‘Curiosity Killed the Cat’ or What Your Ancestor Really Meant

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards begins her discussion of the meanings and origins of idioms (figurative phrases) that our ancestors used. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 21,000 people to her family tree!

In your research of your ancestor’s life, you may occasionally read things by and/or about them that may not make sense. For example, you may read in their diary that “Curiosity killed the cat” – but since that is an impossibility, you wonder what they really meant. In actuality, this saying is what is termed an idiom, or may be a proverb or adage depending on what the phrase contains.

A proverb could become an idiom if it was written without the “don’t” in the phrase, and an adage is a short saying that expresses practical or basic truths. The difference between an idiom and a proverb or adage is that an idiom is a saying in which the meaning cannot be derived from the individual words, while proverbs and adages give clear advice. In other words, idioms use figurative language and are not meant to be taken literally.

Many famous authors and storytellers, like Homer, Aesop, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, used idioms to bring life to their writings. The origins of some of the idioms they used may be lost to time, but sometimes they are traceable to a particular source, custom, speech pattern, or language. Many idioms may appear to be illogical or ungrammatical to non-native speakers because they evolve from popular usages.

“New idioms come along all the time,” says Arnold Zwicky, adjunct professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “There are several sources for idioms, but the big contributor is figurative language, especially metaphors.”

A new term that’s quickly slipping from metaphor to idiom, Zwicky says, is “all the way up.” It comes from the 2016 song “All the Way Up” by rappers Fat Joe and Remy Ma, and means “to be at the pinnacle of your emotional spectrum.” The term was then incorporated into 2017 Mountain Dew commercials.

Slang and idioms are related, says Robin Lakoff, a professor emerita of linguistics at University of California, Berkeley. But, she adds, “slang changes rapidly while idioms seem to hang around. Slang is created and used largely by outgroups, but everyone picks up on and uses idioms.”

Here are three very common idioms, with their origin and meaning:

  • “Curiosity killed the cat” came from a play written by Ben Johnson in 1598 and is meant to say: “Being too curious or inquisitive can be dangerous.”
  • “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has existed for centuries in various forms, but it is mainly credited to Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in 1878 and means: “What looks beautiful to one person may not look beautiful to another.”
  • “Back to the drawing board” is attributed to the artist Peter Arno in about 1941 and means: “It is time to start over” or “We need to start from the beginning.”

Idioms are not complete thoughts and often need additional context to give them meaning. But idioms make the English language funny, vibrant and enriching to learn. Many of us use idioms often in our daily conversations, even without being aware of it. That is quite understandable: there are nearly 25,000 phrases in the English language that are deemed to be idioms, according to several sources!

I have put together a list of almost 250 idioms from around the world, with their meaning and an ascribed origin (if I’ve attributed it to another language, I have also tried to include the phrase in the original language). Since that collection is extensive, I have broken it into smaller lists in a way that allows you to test yourself to see what you know or can guess (the answers will follow each list). I will be presenting these lists in the weeks ahead here on the GenealogyBank Blog.

I hope you enjoy this, and perhaps it will allow you to better understand what your ancestors may have meant in their letters and diaries – as well as increase your knowledge and vocabulary.

Happy Hunting!

Note on the header image: “Genealogy” logo designed and copyrighted by Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

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