The Totally Weird Origins Of English Idioms

Published June 16, 2014
Updated February 12, 2018

“Cat Got Your Tongue?”

English Idioms Cat Tongue

Source: Feline Docs

Then there is the dreaded query, “cat got your tongue”? when you’re trying quick to think up a lie about something. This idiom has a couple of different explanations. Some say it dates back to whipping someone with a cat-o’-nine-tails way back when it was still used as a method of flogging in the English Navy. It was said to be so painful that it rendered the victim speechless. But there is no consensus on that. It is thought that the phrase became popular in the 1800s and first appeared in print in 1911. It might also spring from something more gruesome: the supposed ancient traditional Middle-Eastern practice of removing the tongues of liars and feeding them to cats.

“A Slice Of Humble Pie”

To apologize for the cat having your tongue, you are often required to eat humble pie. Not as sweet as cherry or apple varieties, consuming a slice of humble pie usually means that you are swallowing your pride, not a treat. The saying dates back to the Middle Ages. When the lord of a manor was throwing a great feast, the best cuts of meat would be saved for him. Meanwhile, the underlings and people of a lower status received pies made from the entrails and innards of animals taken during a hunt.These were called “umbles” and served to humiliate the guest by reminding of them of their low station.

“Saved By The Bell”

Once children get to a certain age and go to school they discover that strange sayings aren’t just an affliction suffered by their parents. Upon discovering that you had not done that week’s readings just as lecture ends, a teacher might say you were saved by the bell. But he or she wouldn’t mean the bell that rings between classes. It’s used appropriately when someone is saved at the last minute from something unpleasant. Most experts associate the phrase’s origins with the sport of boxing, as one might expect, since a boxer can be saved from a severe beating when a bell sounds. But there is a whole other school of thought that says it dates back to the 17th century. As the story goes, people were so afraid of being buried alive that they would have a string connected to their wrist and fed through their coffin up to a bell that they could ring should they wake up six feet under.

“Stuck Between A Rock And A Hard Place”

English Idioms Rock Hard Place

Source: Tech Target

Once they’re grown enough to experience dilemmas and look at their parents as sources of wisdom instead of pure annoyance, a kid might hear that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. But advising parents probably don’t know that they are quoting ancient Greek—sort of. The phrase dates back to the epic poem The Odyssey, where the hero has to choose whether to sail close to the monster Scylla or the whirlpool Charybdis.

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Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.