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Old Sayings And The Meanings Behind Them


Many years ago I would sit and listen to my parents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles talk about their youth and the ways they would have good times. Stories of pulling the truck up close to the house so they could hook the house radio up to the battery to listen to gospel or hillbilly music. Or cooking supper on a piece of scrap steel over a fire outside as it was too hot to fire up the wood stove in the kitchen. They would call these the "Good Old Days", sometimes with a reverent tone in their voice. Personally those old days never sounded that good to me. Interspersed in these conversations I would hear lines of wisdom repeated again and again over the years that sounded absolutely earth shattering in their importance, even though I had hardly a clue as to their meaning....


"Born with a silver spoon in your mouth."

Once when a child was christened it was traditional for the godparents to give a silver spoon as a gift (if they could afford it!). However a child born in a rich family did not have to wait. He or she had it all from the start. They were 'born with a silver spoon in their mouth'. (I think this really boiled down to envy of those who had it a little better than my immediate ancestors)


"What is the matter, got a frog in your throat?"

Medieval physicians believed that the secretions of a frog could cure a cough if they were coated on the throat of the patient. The frog was placed in the mouth of the suffer and remained there until the physician decided that the treatment was complete.

http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2009/Oct/09/kit-hawken-pistol-fullstock-15-flint_1.jpg (parts to a Hawken pistol,1.flint'lock', bottom 2.stock, center 3.barrel, top.)

"Lock, stock and barrel"

  1. The three major parts of a gun.

  2. A thing in its entirety, with nothing omitted. As in "They wanted to sell the farm, lock, stock and barrel."

One of my all time favorites, one I'm sure even my old great relatives didn't know the origin of....

"Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey"


In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannon fired round iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon. But how to prevent them from rolling about the deck? The best storage method devised was a square based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting on nine which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of thirty cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem -- how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding/rolling from under the others. The solution was a metal plate called a "Monkey" with sixteen round indentations. But, if this plate was made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make "Brass Monkeys." Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, "Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey!"


You probably remember when your older friends or relatives have come up with some zingers that made you wonder, "What the H@## is that old coot rambling on about now?"

Can you share them with us?


RoeDapple 7 years ago

Another one I found the origin of...

"Kicking the bucket"

(French origin) When slaughtering a pig you tied its back legs to a wooden beam (in French buquet). As the animal died it kicked the buquet.

Kathy Theis-Getto 7 years ago

"Katy Bar the Door"

There are several ideas on the origin of this saying I heard during my childhood. I used to think my dad made this phrase up just for me since he called me Kate or Katy. :-)

I particularly like this version:

"One suggestion is that the phrase originates with the story of Catherine Douglas and her attempt to save the Scottish King James I. He was attacked by discontented subjects in Perth in 1437. The room he was in had a door with a missing locking bar. The story goes that Catherine Douglas tries to save him by barring the door with her arm. Her her arm was broken and the mob murdered the King. The 'lass that barred the door' - Catherine Douglas, was henceforth known as Catherine Barlass. The story, although in it is the full Sir Walter Scott romantic history style, is quite well documented from contemporary records and the descendants of Catherine Douglas still use the Barlass name.

The event was commemorated in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem The King’s Tragedy (1881). The full poem is 173 stanzas, but this selection shows the possible links with Katy bar the door:

Then the Queen cried, "Catherine, keep the door, And I to this will suffice!" At her word I rose all dazed to my feet, And my heart was fire and ice. ... Like iron felt my arm, as through The staple I made it pass:- Alack! it was flesh and bone - no more! 570 'Twas Catherine Douglas sprang to the door, But I fell back Kate Barlass."


RoeDapple 7 years ago

My grandmother, born in 1889 would use this often..

"Its raining cats and dogs."

When houses used to have thatched roofs piled high with no wood underneath, the only place that the animals could get warm was of course, in the nice thick straw of the roof. So all the cats, dogs and other small animals(mice & bugs) lived in the roof. Then when it rained the straw would become slippery and the animals would slip and fall off the roof, giving the appearance to those who had the luxury of windows to look out of, "It's raining cats and dogs!"

