Where do common expressions in the English language come from?
Long before Internet memes and hashtags, there were spoken expressions that stood the test of time. Even the best copywriters fall victim to their seduction, citing writer’s block, lack of sleep or general laziness as culprits. Sadly, clichés, idioms and other common expressions often signify lack of creativity, which is not something any writer wants to portray.
Some confusion exists about the difference between clichés and idioms. Idioms are always figurative — their actual meaning is different than the literal meaning, while clichés can be either literal or figurative. Clichés are considered to be overused expressions, while idioms are common, but not irritatingly frequent. When they are, they could also be considered clichés. (Yes, I’m dizzy, too). For example, you might hear someone say, “Those pants fit you like a smack in the mouth” on occasion and laugh, but the frequency of lines like ”I’m gonna leave the ball in your court” might irritate you, especially in business or dating, for example (that’s where it annoys me, anyway).
Fun fact: The word ‘cliché’ itself originated with printing. A cliché was a printing plate cast from movable type, also known as a stereotype. Phrases used repeatedly were cast together as a more efficient alternative to using individual letters.
Origins of Popular Idioms (which might also be considered clichés)
Where do these common expressions come from? I mean, I don’t know much about this hand basket but I sure don’t want to be in it if it’s going to hell.
Going to hell in a hand basket
Meaning: Going somewhere bad, fast.
Origin: This expression has been around since its first documented use in 1865 when I. Windslow Ayer alleged that Judge Morris of the Circuit Court of Illinois said “Thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would ‘send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket’.’’ Unfortunately, there is no documentation of its literal meaning.
Let the cat out of the bag
Meaning: Reveal a secret.
Origin: According to reports, this term originated in Medieval times when people purchased live farm animals at local markets and took them home in bags. Some of the less honourable merchants would replace the livestock with less expensive, more readily available cats, which the purchaser would not be privy to until they reached home, thus revealing the secret scam when they let the cat out of the bag.
A piece of cake
Meaning: An easy task.
Origin: One of the earliest documentations of this expression is from a 1936 poem called Primrose Path by American poet Ogden Nash. In it, Ogden states: “Her picture’s in the papers now, and life’s a piece of cake.” Others note that the expression came from the simplicity of eating and digesting a piece of cake.
An axe to grind
Meaning: A dispute that needs resolution.
Origin: This saying has been attributed to both Benjamin Franklin and Charles Miner, who both wrote about axe grinding. Their original uses of the term referred to someone who had been deceitful in order to get his axe grinded, aka he had an ulterior motive. James Joyce later used the term in Ulysses to describe someone with a dispute that needed resolution, although it’s not clear why this change in definition occurred.
A chip on your shoulder
Meaning: Negativity that you can’t shake.
Origin: There are different meanings and origins for this expression, but the one that seems to apply to its most well known meaning is the old custom documented around 1830 in North America. Young boys would place a chip of wood on their shoulders and challenge others to knock it off at their own peril. In other words, the boys with chips on their shoulders were looking for a fistfight.
Short end of the stick
Meaning: The less desirable option.
Origin: One of the first appearances of this expression can be traced back to 1542 in Nicolas Udall’s Apophthegmes, that is to saie, prompte saiyinges, which stated “As often as thei see theim selfes to haue the wurse ende of the staffe in their cause.” ‘Staff’ has since been replaced with ‘stick’ and the adjective at the beginning of the expression has been known to change, but ‘short’ has remained the most prolific.
Careful With the Clichés!
While language has changed significantly since the origin of some of these expressions, they continue to maintain strongholds on our collective rhetoric. When writing or reviewing the content someone else has written for your website, it’s best to avoid overly used expressions.
Not everyone is abreast of their actual meaning (people with English as a second language, for example) and they signify lack of ability to find your own voice.
Until we meet again… (oh no, that’s a cliché isn’t it?)