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Origin of Words and Phrases

Rujuta Borkar Oct 23, 2018
There are several words and phrases that might seem confusing when you read them, but they have a deeper meaning and context. Let us try and understand the origin of such words and phrases.
It's raining cats and dogs...

Saving for a rainy day...

In the limelight...

All these phrases make perfect sense to you, correct? Even though they seem rather preposterous and make absolutely no sense if you start dissecting them. For example what is the meaning of 'raining cats and dogs'? Is it a literal occurrence of cats and dogs falling from the sky?
Obviously not. These catchy phrases are used to depict a concept. Raining cats and dogs means that it is raining very heavily. But how did this concept come about? It's not just these phrases that mentioned, but several others as well which have become a part of our daily language.
What is the origin of words and phrases and how did they come to be? Here is a list of some of the most popular, widely used phrases in the English language. You'll find that some of the origins that are mentioned following have rather surprising whereabouts.

Breaking the Ice

What it Means
To initiate something; as in a project or speech.

How it Originated
When rivers froze over, they prevented people living on the opposite banks from carrying out any trade.
This meant a loss in business. Until the time specially created small and sturdy ships called icebreakers were introduced into the frozen river with the objective of breaking the ice and thereby allowing the bigger ships to cross over and carry on trade. As the years passed, the term icebreakers came to be synonymous with initiating something new.

Beating Around the Bush

What it Means
To not approach something directly.

How it Originated
In the olden era, hunting used to be carried out in a specific manner. The hunters used to hire men to go into the forest and enter the habitats of the animals, then beat the branches and make a ruckus so that the animals would get scared and run towards the hunters.
This practice was not followed in case of hunting for wild boars because they were considered to be very dangerous. Instead, the workers would circle the bushes around the habitat and not enter the habitat directly. Thus the term 'beating around the bush' came to mean that a point was not reached at directly.

No Spring Chicken

What it Means
People or things that are not in their prime anymore.

How it Originated
Chicken farmers in New England realized that the chicken that were born in spring fetched a better price than those who had lived through the winter. When they tried selling the old stock, the customers often complained that the stock was 'no spring chicken'.


What it Means
A two piece swimsuit for the ladies that shows a lot of skin.

How it Originated
In 1946, an atomic bomb test was conducted at the Marshall Islands and they were more commonly referred to as the 'Bikini Island Bomb Tests'.
A year later, the first two piece swimsuit went on display and the reaction of the male populace to this clothing was on the same lines of the atomic bomb-explosive. Due to the similarity in the reactions, the swimwear was named the Bikini for promoting sales. In a few years the name became synonymous and has stayed on.

Bring Home the Bacon

What it Means
Bringing home money that has been earned through a lot of hard work.

How it Originated
County fairs held contests where contestants would have to catch greased pigs to win a prize. Since the contest centered around pigs, the term came to be known as 'brought home the bacon'.


What it Means
Someone who gets your heart thumping.
How it Originated
In the olden times when doctors knew not much about the human circulatory system, often drew parallels between the heart and the personality of a person. Thus terms like soft hearted, hard hearted etc came to be.
Similarly the term 'swete hert' was used to describe a fast beating heart. Since our heart starts beating faster when we are in love, the term slowly came to be known as 'sweetheart' to describe a person who gets your heart to beat faster.


What it Means
Anything that makes a huge impact. In colloquial terms, it is generally used in terms of films.

How it Originated
During World War II a special bomb was produced that had such impact that it could level a full block of buildings or houses. The term then became synonymous with anything that made an impact at such resounding levels.

To Paint the Town Red

What it Means
Having a good time in a particular place.

How it Originated
In the olden times, the male populace visited the red light districts for fun and excitement. This phrase came to be coined to represent that they were having a good time. Today however, it has no sexual connotation to it.

Wrong Side of the Tracks

What it Means
From the bad side of a town. Usually refers to the lower class of people.
How it Originated
Trains of the olden era were not very advanced, such that they expelled soot as they moved on the tracks. The thick black soot only moved in one direction and affected the habitat of people who did not have the money to live in wealthy homes and protect themselves. Thus they lived on the 'wrong side of the tracks' and had to suffer for it.


What it Means
Anyone who is dealing in some underhanded business or fooling around. It could be a sexual connotation or just otherwise.
How it Originated
Magicians often used a hanky to distract their audience from the main trick. So the term hanky came to be. The panky was added as a rhyme and together the term hanky-panky was coined. It came to be known for something that was done in the sly.


The Aztecs made this drink and called it choco-atl. The Spanish could not produce the 'tl' sound in 'atl' and mispronounced it chocolato which then came to be known chocolate in the English language.


The word has Caribbean origins. The original meaning is that of a raised platform made of wood, used for drying or sleeping. It was known as 'babracot' or 'barbacoa' in Guiana and Haiti. The word was brought to the English language by the Spaniards and it came to be known as barbecue.


The word comes from the Italian word 'bambino' which means a baby. Meaning someone who has low intelligence.


The word comes from the Arabic book 'ilm al-jabr wa'l muqabalah ' which means the science of transportation and cancellation and was written by a prolific mathematician called Mohammad al-Khwarizmi in Baghdad. The phrase 'al-jabr' was used to form the term algebra.


The word comes from the original Farsi (Persian) word Shah-k-mate, literally meaning 'The king is dead'. The French turned the SH into CH and the word checkmate was coined.


This informal word for the toilet has 2 theories backing it's origin. One is gathered from the French language which referred to a toilet as 'Le leiu' or 'the place' as a euphemism and the second is that the iron cisterns that were placed in the British outhouses had the name 'waterloo' on them and that's how the name came to be.


The word is fairly recent and is taken from the film 'La Dolce Vita', in which a character called Paparazzo would go to any length to take celebrity pictures. The word paparazzi comes from the Italian surname Paparazzo.
Reading about the origin of phrases must have taken you on a rather interesting journey of how some of the popular words and phrases came to be. It definitely makes us think about how words and phrases get added into a language and make it grow.