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Oh yeah, drove for LRM in '68, back when axle restrictions and tag limits kept us to 7 yards!

an them cuzins can creeate brannew ol sayins at the droop offa hat

notajayhawk 7 years ago

"Weight restrictions would not allow concrete trucks to carry a full load until the advent of the extended axle. Hence, the whole nine yards."

That one has a lot of debate. I've heard everything from a ship under full sail, the length of a wedding veil, the amount of cloth in a tailored suit, and any number of other explanations. About the only thing that's generally agreed on as to its origins is that it started somewhere in the 60's (at which time concrete trucks generally carried closer to 6 yards), and it might have come from the military.

notajayhawk 7 years ago

"What is the matter, got a frog in your throat?"

When I worked at a psychiatric hospital, many of our resident psychiatrists came from other countries. At a treatment team meeting one day, one such resident (whose command of the English language was somewhat limited) related that one of her patients was actively hallucinating, because he'd told her he had a frog in his throat.

beatrice 7 years ago

To be Nobeled, as in, "I was Nobeled for that job."

It describes being overlooked for an honor, promotion, or an award by someone who shows great promise but hasn't yet achieved great things. To reward someone for ability, as with a Nobel Prize.

I just made it up. Wanted to beat you conservatives to the punch.

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Actually bea I was quite in awe of your 12:59 comment, but since I had already stirred the pot in another direction I chose to stay out of it!

"Stir the pot"
Someone who loves to proliferate the tension and drama between 2 or more feuding people/groups in public to get a raise of people in hopes of starting a sh@#storm of drama and uncomfortable conflict, sometimes for personal gain but oftentimes just for the thrill of confrontation.

(Otherwise known as "Trolling" and my growed up babies has told me to cut that out!)

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Thought that was mighty 'nobel' of me.....

myvotecounts 7 years ago

"Don't wear a groove in it" is a saying that may have become recently archaic, since it refers to playing one song on a vinyl record album over and over again.

headdoctor 7 years ago

autie (Anonymous) says… the whole nine yards. Weight restrictions would not allow concrete trucks to carry a full load until the advent of the extended axle. Hence, the whole nine yards. Unless your years of hauling has another answer…this is the one I know. And blessed be, I poured a yard or two back when I was a younger man.


RoeDapple 7 years ago

"A can of worms"

is a complex, troublesome situation arising when a decision or action produces considerable subsequent problems.

RoeDapple 7 years ago

"sell your soul (to the devil)"

to accept immoral behavior in order to succeed

(autie is on a roll...)

headdoctor 7 years ago

Another old saying that the origin isn't clear on is "Not worth a Tinkers Damn". Spelling of Dam optional.

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Did find this though, headdoctor..

Definitions for 'Not worth a tinker's dam'

This means that something is worthless and dates back to when someone would travel around the countryside repairing things such as a kitchen pot with a hole in it. He was called a 'tinker'. His dam was used to stop the flow of soldering material being used to close the hole. Of course his 'trade' is passé, thus his dam is worth nothing.

headdoctor 7 years ago

RoeDapple (Anonymous) says… Did find this though, headdoctor.. Definitions for 'Not worth a tinker's dam' This means that something is worthless and dates back to when someone would travel around the countryside repairing things such as a kitchen pot with a hole in it. He was called a 'tinker'. His dam was used to stop the flow of soldering material being used to close the hole. Of course his 'trade' is passé, thus his dam is worth nothing.

I think that may be the one explanation that most are familiar with. There is also this.

'a tinker's curse' (or cuss), which exemplified the reputation tinkers had for habitual use of profanity. This example from John Mactaggart's The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia, 1824, predates Knight's version in the popular language:

Tom McCune 7 years ago

The brass monkey thing is an urban legend. I've read a whole bunch of history books about sailing ships, and nobody did that. The pyramid of cannonballs is purely for display on the parade ground ashore. On board a rolling ship, the first time anybody fired one of those big 32 pounders and the ship rolled, the balls would go everywhere all over the deck. Very dangerous.

