Weird History
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Where 15+ Common Terms And Phrases Originated

Updated May 8, 2021 992 votes 168 voters 64k views16 items

List RulesVote up the most suprising origins of common English terms and phrases.

Have you ever heard a word or phrase and wondered when people started saying it? And why?

Language is constantly changing, and many of the common terms and phrases we use in everyday conversation have much deeper meanings than we realize. Numerous statements still in use have evoked controversy and reassessment, while others continue to find new applications.

Some terms and phrases may seem antiquated, with no apparent usefulness. It's possible that some old-timey turns-of-phrase might be fun to revisit. Understanding the origins of common terms and phrases is fascinating, but it's also incredibly informative as to how we talk, why, and where language itself might be heading. 

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Grandfathered In

    If someone is "grandfathered in," they're allowed to keep operating under a status quo that has since changed. Being grandfathered in may result in an exemption from a new law or regulation, but it also manifests as protection against change.

    The phrase itself is based in legal contexts with the introduction of voting restrictions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Exempt from literacy requirements, poll taxes, and residency or property restrictions were individuals whose grandfathers had voted prior to the US Civil War.

    Contrary to popular belief, as explained by law professor Michael Klarman, "The grandfather clause is actually not a means of disenfranchising anybody... it was a means of enfranchising whites who might have been excluded by things like literacy clauses."

    In other words, it blocked many Blacks from having voting rights in large parts of the American South. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution prevented legal discrimination based on race, but the "grandfather clause" got around it by placing restrictions based on nonracial criteria. 

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  • Photo: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Run Amok

    To "run amok" is to go off track in the most extreme manner. Often used in a way that indicates some sort of homicidal or violent behavior, the phrase "run amok" traces back to 16th-century Indonesian warriors - the Amuco.

    According to 16th-century Portuguese merchant Duarte Barbosa, the Amuco were "ingenious and subtle... cunning and treacherous, and of little truth, daring in all mischief, and unto death." He continued, "they have very good arms and fight valiantly... and go out onto the streets and kill as many persons as they meant."

    Andrew Marvell, an English poet, used a comparable phrase in his 1672 political satire, The Rehearsal Transprosed. This perpetuated the idea and the phrase alike:

    And like a raging Indian (for in Europe it was never before practised) he runs a Mucke (as they call it there) stabbing eve∣ry [sic] man he meets, till himself be knockt on the head.

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    Cat Got Your Tongue?

    As a phrase that reflects speechlessness, it may have appeared as early as ancient Egypt or as late as the 17th century.

    According to some versions of the origins of this feline phrase, it refers to the actual cutting out of an individual's tongue in ancient Egypt. Purportedly, this was the punishment for lying and, after the tongue was removed from one's body, it was fed to cats. 

    On the other hand, there's the theory that "cat got your tongue?" was used by members of the British Navy to mock someone who was whipped by a cat-o'-nine tails. As a phrase that reflects speechlessness, it may have appeared as early as the 17th century. The punishment was, reportedly, so painful that individuals who underwent it were unable to speak for some time afterward. 

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  • Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / No known copyright restrictions


    The term "moron" was first used by Dr. Henry H. Goddard during the early 20th century to describe inept intellectual abilities:

    The idiot is not our greatest problem. He is indeed loathsome... Nevertheless, he lives his life and is done. He does not continue the race with a line of children like himself... It is the moron type that makes for us our great problem.

    Goddard and his fellow eugenicists advocated putting "morons" (the term derives from the Greek word for "foolish") into insane asylums, sterilizing them, and generally keeping them away from the rest of society. It was also part of a psychological diagnostic test used to assess immigrants entering the US. 

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