Weird History
894 voters

The History Of 17 Popular English Sayings That Don't Seem To Make Sense

Updated July 23, 2021 7.6k votes 894 voters 43.4k views17 items

List RulesVote up the idiom origin stories that give you an "Aha!" moment.

While some might find it difficult to keep up with the latest slang of the day, understanding phrases from the past can be the harder task. A lot of these confusing idioms are relics of history, so ingrained in everyday vernacular that we don't even consider what a "rule of thumb" is or why we're relating our happiness to a mollusk and a man named Larry.

Many English speakers use these sayings regularly without knowing where they come from or what they truly mean. Behind each saying's etymology lies a mystery, some of which are still unsolved. Some have contentiously debated origins and countless plausible (and less plausible) theories. Either way, knowing the surprising backstories of these idioms will give you a leg up as a conversationalist, and basically makes you the bee's knees.

Vote up the history that gives reason to these random phrases.

  • Photo: Marvin Dement Boland / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1

    Close But No Cigar

    Meaning: Said to someone who falls slightly short of a successful or winning outcome.

    Historical Context: The phrase likely originates from the 1920s, when cigars were handed out as prizes at fairs and carnivals. At the time, these games were actually meant for adults, rather than kids, leading to the patently adult prize of a cigar. 

    As many carnival games seem designed to feel winnable, but then are nearly impossible to actually win, people in the '20s were probably often "close, but no cigar."

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  • 2

    A Laundry List

    Meaning: A (typically) long list of items.

    Historical Context: Back in the 1800s, more than 2,000 patents were filed for washing machines in the United States. A new business popped up in turn - commercial laundry services for those who didn't want to buy the pricey new machines but still hated doing their laundry the old-fashioned way (by hand).

    To ensure that no customers lost a stray sock, users of the service had to list out the items they were sending to be washed, and a laundry list was born. Of course, listing out each item of clothing was probably almost as tiresome as actually doing the laundry. So in the 1860s, the process was improved by providing customers a handy itemized list of clothing articles where they could fill in a tally of their laundry.

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  • 3

    Don't Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth

    Meaning: Be grateful for a gift rather than trying to assess its value.

    Historical Context: As a horse specialist in the olden days, looking inside the mouth of a horse that was gifted to you would be like publicly examining the amount on a check inside your grandmother's birthday card. 

    A horse's mouth changes as it ages, with new teeth growing in and their existing teeth pushing further forward. To examine the horse's mouth could tell someone the horse's age, and therefore its value.

    The saying first appeared in print in English in 1546 as part of a book of proverbs by John Heywood. Heywood collected many sayings of his time in the book, but he probably got this particular phrase from a Latin text, The Letter to the Ephesians, written around 400 CE.

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  • Photo: Johannes Christiaan Schotel / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    4

    Three Sheets To The Wind

    Meaning: Extremely inebriated.

    Historical Context: "Three sheets to the wind" comes from sailing lingo but surprisingly doesn't originate with drunken sailors nor the sails themselves (which look, to many of us, like sheets). The sheets are actually ropes that hold the lower corners of the sails on a ship in place. If one is unfortunate enough to have three sheets loose and flailing in the wind, the sails and the boat will also flail about, much like someone who's had one too many at the bar.

    In the 1800s, sailors might refer to someone as anywhere from one to three sheets to the wind, depending on how drunk they were.

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