Anyone who has ever learned English as a second language – and most people who have learned it as their first – is aware that it is rich with unfathomable figures of speech. Some of these have become so ubiquitous that we hardly notice how inexplicable they are. It might be comforting to know that the origins of most of these phrases are so obscure that even etymologists can’t agree on how they came about – which makes it all the more remarkable that 400 million English-speakers worldwide agree on their meaning. Let’s take a tour through some of our more obscure idioms and the most popular theories on how they crept into common usage.
Noses in the air, noses to the ground
A number of our idioms are believed to hark back to the aristocratic pursuit of hunting. For example, one well-known phrase supposedly comes from the sneaky way some wild animals escaped capture by deliberately leaving their scent on one tree and then hiding elsewhere, leaving the hunting pack ‘barking up the wrong tree’. ‘Beating around the bush’ with a stick was also supposedly a common way of getting animals on the run.
A good sport
Other – less controversial – sporting activities have also brought their fair share of expressions into use. The ‘drop of a hat’ is supposed to have been a common way of signalling the quick start of a race, and ‘to start from scratch’ is believed to have originated from the scratch mark made in the ground to signify a starting line.
Cake vs. biscuits
Like many other aspects of language, our idioms can say a lot about our cultural dynamics. The phrase ‘take the cake’ was made popular in the US in the 19th century, and meant winning or being the best – cake having been awarded as a prize for anything from vigilance to finery since the 5th century. By contrast, the British version ‘take the biscuit’, which developed later, denotes that something is utterly terrible. In Britain we take our tea with biscuits, not cake, you see – and with a heavy dose of irony.
Killing the cat?
Curious to know more? Want to know how an ancient Greek voting system may have made bean-spilling a faux pas, and how NASA made an acceptable idiom out of bestiality? Go on, have a Google, you know you want to…