The Origin of Phrases

Do You Know the Origin of These Commonly Used Phrases?

Here are some well-known English language expressions and how they originated.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Mar 19, 2018
The English language is full of catchy, funny phrases. We often tend to use many of them, without really knowing what they mean, or where they originated from. So, if someone's, "Oh please! Enough with the crocodile tears.", has got you wondering about the origin of the commonly used phrases, here's the all the info you need.
Tongue in cheek
Meaning - Pretending to be serious while joking.

Origin - Probably came from the practice of biting one's tongue to suppress either a smile or outright laughter.
Pushing the envelope
Meaning - To approach or exceed known performance boundaries.

Origin - This expression came from the USAF test pilot program of the late 1940s. It meant flying an aircraft at, or beyond its known performance envelope or recommended limits.
Fit to be tied
Meaning - To be furious.

Origin - This refers to the practice of bounding uncontrollable, dangerous people into strait-jackets.
Wing and a prayer
Meaning - Hopeful but unlikely to succeed.

Origin - An expression from the First World War. It came from an American Flyer, who returned safely despite a badly damaged wing. He had been praying throughout, he said.
Pass the buck
Meaning - Pass off responsibility to someone else.

Origin - A marker known as a buck, is used in card games to mark the player who is the current dealer. When the buck is passed to the next player, the responsibility for dealing is passed.
The buck stops here
Meaning - To take responsibility for something.

Origin - This expression is the opposite of the previous phrase, "Pass the buck".
Stink to high heaven
Meaning - To have a very strong odor.

Origin - This expression probably originated from the well-known Shakespearean play 'Hamlet'. It come from a dialog uttered by Hamlet's Uncle, the King of Denmark - "O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon it. A brother's murder."
Ducks in a row
Meaning - To have things in order.

Origin - This expression arises from the tidy habit that baby ducklings have, of swimming in a straight row behind their mother.
Hell's half acre
Meaning - A long and frustrating trip.

Origin - This expression originates from the place in Idaho that is known as Hell's half acre. It has a lava flow and has an irregular, surreal-looking terrain that is no picnic to navigate.
Face the music
Meaning - To accept the truth.

Origin - Originates from the British Military practice of playing the drums, when someone was court-martialed.
Egg on your face
Meaning - To be embarrassed.

Origin - Yellow egg shows up vividly on your face, if you don't wipe your mouth after eating, and, unless you're really thick-skinned. That's embarrassing.
Sell yourself short
Meaning - Having a woeful amount of confidence in oneself.

Origin - This expression comes from short selling of stocks in the belief that their value is going down.
Crocodile tears
Meaning - Phony tears, usually shed to manipulate or exploit.

Origin - Sunning crocodiles often keep their mouths wide open and this pressurizes the tear glands to shed tears. It is thought that these fake tears, which are not produced from any emotional response, help in digesting the meal.
Sitting duck
Meaning - Vulnerable, easy prey.

Origin - A duck resting on the ground is easier to shoot than, the one flying away.
Flash in the pan
Meaning - A thing of great promise that doesn't live up to expectations.

Origin - This expression comes from the Gold Rush days, when prospectors glimpsed a flash of gold in their pan, but it actually came to nothing.
Albatross around your neck
Meaning - Weighed down by a past misdeed or deep shame.

Origin - This expression comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner". The captain in the poem killed an albatross (a symbol of good luck). This was thought to be the reason for the wind dropping, and the ship being rendered motionless.
Roll with the punches
Meaning - To be brave through the hard times.

Origin - This is a boxing term which means deflecting a direct hit.
When the chips are down
Meaning - Bleak times.

Origin - This is a gambling expression. Chips are used for money. If you're winning, you have a lot of them; if you're down on your luck, you don't have many.
Between a rock and a hard place
Meaning - Not left with any good choices.

Origin - This expression arises from the Greek Classics. Odysseus had to pass between the monster Scylla, and the deadly whirlpool Charydbis.
I'll be a monkey's uncle
Meaning - Get off, it can't be true, I can't believe it, how can it be true?

Origin - We must blame Darwin for this one. Or rather the non-believers in his theory.