Are You a Master of Common Phrases?


By: Deborah Beckwin

7 Min Quiz

Image: laflor/E+/GettyImages

About This Quiz

A lot of what we say is made from images - take, for example, a baptism by fire. It conjures up a strong image, right? It's also a literary allusion. Specifically, it's from the Bible and refers to something John the Baptist said in the Gospel of Matthew. So this saying now means going through a harrowing experience for the first time as a sort of initiation.

But maybe you didn't know where that phrase came from, and that's ok! So many sayings we use every day are divorced from their origins. And many more just seem to pop up, whether it's from the playground or from a specific era. What's interesting is when the origin stories are just as exciting as the sayings themselves.

For example, the phrase "just deserts" - have you been spelling it like desserts? You're not the only one!  But it's neither a dry and sandy place nor is it a sweet pastry or treat. Desert means something that is deserved, whether it's a reward of punishment (Look it up! It's in the dictionary!) The saying goes as far back as to at least the 1400s.

If you're ready to take this quiz for a spin, we believe that it'll be the cat's pajamas. And remember: fortune favors the brave! Good luck!

If you "got up on the wrong side of the bed," what happened?

This saying has a lot to do with an ancient superstition. Since the Roman Empire, many people have associated the wrong (or evil) side of the bed with the left side. Even innkeepers got in on this superstition, making sure that all beds had the left sides inaccessible so that guests could only get in and out of the right side.


Sometimes, there's nothing left to do except "bite the bullet," meaning what?

The myth of this saying comes from wounded soldiers needing to grip their teeth around a bullet as a surgeon worked on them. But usually, they used leather. The first known use of this phrase was in Rudyard Kipling's book, "The Light That Failed," in 1891.


If you got "the short end of the stick," what have you got?

If you got the short end of the stick, you have the worst part of a deal. This saying has a lot of variations including wrong, dirty or blunt end of the stick. It's been around since at least the mid-16th century.


If you "spilled the beans," what have you done?

This saying's origin is often connected to Ancient Greece and how they voted in secret with beans dropped into a container. If someone accidentally "spilled the beans," then they would have inadvertently shown the votes. But most likely, this phrase is an American one, with the first known instance recorded in the early 20th century.


"When my team lost over a stupid call from the ref, that really got my goat!" What does "get your goat" mean?

There's a common myth around this saying, primarily that goats can bring a calming presence at a farm or in a stable. So if someone "gets your goat," then they have caused upset and anarchy. But whether this is true or not, this is definitely an American saying, with one of the first recorded instances occurring in the early 1900s.


Finish this saying: "Good night, sleep _____."

This saying is allegedly about how beds used to be tightened by cords, to keep the bed taut. But the saying's first recorded instance is in the 1860s, as "tight sleep" and is most likely an American phrase. Sleep tight really means to sleep soundly and well.


Complete this saying: "Show your true _____."

This saying, which is about showing who you really are, has nautical origins. Pirates would fly false friendly flags so that their intended target ship would think the ship would be of no threat. Only when the pirate ship got close would it unfurl its real flags and colors.


Who are the "upper crust"?

The origin story of this phrase about the rich is typically about how when bread was made back in the olden times, the burnt bottom side was given to the poor, and the top or upper crust was given to the nobility of the household. But "crust" typically meant the top of the head or a hat.


If a "cat's got your tongue," then what's happening to you?

This saying has some interesting origin stories, including that British sailors were flogged with a cat-o'-nine tails and the pain left them speechless. Another story is that liars had their tongues cut and fed to cats. The first recorded instance of this saying is in the late 19th century, referring to the saying as something children say.


"There was a stampede of sheep through the town square today. They were just running amok!" What does "run amok" mean?

The origins of this saying come from Southeast Asia, where "amok" meant more than just going crazy - it meant going on a maniacal killing spree. The Amuco were warriors in Malaysia and Java who would run through the streets killing anyone in their paths, believing this was the only way to gain glory from the gods.


If you've been saved at the last minute, you've been "saved by the ____."

An interesting origin story about this saying comes from the fear of being buried alive. As far back as the 19th century, a clear coffin with a bell attached to the deceased had been invented - thus the not-actually-deceased would be saved by ringing the bell. But most likely, this story came from the boxing ring, where a boxer struggling to win would be saved by the ringing of the bell which ended the round.


A generally known guideline is known as what?

So the story goes, this saying came from the 18th-century British law that allowed men to beat their wives with a stick no bigger than their thumb. But the connection to this saying and this law, which is recorded as far back as the 17th century, is unclear. It's more likely connected to how people have measured things with their fingers.


What common saying is an alleged cure for a hangover?

The full saying is "the hair of the dog that bit you," and this comes from the myth that if a rabid dog bites you, you should get hair from that dog and apply it to the wound. But the idea of drinking a little of the same thing that got you hungover the night before was first recorded in the 14th century, before the literal hair of the dog remedy in the 18th century.


If you're quite pleased, you're pleased as what?

Although "as pleased as Punch" sounds like one is pleased like a fruity beverage, it's from the old Punch and Judy puppet show which originated in Italy. Punch would be very pleased with himself after he punched one of his victims.


If you're going to "tie one on," what are you ready to do?