One term that was used on ships was "powder monkey." Powder monkeys were young boys who carried powder and shot from the locker inside the ship up to the guns. For safety, most of the powder was kept deep inside the ship and only the amount needed was run up to the guns as it was needed by the "powder monkeys." No brass and no freezing involved.

notajayhawk 7 years ago

Newell_Post (Anonymous) says…

"The brass monkey thing is an urban legend. I've read a whole bunch of history books about sailing ships, and nobody did that. The pyramid of cannonballs is purely for display on the parade ground ashore."

Very true - I don't see a whole lot of cannonballs stacked on brass plates in these:






So where did the expression really come from? Maybe the most obvious answer really is the right one in this case.

RoeDapple 7 years ago

"Not a Chinaman's chance in Hell"

The historical context of the phrase comes from the old railroad and Goldrush days of pre-California, where many Chinese came to work as laborers for the First Transcontinental Railroad, especially the Central Pacific Railroad. In this employ, they were sought out for the demanding and dangerous jobs involving explosives, often for half the pay of the Irish workers. Yet the Chinese faced higher taxes, denials of citizenship and could not testify in court against violence against them.


Boosh 7 years ago

Grandparents, Ma & Pa have been known to use, when seeing someone squeal their tires, that they are a "regular Barney Oldfield"


He were a crazy son of a gun :)

Boosh 7 years ago

"Close only counts with horseshoes, hand grenades, and carpet bombings"

Boosh 7 years ago

R.I. "crackalackin" makes me think fried chicken. Thanks now I'm hungry.

Boosh 7 years ago

"If you wait till the last minute, it'll only take a minute."

Procrastinators' credo; also credo of subordinate workers who are given a task by their boss with a deadline completely inadequate to allow for a well-researched response or product.


Boosh 7 years ago

"Never pick a fight with a fat guy , cause at the end of the day you'll be tired and he'll still be fat"


Boosh 7 years ago

I like this one.

"A good friend is someone who will bail you out of jail, but your best friend is the one sitting next to you saying "Man, that was fun!""

A close friend will help you out of a dark situation, but your best friend will always be with you even in the darkest of days.


Boosh 7 years ago

"Don't ever let school get in the way of your education." [Mark Twain]


tangential_reasoners_anonymous 7 years ago

Sure, you can quote Wiki, but that dog don't hunt.

Here's the source...


Boosh 7 years ago

"There's more than one way to skin a cat."


The mental image here...shudder...

Boosh 7 years ago

Thanks for the link tangential_reasoners_anonymous

Boosh 7 years ago

I know, I know spelling @ 11:40 a.m.^

Boosh 7 years ago

"Don't take any wooden nickels"


Boosh 7 years ago

"Don't count your chickens before they hatch. "

Mom again

Boosh 7 years ago

^ Credit to Multidisciplinary

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Wow, amazing how many explanations of old sayings are debunked when looked into deeper. Maybe the old folks knew more than we give them credit for, or we know less than we thought!


Boosh 7 years ago

"Drive it like you stole it" can't find the origin but I think it means this... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTvaeW...

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Now there's a form of racin' me an all the cuzins could get into Boosh! what say autie, multi? Time to pull the Escorts outa hiding... I mean 'storage' an go racing!!!

RoeDapple 7 years ago

"Mind your P's and Q's."

The two best explanations for this saying are,

  1. It originated in British pubs as an abbreviation for "mind your pints and quarts." Supposedly this warned the barkeep to serve full measure, mark the customer's tab accurately, etc.
  2. The simplest explanation is that the expression refers to the difficulty kids have distinguishing lower-case p and q, mirror images of each other. Mind your 'p's and q's was thus a teacher's admonition to students.

