English is not an easy language to learn. Not only do you have to contend with compound expressions (like "make out" or "turn up"), but you must understand expressions that barely seem tethered to reality.

Imagine decoding the following: "You should just bite the bullet and break the ice before someone else hits on her first."

If you weren't a native speaker, you might think something violent was about to happen.

Here are the origins of idioms you take for granted, but which keep English colorful:

1. Mad as a hatter

Meaning: Crazy

Origin: You thought this came from Alice in Wonderland, but it pre-dates it. In 17th century France, hat makers used mercury in felt. As people wore (and sweated) in the felt hats, mercury poisoning occurred. "Mad Hatter Disease" provoked irritable outbursts and tremors that had the hat-wearer look loony.

2. Bite the bullet

Meaning: To do something difficult you've been putting off

Origin: In the 1800s, before anesthesia, surgery patients were given two things with which to deal with the pain: whiskey, and a lead bullet to bite down on. Boom.

3. Break the ice

Meaning: To initiate connection

Origin: When ships were the primary means of trade, they often got stuck in ice in the winter. Trade ships coming into port were frequently met by small ships sent out by the receiving nation to "break the ice," clearing the way. The gesture demonstrated welcome and understanding between the two countries.

4. Caught red-handed

Meaning: Caught in the act of doing something wrong

Origin: An old English law said you could be punished for butchering an animal that wasn't yours, but to be convicted, you had to still have the animal's blood on your hands.

5. Butter someone up

Meaning: To flatter someone in the hopes of getting them to do something for you

Origin: A customary religious act in ancient India, people threw butter balls at statues of gods to incur their favor and/or forgiveness.

6. To give someone the cold shoulder

Meaning: To be unwelcoming

Origin: In medieval England, if you were a guest and you were given a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of mutton, pork, or beef chop, you knew it meant the host wanted you to leave. It was a polite way of saying, "Please get out ... but here's some meat for your way."

7. To bite off more than you can chew

Meaning: To take on a task beyond what you're realistically capable of

Origins: America in the 1800s saw a lot of people chewing tobacco. Sometimes the chewer put more tobacco into their mouth than they could chew ... leading to some awkward backpeddling.

8. The whole nine yards

Meaning: To do everything you possibly can

Origin: In World War II, fighter pilots were rationed nine yards of ammunition. If you ran out, it meant you had tried your very best to fight off the target--you used the whole nine yards.

9. Let the cat out of the bag

Meaning: To reveal a secret by accident

Origin: Up to the 1700s, people sold pig carcasses in bags. Common street fraud included padding the bag with cats, which were worth far less than pigs. If a cat was let out of a bag, the jig was up.

10. The jig is up

Meaning: The ruse is over

Origin: It might seem like the origin should be that when the song is over, it's time to pay the fiddler, that's not the case. It's more simple: In Elizabethan England, the word "jig" became slang for a practical joke or trick.

11. To fly off the handle

Meaning: To become suddenly enraged

Origin: In the 1800s, poorly-made axes would sometimes actually detach from the handle. They could end up crashing into a house or even impaling a person, which could cost you an arm and a leg in damages.

12. To cost an arm and a leg

Meaning: To cost a lot

Origin: In the 18th century, it was common to get your portrait done--but not all portraits were equal in price. Paintings without certain limbs showing were less expensive; having visible limbs cost more.

13. Heard through the grapevine

Meaning: To get information indirectly

The first telegraph stations in the U.S. had twisting, bundling wires that often draped in random patterns around the station. Both operators and bystanders thought the tangled webs looked like grapevines, giving rise to the common expression. It was then commemorated in the famous song by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, "Heard It Through the Grapevine."

14. Riding shotgun

Meaning: To sit in the front passenger's seat

When stagecoaches were a primary mode of transportation, the seat next to the driver was often taken by someone holding a shotgun. Why? So they could ward off bandits trying to loot passengers.

15. To read someone the riot act

Meaning: To chastise loudly

King George I passed the actual Riot Act in 1714, legislation meant to squash gatherings of subjects the crown saw as threatening. "Rioters" were given one hour to disband, otherwise they were imprisoned or sentenced to penal servitude.

16. Waiting for the other shoe to drop

Meaning: Waiting for something to happen you feel is inevitable

In the tenements of New York City in the late 19th and early 20th century, apartments were built with bedrooms on top of one another. It was common to hear your upstairs neighbor take off a shoe, drop it, and then repeat the action. It became shorthand for waiting for something you knew was coming.

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Published on: Mar 17, 2018