Popular English Idioms and Their Curious Origins

one man leaning over and speaking to two women sitting on a bench in olden times Federico Andreotti, "Flirtation," 1847-1930.

According to Merriam-Webster, an idiom is defined as “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements.” Each language and dialect has its own distinct, complex system of idioms, often derived from local or cultural customs, historical events, important figures, or religious traditions.

Some are even derived from advertisements or notable literary examples. Such is the case for the illuminating phrase on hypocrisy known as “the pot calling the kettle black,” which first appeared in Thomas Shelton’s translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Spanish novel, Don Quixote, in 1620.

Many of these figurative phrases have curious origins that were often quite literal at the time they were conceived. Here, we explore the origins of some of the most popular English language idioms, and how they live on today in modern context.

Resting on Laurels

Those who “rest on laurels” are considered seemingly complacent about what could be achieved and are overly consumed with basking in previous accomplishments. The phrase originated in ancient Greece during the Pythian Games in the 6th century B.C. Winning competitors were presented wreaths made of aromatic laurel leaves to symbolize their victories.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne (1622–1655). On view at the Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne (1622–1655). On view at the Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy.

According to Greek mythology, Apollo—God of the sun, light, music, and prophecy—proclaimed the laurel plant to be sacred after his love, Daphne, was turned into one. In many examples of the Greek myth in art history, Apollo is often depicted wearing a laurel crown. The Romans later expanded on the idea, presenting laurel wreaths to successful military commanders. This tradition is still used today to honor marathon race winners.

Butter Someone Up

The most straightforward explanation of the phrase—describing a scenario in which someone overly flatters another in the hope of getting something in return—relates to the act of buttering a slice of bread smoothly, which in turn makes it taste that much more delicious. Likely origins trace back to Hindu temples in India, where worshippers sought divine favor by throwing balls of ghee (clarified butter used in Indian cooking) at statues of their deities. Worshippers believed that this act of “buttering up” the gods would reward them peace and good harvest. During the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–906), it was a common Tibetan tradition to create butter sculptures to commemorate the New Year as a means of fostering peace and happiness.

Apple of My Eye

scene from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Arthur Rackham, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1908. Sold for $2,200 via Swann Auction Galleries (September 2004).

This idiom refers to someone or something which is beloved above all else. It first appeared in the year 885 in Alfred the Great’s Anglo-Saxon version of Pope Gregory I’s Pastoral Care, which was a text designed to teach clergyman how to perform their pastoral duties. Later, it appeared in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1605 in reference to the central aperture of the eye. In the play, the fairy Robin Goodfellow acquires a flower once hit by Cupid’s arrow, dropping juice of the flower into a sleeping man’s eyes while uttering the words, “Flower of this purple dye, hit with Cupid’s archery, sink in apple of his eye.”

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

This proverbial idiom is often used to refer to someone who is guilty of the very same thing in which they accuse another of doing. The roots of the phrase date back to the Medieval period, when both pots and kettles—commonly used kitchen tools from the era—were made from sturdy cast iron and would become black with soot from the open fire. The earliest appearance of the phrase came in the year 1620 from Thomas Shelton’s translation of the Spanish novel, Don Quixote (1605). Growing increasingly frustrated by the criticism of his servant Sancho Panza, Don Quixote exclaims, “You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, ‘Avant, black-browes’.”

pot calling the kettle black

Miguel de Cervantes, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote, 1780. Sold for $9,500 via Swann Auction Galleries (March 2019).

Though this is one of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase, the meaning of the term as we know it today is more closely associated with its use in 1693 when William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania (what was then an American colony), wrote in his Some Fruits of Solitude, “For a Covetous Man to inveigh against Prodigality… is for the Pot to call the Kettle black.”

Bury the Hatchet

A Native American practice that involved the literal burying of hatchets as a peace offering serves as the origin of this idiom. As a part of the custom, chiefs would meet and bury their weapons as a symbolic gesture that signified peace. According to an Iroquois legend, two leaders once convinced the five great nations—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—to stop fighting and form a confederacy. They solidified this union by burying their weapons under a large pine tree.

