Behind Words By Charlie López M.A.  The Origin and History of Words




Originally this word was only applied to the small enclosed space where cockfights took place. During World War I the term was used to identify the narrow section in fighter planes where the pilot had to insert himself. Today the word identifies the part of a plane, boat or racing car where the pilot or driver sits. Belgium was called "the cockpit of Europe" because many battles, which include Waterloo in 1815, were fought there.


When Mausolus, king of Caria in ancient Greece, died in 353 BC, his wife Artemisia erected a huge magnificent sepulchral monument at Halicarnassus to her husband's memory. This tomb, which was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was over 100 feet high and included statues of Mausolus and his wife. The remains of this monument, probably destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century, were brought to England by Sir Charles Newton in 1859 and placed in the British Museum.


The French chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) invented Peach Melba, a dessert which combined fresh peaches, vanilla cream and raspberry sauce, to honour a famous Australian opera singer. Mme. Melba (1861-1931), whose real name was Helen Porter Mitchell, took her stage name from Melbourne, the place where she was born. According to a traditional legend Melba Toast was invented and named after the famous soprano when she was delighted with extra-crispy over toasted slices of bread she was served at the Savoy Hotel in London during her stay in 1892.


The first deadline was a line marked out about five metres from the inner wire fence in prison camps during the American Civil War. Any prisoner who dared to cross the line was shot at sight. It was that strict idea of space limit which gave origin to the present meaning of this term. A deadline today is a final date or time limit which must not be exceeded


When we "start from scratch" we do it from the very beginning without using anything that has been made or done before. This expression derives from the world of sports in which "scratch" identifies a line on the ground from which all the competitors start with no advantages or allowances. The phrase "not come up to scratch" meaning not meeting our expectations, has the same origin as it refers to someone who will never appear at the starting line


Phoney seems to derive from fawney, an English slang word used in the 18th century to mean fake.In the 1920's this term was used in the United States to refer to brass rings that confidence tricksters would pass off as gold to unwary buyers. These semantic backgrounds explain the meaning of the word today: fraudulent, not real, intended to deceive someone.


Metaphorically speaking we separate the wheat from the chaff when we decide which people or things are important, useful or good and which are worthless. It is easy to understand the origin of this phrase as "the chaff" is the outer part of wheat which is removed before the grains are used. The inclusion of this expression in the Bible suggesting that "the wheat" were those loyal to Christ and "the chaff" those who rejected his ideals (Luke 3:17), made this phrase popular and widely used.


Gordius, the king of Phrygia, in Asia Minor, had tied his sacred wagon to a temple beam with a very complicated knot. It was then declared that the man who succeeded in loosening the knot would become lord of all Asia. When Alexander the Great reached Phrygia he avoided the difficult task of untying the knot by simply drawing his sword and cutting it in two. This is the origin of the expression "cut the Gordian knot" which refers to a quick and determined way of solving a difficult problem.


The Roman Calendar had 304 days and 10 months. In 46 BC Julius Caesar instituted the Julian Calendar which established a year of 365 days and 6 hours divided into 12 months of 30 or 31 days except for February which had 28 days in common years and 29 in leap years.
July kept its original name, quintilis, because it was the fifth month in the former calendar until 44 BC when Mark Antony renamed it Julius in honour to Julius Caesar who was born in it.


August was formerly called sextilis because it was the sixth month in the old Roman Calendar.
In 8 BC it was renamed Augustus to honour the first Roman emperor who had achieved important military triumphs in that month. When Augustus questioned the fact that his uncle’s month (July) would be longer than his, a day was taken from February for both July and August to have 31 days


The expression Pie in the Sky refers to a plan or good idea that will never happen or come true. It dates from the early 1900s when Joe Hill, a labour activist, wrote a song called “The Preacher and the Slave” a parody of the hymn “The sweet by and by” by Ira Sankey, in which he criticised the Christian point of view that people would get their reward in heaven if they suffered or led a virtuous life on earth. “Work and pray
live on hay you’ll get pie in the sky
when you die.”


The phrase Bob’s your uncle has been in use in Britain since around 1890 for saying that something will be easy or quick to do. For example: “Click here and Bob’s your uncle, you are connected to the Internet”.
This expression originated in 1886 when Arthur Balfour was appointed Secretary of State for Ireland by his uncle the Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Third Marquis of Salisbury. This promotion was considered an act of nepotism especially because very few regarded Balfour as qualified for the post.


