Where did that phrase come from? Part Two

Phil the test manager, Going Postal

I thought it might be nice to jot down a few more of the history of some of the many phrases we use in everyday life.  Some you may know, others could be new to you.  Also, it’s quite fun (Part one Etymology – The Origin of Words).

Hold a candle to

This phrase originates from when apprentices were expected to hold the candle up, so their more experienced colleagues could see what they were doing

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

This medieval proverb comes from the sport of falconry, where the ‘bird in the hand’ (the preying falcon) was worth more than ‘two in the bush’ – the prey.

As happy as Larry

This saying has Australian and New Zealand origins, but who is ‘Larry’?  Possibly it;s a reference to a late nineteenth-century Australian boxer Larry Foley, who never lost a fight.

Basket case

Originally, this term was used by the military after WWI, referring to soldiers who had lost arms and legs and had to be carried by others in a basket.

Cut of your jib

We see this used a lot on GP.  Sir Walter Scott brought this phrase into common use in 1824.  A jib is a triangular sail used on sailing ships, and as each country has its own style of ‘jib’, the ‘cut of your jib’ determines where a boat originates from.

Get the sack

This term for getting fired originates in France, and alludes to tradesmen, who would take their own bag or “sac” of tools with them when dismissed from employment.

A load of cobblers

This is from Cockney rhyming slang.  Nothing directly to do with shoemakers but originates from ‘cobblers’ awls’, the pointed hand-tools that cobblers use to pierce holes in leather.  The rhyme is with ‘balls’, meaning testicles.

The collywobbles

A state of intestinal disorder, usually accompanied by a rumbling stomach; for example, ‘butterflies in the stomach’.

The origin isn’t known for certain.  Possibly in that Colly is an English dialect word meaning coal dust.  Blackbirds were hence known as colly birds. The song Twelve days of Christmas is usually sung as ‘my true love sent to me, four calling birds’… but the actual line is ‘four colly birds’. Colly-wobbles could have derived from indisposition caused by breathing coal dust.

The Acid Test

This term came from the California Gold Rush in the 19th century, when prospectors and dealers used acid to distinguish gold from base metal – if the metal dissolved in a mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, it was real.

Bucket List

Our own Colonies Cross is doing his “bucket list” at the moment.  It is believed it stems from “Kicking the Bucket”, where possibly it goes back to the middle ages and practices of public hanging. One would have to stand on a bucket with a noose and when the bucket is kicked, the person would automatically strangle to death.  There are a couple of other theories about a children’s game, and another where a bucket of holy water was placed near a body and mourners would sprinkle this water on the body.  So our “Bucket List” means it’s better to do the things you want to do NOW, than to pile them up on a “some day list”.  Having a bucket list, is to have a life and utilise it fully before it’s knocked off from under your feet!


Its origin is uncertain, but it is believed that this term dates as far back as the Roman occupation of Britain (in the 1st to 5th century AD) and it may be derived from the Latin expression “quid pro quo,” which means “one thing in return for another.

When in Rome

Saint Monica and her son, Saint Augustine, found out that Saturday was observed as a fast day in Rome, where they planned to visit.  It was not a fast day in Milan where they lived. They consulted Saint Ambrose who said “When I am here (in Milan) I do not fast on Saturday, when in Rome I do fast on Saturday.” That reply is said to have brought about the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do, but we now just say “When in Rome”

Peeping Tom

The name comes from the legend of Lady Godiva’s naked ride through the streets of Coventry, in order to persuade her husband to alleviate the harsh taxes on the town’s poor. The story goes that the townsfolk agreed not to observe Godiva as she passed by, but that Peeping Tom broke that trust and spied on her.

© Phil the test manager 2018

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