Learning the origins of idioms…

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a post on idioms from the blog Grammarly….

An idiom is a phrase with a meaning not deducible from the individual words. Here are some examples: Does the cat have your tongue? It’s raining cats and dogs! Don’t buy a pig in a poke.

I’ve always loved learning about the origins of these phrases and the delightful 1987 book The Whole Hog, by Oliver Dalton and Gray Jolliffe has long held a place of honour on my bookshelves. (It appears to be out of print now, but you can acquire it from used booksellers such as Abe Books.) From this title I learned that country fairs gave rise the phrase “a pig in a poke.” Apparently, a hundred or so years ago, rogues would use the fairs to sell animals tied up in small sacks. If the buyer opened the bag, he risked losing his piglet. If he didn’t, however, he might be sold a (relatively worthless) cat. Thus, he would have received a dubious bargain.

Recently, the website Grammarly offered its own list of explanation for such phrases. I was already familiar with many of them (particularly, “mad as a hatter”) but I was intrigued to learn the origins of “turning a blind eye.” This, of course, means to ignore facts or reality. I’ll let Grammarly explain the origins of the term:

The British Naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, [pictured above] had one blind eye. Once when the British forces signaled 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.

Isn’t it fascinating to understand the origins of these colourful phrases? Read the full Grammarly list to learn more of them.

Scroll to Top