Not very much is known about St. Nicholas except that he was tortured and imprisoned for his faith by the emperor Diocletian and probably died in 350.
His festival day was December 6 and it was originally the custom in the Netherlands to dress up as the bishop and give gifts to children.
It was from the early Dutch settlers in the United States that the English in New York borrowed the custom and the saint whose day was moved to Christmas and his name corrupted from the Dutch dialect Saint Klass to Santa Claus.


The word Christmas derives from Christ’s mass. The date was set by the Church in AD 440. Originally, 25 December was the day of the winter solstice, a pagan celebration in which bonfires were built to give the winter sun strength.
The decorated Christmas tree was introduced into England from Germany where it was called Weihnachtsbaum, holy night tree.
The first Christmas cards were created by the English artist J.C. Horsley in 1843 for a businessman called Sir Henry Cole, who sent them to his clients.


We “bark up the wrong tree” when we make a wrong assumption about a person or thing.
This is exactly what happened to the dogs used to hunt racoons in the early 19th century in the United States, where this expression comes from.
When persued by a dog, the racoon -a nocturnal creature-, always tries to take refuge in a tree. The dog will then stay at the foot of the tree jumping and barking until its master arrives. Sometimes, however, the racoon sneaks through the branches and hides in another tree. The dog is then literally left “barking at the wrong tree”.


We “carry the can” when we are obliged to take the responsibility or blame if something goes wrong.
This was originally a military phrase which derived from the duty assigned to a low rank soldier to carry a large can of beer for the troop. Not only was he responsible for the beer but also for returning the bucket when it was empty.
A second theory states that the can in question did not contain beer but explosives which were regularly used in coal mines.


In the 1930s the meteorologists in the US Weather Bureau began to classify the clouds into categories numbered one to nine according to their height. The highest type, cloud nine, which could be found at over 12000 metres, gave origin to the expression in question. A person on cloud nine feels high, floating, exceptionally happy.


The phrase blow hot and cold is used to describe a person who continually changes his mind about someone or something. This expression derives from one of Aesop’s famous fables in which a Satyr (Greek God half human half goat) came across a traveller who was blowing his hands to warm them. Later on, when the Satyr offered him a bowl of broth, the traveller began to blow on it in order to cool it down. The Satyr immediately threw him out of his cave as he didn’t want anything to do with a person who blew hot and cold in the same breath.


Some etymologists hold that this expression refers to the opening night in the theatre when nervous actors and actresses face the audience and the orchestra in front of the stage.
This phrase, however, seems to have a military origin. The first people “to face the music”, that is the consequences of their actions, were soldiers who were dismissed from the service. A drum was played while the soldier was being stripped of the military insignia.


A tenter was a framework used in the past to stretch newly woven cloth to make it straight and rid it from wrinkles. These frames were fitted with hooks -tenterhooks- which held the cloth while it was stretched as much as possible.
The expression To be on tenterhooks compares the tension of the cloth with the stress or anxiety suffered by a person who is anxiously waiting for something; that’s the meaning of the phrase.


A black list is a record of persons or organizations who are regarded as dangerous, undesirable or disloyal. The first one has been traced back to the 1660s when Charles II had a list of names drawn up of all the judges and court officers who sentenced his father, Charles I, to death in 1649.
Finally, many of those in the list were either executed or sentenced to life imprisonment, but a few managed to escape.


Gold resists most acids but does react to Aqua Regia - Royal Water -, a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids.
In the Middle Ages Aqua Regia was used to determine the gold content of different objects. This practice gave origin to the expression Acid Test which identifies a severe test that proves the worth, truth or reliability of something beyond all doubt.


According to an ancient Germanic custom the bride and the groom were to drink MEAD, a sweet alcoholic drink made from honey, during a period of about thirty days after their wedding. This explains the origin of the word HONEY which identifies the main ingredient in the potion in question. The term MOON refers to a lunar month.
The word HYMEN, for the virginal membrane, may derive from the Greek humen meaning membrane or the Greek Hyman, the God of Marriage.


To get the sack or to be given the sack means to lose or be dismissed from your job.
This expression dates back to Medieval times when tradesmen, artisans and craftsmen provided their own tools which were carried in a large bag or sack and left on their job overnight.
When a worker was no longer required the employer gave him the sack, that is the bag containing his tools so that he could find a job somewhere else.


The original name of this plant was coronation as the flower somewhat resembles a crown. This name was often confused with carnation from the Latin carnis, flesh, because some of the flowers were this colour. This explains why this word evolved into its present pronunciation and spelling.

The old English name for this flower was Lion’s tooth. In the 16th century the French name dent de lion, from which dandelion derives, was adopted.

