The Apache Pow Wow

Idioms

Cindy Tse, Staff Writer

Idioms, phrases or expressions usually intended to convey a figurative rather than literal meaning, sound pretty odd when used in everyday conversation. The ideas they convey don’t quite translate well into reality. Usually we find that metaphors are much better for drawing comparisons. But idioms are far more interesting―they offer a look at tidbits of different aspects of culture past and present. The wide variety of sources they come from and their status as a staple in any given language are like a glimpse into places and times gone.

 

“Bite the bullet.”

To bite the bullet is to take a hit, or accept and soldier through something unpleasant. The saying comes from a tactic surgeons used to employ when dealing with difficult procedures. Though anesthesia use has always been prevalent, doctors working quickly or with a lot of people did not always have the luxury of employing it. This was particularly true on the battlefield, so physicians would have to ask patients to bite on a bullet to keep their mind off the pain while they operated.

 

“Dead as a doornail.”

Saying someone or something is dead as a doornail is exactly sounds. The subject in question is as full of life as an inanimate object. Older renditions of this phrase drew on other things commonly seen already dead or never alive to begin with, such as “dead as mutton”. The source of the nail version in particular has never been fully explained. Some speculate that it refers to the large nails used as knockers on medieval doors; visitors constantly pounding on the nail’s head on wood would certainly kill it. Others say it comes from a carpentry term, as a dead nail is one that has been pounded through wood and then flattened on the other side.

 

“Let the cat out of the bag.”

This phrase is certainly confusing, as there doesn’t seem to be any reason the cat should have been in the bag in the first place. And how does this relate to letting loose a secret? There are actually two possible origins of this phrase. The first comes from a peculiar practice at markets where vendors may trick unsuspecting customers by substituting a cat for a piglet. Since the piglet was placed inside a bag before being handed off, the buyer may not realize the switch until it was too late. The “cat” in the phrase may also be a reference to the cat o’ nine tails, a special type of whip used in torture. Perhaps the phrase is referring to how when the whip was taken out from its bag and used, secrets would be spilled.

As odd as they come, idioms have the strangest origins. Nonetheless, they’re very fun to learn about, and it gives the usage of the phrases a new flavor when you use them.

Graphic courtesy of GINGERSOFTWARE.COM

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Idioms