamas

Meaning: the best of its kind

Origin: This phrase may have originated in America, where it was supposedly coined by Thomas A. Dorgan. The word cat was at the time used to describe flappers, and pajamas (or pyjamas at the time) were a relatively recent item of women’s clothing.

Others think it may have had to do with the extremely high-quality pajamas designed by English designer E.B. Katz.

9. Put a sock in it

Meaning: to be quiet; stop talking

Origin: Gramophones, the predecessors of record players, had large horns used to amplify the sound. Since they had no volume control, if the sound was too loud, listeners were forced to stuff a wadded-up sock inside the horn.

Up next: Bite the bullet >>

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