20 Common American expressions and where they actually came from

We use these sentences in conversation all the time, but when you think about them, they don’t make all that much sense. These 20 expressions are used in typical conversations, but their backgrounds are anything but.

Flickr: alexbrn

Flickr: alexbrn

Expression“Close, but no cigar!”

What it means: That you were this close to winning but didn’t.

Where it comes from: Back in the early 19th century, Carnivals in the US gave cigars as prizes for games (you know, instead of the cheap plush toys you see today), so if you lost, you were close, but no cigar!

Expression“Back to the drawing board.”

What it means: You’re original plan didn’t work, so now it’s time to come up with a new one.

Where it comes from: This one is pretty literal, but it’s been used since WWII when many design concepts for the war failed and a new one was quickly needed.

Flickr: schmeegan

Flickr: schmeegan

Expression“Barking up the wrong tree.”

What it means: Making the wrong assumption or mistake in something that you are trying to achieve.

Where it comes fromThis phrase is an allusion to hunting dogs barking at the bottom of trees where they mistakenly think their quarry is hiding.

Flickr: iamtreesha

Flickr: iamtreesha

Expression“The bee’s knees.”

What it means: That something that you are referring to is absolutely awesome.

Where it comes fromBees carry pollen back to the hive in sacs on their legs. The concentrated goodness that is honey is literally found in the bee’s knees.

Flickr: garry61

Flickr: garry61

Expression“Between a rock and a hard place.”

What it means: That there’s no right answer. No matter what decision you make will upset someone.

Where it comes fromThis phrase has many backgrounds, including the rephrase of, “between the devil and the deep blue sea” (no, I haven’t heard of that either.) It’s largely thought that it refers to the US Banker’s Panic of 1907, which was especially damaging to the mining and railroad industries in western states. Get it? Actual rocks!

Flickr: ciotka

Flickr: ciotka

Expression“Break a leg!”

What it means: Wishing a person good luck, typically before a performance or game.

Where it comes fromTheatrical types are well known for being superstitious, so by wishing back luck, the opposite is supposed to incur. Wishing good luck could potentially cause them bad luck. Huh?

Expression“Fly off the handle.”

What it means: That you or someone else lost all self-control.

Where it comes fromIt’s an old American phrase that refers to the uncontrolled way that a loose axe-head can fly off the handle.

Flickr: didi

Flickr: didi

Expression“In spades.”

What it means: Receiving a great turnout over and over again.

Where it comes from: Spades are the highest ranking suits in the game of Contract Bridge, a popular pastime in the United States in the early 20th century.

Expression“Play by ear.”

What it means: Doing something without making plans ahead of time.

Where it comes from: This one is pretty obvious, but it refers to skilled musicians that do not need sheet music to perform, as they can play the song by ear alone.

Flickr: curiouskiwi

Flickr: curiouskiwi

Expression“Pull the wool over your eyes.”

What it means: To intentionally deceive a person.

Where it comes from: It stems from the 16th and 17th century, where men and women wore woolen wigs. Pull their wigs over their eyes and they can’t possibly see your true intentions.

Flickr: warmnfuzzy

Flickr: warmnfuzzy

Expression“Go postal.”

What it means: To fly into a violent rage, usually in workplace situations.

Where it comes from: This one’s a little depressing. It originated in the 1990s following several incidents where US postal service workers completely lost it and shot their coworkers. So much for “handle with care.”

Flickr: brentnewhall

Flickr: brentnewhall

Expression“No dice!”

What it means: Whatever you plan on doing / did is not working or not happening. It is also a common refusal to accept a proposition.

Where it comes from: This stems from the early 20th century, when gambling with dice was illegal. People that owned illegal parlors went through a lot of trouble to hide the dice from the police and many court cases were thrown out if they didn’t have dice in evidence to prove it.

Flickr: makenye

Flickr: makenye

Expression“Run of the mill.”

What it means: It means that whatever you’re referring to is completely ordinary, there’s nothing special about it.

Where it comes from: The saying denotes the ordinariness of some commodity, place, or person. In a mill (similar to a factory), items are supposed to come as identical as possible.

Expression“Sold down the river.”

What it means: Someone made you the fall guy or blew your cover. It is similar to the more literal phrase, “throw you under the bus.”

Where it comes from: This origin is also pretty messed up. The phrase originated in the back in the slave trading days in Mississippi. Slaves that caused trouble were sold from the northern slave states into the much harsher conditions on the plantations in lower Mississippi. I think I’ll stick with the “throw you under the bus” phrase from now on.

Flickr: sumofmarc

Flickr: sumofmarc

Expression“The whole nine yards.”

What it means: Whatever the event, activity, or performance, it went above and beyond, even to the point of outlandish.

Where it comes from: There are a lot of possible origins for this one, but a popular theory is that in 1961, American athlete Ralph Boston broke the world long jump record with an (unbelievable) jump of 27ft and 1/2 inch. No one had ever jumped 27ft. The headline in the paper following the event was, “Boston goes the whole nine yards.”

Flickr: barkbud

Flickr: barkbud

Expression“Top notch.”

What it means: It’s the position of being the absolute best, avoiding the indignity of another common phrase of being “taken down a peg.”

Where it comes from: Top-notch referred in 18th century English logging to the worker what stayed nearest the top of a log as it entered the saw mill. The importance was that the bottom workers (sucks to suck) frequently went blind from sawdust particles ruining their corneas.

Flickr: abardwell

Flickr: abardwell

Expression“Tuckered out.”

What it means: That you’re super tired.

Where it comes from: “Tucker” is a colloquial New England word from the early 19th century that literally means to “become weary.” Well, that was easy.

Flickr: darynbarry

Flickr: darynbarry

Expression“Spin Doctor.”

What it means: It’s a spokesperson (usually on behalf of a political party or interest) that gives a very favorable interpretation of events in the media. It’s also the name of a pretty fun 2000s band.

Where it comes from: It originated in America in the 1980s, when soundbites became so pressing that they required a new class of highly trained publicists to provide them. Spin doctors typically very senior advisors to political candidates.

Flickr: pixeltree

Flickr: pixeltree

Expression: “Spill the beans.”

What it means: Telling the truth, usually when there are multiple parties involved and they are remaining tight lipped.

Where it comes from: It’s said to have started from the voting system in ancient Greece. White beans were positive votes, and blacks were negative. Voting during that time had to be unanimous, so the collector spilled the beans at the end of the voting process to make sure that they could see all of the beans.

Flickr: t_zero

Flickr: t_zero

Expression: “Smoke and mirrors.”

What it means: Being distracted from the truth with trickery or deception.

Where it comes from: This one, as you may have guessed, gets its roots in magic shows. Stage conjurers would literally use smoke and mirrors to deceive the audience during performances. I am pretty sure that Criss Angel does this currently.

What do you think?