Conversation at Coffee and Chat: Idioms

Did you ever wonder what some of our favorite idioms actually mean and where they came from? Jim Brisbois agreed to provide the following interesting information.

Straight from the horse’s mouth
Meaning: getting information directly from the most reliable source. Origin: This one is said to come from the 1900s, when buyers could determine a horse’s age by examining its teeth. It’s also why you shouldn’t “look a gift horse in the mouth,” as inspecting a gift is considered bad etiquette.

Let the cat out of the bag
Meaning: to mistakenly reveal a secret. Origin: Up to and including in the 1700s, a common street fraud included replacing valuable pigs with less valuable cats and selling them in bags. When a cat was let out of a bag, the jig was up.

Hands down
Meaning: without a lot of effort; by far. Origin: Winning “hands down” once referred to 19th-century horse racing, when a jockey could remove his hands from the reins and still win the race because he was so far ahead.

Cost an arm and a leg
Meaning: extremely expensive. Origin: The story goes that this phrase originated from 18th-century paintings, as famous people like George Washington would have their portraits done without certain limbs showing. Having limbs showing is said to have cost more.

Sleep tight
Meaning: used to tell someone to sleep well. Origin: One possible origin of this phrase dates back to when mattresses were supported by ropes; sleeping tight meant sleeping with the ropes pulled tight, which would provide a wellsprung bed.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water
Meaning: look for avoidable errors so you don’t remove something good with the bad. Origin: This idiom allegedly comes from a time when the household bathed in the same water; first, the lord would bathe, then the men, the lady, the women, the children, and the babies last. The bath water is said to have been so dirty that there was a risk of throwing the baby out with the water once everyone was done bathing!

Three sheets to the wind
Meaning: to stagger as when intoxicated. Origin: Early windmills had four fabric sails to power the mill. All was well if all four unfurled evenly, but if only three unfurled, the unbalanced effect would cause the mill to stagger and shake.

Grinding to a halt
Meaning: to come to a stop. Origin: When a miller needed to bring his windmill to a stop in a hurry, he could flood the millstones with grain thus jamming the stones and making the mill grind to a halt.

The whole nine yards
Meaning: everything you can possibly want, have, or do in a particular situation. Origin: General opinion is that it originated during World War 2. The bullets for the machine guns used in American combat planes of WW2 and since were in chains twenty-seven feet in length. Thus if a pilot was able to fire all his bullets off at one target he was said to have given his adversary 'the whole nine yards'.

Minding your Ps and Qs
Meaning: being on your best behavior. Origin: There are many origin stories for this one, but perhaps the one that is most fun is that bartenders would keep track of the pints and quarts consumed by their patrons with the letters “P” and “Q.”

Turn a blind eye
Meaning: to consciously ignore unwanted information. Origin: The phrase “to turn a blind eye” is said to originate with Admiral Horatio Nelson, who allegedly looked through his telescope using his blind eye to avoid signals from his superior telling him to withdraw from battle.