The Origins of 15 Common Words & Phrases Anything

The Origins of 15 Common Words & Phrases

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Many of the words and phrases we use every day are things we take for granted in terms of what they mean now. But what did they originally mean? What is the origin of "gibberish," "spill the beans," "best man," or "loophole?" What are the origins of these everyday phrases and terms? Some of these might surprise you.

If you are looking for the origin of  common phrases, read up! You never know the next time someone may ask you about the origin of a popular phrase. And when that happens, you, my friend, will be ready.

From ancient castle features to the dangers of having your bride stolen on your wedding day, these common phrases have their origins from some interesting sources. Below you will find out such interesting things as the jibber jabber origin, stool pigeon origin, and the etymology of common phrases and sayings. Learn where the phrases and terms you use everyday came from with this list of origin of phrases and expressions.

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  1. 1

    Best Man

    In feudal days, weddings were rife with the possibility of a rival lord trying to break up your wedding ceremony and steal your bride for political reasons. To prepare for a possible battle, the groom would ask a friend with fighting skills to stand with him during his marriage and act as his Best Man, helping to defend his bride from possible kidnapping.

    Often, grooms would convince multiple friends and relatives to stand with him, and several peasant "maids" would be persuaded to stand with the bride, in the hope that if invaders came to disrupt the ceremony, they would be confused by the number of girls in party clothes, and possibly kidnap the wrong one.
  2. 2

    Stool Pigeon

    The origin of this phrase goes back to when pigeons were considered a good food source. Hunters would take a tame pigeon and tie it to a stool in order to attract its wild brethren. Because the pigeon that was tied to the stool was used to trap others of its kind, the term "stool pigeon" became used to describe anyone used to sell out his friends.
  3. 3

    Spill The Beans

    In ancient Greece, some voting was done with beans. White and black beans were used to determine the nature of your vote. Citizens would cast their votes with the bean color for their choice and drop it in a jar to be counted by the officials later. However... as one might expect... on a few occasions a clumsy voter would knock over the jar and reveal the beans and the outcome of the vote. The phrase came to refer to someone who reveals the truth or hidden secrets.
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    Today, this word implies a way to get out of a contract. The origin goes all the way back to the Middle Ages and, believe it or not, a defensive architectural feature of castles. Up at the top of the fortifications, designers put in small, usually oval windows that were tapered to be wider inside and narrower from the outside (also called a "murder-hole"). This made the window difficult to hit from the outside by attacking enemies, but a good spot from which to fire arrows.

    This opening was called the loophole and later, the term came to represent any opening that gave an advantage to one side in an argument or contract.
  5. 5

    Get The Sack

    Sacked! In today's parlance, it means to get fired. The origin, however, is from the 17th century. Artisans used to come to work with their own tools for the job, usually carried in a sack). When an employer wanted to fire someone, all he did was hand him his sack and tell him to take his tools and leave. This phrase still has the same meaning today, only now the sack has been replaced by a cardboard box to take home one's personal effects and office plants.
  6. 6

    Skeleton in the Closet

    In the 17th century, doctors of medicine found that obtaining dead bodies for study was difficult. So difficult, in fact, that they would be lucky to get even one in their entire lifetime. Because of this, the body they obtained would be treasured and never discarded. But, obviously, society frowned on keeping corpses lying around. Doctors rectified this by keeping the skeleton in their closets. The practice was common enough that many patients just assumed that every doctor kept one hidden in there.

    Eventually, the phrase came to be used for any unsavory secret that was hidden away from general public knowledge.
  7. 7


    The term 'gibberish' means words that can't be understood. As with so many terms we use blindly today, this one has its roots in racism. Back in Europe, any foreigner with dark hair and olive skin was assumed to be from Egypt and were called "gypts." Later the word became "gypsies." Because their accents were hard to understand, the words they spoke were termed "gibberish." This has mutated through time to also include "jibber" and "jabber."
  8. 8

    Put Up Your Dukes!

    This is a common, if now a bit old-fashioned, challenge to a fight. The origin goes back to Frederick Augustus, the 2nd son of King George III. Frederick was the Duke of York and was obsessed with fighting. Because he became synonymous with the activity, fighters nicknamed their fists "Dukes of York." The phrase was later shortened to just "Dukes."
  9. 9


    This word has come to mean a stain or a mark of shame. Its origins are from the "stigma" itself, which was a branding iron in Britain. When a criminal wasn't sentenced to death, they were branded with the stigma to mark them as criminals. For example: "A" meant adultery and "T" was for thief.

    Later on, when we stopped branding people, society continued using the word to label someone negatively... indicating that the person should feel shame.
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    The origin of this word comes from a linen cloth that didn't hold up well. It was originally sold in the Silesian area of Germany and purchased by London merchants for resale at a very low price. Eventually the public came to realize that the cloth was of poor quality, and it was nicknamed "Sleasie" for the area where it was manufactured. The word "sleazy" soon became synonymous with anything that was of low-quality, didn't hold up, and was grungy-looking or inferior.
  11. 11


    According to tradition, a newly married couple was compelled to drink a fermented honeyed beverage for about a month after the wedding - from the time of one full moon until the next - for fertility and luck. This month of drinking and festivity was dubbed the "honeymoon."
  12. 12

    Let The Cat Out Of The Bag

    This phrase dates back all the way to the Middle Ages. Unscrupulous vendors in the marketplace would sometimes substitute a cat when someone bought a piglet, putting the cat in a bag where its thrashing would look like the struggle of a pig. Once the buyer walked away, they would "let the cat out of the bag," revealing the trickery.
  13. 13


    More of a product name than a phrase, this one is still pretty interesting. Mr. Frisbie was an excellent baker, establishing the Frisbie Pie Company which sold pies all across New England. Frisbie pies were especially popular among the students at Yale in the 20s, and soon, Yale dorms were full of empty Frisbie Pie tins in the same way college kids today have towers of empty pizza boxes. The Yalies soon discovered that the Frisbie tins, if flung with a spinning motion, would fly through the air to be caught and returned by a fellow time-waster. The cry of "Frisbie!" was adopted as the game's equivalent of "Fore!" in golf to notify whoever was being flung at.

    In 1948, a California building inspector and inventor named Fred Morrison capitalized on this game and made the first "Frisbee," adding that extra letter to avoid legal trouble with Frisbie Pie.
  14. 14

    Son of a Gun

    The general idea behind this phrase can be traced back to the days of sailing ships, when the wives of sailors sometimes accompanied their husbands on long ocean voyages. As privacy was scarce aboard these ships, the story goes that if a woman gave birth during the voyage, the delivery would often take place in the most secluded place available: between the cannons on the ship's gun deck. The child's birth would then noted in the ship's log as "a son of a gun."
  15. 15

    Smart Aleck

    The phrase "smart alec" arose from the exploits of Alec Hoag. A celebrated pimp, thief, and confidence man operating in New York City in the 1840s. Hoag, along with his wife Melinda and an accomplice known as "French Jack", operated a con called the "panel game," a method by which prostitutes and their pimps robbed customers. He ended up going too far, however, when he cut the police out of a deal he'd made to keep out of prison.
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