'Stop stealing my thunder': the surprising histories of 11 common English idioms

It turns out 'letting the cat out of the bag' has nothing to do with your pet

The phrase 'Stealing your thunder' is said to date back to the 18th century. Unsplash
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The English language is full of quirky nuances and strange sayings. For the most part, the history of these words and phrases is hard to track, but popular and rather surprising theories abound for some of our most commonly used idioms.

Here are a few of the more interesting stories behind the idiosyncrasies.

'Steal your thunder'

What it means: To take praise for doing something someone else was planning to do

Example: I didn't mean to steal your thunder, but I had to tell everyone you got married

Where it's from: Most modern sources agree that the idiom stems back to the 18th century, to the playwright John Dennis. In February 1709, his play, Appius and Virginia, opened in London following six weeks of royal mourning after the death of Queen Anne's husband, Prince George of Denmark. Unfortunately, it didn't go down well with audiences, who described it as boring, and so was shut down after four nights. This is despite the fact he'd invented a machine that mimicked the sound of thunder better than any other device that came before it.

Some nights later, Dennis went to the opening night of his play's successor, a production of Macbeth, and recognised that all too familiar sound. He supposedly got up and shouted from the gallery: "They will not let my play run … but they steal my thunder!"

'Let the cat out of the bag'

What it means: Reveal a secret

Example: Vera let the cat out of the bag and told me about my surprise birthday party

Where it's from: As with many of these idioms, it's hard to know for sure, but the first recorded use of this phrase dates back to 1760, when it was spotted in a book review that ran in The London Magazine.

There are two particularly popular suggested explanations for where it originated. One is linked to livestock fraud, when merchants sold live piglets in a sack and sometimes swapped them for cats when their customer wasn’t looking. The buyer would only find out when they got home and, well, let the cat out of the bag.

The other theory is connected to the British Royal Navy and the cat o’ nine tails that was infamously used as an instrument of punishment aboard ships. The whip was often kept in a sack, so any sailor who revealed their transgressions, and was therefore punished, was said to be “letting the cat out of the bag”.

'Give the cold shoulder'

What it means: To be unfriendly or deliberately ignore someone

Example: After the truth came out, her friends gave her the cold shoulder

Where it's from: Again, it's not entirely clear where this originated, but its first use is said to date back to 1816, to Sir Walter Scott's The Antiquary, in which he wrote: "The Countess's dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o' the cauld shouther." But there's no particular explanation for its use.

Instead, a commonly peddled theory is that the idiom originates from the early 1800s, when it was usual to serve guests a hot meal when they came to your home. When someone wasn’t welcome, however, they would be given the cold shoulder of mutton, as it was thought to be a tough and inferior dish, and deliberately served to convey displeasure.

They do also say revenge is a dish best served cold, after all.

'Butter someone up'

What it means: To praise or flatter someone excessively, usually because you want a favour

Example: John was just trying to butter up his boss so he could win that promotion

Where it's from: The most popular theory comes from ancient India, where it is said that people used to throw balls of ghee at statues of the gods when looking for good fortune or asking for favours. There's another, older custom that's said to come from Tibet, where people would craft sculptures out of butter around New Year in order to attract peace and happiness.

It might not have anything to do with either of these traditions, however, as others argue it’s more visual than that: slathering butter on a piece of bread is like smoothly spreading compliments on a person.

We like the one from ancient India best.

To 'butter someone up' means to excessively flatter someone. Unsplash
To 'butter someone up' means to excessively flatter someone. Unsplash

'Pulling your leg'

What it means: To joke with or tease someone

Example: Don't worry, he didn't mean it, he was only pulling your leg

Where it's from: For a phrase that's meant to connote playfulness, its suspected origins are actually quite sinister. It comes from 19th-century England, when street robbers would use a wire in order to trip people up and then steal their victim's valuables.