In ancient times this flower was believed to have a thoughtful appearance. This explains the origin of this word. Pansy derives from the French term pansée which meaning “thoughtful”.


Daisy derives from day’s eye, the original name of this flower in Old English. This was a direct allusion to the fact that it opens its petals in the morning and closes them in the evening.

Its name derives from the Latin “tulipa” meaning “turban” in reference to the appearance of the flower when not completely in bloom. The expression tulip mania or tulipomania describes a period during the first part of the 17th century when in Holland enormous amounts of money were paid for a single bulb.


August was formerly called sextilis because it was the sixth month in the old Roman Calendar.
In 8 BC it was renamed Augustus to honour the first Roman emperor who had achieved important military triumphs in that month.

When Augustus questioned the fact that his uncle’s month (July) would be longer than his, a day was taken from February for both July and August to have 31 days


This expression identifies a mean person who does not want or need something but will not let other people have it.

It derives from the Aesop’s fable of a dog who made his bed in a hay manger and would not allow the ox and other animals to come near and eat from it even though he could not eat the hay himself.


This metal musical instrument of the woodwind family took the name of its inventor: Antoine Joseph Sax (1814-1894), also known as Adolphe.

Sax invented the “saxophone” while he worked with his father, a renowned wind instrument maker in Brussels.
Sax reached economic success when he became the musical supplier of the French Army. His lack of sense to handle money prevented him from making a fortune. He died in poverty at the age of 84 a few years before the Saxophone became one of the main instruments in jazz bands.

An indian or a tree?

The largest and tallest tree on earth, the Giant Sequoia, is named after the famous American Indian Sequoyah (1770-1843), the son of a white trader and an Indian woman who created the Cherokee alphabet. It took him over twelve years to complete a writing system which was based on a table of characters which represented the 86 sounds in the Cherokee language.

The name Sequoia was applied to the giant Californian trees by Stephen Ladislaus Endlicher (1804-1849), a Hungarian botanist who decided to honour the legendary Cherokee leader in 1847.


One theory states that this phrase, meaning disorganized and confused, may have evolved from an old dicing game in which sinque and sice (the old names for five and six) were regarded as the most risky bets to make. Anyone who tried a throw like that was considered careless and confused. The original expression later changed to “six and seven”, and about a century and a half ago the expression took the plural form.

A second theory holds that this phrase may have arisen as a result of a dispute between the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners, two of the great livery companies in London in the Middle Age as to which of them should be the sixth or the seventh when going in procession to The City.


When we send somebody off with a flea in their ear we talk to them angrily and reject their suggestion especially because they have done something we disapprove of.

This is an analogy between the feelings of the person who has been told off and a dog with a flea in its ear which is restless and runs in distress, shaking its head.

This phrase dates at least from the 15th century. It was used by John Lyly in Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1579) and by Deloney in Gentle Craft (1597). Here a servant who is rebuked by the lord of the manor goes away shaking his head “like one that hath a flea in his eare”.


When we say that someone is “not dry behind the ears” or directly “wet behind the ears” we mean that they are very young and therefore inexperienced or naive.

This expression alludes to newly born animals such as colts or calves. When they are born the last spot to become dry after birth is the small indentation behind each ear.


At the end of last century it was common for waiters and barmen to write their orders and accounts on their starched white cuffs.

This habit was taken, years later, by after-dinner speakers who also used their cuffs as notepads. They would write ideas that occurred to them during the meal and include them, unrehearsed, in their speech.

This seems to be the origin of the expression “off the cuff” applied to remarks spoken without being practised or planned in advance.


The expression “it´s raining cats and dogs” is used to say that it is raining very heavely.

The most convincing of all the theories that try to explain the origin of this phrase states that in Norse mythology the cat has a great influence on the weather and the dog, the same as the wolf, is a signal of wind. Thus the cat can be considered a symbol of heavy rain and the dog of strong gusts of wind.

This expression first appeared in English literature in Jonathan´s Swift´s book “A complete literature of polite and ingenious conversation” published in 1738.

E.g.: “Take the umbrella, it´s raining cats and dogs.”

When we want to do something “by hook or by crook” we are determined to do it, one way or another, whatever the method we have to use .

This phrase seems to derive from an old medieval law which authorised peasants to enter the king´s forests to pick up dead wood from the ground.

They were also allowed to take dead branches from the trees but only those which could be brought down by a shepherd´s crook (long stick with curved end) and cut down with a bill hook (tool with curved blade used for cutting small branches off trees).

E.g.: “The police will catch him, by hook or by crook.”

Toy boy is a humorous phrase used to describe an attractive young man who is having a relationship with a much older and usually rich woman.

