We hear and use many idioms daily without ever stopping to think where they came from or what they actually mean. The fact is that, even with research, the origins of many of these sayings are not completely certain. The good news is that there are some pretty good ideas.
Mind your p’s and q’s
In the English pubs in the 17th century, bartenders would watch the consumption of alcohol by patrons by keeping an eye on the pints and quarts that were consumed. When they needed to settle down an unruly guest, they would tell them to mind their p’s and q’s, or to settle down and focus on their drinks.
Can’t hold a candle to…
Before electricity was ubiquitous, any sort of job that was to be completed indoors or after daylight required two workers. One worker would handle a candle for visibility, while the other would complete the actual work . The idea was that if someone wasn’t even competent enough to hold the candle, they certainly weren’t competent enough to be the one to actually do the job.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Centuries ago, before the facilities were available to maintain anywhere near the level of hygiene we do today, many households took their baths in the same tub water without changing it. This was partly due to the amount of work to get the water, but primarily because of the amount of firewood and effort it would take to build individual baths for each family member. The process would start with the head of the household, and would work down to the youngest member. By the time the baby got in, the water was filthy and the child couldn’t be seen through it. Hence, the warning to not toss the baby out when finally clearing the water.
Close, but no cigar
Step up, step up, knock over these bottles and win a cigar! It used to be common practice for the carnies to hand out cigars as prizes for winning a game. Hence, if you almost won, you were close but got no cigar.
Before the common bedframe was invented, which uses wood to support the mattresses, ropes were used. To prevent the mattress from sagging, one needed to ensure that the ropes were pulled tightly, which ensured good support.
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
As horses age, their gums continuously recede. When people wanted to verify the worth of a horse by checking its age, they would take a look into its mouth. When receiving a horse as a gift, looking into its mouth to check its gums was akin to asking about the price of a gift today.
Break a leg
This is a pretty common one, and I think most know that it is related to theater, but why? Well, it all comes back to the common belief in superstitions in the biz. Wishing someone luck was considered back, so instead, people wished them the opposite.
Go the whole 9 yards
This has been mistakenly attributed to WWII pilots using their entire 9 yard allotted chain of ammo, meaning that they went all out. It appeared in print in the early part of the 20th century however, and the origins aren’t completely known. It has historically been heard as “the whole 6 yards” and “the whole ball of wax”. The thought is that its origins were related to “to the nines”, which means perfection.
To the nines
This answer to this one is particularly elusive. It could have originated from the French word “nuef” which means both new and 9. Another theory is that a tailor would use 9 yards of cloth to construct a new 3 piece suit. Finally, there was an old English saying of “dressed to the eyne”, from which it is believed that at some point someone misheard the eyne as an nine and the phrase went in that direction.
This was has a couple varieties, such as “eat your hat” or the more general “to eat one’s words.” Presumably, eating crow came about because it is likely a foul tasting bird. Crow itself was also looked at negatively, as the bible lists it as an animal unfit for eating.
This one originated in the Bibliotheca by Photios, where he told an ancient anecdote of a crocodiles weeping fake tears in order to lure in their prey only they eat them. From that, people took to saying that crying crocodile tears was to feign something in order to deceive.
Give the cold shoulder
In medieval England after a party or feast, the host would let people know it was time to get moving by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of the meal as a parting gift.
The bee’s knees
Initially used in the late part of the 19th century to mean something small and insignificant, the current meaning is to reference “an outstanding person or thing”. This change occurred in the 1920’s because it was so similar to several other sayings that were used such as the “cat’s whiskers”, “flea’s eyebrows”, and the “canaries tusks”.