We think we know what a person means when they refer to somebody as a “basket case” or announce that they’re “pleased as punch” — but do we really? In fact, these and other commonly used phrases had very different meanings from the ones we associate with them today.
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Describing someone as a “basket case” typically means a person who is overwhelmed, overwrought and/or stressed out, possibly even full-on crazy. The original meaning, however, stems from the First World War, and is even darker. Acording to the phrase’s original meaning, a basket case described a soldier who had his arms and legs amputated and needed to be carried around in a basket.
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Bite the Bullet
To bite the bullet now means to do something you’ve been trying to avoid, and endure the consequences however unpleasant. The original meaning, however, can be traced back to as far as the late 1700s, when injured soldiers were encouraged to bite down on a bullet as a way to tough it out through the pain.
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Blood is Thicker Than Water
Family above all else, notes this famed proverb, instructing that family relationships will always outweigh friendships. The original meaning of the phrase, however, actually presents a message that is the exact opposite. The phrase is taken from a verse in the Old Testament, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” The actual meaning: shedding blood in battle creates a bond between soldiers that’s actually stronger than familiar bonds.
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Sweating Like a Pig
When someone is “sweating like a pig,” it indicates profuse, heavy perspiration. But there’s one little problem with this common phrase: pigs don’t sweat. In fact, the origin of the phrase has nothing to do with pigs, but refers to pig iron, which is produced from iron ore during the smelting process. The metal is deemed cool enough to transport once droplets of condensation begin forming on the metal’s surface — so when the “pig” begins to “sweat” the metal can be safely moved.
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Bust Your Chops
To bust someone’s chops is to give them a hard time by annoying, irritating, nagging or joking, but the origin of the phrase apparently had a more literal meaning, when it was fashionable for men to sport bushy mutton-chop sideburns. To get busted in the chops was to be punched in the face.
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When we use the Latin phrase "carpe diem," we mean it in the literal sense of "seize the day," i.e. make the most of every moment. Carpe diem, however, is actually part of a longer phrase taken from Greek philosopher Homer, who wrote, “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.” Translated, this means “seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.” Horace’s intention wasn’t to “seize the day” for enjoyment of hedonistic purposes, but to work hard in order to secure one’s future, not just wait around for something to happen.
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Curiosity Killed the Cat
“Curiosity killed the cat” is a proverb that usually implies a warning not to go snooping around in areas where you shouldn’t. The first recorded instance of a similar phrase comes from British playwright Ben Johnson, who wrote in his 1598 play Every Man in His Humour, "Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care'll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman." A similar phrase was later used (borrowed?) by William Shakespeare, who wrote, "What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care." In this case, the meaning has remained the same over the years, while the phrasing evolved.
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A dead ringer is something — or, more often, someone — that looks or seems like an exact duplicate of something or someone else. The origins of the phrase come from horse racing culture of the 19th century, with a Manitoba newspaper defining the phrase back in 1882:"a horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a 'ringer.'"
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Dollars to Donuts
"I'd bet dollars to donuts that he’s the murderer,” you may have heard in an old movie. Not the most popular phrase these days, but still used occasionally, it means to know with certainty. The phrase’s original meaning was the same as it is now, but actually had nothing to do with donuts; it was likely an alliterative way to emphasize short odds, contrasting something of value (a dollar) with something that held little value (a donut).
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Drop a Dime
To drop a dime on someone is to rat that person out, usually referring to somebody calling the police to report on someone else’s activities. The phrase apparently originated in the 1950s, when “drop a dime” literally meant to make a phone call by dropping a dime into a pay phone. The phrase became popularized in detective novels of the era, and eventually came to take on the more specific meaning of making a phone call to the cops to inform on somebody.
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These days, nitty gritty means getting down to the basics of any task or situation, cutting out the unnecessary and focusing on the essential. The origins of the phrase, however, are somewhat mysterious, possibly stemming from the slave trade of the 1800s, or possibly a reference to head lice (nicknamed “nits”) or the Southern favourite known as grits, made from ground corn, but there’s no definitive proof either way.
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Great Minds Think Alike
We’ll often say, “Great minds think alike” when we encounter someone who shares similar views or undertakes a project the same way we would. However, this particular phrase originally meant the opposite of the way it’s used today. The original phrase was, “Great minds think alike, fools seldom differ,” suggesting that smart people may reach the same conclusion — but so can stupid folks.
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Money is the Root of All Evil
“Money is the root of all evil” is a phrase that puts the blame on money, while the original phrase states that it’s not necessarily money that’s evil, but the obsession with accumulating wealth. The phrase originated from a New Testament verse, “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” Removing those first few words alters the original intent.
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Pleased as Punch
To be pleased as punch is to feel proud or delighted with oneself, and has nothing to do with either the noun or verb usage of “punch.” In fact, the phrase’s origin comes from the old Punch and Judy puppet shows, with Punch (or Polchinello in the original Italian) typically pleased with himself for all his mischievous actions.
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Raining Cats and Dogs
Heavy rain is often met with the expression, “It’s raining cats and dogs out there!” The origins of this phrase, however, are far more ancient than you might imagine, and aren’t precisely known. One theory traces the phrase back to Norse mythology, when the god Odin (who controlled storms) was often depicted as being flanked by dogs or wolves, who represented the wind. Another theory is that the phrase sprang from the Greek expression “cata doxa,” meaning “contrary to experience or belief,” describing rain that is out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, another theory posits that “cats and dogs” is a bastardization of “catadupe,” and old English word for “waterfall.” Bottom line: nobody really knows where this phrase came from, but we still use it all the time.
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Rule of Thumb
The phrase “rule of thumb” commonly refers to using past experience to simplify something by offering a rough guideline as opposed to a more specific approach. One common belief traces the phrase back to 1700s England, where a man was allowed to beat his wife but only with a stick that was no thicker than the circumference of his thumb. This, however, has been disproven; the phrase may actually be far older, and its original meaning lost to the mists of time – but it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with wife-beating.
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To receive the cold shoulder is to have someone treat you dismissively, with a chilly demeanour. And while you might think the phrase is derived from someone turning his or her back on someone, the origin is actually quite different. In fact, the actual meaning indicates that those who are welcome in a house are presented with a hot meal, while unwelcome visitors are instead given a cold shoulder of mutton.
Written ByBrent Furdyk