This expression was coined in the 1980s by the tabloids and magazines that cover the lives of the rich and famous, to refer to the much younger male lovers kept by middle aged film stars.

E.g.: - “That´s Brenda´s new toy boy.”

- “He´s absolutely gorgeous!”

We hit someone “below the belt”, figuratively speaking, when we use unfair methods or actions or when we say something unkind or unfair in an argument, a fight, etc.

This idiom comes from boxing and dates back to the year 1867 when the Marquis of Queensberry introduced the first boxing rules to regulate the matches. One of them prohibited the fighters to hit their opponents under the belt.

E.g.: “He spoke about her father´s suicide. That was hitting below the belt.”

When you throw in the towel or the sponge you admit that you are defeated.

This expression comes from boxing matches in which it is a common practice to throw a towel or a sponge (the one they use to refresh the fighter between rounds), into the ring as a signal that a man was beaten and consequently the sponge or towel is no longer needed.

E.g.: “I tried to walk to work every day but I threw in the towel and started using my car.”

This phrase is normally applied to an unpromising child who develops, against expectations, into a beautiful or successful adult. It was taken from a children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen in which a cygnet who thinks it is a duckling is socially ostracized for being different. However, it later grows up and turns into a beautiful swan.

This expression is used to describe corruption or a situation that has a very dubious nature.
This is one of the many phrases that William Shakespeare has contributed to the English language. It appears in Hamlet Act I Scene IV. When the young prince is summoned by the ghost of his murdered father, the king of Denmark, one of his friends Marcellus pronounces the famous phrase: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

When you “blow your own trumpet” in England or “your own horn” in the USA, you promote yourself, boast about your own abilities or talk a lot about your achievements.
This phrase seems to find its origin in Medieval times, when heralds blew their trumpets to announce the approach of monarchs and other members of the aristocracy.
E.g.: “My boss spent the whole day blowing his own trumpet.”


When you hear or get information “straight from the horse’s mouth” you receive it directly from the highest authority, from the person who really knows about it. This phrase, which dates back to the first quarter of the 19th century, has to do with horse traders, who would normally lie about the age of the animals they wanted to sell, to get a better price. Experienced buyers, however, might determine the age of the horse by examining its teeth, a source whose credibility was never questioned.


Vertically challenged, used to describe a person who is not very tall, Chronologically challenged, meaning rather old and some other phrases like Electronically challenged, Athletically challenged, etc. are humorous expressions which derive from Political Correctness.

People are Politically Correct when they try to avoid offending anyone by choosing the language carefully. For example, they will say “visually challenged” instead of blind.

The overuse of PC, as it is informally called, has given origin to a number of jokes or funny phrases as the ones above.

E.g.: - He is nutritionally challenged.

- What do you mean?

- He is fat!


This idiom is used to refer to the last and most difficult question. One that is really important and on whose answer a great deal depends.

This expression comes from a television game show that was very popular in the United States in the 1950s. It was always used before asking the final and most difficult to answer question, for which 64000 dollars were offered.

E.g.: “The 64000 dollar question is whether the president will return to the country”.

This expression, typical of British English, refers to money that is earned in a very easy way generally by doing a job that is not difficult or one which demands little or no effort at all.

This saying seems to originate in the Middle Ages when public hangings were very common. After the execution had taken place, hangmen would often make some extra money by cutting up the rope used in the hanging into small pieces and selling them to the spectators who believed it would bring them good luck.

E.g.: “All I had to do was watch the children for three hours. In return they gave me £ 50. It was money for old rope.”

This phrase describes a situation in which there seems to be a choice but actually there is not any. In other words, we must accept what we are offered or nothing at all.

This expression derives from the name of a famous carrier- Thomas Hobson- who earned part of his living hiring out horses to students from Cambridge University in the 17th century.

To ensure that each animal was evenly used and to avoid his favourite horses being ridden too much, Thomas Hobson encouraged his customers to choose from the animals nearest the stable door where, as a matter of fact, there was always only one.

E.g.: “It´s Hobson´s choice, either we pay for the coffee or there´s no coffee at all.”

When we toe the line we submit to discipline or regulations. We do what someone in authority expects us to do.

This expression derives from the lines originally painted on the floor of The House of Commons to separate the members of the government and those from the opposition.

When MPs were allowed to take weapons into the Parliament, the lines were painted two swords apart for them not to be able to touch each other in case there was an argument.

A second theory states that this phrase comes from the lines drawn on the floor to mark the start of a race.