Boosh 7 years ago

"Six-year-olds and nuclear weapons: a combination that just can't be beat."


Katara 7 years ago

A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat!

Ronda Miller 7 years ago

Tange doesn't know if he is "coming or going"...I think he met himself going when he was actually coming...what a collision!

Ye Gads.....

Ronda Miller 7 years ago

Roe, "kicking the bucket" was also a saying for those people who committed suicide by hanging. Of course they were also standing on a bucket for this......

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 7 years ago

justbegintowrite (Ronda Miller) says… "Tange doesn't know if he is “coming or going”…I think he met himself going when he was actually coming…what a collision! Ye Gads…."

There's only one person I meet when I'm coming ( her-, BTW, not him- ) , and... EGADS!

riverdrifter 7 years ago

"Balls Out" is a railroad term. When the red balls are out, you can Hi Ball -another railroad term, which means -go! Also, "throw a leg out" which means hurry up. You can guess at this one: "Turpentine that pup."

RoeDapple 7 years ago

"Knock on wood"

In Celtic time’s people believed that benevolent spirits lived in trees. When in trouble people knocked on the tree and asked the spirits for help.

Tom McCune 7 years ago

"Balls out" or "balls to the wall" meaning to run at high speed:


(See the discussion / talk page.)

blindrabbit 7 years ago

"Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater" Refers to do not discarding the good aspects of something even if (overall) it appears to be bad.

blindrabbit 7 years ago

If you like these kind of things, a great source of visual sayings is: by T.E. Breitenbach called "Proverbisms". I have a copy of one of his posters, it graphically renders about 50 of these sayings.

jonas_opines 7 years ago

"If you have three ducks, a fox, and a monkey, all you need is a pint of beer and you have yourself an army!"

Wait. . . maybe that was a dream I had.

Katara 7 years ago

blindrabbit (Anonymous) says… If you like these kind of things, a great source of visual sayings is: by T.E. Breitenbach called “Proverbisms”. I have a copy of one of his posters, it graphically renders about 50 of these sayings. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ I had a teacher that had us draw pictures of old sayings as part of an exercise in learning about them. It was pretty fun.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 7 years ago

Easy come, easy go. Last night, the redhead and I viewed "Angela's Ashes," a great source of Irish sayings and phrases, and...

"I was so happy, I didn’t know whether to sh|t or go blind."

RoeDapple 7 years ago

In this day of digital cameras this one will soon have to be rewritten....

"Everyone has a photographic memory. Some just don't have any film"

Ronda Miller 7 years ago

I say blame everything on tange......and btw, tange and autie both have 'very naughty' thinking going on. I make a simple comment about a favorite old saying of my grandparents and look how 'they' chose to distort it! Shocking!

So here are a couple. "He/she is on the dole"...I know they weren't talking about Bob Dole....... (I hope I spelled the usage of that word properly) Does this refer to welfare assistance? Is that the proper spelling? (Maybe they can change it to.....she is on the McCain....)

And this one, "Last night my stomach was on the bum." (Maybe they can change it to....my stomach was on McCain........

Not one word, autie,...no two words, three tange....multi, stop smirking!

Jonathan, I am having to log in twice with my user name and password these days before I can get on. It has been the case for about a week I believe. Anyone else having this difficulty?

RoeDapple 7 years ago

"on the dole" "Receiving financial assistance from a governmental agency, such as a welfare agency, after all other unemployment benefits run out"

I have seen others complain about the logging in problem recently but haven't experienced it myself (so far). Keeping fingers crossed!

"Keep your fingers crossed"
From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman: "Hope for success. The saying derives from the superstition that bad luck may be averted by making the sign of the cross. Originated in the 1920s."

RoeDapple 7 years ago


(From Urban Dictionary) "In ancient England a person could not have sex unless you had consent of the King (unless you were in the Royal Family). When anyone wanted to have a baby, they got consent of the King, the King gave them a placard that they hung on their door while they were having sex. The placard had F...*. (Fornication Under Consent of the King) on it."