One origin story links back to the American West, tying up one's horse before going into the saloon. Another story is an alleged British sobriety test of balancing a bun on your head. So "tie a bun on" is connoting that's the only way you'd be able to pass the test if you're drunk.


If you're trying to "butter someone up," what are you trying to do?

This saying comes from Hindu temples, where worshippers would throw balls of clarified butter (ghee) at the statues of their deities. This was to seek the gods' favor and be granted good harvests and peace.


What saying means that you're not as young as you used to be?

"No spring chicken" is a bit more recent of an American saying, referring to how young chickens were tastier. Chickens killed earlier in the year, such as the springtime, were preferred.


What is the saying that means you have an overabundance of something?

This saying's origin has many different possibilities, but no one conclusive answer. For example, this saying may have to do with how farmers herd their animals, with their staffs (or sticks). It was first recorded in the early 19th century, and it was referring to the number of taverns in a town.


What's happening when someone is "going cold turkey?"

"Going cold turkey" is an American saying that allegedly refers to how someone going through withdrawal will look paler and have goosebumps as blood is directed to their organs. This saying may have more to do with another American saying about "talking cold turkey," i.e., talking plainly and forthrightly.


What do you do when you're first meeting someone, and it feels a little stiff or awkward?

The first recorded mention of this saying is in the late 16th century, but it was about carving a path for others to follow. About a century later, the meaning changed to easing socially awkward situations.


What saying means that you're ready to be free and relaxed?

At least in European countries, letting your hair down has long been seen as having one's hair be ready for washing and brushing only. The term for unpinned hair back then was dishevelled.


Instead of wishing an actor good luck, what do you say?

As you may know, theater folks deem wishing someone good luck before a performance as bad luck. There are other possible meanings for "break a leg" including putting in a good effort and a wish to get your "big break."


What is the saying that describes rudely ignoring someone?

It has been claimed that this saying was from medieval times: as a polite way to tell your guest that it was time to leave, you would give them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of the animal. But most likely, novelist and historian Sir Walter Scott coined the phrase to mean it as it does today: to openly but silently ignore someone.


If you're eating a slice of "humble pie," what's really going on?

The origin of "humble pie" comes from the 14th century England where people would eat a pie that was full of the innards (or offal) of animals. Those innards used to be called numbles, and then they were called umbles.


What saying is a euphemism for dying?

One origin story for "kick the bucket" involves suicide, that people who hang themselves will kick the bucket that they are standing on. But this phrase most likely has its origins with slaughtering cows, where bucket used to mean "yoke" or "beam." A freshly slaughtered cow would be hung on a beam, and the body's spasms would kick the beam or yoke.


What's the missing word in this saying: "Don't throw the ____ out with the bathwater"?

One origin story is that Europeans in the 16th century would only bathe once a year and that the baby would be the last to be washed. But since the water would be so murky, the baby wouldn't be seen and the baby would be thrown out. But this saying appeared around the same time in Germany as satire.


What saying means to go all the way or to do your best?

There are many explanations and origin stories about where this saying came from. One story is WWII fighter pilots using a nine-yard chain of ammunition. But that phrase has been noted in the early 1900s.


What saying means that you've been found in the act of doing something wrong?

This is one of many sayings created by Sir Walter Scott. Although the term "red-hand" was in Scottish law in the 15th century, red-handed was used in Scott's historical novel, "Ivanhoe." And this saying is about being caught with blood on your hands, whether from murdering someone or illegally killing an animal.


If it's time to "batten down the hatches," what does that mean?

This saying has a nautical meaning. On a ship, hatches are places that provide ventilation for the lower levels, and the battens were covers used. So when a ship encounters rough weather, the crew battens down the hatches to keep seawater out.


When someone says, "Pardon my French," what do they mean?

Interestingly, in the 19th century, this phrase did usually mean that an English-speaker (a Briton) was going to speak in French, and they apologized for it. By the mid-20th century, the phrase evolved into French meaning curse words.


"Mind your P's and Q's" is a reminder to do what?

There are many origin stories about this saying. One of them makes a lot of sense - lowercase "p" and "q" are mirror images of each other, so when children are learning how to write, telling them to mind their p's and q's is sage advice. The saying now means to speak and act respectfully.


If a "sea change" is coming, what is actually coming?

This saying comes from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," written in 1610. This saying still means the same, but Shakespeare's saying also talks of the drastic change coming from the sea.


What saying encapsulates that something is the best thing ever?

It's unclear where "the bee's knees" comes from, even if bees carry pollen back to their hives on special sacks on their knees. Centuries ago, it was meant to talk about something minuscule. It could be from the 1920s, during the flapper era, where nonsensical, whimsical language was common.


When someone is called "the salt of the earth," what does that mean?

This saying comes from the Bible, specifically the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives his famous Sermon on the Mount. In this case, salt is seen as valuable vs. salting the fields of someone you hate or are at war with (i.e., salting fields makes them barren).


If you go "scot-free," what's happening?

Scot-free actually has nothing to do with people from Scotland. It's derived from the Swedish word "skat," which means tax. In the 10th century, the British adopted this word as "scot," so going scot-free meant not paying one's taxes.


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