'Cost an arm and a leg'

What it means: Something that is very expensive

Example: That beautiful artwork must have cost an arm and a leg

Where it's from: This is often said to come from the days before cameras, when people had their portraits painted. It has been suggested that artists charged higher prices for works that depicted limbs. This theory has been widely discredited, however.

The phrase is perhaps more likely to have been coined after the First World War or the Second World War, when soldiers lost arms and legs, and it was considered to be a high price to pay for their country. It’s also been linked to the American Civil War, when Congress introduced a special pension for soldiers who had lost both an arm and a leg. The phrase crops up in newspaper archives about 1901 when referring to war injuries.

It’s also possible that it’s an amalgamation of two earlier 19th-century expressions: “I would give my right arm for …” and “Even if it takes a leg”.

'Bite the bullet'

What it means: Do something you've been putting off or don't want to do

Example: You've just got to bite the bullet and go to the dentist

Where it's from: Its use seems to come from the battlefields, when soldiers were given a bullet to bite on when enduring pain. The ammunition was somewhat malleable, so a patient wouldn't break their teeth while biting down.

The phrase was also used way back in 1891 by Rudyard Kipling, in his novel The Light That Failed. He wrote: "'Steady, Dickey, steady!' said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. 'Bite on the bullet, old man, and don't let them think you're afraid.'" Its use here relates to the British way of keeping a "stiff upper lip" and showing courage.

Soldiers would bite bullets while enduring pain. Unsplash
Soldiers would bite bullets while enduring pain. Unsplash

'Turn a blind eye'

What it means: Pretend not to notice something

Example: Jerry knows the grocery store staff have been stealing lemons, but he's turned a blind eye to it

Where it's from: This idiom is popularly attributed to Horatio Nelson, who was blind in his right eye. During the first battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the naval officer led the British attack, and the fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Parker told Nelson to back off, but Nelson was convinced he could win if he persevered. Writer Robert Southey says in The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson (1813) that the officer said: "I have only one eye – I have a right to be blind sometimes … I really do not see the signal!"

It’s possible this moment ended up popularising the phrase, but Nelson didn’t coin it, as earlier references to the idiom do exist.

One of the earliest is said to come from More Letters from Martha Wilmot: Impressions of Vienna, 1819-1829, in which one sentence reads: "Turn a blind eye and a deaf ear every now and then, and we get on marvellously well."

'Beat around the bush'

What it means: Avoid approaching a subject directly; speaking in a roundabout way

Example: Stop beating around the bush and just tell me exactly what you mean

Where it's from: Most people seem to agree on the origins of this strange phrase. It was common practice, back in the early 15th century, for hunters to beat bushes with sticks – or to hire people to beat bushes – in order to rouse birds from their hiding place. So beating the bush was said to be the preamble to the main event – which was actually hunting the bird.

'Under the weather'

What it means: Feeling sick or ill

Example: I'm feeling under the weather today, so I'm going to rest

Where it's from: This has its roots in maritime language, and was originally said to be "under the weather rail". When a sailor was ill or seasick, which was often thanks to bad weather conditions and the rocking back and forth of the ship, they went below deck, to where the vessel was most stable. This was under the weather rail. That was back in the 1800s and the idiom has since been shortened to "under the weather", but it has long remained a popular saying.

Sailors would go below deck when they felt seasick, to the most stable part of the vessel. Unsplash
Sailors would go below deck when they felt seasick, to the most stable part of the vessel. Unsplash

'Spill the beans'

What it means: Reveal a secret accidentally or maliciously

Example: Hannah has never been good at keeping a secret – she'll spill the beans

Where it's from: This phrase is most commonly said to hark back to the voting system of ancient Greece. Candidates are said to have left their upturned helmets in a line so voters could cast their ballot using a bean and whoever had the most beans would win. The newly elected official would spill the beans from their helmet before putting it on their head, symbolic of them accepting the position.

It has also been said that differently coloured beans were put in jars in order to cast votes, and if one spilled the beans, the result would be revealed early.

There are a number of variations on this story, but they all seem to stem from the same place.