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What on Earth do you mean? Origins of Popular Sayings

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

This one is a bit of a mouthful but the basic message is to not get rid of important things when you’re getting rid of the unnecessary ones. It’s thought that this phrase goes as far back as the 1500s when most people could only have a bath once a year! Family members would all use the same bathwater and children would be bathed last.

When it came to the baby’s bathing time, the water would be rather murky (as you can probably imagine!) and the mother had to be careful not to throw the baby out of the tub when they were getting rid of the dirty water! Another explanation (that has a bit more historical evidence to it) is that we took this expression from the German equivalent ‘das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten’ (tip out the child with the bath), which was used in a book by Thomas Murner in 1512.

Benefit of the doubt

This is a phrase that we frequently use in everyday conversation, but have you ever tried to explain exactly what it means? Here’s our attempt: if Person A says something to Person B and Person B isn’t entirely sure that it is true, when Person B then accepts Person A’s version of events, Person A is benefitting from the fact that Person B has doubts that can’t be proved right or wrong either way. Phew! The saying is based on the legal term ‘reasonable doubt’ when a defendant is deemed innocent if there is still a degree of uncertainty as to whether they committed the crime in question.

Carte blanche

The saying ‘carte blanche’ comes from the French for ‘blank paper’. Giving someone carte blanche means that you are giving them the freedom to do whatever they feel is necessary. It’s thought that writers would use this expression to describe their fellow wordsmiths who were free to do what they wanted – or rather to fill the blank paper however they saw fit!

Hair of the dog

We might find ourselves saying this quite often on a Sunday morning, but what exactly does it mean? Apparently ‘hair of the dog’ comes from a medieval saying based on the belief that if someone had been bitten by a rabid dog, applying the same dog’s hair to the wound would cure them! Thankfully this hangover cure involves having another alcoholic drink rather than eating a dog’s hair!

Lose face

This is another expression that we use so often that we’ve probably never stopped to think about how it came into existence. Apparently the saying goes back to a translation of the Chinese phrase ‘tiu lien’, which can also be translated as someone ‘suffering public disgrace’ meaning they can no longer show their face in public. Sir Robert Hart, a respected consular official in China and the UK, wrote a collection of essays in 1876 and described a situation in which China had ‘lost face’. The phrase ‘save face’ came later, purely to provide a contrast to losing face.

Sell someone down the river

This is an expression used to describe betraying someone. It is thought to have originated in the US when slaves who were badly behaved were sold from the northern US states to plantations in Mississippi, where the conditions were even harsher. It’s supposed to have been used figuratively from around the early 1900s.

Night on the tiles

This is what often comes before ‘hair of the dog’ and it’s thought that this phrase refers to the idea of cats playing out on rooftops, which tend to be tiled, at night!

Cat got your tongue?

We ask someone this when they seem to be lost for words and often it has an accusatory tone to it, but how did this phrase enter our everyday vocabulary? Apparently the English Navy used to have a weapon that they called the ‘cat-o-nine’ tails and it was used for whipping people as a punishment. The weapon caused its victims so much pain that they were often left speechless afterwards. A rather unpleasant origin of a popular saying!

If you know of any interesting origins of everyday expressions, we’d love to hear them!


Isabella Fink

Isabella Fink

I am native Austrian and studied Linguistics and Literature at the University of Innsbruck and in Manchester, so language and translation has always been a passion of mine. Before joining Tongue Tied, I have worked as a Translation Assistant and in Customer Services and Purchasing.

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1 Comment

  1. Simon hutton

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