What Word Is Missing From These Common Phrases?

Allison Lips

Image: atakan/E+/Getty Images

About This Quiz

When you think about some common phrases, they make no sense. We no longer know the origin of the phrase or are too far removed to understand why it came into existence to begin with. For example, why do we kill two birds with one stone? Who decided to kill birds? And why are we killing multiple birds with one stone? Not only does it seem cruel, but it also seems like an nearly impossible task. Others are less cruel, but equally as puzzling. Why would someone cut the mustard? It comes in a jar. It does come into contact with a knife. However, a knife spreads mustard, not cuts it. 


While a penny saved is a penny earned, you won't get a penny for your thoughts. Fortunately, this quiz isn't like the SATs, so it doesn't cost an arm and a leg. However, you won't want to give up your day job. 

Can you finish these common phrases? Will you be on the ball or finish by the skin of your teeth? Will time fly because you're having fun? You won't know until you take this quiz. Just don't get bent out of shape if you don't do well.


If you're giving someone some leeway, you are cutting them some ___________?

The phrase "cut some slack" entered common English usage around the mid-1900s. However, the origin of the phrase is from the late 1700s. It originally referred to loosening a part of a sail or rope.

In the theater world, you may tell someone to break a ____________?

There are many theories as to how "break a leg" made its way into common language. The only thing we do know is that it originates from theater slang. It is thought that wishing someone bad luck would have the opposite effect.

When someone is looking for answers in the wrong place, they are said to be _______________ up the wrong tree?

Barking up the wrong tree comes from hunting dogs mistakenly barking up a tree where they think an animal is hiding. The first example of "barking up the wrong tree" in print was in 1932. James Kirke Paulding used it in his novel, "Westward Ho!"

If you are attempting to compare unrelated things, you are comparing apples to __________?

The phrase "apples to oranges" may have formed in the mid-1900s. However, a similar phrase about comparing apples to oysters appears in Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew."

If you took on a project you cannot finish, you may have ___________ off more than you can chew?

The phrase "biting off more than you can chew" may date back to 1800s America. At the time, people often chewed tobacco and sometimes put too much in their mouths. Hence, literally biting off more than they could chew.

Every cloud has a silver ________________.

In 1964, John Milton referred to a cloud having a silver lining in "Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle." In the Victorian era,​ the expression was "There's a silver lining to every cloud."

What would you be advising someone not do if they are putting all there eggs in the same _____________?

This phrase does not have a clear origin. It is frequently attributed to Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote: "'Tis the part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow, and not venture all his eggs in one basket."

If someone is taking an unpopular opinion, they are playing ____________ advocate.

​The phrase "Devil's advocate" comes from the Latin expression "advocatus diaboli." In medieval Europe, the role was a job title. The Vatican has records from the early 1500s that mention this role.

Which word finishes this phrase? It's the best thing since sliced ____________.

In 1921, Wonder Bread became the first pre-sliced bread on the market. At the time, the company's ads said: "The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped." The phrase morphed into "The greatest thing since sliced bread."

If you're saving money for an unexpected event, you are saving for a ____________ day.

This phrase originated in a 1580's work titled, "The Bugbears." There the phrase appeared as “Wold he haue me kepe nothing against a raynye day?"

What fruit would you eat in the phrase, "An __________ a day keeps the doctor away"?

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away" was first recorded in the 1860s as ‘‘Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” The current version was first recorded in 1922.

What did curiosity do to the cat?

"Curiosity killed the cat" was originally a different phrase. It started as "care killed the cat." At the time, "care," in this sense, meant worry.

When you fail spectacularly, you go down in __________.

"Going down in flames" entered common usage around 1915. It means the same thing as "going up in smoke."

If you want something because everyone else has it, you are jumping on the ____________.

"Jumping on the bandwagon" acquired its current meaning sometime before the 1890s. However, the phrase must have been created after 1855 because that is the year P.T. Barnum coined the word "bandwagon."

It take two to _______________. Name the dance.

In the 1920s, the tango became a popular dance. The phrase "takes two to tango" entered common usage as the name of a 1952 Pearl Bailey song.

Two people who are very close are like two _________ in a pod.

