Can You Guess the Origins of These Phrases?

Becky Stigall

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

Whether they originate in another era, another country or another language, few of the phrases we use today are original to us. Take this quiz to find out how well you know the origins of these phrases.

We know that the phrase "bite the bullet" means to suck it up, but can you guess what prompted the use of the phrase?

In the early days before anesthesia, sometimes during battle, a patient might be given a bullet to bite down on to distract him from pain. It didn't really work.

The expression "cat got your tongue" has nothing to do with felines, but which other "cat"?

Some say the origin comes from punishment. The British Navy used the cat-o'-nine-tails as a way to whip insubordinates into shape. This cat whip was so painful, its victims were rendered (temporarily) silent.

To "butter someone up" is a phrase from what culture?

In Indian culture, a devout person might throw balls of butter at certain gods and goddesses to solicit favor. Butter must have been pretty valuable!

Someone who is "mad as a hatter" might be from 17th century ______.

One theory involves hatmakers in the 1600s Hats were made with mercury, which was poisonous - symptoms of mercury poisoning include shaking and irritability. And you thought it was from "Alice in Wonderland."

To be "caught red-handed" was to be caught doing something wrong. But what wrongdoing might have spurred the use of the phrase?

Way back in English history, it was impossible to convict someone of killing someone else's animal unless the accused had the animal's blood on his hands.

The phrase "barking up the wrong tree" has its origins in what activity?

Hound dogs who literally barked up the wrong tree to signal prey that had already escaped elsewhere, were the originators of this phrase.

Someone who "turns a blind eye" is clearly ignoring reality. But with whom did the phrase originate?

One-eyed captain, Admiral Horatio Nelson, was blind in one eye. He was said to have once put his scope up to his blind eye and ignored a direct order while at war.

One might "bury the hatchet" to make peace, but what peacemakers were the originators of this phrase?

When Native Americans were engaged in peace talks, they would literally bury their weapons to ensure they could not access them.

The phrase "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" has what murky origins?

Back when folks didn't bathe very often, an entire family would bathe using the same basin of water, oldest to youngest. By the time the babies were bathed, the water was so dirty, mom and dad might not notice that baby was in the basin before tossing the contents out a window.

Someone who gets the "cold shoulder" might be unwelcome, according to what tradition?

An unwelcome guest might be served a piece of meat from the shoulder of the beast back in old England. Being served this way meant it was time to leave.

To go the "whole nine yards" meant you tried your best. This phrase originated in what combative situation?

During World War II, soldiers had nine yards of ammo. Once that ammo was used up, the soldier was considered to have fought to the best of his ability.

If you "let your hair down," you are likely to be relaxed. But where did the phrase originate?

Medieval women wore their hair in elaborate and stiff styles. The could only let the hair down and relax when they were at home and not receiving guests.

To "rub someone the wrong way" is annoying. The expression may have originated with what practice?

Cats certainly do become annoyed if you rub their fur backwards. Doing so might even earn you a bite.

When something is "above board," we know it is legit. What tricky practice might have spurred the origins of this phrase?

A card dealer who had his hands above board (above the table) was unlikely to be able to stack the deck.

The expression, "armed to the teeth" has its origins in what practice?

By one theory, pirates would carry so many weapons with them that they might have to carry a knife between their teeth. At least they were prepared.

Some people take it to the limit and go "balls to the wall," but what high-flying origins did this phrase have?

Throttle/fuel levers had a ball atop the lever. Pushing the lever forward as far as it would go is where this phrase origninated.

"Beating around the bush" signifies avoidance. This phrase likely originated as part of what activity?

While hunting it is sometimes necessary to beat the bush to flush out prey. A hunter who beats around the bush is working his way to what is important.

Someone who has "cold feet" is reluctant to do something. This phrase most likely originated with what pursuit?

A soldier with cold feet moves slower than one who doesn't.

One would be disappointed by a "flash in the pan," a phrase that has what explosive origins?

In older weapons, gunpowder might flash but not engage. This would have been obviously disappointing.

Someone who "gets your goat" is likely to be irritating. But where did this equine phrase originate?

Interestingly, placing a goat in the stall with a nervous horse serves to calm the horse. Before a race, if an opponent wanted a horse to lose, he would steal the goat, causing the horse to become irritated.

Who "let the cat out of the bag," and where did this trade phrase originate?

Farmers used to bring suckling pigs to market in a bag. Dishonest farmers would substitute the piglet with a cat. Letting the cat out of the bag disclosed the ruse.

The phrase "making the grade" originated with what transportation industry?

This phrase has nothing to do with academics, but was rather the result of ensuring that a railroad track was graded properly to avoid steep inclines.

Most people hate encountering someone who is "mealy mouthed." But what ancient origins does this phrase have?

"Mealy mouthed" comes from a German phrase. The idea is that a person with a mouth full of meal or grain can't speak clearly.

If your "ears are burning," you know someone is talking about you. This ancient phrase has its roots in what culture?

In ancient Rome, people had a tendency to assign meaning to physical manifestations. Interestingly only a tingling/burning of the right ear meant someone was speaking well of you. If it was the left ear, better watch out for trouble.

If you're "over a barrel," you're probably in trouble. This phrase originated when?

During the mid-1900s, suspending someone over a barrel was sometimes prep for a flogging. Other times it was a strategy to clear the lungs of someone who nearly drowned.

"Passing the buck" has nothing to do with money. This phrase originated as a result of what pastime?

During old card games, a buck (jacknife) was passed around to signify which player was next to be the dealer.

When we "pull out all the stops," we give something our all. This phrase has its origins in what activity?

If an organ player pulled out all the stops of his/her organ, the instrument could be played at its loudest and fullest.

The phrase "raining cats and dogs" has what ancient origins?

In Norse mythology, cats and dogs are representative of rain and wind, respectively. That inspires one theory for the phrase's origin.

The phrase "up to scratch" originated with what activity?

Boxing once required opponents to meet at a line scratched on the ground. A boxer who did not approach the scratch forfeited the match.

We know that crocodiles don't cry, so where did the old phrase "crocodile tears" come from?

During ancient times, it was rumored that crocodiles wept while consuming their prey.

The phrase "resting on your laurels" has what origin?

In ancient Greece, notable individuals were awarded laurel leaf crowns. They then displayed these awards to celebrate past achievements.

If you've been "read the riot act," you've been the recipient of a phrase with what legal origins?

During the 18th century, the Riot Act was enacted to quell mobs. The act would be read aloud to angry gatherings.

If you've ever "painted the town red," you know that it's a sign of revelry. What celebratory roots does this phrase have?

The Marquis of Waterford and his celebrating buddies literally painted parts of Melton Mowbray red during a night of drunken fun.

The phrase "run amok" has its roots in what serious business?

The phrase comes from a Malaysian word that essentially means "going postal" - attacking with rage.

If you've ever gotten "the third degree," you may have wondered what mysterious origins this phrase has?

Freemasons must undergo rigorous vetting before proceeding to the next degree, or level, of membership.

About HowStuffWorks Play

How much do you know about dinosaurs? What is an octane rating? And how do you use a proper noun? Lucky for you, HowStuffWorks Play is here to help. Our award-winning website offers reliable, easy-to-understand explanations about how the world works. From fun quizzes that bring joy to your day, to compelling photography and fascinating lists, HowStuffWorks Play offers something for everyone. Sometimes we explain how stuff works, other times, we ask you, but we’re always exploring in the name of fun! Because learning is fun, so stick with us!

Explore More Quizzes