Common Sayings and Where they Came From

The English language is full of phrases and sayings with modern meanings and old origin. Here are some everyday phrases and where they came from.

“An Apple A Day Keeps The Doctor Away”

This phrase likely originated in Whales in the 1900s. There is an old Pembrokeshire proverb that says, “Eat an apple on going to bed, And you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” Apples naturally clean your teeth as you eat them and they help prevent infections and illness that may develop from having an unclean mouth.


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“Beat Around The Bush” (to prevaricate or procrastinate)

This phrase evolved from a literal meaning. Participants of bird hunts would provoke the birds by beating the bushes, allowing others to catch the birds, or “cut to the chase,” a phrase developed much later. Beating around the bush was what led up to the actual event.


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“Whatever Floats Your Boat” (whatever makes you happy, or pleases you)

This term comes from the term “man in the boat,” the boat being a woman’s clitoris. Therefore, if “your boat is floating” you are very happy, hence, whatever floats your boat.


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“Close But No Cigar” (just short of success)

In the mid-20th century in the US, cigars were sometimes given out as prizes for various, small-scale events, so if you were close, but did not succeed, you did not get a cigar.


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“Kick the Bucket” (to die)

This phrase originated in the 1700s. When hanging themselves, people use to stand on a bucket to tie the noose, and then kick the bucket away.


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“Happy as a Clam” (very happy)

This phrase in full form is “as happy as a clam in at high water,” or high tide. During high tide is when clams are free from predators and are safe. Also, when clams are open they give the appearance of smiling.


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“Chop-Chop” (hurry up)

This term was coined in the early 19th century in the South China Sea by the English. The Chinese had a term “k’wâi-k’wâ,i” which means hurry up. The English heard it and simply pronounced it “chop-chop” instead.


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“In the Limelight” (center of attention)

An actual limelight was a bright light created by heating a piece of lime in a flame of burning hydrogen and oxygen. It was developed in the 1820s and then was used widely in the 19th century to illuminate stages in theaters.


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Now you will know what you are really saying when you are saying it! This list could go on and on as we practically speak in metaphor when speaking English. Have an interesting phrase or saying you want to add? Go ahead!

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