Different explanations have been made of the origin of this phrase which is used to say that a person or an article is absolutely genuine, not a fake or a copy.

The first and most popular one states that in the 1920s a boxer who fought under the name of Kid McCoy was challenged to fight by a drunk who apparently said “That´s the real McCoy” after being knocked out with a single punch.

A second theory suggests that this expression comes from Scotland where it was not clear who was the head of the McKay clan. A third source, however, states that this phrase derives from the name of a Canadian mechanical engineer, trained in Scotland – Elijah McCoy, who patented a great number of inventions which were copied all over the world although most buyers insisted on getting the genuine one. The real McCoy.

E.g.: “They have copied The Beatles´style but they aren´t the real McCoy.”

When we “wash our dirty linen in public” we expose our private affairs or quarrels, normally disgraceful or embarrassing things, to the public gaze.

Anthony Trollope seems to have been the first to use the English equivalent of this French proverb in The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). He reversed the French expression “Il faut laver son linge sale en famille” which means “we should wash our dirty linen in private”.

E.g.: “I don´t understand those families who go on T.V and wash all their dirty linen in public”.


We say that something is in the offing when it is likely to happen soon.
In the 17th century “offing” meant “off-shore” in nautical slang, so any ship approaching a port close enough to be seen from the coast, was considered in the offing. This expression is used nowadays to refer to something imminent, likely to occur although we don’t know exactly when.
E.g. “His wedding is in the offing.”


When you are in “seventh heaven” you are in a state of ineffable bliss, extremely happy.
Followers of Islam believe in seven different heavens where dead souls go according to their behaviour in life. The seventh heaven is the ultimate one, full of pure and indescribable light and happiness. The seventh heaven lies above the other six, it is the heaven of heavens.
E.g.: “He’s been in seventh heaven since he got married.”


When you “spill the beans” you give away a secret deliberately or unintentionally.
One of the most reliable sources suggests that this phrase goes back to Greek times when members of secret societies elected new members by dropping a bean in a jar. A white bean signified admission and a black one, objection.
The prospective member would never know how many affirmative and negative ballots he had got unless the jar was accidentally knocked over and the beans (the secret) spilled.


When you go back to square one, you start something from the beginning because you failed the first time.
This informal phrase seems to find its origin in the 1930s when the BBC began to broadcast football commentaries during the game. In order to facilitate their job and help listeners to follow the progress of the game, commentators had divided the pitch into eight notional squares. Square one was the goalkeeper’s area where the game re-started when the ball was passed back to him.
However, there’s a second theory that states that this expression might come from the vocabulary used when playing “snakes and ladders”, a traditional board game.


This is an obvious allusion to beasts of burden which from early times were controlled and led by a cord attached to a ring hanging from the nose. This same technique was previously used by the ancient Romans to lead wild animals like lions or bears around the arena. Therefore, when you lead someone by the nose, you dominate or influence them so much that you can control everything they do.


This expression, probably the most binding oath of childhood, generally accompanied by hand gestures forming the cross on one’s breast, is a solemn declaration that the truth has been spoken.
It seems to have originated as a religious oath, based on the Catholic sign of the cross at the beginning of the 20th century.
E.g.: “I saw them together, cross my heart and hope to die.”



In 1914 the American actress Pearl White, known as the Silent Serial Queen, starred the multi-chaptered film The Perils of Pauline. Each episode ended with Pauline in dangerous situations which left the audience anxiously waiting for the next chapter to learn if she had managed to escape.
One particular episode in which the star was hanging from a cliff above a river gave origin to the expression cliffhanger which defines a situation in which people wait in suspense because they don’t know what will happen next.


Only occasionally on a very clear night the moon takes on a blue tinge. This phenomenon seems to explain the origin of the expression “Once in a blue moon” which means very infrequently, hardly at all, almost never.
A second theory, however, holds that this expression derives from a sixteenth century rhyme: “If they say the moon is blue we must believe that it is true.”


“No spring chicken” is a humorous expression applied particularly to a woman who looks no longer young or youthful.
In the 19th century farmers discovered that customers in the marketplace preferred the tender chickens born in the spring, for which they were ready to pay higher prices. When a farmer offered a tough fowl as a spring born chicken a wise buyer would often complain that the old bird was “NO spring chicken”.


“To start off on the wrong foot" means to begin badly. This phrase derives from the ancient Romans who held that anything related to the left side was guided by evil spirits. Their Gods only guarded the right side. Such was their dread of the evil consequences of the left side things that guards were usually appointed at the doors of public buildings to ensure that citizens obeyed the right foot rule. It is interesting to point out that the Latin word for left is sinister.