10    Jun 20100 comments

Say What? The Origins of English Phrases

Spoken English is littered with proverbs, sayings, and phrases. When someone flies off the handle because it’s raining cats and dogs, then gets the cold shoulder from his trouble and strife - even though she said she’d make no bones about it…we like to think we understand what’s going on.

And we do, for the most part. Our sayings are so familiar to us that we don’t stop to question them. But while many sayings make sense, there are others whose origins are a little harder to figure out. We’ve taken a look at a few of these, and tried to find some explanations for why they are what they are.

“Straight from the horse’s mouth”

This phrase has its origins in the early 20th century, and comes from the horse racing world. Punters have always circulated tips and rumors for which horses are likely to win, and the most trusted authorities for these were those in close contact with the horses – trainers, stable lads, and so on.

The phrase “from the horse’s mouth” is supposed to indicate a tip from a source even better than those directly in touch with the horses. It’s a tip not just from the horse trainer, but from the horse itself.

“Burning the candle at both ends”

This phrase appears to have originated from a literal reference to candles. There are at least two suggestions for how it came about.

The first is that it used to imply getting up early to work in the morning (burning a candle), and going to bed late at night (and burning a candle again). The implication here is that the person is burning a candle at both ends of the day.

The second explanation refers to literally burning both ends of a candle. The suggestion here is that someone could lay a candle on its side in the dark, lighting both ends to keep on working. This gave a lot more light in the darkness for one to work in, but meant that the candle burnt out far quicker than it otherwise would. The term, so the theory goes, was then applied to individuals working in this way. If they worked too hard, they risked being ‘burnt out’ themselves.

“A different kettle of fish”

You might think this phrase refers to boiling a kettle of tea, but in fact it doesn't. Tea-kettles were only named as such in the 18th century, and before this the word ‘kettle’ was used to denote any vessel for boiling water.

The phrase ‘fine kettle of fish’ appears to date from the mid-18th Century, where it was used to imply something of a mess. This may be because the boiling of the fish could leave a mess itself, or it may be pure invention (as other phrases, such as ‘a pretty pickle’, appear to be).

A ‘different kettle of fish’ came along much later, in the early 20th Century. By this time ‘kettle of fish’ had come to simply mean ‘state of affairs’. Tacking ‘different’ onto the front of the phrase seemed to be a natural progression from this.

"Heard it through the grapevine"

This phrase is, of course, best known from the Motown classic by Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1967, and by Marvin Gaye in 1968. Its origin, however, goes back much farther.

It seems to have related to the invention of the telegraph in the mid-19th Century. Soon after the invention’s first public use in 1844, the term ‘grapevine telegraph’ was coined, to distinguish new ‘down-the-wire’ telegraphs from earlier, cruder methods.

This quick transfer of information was then compared to interactions in close-knit, rural communities (where grapevines were naturally located). It appears to have been used to apply to Native Americans, who, according to an article in an 1870s newspaper, “have some mysterious means of conveying the news, like the famous grapevine telegraph.” Since then the phrase stuck, and is still widely used today - even though the telegraph itself is not.

"Grasp the nettle"

This is an ancient phrase, used in many parts of the world where the Stinging Nettle is common. The advice stems from the plant’s ability to inject toxins into the skin of someone who brushes against it. If the nettle is grasped firmly, and in the direction the stingers are growing, the prickles may be pushed flat and prevented from piercing the skin. Hence, people are encouraged to grasp the nettle directly, to save the greater pain that will come if they try to let it merely brush past them.


So those are a few examples of from phrases that are out there, but there are of course far more than we can list. If you’ve got any examples of your own, we’d be glad to hear them in the comment box below.

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