I can just see myself now... (dialing 15th century phone..) ring " Yeah, uh, King uh, George, right? Well me and the Mrs, uh .........

Ronda Miller 7 years ago

Thanks for the info, Roe...

And yes, it is when I sign in to comment at the bottom of the page.

And I haven't a clue how to sign in at the top. My home page? Yeah, I know, I am hopeless and helpless.

I have to add a quick story about, "kicking the bucket". My grandfather brought home a Shetland pony for my sister and myself many years ago while we were living at the farm in NW Kansas. We had little "Blackie" - short for Black Beauty - for several years and he was a real favorite of mine. One morning before my sister and I left for school, my Grandfather came into the house and mentioned to my Grandmother that Blackie had, "kicked the bucket". I had a great time once I arrived at school running up to all the older children (one room country school house) and informing everyone that my horse had kicked the bucket. Well, that is until one of the older boys asked why I was so happy that my horse had died.......

beatrice 7 years ago

knock on wood

RoeD, I'd always heard that it came from the fear of mischevous spirits who lived in the forest. If they heard you making plans, the spirits or fairies would go about spoiling your ideas. Thus you knocked on wood to drown out what you were saying and the fairies couldn't then hear your plans above the knocking.

smitty, if the king had to sign something allowing people to procreate, he would have been doing nothing but signing his name all day long. Likewise, acronyms are largely a 20th century phenomena and not something used in the 15th century. That particular word is likely from a similarity to several words in various languages, including the Swedish word meaning "to strike." The German and Norwegian words suggest "copulate" but might be too close in spelling/pronunciation to hold up against the board's censors.

hydra: "Don't get yout tit in the wringer!!"

Isn't that just common sense?

It is from the old-fashioned washing machines that had the "wringer" on the top to squeeze the water out the clothing. Get caught in one of those, and you are going to feel it! It also is a nice reminder to pay attention to what you are doing, to not loose focus on the task at hand. And it seems more immediate than "a stitch in time saves nine," a phrase that I have no clue to its meaning.

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Many years ago I knew twin ladies who had quite different appearance although their voices sounded identical. One was very large busted while the other had a very prominent nose. They joked that you could tell which was which by what came through the door first..


camper 7 years ago

Roe, good blog. Here are a couple that come to mind:

"Three sheets to the wind".....I think this is a maritime saying.

"Skeleton in the closet". Appropriate as Halloween approaches.

RoeDapple 7 years ago

yup the "bale fore cuzins fund" be runnin abit lo gone hafta hav a baek sale down at fore cornors toget nuff rased up to gets em al out oughta be abel to hav everbodie bak home fore tanksgivin or leaswayes chrissmass but whoo noes why thiss al starts up bout this tiem yere mus be ful mooon or sumpin

RoeDapple 7 years ago

"easy come, easy go"

Cliché said to explain the loss of something that required only a small amount of effort to acquire in the first place.

beatrice 7 years ago

multi, I get the concept, I just don't understand the use of "nine". Nine what? Why not ten or twelve? Unless it goes with the idea of being "dressed to the nines," as in being well dressed. So maybe a stitch in time keeps one well dressed? Okay, nevermind, I think I figured it out myself.

Does anyone know where the saying of "crying uncle," or making someone "cry uncle" as a declaration of surrender, came from? I'm guessing it is French in origin because of the French "oncle" for "maternal uncle," just not sure in what way that connects to surrender -- other than just being French, of course. Any ideas?

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Found this bea, might be as close as we can get it...


(From the site) The speculations are ingenious: one from American Speech in 1980 was that “Uncle in this expression is surely a folk etymology, and the Irish original of the word is anacol ... ‘act of protecting; deliverance; mercy, quarter, safety’, a verbal noun from the Old Irish verb aingid, ‘protects’ ”. If that sounds unlikely, try a theory that William and Mary Morris turned up, that it goes back to a Latin expression used by Roman youngsters who got into trouble: patrue mi patruissime “uncle, my best of uncles”. It may be rather more probable that it’s a requirement that the person should cry for his uncle in order to be let free. But why uncle?

