Five Classic Idioms and Their Surprising Origins

Explore the varied origins of five classic English idioms and how the phrases are used today.

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Dictionary entry for idiom.

Have you ever wondered why we call “shotgun” when we want to sit in the front seat? Read on to learn about five idioms and why we started using them!

Let’s start by clarifying. An idiom is a phrase that is not meant to be interpreted literally. That is, if you hadn’t already known what it meant, you might not be able to figure it out by just looking at the words themselves.

Under the Weather

Meaning: to feel ill

Origin: This idiom has nautical origins from the days when sailing was the main form of trade and transportation. When sailors were sick, they would be sent below deck to rest and stay out of the wind and rain. The warmth and relative dryness below deck would hopefully help the sailor improve since they were out of the elements that would drain their energy and worsen their condition. They were literally under the weather!

Spill the Beans

Meaning: to tell a secret

Origin: This phrase comes from ancient Greek voting processes, where individuals would use colored beans to indicate their vote. They would place their bean, white for yes and black or brown for no, into a vase, which would be tallied after all had voted. If someone dropped the vase, spilling the beans would prematurely reveal the decision of the other voters. Thus, spilling the beans is to reveal information too soon.

Illustrations of three idioms, spilling the beans, breaking the ice, and beating a bush.

Break the Ice

Meaning: to ease tension

Origin: Once, trade ships were blocked from entering ports by thick ice sheets. The port would send out small ships to break the ice into smaller pieces so the larger ships could enter unhindered. So, breaking the ice was an initiation of friendship and an invitation to enter a nation’s ports. Opening trade would also often lead to other relations between countries, and breaking the ice was the first step!

Ride Shotgun

Meaning: to ride in the front passenger seat of a car

Origin: This idiom takes us back to the American Old West, where carriage drivers would arm the person sitting in the passenger seat with a gun — usually a shotgun — to defend themselves against bandits and miscreants. This once-vital job may have disappeared, but the whispers of highway robbers echo in our vernacular.

Beat Around the Bush

Meaning: to talk around the point, to avoid the main topic

Origin: This idiom appears to have originated from medieval bird-hunting practices. Hunters would beat bushes with sticks to flush out the birds hiding in their branches. When the birds were scared out of their hiding spots into the open, the hunters could strike with ease. Hence, beating around the bush was the first step in getting to the main goal of the hunt, but not the goal itself.

Idioms in English come from all different cultures and time periods. This writer is curious to see what phrases we use now that will be turned into idioms for generations to come.