Where Do They Come From? The Origins of Four Popular English Idioms

This post was written by Aimee Bushong. 
Sometimes when I am in class teaching a grammar point or vocabulary, or just having a class discussion, I find myself using idioms or expressions that are common to me but obviously not to a non-native ESL learner. As I notice the confused looks on my students’ faces I suddenly realize that the expression that I so nonchalantly just forced upon them has to be explained. But the strange phenomenon about English idioms is that most native English speakers have no idea what their actual origin is.

An idiom is an expression consisting of a combination of words that has a figurative meaning. The figurative meaning is in regard to a common use of the expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made. There are an estimated 25,000 idioms in the English language and they range from whole sentence idioms to an exclamation or saying. So, here are few of my favorites and a short history on where they came from, because the fun thing about idioms is that they all started sometime in history and were influenced by the living conditions, culture and lifestyle of the times in which they were created. Some of the origins of these idioms are disputed and only the people who started them actually know the true origins but, nevertheless, whether the origin is true or has been morphed into something different over the decades or centuries, it is still interesting to have some story of their past.

1. Rule of thumb: A means of estimation made according to a rough guideline, not based on science or measurement. “To pick a good cantaloupe, the rule of thumb is to press the top to see if it is soft.”

The origin of this idiom has some controversy. Some research says that it derives from an 18th century English law that allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as it is was no thicker than his thumb. Women in those earlier centuries had little to rights at all and were considered by all intents and purposes, property, so the origin of this idiom wouldn’t be surprising if it were legitimate. However, according to some historians, no law has ever been found in print so there is a question as to whether or not this idiom comes from this origin. A more plausible origin is that it likely refers to one of the numerous ways that thumbs have been used to estimate things like judging the alignment or distance of an object by holding the thumb in one’s eye-line, the temperature of beer, measurement of an inch from the joint to the nail to the tip, or across the thumb, etc. Whatever the origin, it is a general rule of thumb to not believe everything you read.

2. Wing It: To do something impromptu or without preparation. “I didn’t have any time to plan my English lesson for today, so I am just going to wing it,” or, “My English class doesn’t like the lesson plan that I brought it and I didn’t bring in anything else, so I am just going to wing it.” This expression comes from a theatrical origin which refers to impromptu performances given by actors who had hurriedly learned their lines while waiting in the wings of the stage and then received prompts from there. This phrase dates from the late 19th century and the verb ‘to wing’ was defined as the “capacity to play a role without knowing the text, and the word itself came into use from the fact that the actor frequently received the assistance of a special prompter, who stood hidden by a piece of the scenery or in a wing.” We ESL teachers use this phrase a lot because teaching ESL, especially in a foreign, third world country really can lead to a whole lot of surprises i.e. uninterested students, faulty equipment in the classrooms, power outages, etc. We have to wing it a lot in the ESL world. It is just the “nature of the beast.”

3. Nature of the Beast: The basic characteristics of something is the nature of the beast; often used when there is an aspect of something that cannot be changed or that is unpleasant or difficult. (see example above)

 This idiom failed to present any sort of history about its origin that I could find, however, it is pretty self-explanatory. All living creatures have natural instincts and things that cannot be changed about them, therefore it is their nature to be that way. Another way to say this idiom could be “that’s the nature of things,” or “that is just the way it is.” But I think it is more descriptive when using the word ‘beast’ as referring to animals that really have no choice in their natural instincts. They are how they are and there is no changing them, unlike humans, who are actually able to change their habits.

4. To Steal One’s Thunder: To use the ideas or inventions of another person to get ahead. “I had an idea to use music to explain that grammar lesson to the students and that other teacher stole my thunder.”

In England, in the year 1704, there was a playwright named John Dennis. For a new production of his titled Appius and Virginia he needed to reproduce the sound of thunder for certain scenes. At that time there had been several different methods of creating the sound of thunder used in the theater; using two metal balls rolling in a bowl or a large metal sheet that when shaken sounds like the sound of thunder, which is still used today. Dennis created a new method using troughs of wood with stops in them. The method was a great success. His play, however, was not and the production was soon shut down. A few weeks later, Dennis returned to the same theater to see a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and was horrified to discover that his method of making thunder was being used. As the story goes, he jumped up from his seat and yelled in front of the entire theater, “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!”

Obviously, there are thousands more idioms and thousands more explanations of their origins. Many idioms have been taken from the Bible, from Shakespeare and from maritime history and, as the years pass, technology plays a big role in the making of new idioms, as do current events, movies and other modern sources. In fifty more years there will be funny explanations of today’s idioms posted in urban dictionaries and on web sites for your grandkids to research. Whatever the origin, idioms come in all languages and they all have unique origins. As an English learner, it is a good idea to know some of the more popular ones so you aren’t totally confused when you hear that that someone “went postal” or “kicked the bucket” or was suddenly, “saved by the bell.” Translation respectively: “Went crazy,” “died,” or was suddenly “interrupted by a certain noise or entity causing you not to have to finish something unpleasant.” Now go and find out what the origins of these idioms are!