Etymology – The Origin of Words

Where did that phrase come from?

Phil the test manager, Going Postal

There are many words and phrases we use every day, and I became fascinated with the history of where these came from, especially if it arose from a military background.

The definition of etymology from Wiki is here:  Etymology   it is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.

I thought for this article, I would give some of my favourites from a military background, and perhaps you could share some of yours.  So here we go then:

Bite the bullet

Meaning: To accept something difficult or unpleasant

Origin: In the olden days, when doctors were short on anaesthesia or time during a battle, they would ask the patient to bite down on a bullet to distract from the pain. The first recorded use of the phrase was in 1891.

Break the ice

Meaning: To start a friendship.

Origin: Back when road transportation was not developed, ships would be the only transportation and means of trade.  At times, the ships would get stuck during the winter because of ice formation. The receiving country would send small ships to “break the ice” to clear a way for the trade ships. This gesture showed affiliation and understanding between two territories.

Cat got your tongue?

Meaning: Asked to a person who is at loss of words

Origin: The English Navy used to use a whip called “Cat-o’-nine-tails” for flogging. The pain was so severe that it caused the victim to stay quiet for a long time.

Turn a blind eye

Meaning: To ignore situations, facts, or reality

Origin: The British Naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, had one blind eye. Once when the British forces signalled for him to stop attacking a fleet of Danish ships, he held up a telescope to his blind eye and said, “I do not see the signal.” He attacked, nevertheless, and was victorious.

Bury the hatchet

Meaning: To stop a conflict and make peace

Origins: This one dates back to the early times North America when the Puritans were in conflict with the Native Americans.  When negotiating peace, the Native Americans would bury all their hatchets, knives, clubs, and tomahawks. Weapons literally were buried and made inaccessible.

Go the whole nine yards

Meaning: To try your best at something

Origin: During World War II, the fighter pilots were equipped with nine yards of ammunition.  When they ran out, it meant that they had tried their best at fighting off the target with the entirety of their ammunition.

Armed to the teeth

Meaning: Fully prepared for a confrontation.

Origin: Medieval warriors were often so laden with weapons that sometimes they would have to carry one in their teeth.

Chance your arm

Meaning: Take a risk.

Origin: The arm in question refers to a stripe of military rank worn on the upper sleeve.  Take a risk and you might be demoted, thereby losing a stripe.

Cold feet

Meaning: To show reluctance.

Origin: It’s a military term.  A man who has cold or frozen feet — a common affliction until the late 19th century — can’t rush into battle, and so proceeds slowly.

Over a barrel

Meaning: To be under someone’s control.

Origin: This dates back to the Spanish inquisition.  A form of torture was to suspend someone over a barrel of boiling oil. If you didn’t agree to the demands, you’d be dropped in.

Face the music

Meaning: To own up to a mistake

Origin: There are times when we just have to own up to our mistakes and face the music.  One origin of this phrase stems from the disgraceful dismissal of a military officer. The shamed soldier, after he was relieved of his duties, had to make his final march accompanied by the drum cadence of his old unit — a process referred to as “drumming out.”


Meaning: The very latest time at which something must be delivered.

Origin: According to Lossing’s History of the Civil War (1868), there was a line at the prison camp which was about 17 feet away from the stockade wall that no POW could cross, or else he would be presumed an escapee and shot — this line was the “deadline.”

Murphy’s Law

Meaning: “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

Origin:  That’s an adage that has been in use since the mid-20th century. This phrase was coined in 1948 at Edwards Air Force Base in the USA and named after Capt. Edward A. Murphy, an engineer working on Air Force Project MX981.  The story goes that Murphy’s assistant was installing gauges to measure the G-forces a test-dummy would receive on a rocket-sled blasting forward on a 1.9-mile track. When the instruments read zero after the test-run, Murphy berated his assistant saying, “If there’s more than one way to do a job and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.”

That’s all for now, and I am happy to answer questions.  I hope though that I am not “Pressed for an answer” as in the middle ages, captives would have heavy weights loaded straight on to their chests in an effort to squeeze a confession out of them during interrogation.

Take care everyone, and do not be “Hoisted by your own petard” as a petard was a 16th century French bomb that was so unreliable it often blew up its own user.

© Phil the test manager 2018