This phrase dates back to the 16th century. One early use appeared in John Lyly's "Euphues and his England."

If you live in a _________ house, you shouldn't throw stones.

The concept of "those who live in glass houses should not throw stones" dates back to Geoffrey Chaucer's "Troilus and Criseyde," circa 1385. In 1651, Welsh poet George Herbert used the phrase as "Whose house is of glass, must not throw stones at another."

What sweet food finishes this phrase? You catch more flies with ___________ than with vinegar.

"You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" means that you will have more success being nice than being unkind. The first printed version of this phrase appeared in Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac" in 1744.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him ___________.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" was first recorded in 1175. It has been in continuous use since then.

Something that is very common is said to be _________ a dozen.

This phrase originated in the United States sometime after 1796. In the 1800s, many food items, like eggs, cost a dime a dozen.

If something bad happens, you may hope it is a ______________ in disguise?

In the 1800s, "a blessing in disguise" had solidified into its current usage. However, the phrase was known in the 1700s.

It's not __________ science means something is not complicated?

The usage of it's not "rocket science" originally referred to how difficult that branch of science was. However, in 1980's American football the phrase really took off!

When your patience runs out, it may be the last __________.

The "last straw" is a shortened version of "the last straw that breaks the camel's back." The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations claims it's a mid-17th-century​ proverb.

When you're distraught, someone may tell you to __________ yourself together.

No one knows for sure where the phrase "pull yourself together" came from, but it may have been created in the late 1800s. It means to calm oneself down.

When you tell someone something, you may be making a ___________ story short.

"Making a long story short" is not a new concept. The phrase formed in the 1800s. Henry David Thoreau used a variation of it in an 1857 letter.

If you're having a hard time, a friend may say, _______ in there.

The phrase "hang in there" was popularized in the 1970s. During that decade, it appeared on a popular poster featuring a Siamese kitten clinging onto a bamboo pole.

When you have to start over, you are going back to __________.

The term gained popularity around World War II. During that time, it was used to describe a design that failed.

Even if something someone says sounds outlandish, you may want to give it the benefit of the _____________.

"Benefit of the doubt" was first recorded in the 1840s. It is thought to be related to the legal concept, "reasonable doubt."

If you are sick, you may be said to be under the _____________.

The phrase "under the weather" originated with sailors. When they used it, it was to send an ill shipmate below deck to recover. Hence, he would be "under the weather."

While something good may happen, you still don't want to count your __________ before they hatch.

The phrase was first published in 1570. Thomas Howell wrote "Counte not thy Chickens that vnhatched be." In modern English that would be "Don't count your chickens before they hatch."

What animal is missing from this phrase? It's raining _________ and dogs.

"It's raining cats and dogs" was never literal. It comes from old English.

When you ignore someone, you are giving them the _____________ shoulder?

"Giving someone the cold shoulder" first appeared in Walter Scott's "The Antiquary" in 1816. The folk etymology is that welcome guests were given a hot meal and unwelcome ones received​ a "cold shoulder of mutton."

When you're doing something pointless, you are said to be going on a wild _________ chase.

Shakespeare may have coined "a wild goose chase." In "Romeo and Juliet," Mercutio uses the phrase in a conversation with Romeo.

When you don't want to know something, you may say ignorance is __________.

This phrase is similar to "what you don't know can't hurt you." However, "ignorance is bliss" came from Thomas Gray's 1742 poem "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eaton College."

A son who is like his father, can be said to be a chip off the old ___________?

The phrase "chip off the same block" dates back to 1621. At that time, it appeared in "Sermons" by Bishop Robert Sanderson. The current phrase appeared in a June 1870 edition of The Athens Messenger, an Ohio newspaper.

About HowStuffWorks Play

How much do you know about dinosaurs? What is an octane rating? And how do you use a proper noun? Lucky for you, HowStuffWorks Play is here to help. Our award-winning website offers reliable, easy-to-understand explanations about how the world works. From fun quizzes that bring joy to your day, to compelling photography and fascinating lists, HowStuffWorks Play offers something for everyone. Sometimes we explain how stuff works, other times, we ask you, but we’re always exploring in the name of fun! Because learning is fun, so stick with us!

Explore More Quizzes