The surprising origin of everyday expressions

Have you ever stopped and wondered why we say certain phrases? If you think about it, why on earth would you tell someone to “break a leg” when they’re about to go on stage? But of course, it dates back to a theatrical superstition where wishing a person good luck is believed to bring bad luck. Here are the origins of four more everyday expressions.

“Raining cats and dogs”

A popular (but false) theory of this expression states that dogs and cats used to sleep in thatched roofs and were washed away during heavy storms. This has been discredited as thatched roofs were naturally water resistant and to fall off the roof, pets would have had to be sleeping on them outside – unlikely during a heavy rain or storm.

Etymologists believe it likely originated from a 1592 sentence by Gabriel Harvey that states: “Instead of thunderboltes shooteth nothing but dogboltes or catboltes.” Dog bolts were iron bolts to lock a door or a gate, while cat bolts were used to fasten together pieces of wood. So Harvey was likening heavy rain to metal bolts falling from the sky. The “bolt” was eventually dropped to make it easier to say but this also caused the phrase to no longer make much sense.  

“Rule of thumb”

It was once believed that the phrase “rule of thumb” derived from 18th century British law, which said it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife if he used stick no wider a thumb. Thankfully, this law never existed and the term came from the much less gristly origins. Instead, the phrase developed from our own long history for using thumbs to estimate measurements.

It’s believed this phrase dates all the way back to the time where there was a real risk of people being buried alive. While it’s true that there were bell ropes in cemeteries so people could ring the bell if they woke up in their coffins, it’s not the real origin of the phrase. It comes from 19th century boxing slang. When a boxer was about to be defeated but the bell rang for the end of the round, he was considered “saved by the bell.”

“Dead ringer”

This was also thought to derive from people buried alive ringing a bell but it comes from the horse racing industry. Cheating owners would switch two similar looking horses to gain an advantage in races. The word “ringer” comes from the old slang meaning of “ring”, which meant to exchange something counterfeit for real.

Did you know the origin of these expressions? Let us know in the comments.

This article was written in partnership with Over60.