Common Phrase Origins

Common Phrase Origins
Phrases such as “barking up the wrong tree” or “saved by the bell” have become commonplace in everyday language. Have you ever wondered where such idioms originated, or why we say them? Learn the history and origin of some common sayings in the English language.

Often, when we want to tell someone to accept something that is difficult or unpleasant, we tell them to “bite the bullet”. Before anesthesia was invented, when a soldier was wounded during battle, he was given a bullet to clamp between his teeth to endure the pain of surgery. The doctor would instruct the patient to “bite the bullet” to take his mind off the pain.

Telling an actor to “break a leg” before going onstage is actually wishing the actor good luck. Theatrical actors have been known to be superstitious, and it is believed that a wish of good luck actually brings bad luck to the actor. Therefore, it follows that a wish of bad luck, to “break a leg”, will bring good luck to the actor.

There is some disagreement to where the phrase “saved by the bell” originated. When one is rescued from an unwanted situation, we say that we have been “saved by the bell”. One popular belief is that the phrase originated from the sport of boxing, where each round ends with the ringing of a bell, thus saving the loser “by the bell” for that round. The second belief comes from the Victorian era when cholera was prevalent. The disease would cause a patient's breathing and heartbeat to become barely noticeable. Thought to be deceased, people were often buried alive. In order to avoid this fate, bodies were buried in special coffins that had bells attached above ground. A guard would watch the graves, and if a bell rang, the coffin would be dug up and the living person inside would be “saved by the bell”.

“Don't throw the baby out with the bath water” is a phrase used to mean that we shouldn't throw away an entire project or concept because one part isn't working. Common belief is that the phrase originated during pioneer times when families took baths only once a year. In order to save water, families drew only one tub of water. The man of the house took the first bath, followed by other adult males, then the women and children. By the time the babies and infants were able to bathe, the bath water was dirty and murky. When the women emptied the tub, they took care not to “throw the baby out with the bath water”.

When someone makes a false assumption, we say they are “barking up the wrong tree”. This phrase has its origins in hunting. Dogs are used in hunting to track other animals. Once a hunting dog spots another animal and gives chase, the hunted animal will do anything it can to escape the chase. If it is able, it will climb a tree. Since dogs are not skilled tree-climbers, they will stand at the base of the trunk and bark. While a dog will generally track the animal to the right tree, occasionally they get it wrong, and literally “bark up the wrong tree”.

“Jump the shark” is a more recent saying that describes a television show that has run its course and introduces a ridiculous story line in order to boost ratings. The phrase originated in 1977 in a three-part episode of the hit series “Happy Days” when the popular character “Fonzie” (Henry Winkler) was water-skiing in his trademark leather jacket and jumped over a shark. The phrase is now commonly used by TV critics when discussing programs that have passed their prime.

These are just a few of the phrases that have become commonplace in the English language.


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