Tourism Ireland

TRAZEE In-Depth: The Origins of Common English Phrases

by Angelique Platas

Jun 30, 2017

Library of Birmingham, England © Jacek Wojnarowski | Dreamstime

Trends / History

Every language has its own common phrases and idioms for nearly every topic and occasion. Theses sayings often display an underlying wisdom rooted somewhere in the culture’s history. These everyday sayings are so conversational and ingrained in our language, we may not realize what they actually mean or where they come from. Interestingly, the origin stories behind some common English phrases have an even deeper history than we may realize.


To Let One’s Hair Down

“Letting your hair down” is one of the more literal phrases still used today. We typically use this phrase when encouraging someone to relax, let loose and have fun, almost exactly how the phrase originated.

Dating back to medieval times, aristocratic women wore their hair pinned up in elaborate hairstyles to appear elegant and regal. The only time a woman would let her hair down was once she was home and could relax and unwind. In order to let one’s hair down it would have to be a relaxing and comfortable occasion as

ladies of the aristocracy would pin their hair up, even at home when entertaining.


Whole Nine Yards

When you want to express the need to go all out for something and try your best we typically say, go the whole nine yards. This phrase dates back to World War II when English fighter pilots would exhaust an entire round of ammunition, the length of nine yards, in an attempt to defeat and stave off the enemy.


Getting Your Foot in the Door

To get one’s foot in the door is another literal term, simply meaning to get your start, particularly in a business or career. American poet George Boker acoined the phrase around the mid 1800s as a romantic setting, but it caught on as a networking technique. Other popular ways to get one’s foot in the door were more aggressive, such as a door-to-door salesperson or politician literally placing their foot in the door jam before it closes them out.
Getting Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed

Dating back to ancient Roman times, getting out of the wrong side of the bed usually meant you were in for a bad day. Now we often say someone got up on the wrong side of the bed suggesting they are in a bad mood. The term actually came from the superstitious belief that it was bad luck to get out of bed on the left side. If this happened, the rest of the day would be cursed until the next morning.


Under the Thumb, Wrapped Around Your Finger

Both phrases seem self-explanatory. In order for someone to be under one’s thumb or wrapped around their finger, they would have lost control and be subservient to another person, but the phrase actually originated with a man versus wild meaning.

The actual origin of these common phrases comes from the medieval past time, falconry. Handlers would wrap a leather strap to the falcon’s talons and wrap the strap around their little finger and hold the bird’s talons under their own thumb.


Rubbing Someone the Wrong Way

To annoy or inexplicably bother someone is referred to as “rubbing them the wrong way,” which dates back to the early American settlers. During the colonial times wealthy Americans would expect servants to polish wooden floorboards the “right way,” as the wrong way would likely ruin the wood. This phrase has also been attributed to the fact that cats don’t like being pet the wrong way.


In the Nick of Time

To be in the nick of time means to be preciously on time and not a moment too soon. Originating in the 16th century, the term loosely meant pudding time, when you serve the savory dish that comes just before dinner. Over the years, the phrase became more exact. Adapted by the Tudors, the nick of time became a phrase expressing urgency, depicting a finite moment in time, or a precise notch in time.


Saved By the Bell

Today we use the term saved by the bell to describe someone who gets out of something just in the nick of time, but the phrase actually originated out of life or death situations. The ancient expression comes from the 1700s when the deceased would be buried with a rope attached to a bell above ground that they could ring and be saved if accidentally buried alive. Being mistaken for dead seemed to be so common, there was a coffin built specifically with a handy bell attached called the safety coffin.

Alternatively, the term saved by the bell became popularized in boxing, as the fighter would be saved from defeat if he held on until the bell.



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