British Navy

I’m surrounded by idioms

Ah, English. It’s an illogical, nonsensical beast, which is one of the reasons why I love it. And one of the things that makes it so colourful is the idioms we use. So in this post I’m looking at the origins of some of my favourites.


I’m sure you already know what an idiom is. But just in case you need a reminder, I googled it to see if there’s an easy way to explain it. And I got this: ‘a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words’. So it turns out there isn’t an easy way to explain it then. It makes more sense when you look at examples though. One famous idiom is ‘she flew off the handle’. If you’re a native English speaker then you know this doesn’t have anything to do with handles, or aeronautics. It means that she went freaking mental. So that’s an idiom – a phrase that means more than the sum of its wordy parts.

With that (hopefully) understood, here we go…

That really gets my goat

Translation: That really pisses me off

So this comes from a rather sweet tradition in horse racing. Racehorse owners used to put goats in stables to relax them (the horse, not the owner). In the dead of night nasty rivals would sneak in and remove the goats (BOOOOOO). The horse would miss its goaty pal, have a terrible night’s sleep and lose the race the next day. Awww.

Despite muchos googling, I can’t work out if goats still live in sin with racehorses. I hope they do though. I did find this article about an anxious horse being calmed down by a goat friend though, which I guarantee will make you day 77.3% better.

Here’s a picture of a rather coquettish goat I met recently.

Here’s a picture of a rather coquettish goat I met recently.

He turned a blind eye

Translation: He knows what’s happening but he’s choosing to ignore it

Picture the scene. It’s 1801. The naval Battle of Copenhagen is raging. Admiral Horatio Nelson stands on the deck of his ship. He’s watching for orders by signal flag from his superiors. They come, and he’s told to retreat. But he’s Nelson. He’s a badass. He doesn’t want to retreat. So he turns to the flag captain and says ‘…I only have one eye – I have the right to be blind sometimes.’ Then he holds his telescope to his blind eye and says: ‘I really do not see the signal,’ and continues to advance. Hence, ‘turn a blind eye’.

(The British fleet won the battle BTW.)

They’re buttering HER up

Translation: To kiss someone’s arse, usually because you want a favour

From what I can work out, the origin of this one is just an imagery thing – because spreading butter on a piece of bread is like spreading nice words on someone (which is a bit weird, but whatever floats your boat). There’s another more interesting theory though. In India, people used to throw little balls of ghee butter at statues of gods when they were asking them for a favour. Which is much nicer, right? So let’s go with that.

he let the cat out of the bag

Translation: he told someone SOMETHING he shouldn’t have

I found two origins for this one, neither of which are particularly cheery, sorry. The first one is about the infamous cat o’ nine tails, a super-nasty whip used by the Royal Navy to punish naughty sailors. So called because its nine knotted cords scratched (although ‘scratched’ seems like a bit of an understatement) unfortunate seamen’s backs, the whip was kept in a leather bag to protect it from the salty sea air. So when this particular cat came out of the bag something bad would happen, which in time came to be equated with letting something slip when you shouldn’t. (If you’d like to find out more about the cat o’ nine tails, you weirdo, go here.)

If that all sounds a bit tenuous, try this one on for size. A second origin story is that when a livestock merchant sold a piglet, they’d put it in a sack for the customer to take home. Then, when the customer wasn’t looking, unscrupulous vendors would swap it for a less-valuable cat, and still have a piglet to sell to someone else. This all sounds a bit made up to me. For a start, cats aren’t known for being passive animals, so I find it hard to believe that one would lie quietly in a sack and wait until someone got it home before making a sound. I also can’t find anything much online which says this type of fraud was common (although pigs were definitely sold in bags – that’s where we get the idiom ‘pig in a poke’ from). The Spanish equivalent of this phrase is dar gato por liebre which means ‘giving a cat instead of a hare’ which makes a bit more sense. Maybe.

They pulled out all the stops

TRANSLATION: They did absolutely everything they could to succeed

Photo by  Rachael Cox  on  Unsplash

Photo by Rachael Cox on Unsplash

This is about big organs. No, not those kind of organs, you dirty so-and-so. The pipe ones. Ready for some in-depth pipe organ info? Of course you are! So, pipe organs are made up of pipes (obvs), keyboards, pedals and stops. You play the keyboards with your fingers and pedals with your feet (again, obvs). You also pull out or push in the stops, knobs which control the pipes (newer organs have electronic stops). Closing a stop mutes a particular pipe, while opening it makes the sound of the pipe really loud. So pulling out all the stops will mean your organ (stop it) is particularly loud and amazing-sounding.

Got a favourite idiom?

Tell me about it in the comments. (I hate saying things like this, because no one ever comments and I look sad and desperate. So go on, throw me a bone.)