The first English mentions of the phrase came in 1680 from Judge Samuel Sewall—best known for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials—when he exclaimed, “I write to you of the Mischief the Mohawks did… they came to an agreement and buried two Axes in the Ground; one for English another for themselves; which ceremony to them is more significant and binding than all Articles of Peace, the hatchet being a principal weapon with them.” Later, it was used in various peace treaties by colonels throughout the 18th century.

White Elephant

Today, the term “white elephant” is commonly associated with holiday gift exchanges in which the presents are more impractical and useless rather than sought-after treasures. The first use can be traced back to the Kingdom of Siam (present-day Thailand). According to popular legend, Siamese kings would gift rare, white elephants to any subject who betrayed or displeased them. The gift proved burdensome because these large animals were expensive to care for and anyone who received one bore the financial responsibility of keeping them alive. Since elephants were also a revered symbol in Thai and Buddhist cultures, they could not be used for work, furthering the onus of owning one.

Knight in Shining Armor

We often use this expression to describe a heroic figure who typically comes to the rescue of another. The origins of the phrase are linked back to Old England, a period that extends from the coming of Germanic invaders to Britain in the early 5th century up to the Norman Conquest of 1066, where often imagery of chivalrous knights coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress. Many Victorian-era novelists and artists proliferated this ideal, consumed with the chivalrous stories that surrounded King Arthur and the Court of Camelot.

Sir Frank Dicksee, P.R.A., Chivalry, 1885. Sold for £577,250 via Christie’s (December 2012).

Sir Frank Dicksee, P.R.A., Chivalry, 1885. Sold for £577,250 via Christie’s (December 2012).

The earliest recorded use of the idiom was in a poem by English poet Henry Pye called “Amusement: A Poetical Essay” published in The British Journal in 1790. Pye writes, “no more the knight in shining armour dress’d.”

Turn a Blind Eye

Used to acknowledge a scenario in which we pretend not to notice something, the saying “turn a blind eye” dates back to the early 1800s. During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the ships of British naval hero Horatio Nelson faced a large Danish-Norwegian fleet that appeared nearly impossible to overtake. Nelson’s superior advised that he withdraw, to which the one-eyed officer is believed to have responded by bringing a telescope to his bad eye and declaring, “I really do not see the signal,” before securing a victory. Though many historians believe this story to be a myth, the idiom is still widely used to this day.

Give the Cold Shoulder

curiosity shop drawing

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

To give the cold shoulder refers to an act of displaying indifferences or coldness, which is intended to hurt someone else. It transcends from the tradition of giving visitors a warm meal as a welcome offering. For those who were happily invited, hosts would prepare a large, warm meal of roasted meat. However, those who overstayed their welcome were given subpar food or a “cold shoulder of mutton” for dinner.

There are several written uses of this phrase throughout Scottish texts. One famous example appears in The Antiquary (1816), a work by Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott. In it, he writes, “The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther,” where “cauld” is the Scottish dialect for cold. The phrase began appearing in print frequently, and was even used by Charles Dickens in his popular 1840 novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.

How Our Most-Used Phrases Came To Be

We often use idioms in everyday language without consciously realizing the words don’t make sense without the implied and accepted meaning behind them. Linguists and historians have dedicated time to discovering the origins behind many of the most commonly spoken idioms, and why they’ve endured the test of time.

popular idioms infographic

There are approximately 25,000 idioms in the English language alone, all of which have been widely adopted in everyday conversation. We often use these phrases liberally without understanding their root or original context. Passed down from poems and books to cultural practices of ancient Greece, each idiom has a fascinating origin that can help contextualize nuance in colloquialisms today.

Sources: Merriam-WebsterOxford Royale Academy | Grammarly | History | Bachelors Degree