Boosh 7 years ago

Multi, heeheehee, it is safe it's the witch scene from Monty Python and The Holy Grail :)

Boosh 7 years ago

"Always love blowing pipes come winter" now that can be razzed.

Tom McCune 7 years ago

In regard to "three sheets to the wind", most people know it means to be drunk. Many people know it has something to do with sailing vessels, but they believe it means the sailors are so drunk the sails are flapping in the breeze. That is sort if true, but on sailing vessels the "sheets" are not the sails. Sheets are the lines that control the set of the sails.

"Three sheets to the wind" probably means the sailors are too drunk to tighten up the lines that control the sails.

RoeDapple 7 years ago

"To blow your pipes"

"Carney Talk" for losing your voice because of the excessive talking required to appeal to the public for hours and days on end. To deliver such an appeal is to grind.

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Wow multi, sorry I missed that one! Even ole bndair shoulda got in on that frozen pipe OTS. Why he coulda gone an......

......oh, uh,... nevermind......


RoeDapple 7 years ago

Oh yeah! Mrs Roe's dirty little family secret... If we are gonna be away from home monday evening Roe gets instructed to record Monday Night Raw... tuesday, ECW... friday, Friday Night Smackdown...

Oh, the shame, the embarrassment...

an for a little "under the table" cash money I'll give you a list of my democrat, liberal, left leaning friends and associates that do the same thing!


(Now don't be unduly influenced when bea comes on here an says,"Roe ain't got no friends!")

RoeDapple 7 years ago

besides, if'in you give that pet raccoon his own beer he won't be gettin all upset an everything.....

Ronda Miller 7 years ago

Is blowin your pipes similar to tooting our own horn? ;)

Don't break your arm patting yourself on the back over that one.....

RoeDapple 7 years ago

I'm not sure jes why the mrs watches so much wwe she cusses 'em an gets al irate like she thinks it is real or sumpin but i dint say it aint real dont be spreddin aroun i sed that see i useta watch it jes to gits the fammly stirred up boutit anymor i can taek it or leavit most times i are postin an bloggin whin she be watchin them neer nekkid yung dudes.....




....maybe i bettr strat payn mor ttentdhun what she be wachun!

Boosh 7 years ago

Roe, doanit geter inda mood?

Boosh 7 years ago

Multidisciplinary (Anonymous) says… "cuz unless boosh wants to tell me who he was back then…he might not have been here"

Nope, I were'nt here I were over on the dark side.

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Well......... Marion I believe the original meaning for "shooting your wad" comes from the Civil War, when soldiers would be reloading their muzzle loaded rifles so quickly they would "forget" to place the lead ball over the wadding, tamp the wadding down onto the powder charge then "Shoot The Wad!" with little effect other than a lot of smoke and a surprised look on the shooters face!


Leslie Swearingen 7 years ago

Since I am fasinated by sailing ships, and the Aubrey/Maturin books, I liked the one about the brass monkey. We get a lot of sayings from the navy, like three sheets to the wind. The sheets were the ropes that tied down the sails and when they came untiled the sails would cease to function, there were three ropes to a sail, so you were in bad shape if you lost all three.

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Good to see you, Irish. They say the story about the brass monkey has pretty much been debunked. I did find a picture (see above) showing the black iron cannon balls stacked on a brass plate!

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Have you gotten a new computer yet?

SusieCreamcheeze 7 years ago

My Grandmother would always say "Lord help us and save us Mrs O'Davis"...I have no idea where it came from

RoeDapple 7 years ago

Susie! good to see you! I believe it came from this old poem... unknown where it came from...

"Fire, Fire!" said Mrs O'Dwyer. "Where, where?" said Mrs O'Hare. "Down in the town." said Mrs Brown. "Lord bless us and save us" said Mrs O' Davis.

Anybody got a better reference?

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