Some phrases and sayings have become so engrained in our language that their literal definition has lost all meaning. But a closer look at, well, the origin of these words puts a whole new perspective on them! From some of history’s most famous figures to long-forgotten beliefs, click through to read about the origins of popular sayings.
1. “Motley Crew.”
Meaning: A group of misbehaving ne’er-do-wells.
Background: Motley was once a type of fabric, and, eventually, the type of clothing made from the cloth. The most famous motley wearers in the 16th century were court jesters, and the multi-colored, patchwork fabric eventually became a go-to style for stage performers. Groups of these performers eventually became known as “motley crews.”
2. “Drawing a Blank.”
Meaning: Unable to recall something.
Background: The phrase “drawing a blank” refers to a lottery. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I decided to raise money through a national lottery system. No scratch tickets or plastic balls with numbers on them were involved! Instead, there were two “lot pots” — one with tickets of players’ names, and the other with an equal number of tickets that had prizes written on them. Not all of them had a prize written on it, though, and the phrase “drawing a blank” was born.
3. “Head Over Heels.”
Meaning: Really, really excited.
Background: “Head over heels” was not initially associated only with being in love — it just meant something along the lines of “upside-down” or “topsy-turvy.” The first known tie-in with love actually comes from Davey Crockett’s 1834 autobiography!
4. “Read the Riot Act.”
Meaning: To reprimand and warn misbehaviors.
Background: There actually was a real, actual, written riot act. 18th century English magistrates could read it to any group of more than 12 people that were, well, not behaving so well. If they didn’t disperse within an hour, they would be arrested. Luckily, today reading the “riot act” doesn’t come with the same punishments as it once did!
5. “Take With a Grain of Salt.”
Meaning: View something with a certain level of skepticism.
Background: This phrase can trace its roots all the way back to Ancient Rome. Salt was thought to be an antidote to poison.
6. “In a Pickle.”
Meaning: In a difficult situation.
Background: “How camest thou in this pickle?” Yep, none other than William Shakespeare came up with this delightful little phrase! Shakespeare was alluding to the fact that the vegetables in pickles were disoriented and mixed-up, just like it is to be in trouble.
7. “Rest on One’s Laurels.”
Meaning: To be completely satisfied with what you’ve already achieved and have no desire to improve.
Background: Laurel wreaths, like the one pictured above, were status symbols in Ancient Greece. They also symbolized victory. Game winners were presented with the wreaths, and resting on one’s laurels initially meant something more along the lines of a victory speech, not the negative connotation we have with it today.
8. “Break the Ice.”
Meaning: To break down social formalities.
Background: In the 18th century, new ships were invented that would literally break the ice on rivers — thus allowing trade to continue even in the harshest weather conditions. These “ice-breakers” led to strangers becoming acquainted with one another in the Polar regions.