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Etymology of Phrases

The origins and histories of idioms, sadinys, phrases, and other expressions are often even more fascinating than the etymologies of the individual words themselves. Here is a selection of well-known expressions and how they came into being.


To break the ice

(1) to relax a tense or formal atmosphere or social situation; (2) to make a start on some endeavor.

This came into general use, in sense (1), in English through Lord Byron's "Don Juan" (1823) in the lines:

And your cold people [the British] are beyond all price,
When once you've broken their confounded ice.

The ice in question is metaphorically that on a river or lake in early spring. To break the ice would be to allow boats to pass, marking the beginning of the season's activity after the winter freeze. In this way, this expression has been connected to the start of enterprise for abour 400 years.

To make hay while the sun shines

to take advantage of favorable circumstances; they may not last.

This old expression refers to the production of hay, or dried grass. The warmth of the sun is required to dry the grass and turn it into hay. As the sun is notoriously unpredictable (it may be cloudy later) the message of this aphorism is clear. The expression dates back many centuries, and has changed little in form. John Heywood included the following in his "All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue" (1546):

Whan the sunne shinth make hay.

To throw the book at someone

to punish someone severely.

This figurative book is presumably a book of rules or laws. Originally, and still in its normal usage, this expression meant to impose the maximum penalty. For criminals this is likely to mean life imprisonment. Nowadays, the expression may be used more generally, often where the punishment or reprimand is far less extreme.

It's raining cats and dogs

It is raining torrentially.

The first known record of this phrase is in Dean Jonathan Swift's "Polite Conversation" (1873). But it is questionably whether he originated this peculiar hyperbole. More than two centuries previously, Richard Brome write a play entitled "The City Witt" (c.1652) in which one of the characters, Sarpego, says:

From henceforth...
The world shall flow with dunces...
And it shall rain...
Dogs and Polecats
, and so forth.

As mad as a hatter

utterly insane

There is a number of theories about the root of this similie. Perhaps the most intriguing, and also plausible, was offered in "The Journal of the American Medical Association" (vol. 155, no. 3). Mercury used to be used in the manufacture of felt hats, so hatters, or hat makers, would come into contact with this poisonous metal a lot. Unfortunately, the effect of such exposure may lead to mercury poisoning, one of the symptoms of which is insanity.

Famously, Lewis Carroll wrote about the Mad Hatter in "Alice in Wonderland" (1865), but there is at least one earlier reference to the expression: in "The Clockmaker" (1817) by Thomas Haliburton.

These days speakers of American English, who use "mad" to mean "angry" as well as "crazy", may be heard to misuse the expression in the former sense.

Without rhyme or reason

lacking in sense or justification

Rhyme and reason are synonymous, so this expression means "without reason". English usage dates back to the sixteenth century, when the phrase was borrowed from the French na Ryme ne Raison. It lives on in modern day French, too, as ni rime ni raison.

Crocodile tears

hypocritical grief

It is proverbial that crocodiles cry like a person in distress to lure men close enough to snatch and devour them, then shed tears over the fate of their victim. References to this proverbial belief are found in ancient Greek and Latin literature.

In a book entitled "Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville" (c.1400) it was written that:

Cokadrilles... Theise serpentes slen men, and thei eten hem wepynge.

The fable is found in the works of many early English writers, including those of Shakespeare.

To make no bones about a matter

to speak frankly and directly

A form of this expression was used as early as 1459, to mean to have no difficulty. It seems evident that the allusion is to the actual occurrence of bones in stews or soup. Soup without bones would offer no difficulty, and accordingly one would have no hesitation in swallowing soup with no bones.

To throw in the towel / sponge

to surrender; admit defeat

In its original form, to throw up the sponge, this appears in "The Slang Dictionary" (1860). The reference is to the sponges used to cleanse combatants' faces at prize fights. One contestant's manager throwing in the sponge would signal that as that side had had enough the sponge was no longer required. In recent years, towels have been substituted for sponges at fights, and consequently in the expression too.


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