Do You Know These Expressions Your Ancestors Used? (Part 2)

Introduction: In this article (Part 2), Jessica Edwards continues 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!

Idioms (figurative phrases) have been used throughout the centuries and may appear in what was said or written by our ancestors. Understanding these expressions will help you better understand what your ancestors were saying – and finding out the history of these sayings can be quite entertaining!

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

  • Alike as two peas in a pod: means you are describing something/someone that is so similar in appearance to another thing/person that they are first thought to be twins. This is sometimes given as “like as two peas” and is quite old. Versions of it date from the 16th century; for example, John Lyly used the phrase in his 1580 novel Euphues and his England.
  • Being head over heels in love: I have an ancestor who was described as “being head over heels in love,” which is an idiom that can be found dating back to the 1300s to describe someone who was “heels over head,” or upside down. The current form was first seen in the 1700s and was inferring that you were so in love it was like your world was turned upside down.
  • Hit the hay: this idiom dates back to at least the Middle Ages, when people would take a mattress tick (kind of like a huge pillow case) and stuff it with hay or straw and then it would be sewn shut and you would use it as a mattress (so when you went to bed you literally “hit the hay”).
  • I’ll chew the cud before I answer: this idiom dates back to at least 1382, when it appears in a written record and compares a person pondering a thought to a patiently ruminating cow. It means you wanted to think about it before answering.
  • It’s a red herring: an idiom used to describe a feature of literature (especially mystery stories). It means a clue that was meant to mislead or distract someone. This came from the 17th century, when hunters would train their dogs to follow the correct scent. They would do this by placing pungent smoked fish in trees to distract the dogs, to train them to get used to ignoring irrelevant scents.
  • It’s always darkest before the dawn: means things will get worse before they get better. It was first used by English theologian Thomas Fuller in 1650. It appeared in his work A Pisgah-Sight of Palestine and the Confines Thereof.
  • Let’s get hitched: this originated in America and was initially used to describe tying horses to wagons. Later, it was used to describe two people getting married, implying that two people were being tied together just like a horse is tied to a wagon.
  • Making goo-goo eyes at someone: this is believed to be an alteration of the word “goggle,” which is first seen as a verb meaning “to turn the eyes to one side or the other” in the 14th century. English writer Samuel Butler, in his 17th-century narrative poem Hudibras, used the verb in the phrase “wink, and goggle like an owl.” In time, goggle began to be used as an adjective to mean “protuberant” or “staring” (as in “the close-up focused on the actor’s enormous goggle eyes”), used in the 18th century. The related term “googly-eyed” is then used, but it was not until circa 1900 that it came to mean a foolishly sentimental, romantic, or amorous glance.
  • May-December romance: if you read that an ancestor had a “May-December romance,” it means that one of the pair was quite a bit older than the other. It is thought that the term came from a story in The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Middle Ages.
  • Pure as the driven snow: this could be either considered a compliment or a negative description of someone. As a compliment, it translated to chaste and innocent, and dates to the 1500s when the word “driven” (meaning carried by the wind into drifts) was occasionally omitted. This meaning has fallen from favor in the last 20 years, when the negative connotation came into usage to describe someone naïve to the point of being simple minded.
  • Someone has kicked the bucket: means that someone has died. During the 16th century, butchers would slaughter animals by hanging them on a wooden beam, which was called a “bucket” at that time. When the animals were killed, many of them would have a sudden convulsion, causing them to kick violently into the “bucket.”
  • There is no love lost between them: means two people don’t like each other, or perhaps even hate one another. This term originated in the 1500s and, until about 1800, could indicate either extreme love or extreme hate. The former was meant in “No love between these two was lost, each was to the other kind” from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, published in 1765 but consisting of material from an earlier time.
  • To speak of the devil: used to describe when someone you have just been discussing arrives. It originated in England, where it was, and still is, more often given as “talk of the devil.” This idiom appears in various Latin and Old English texts from the 16th century. The Italian writer Giovanni Torriano has the first recorded version in contemporary English, in his Piazza Universale from 1666: “The English say, Talk of the Devil, and he’s presently at your elbow.”
  • Walking around with their head in the clouds: means they are daydreaming or not paying attention to things around them. This idiom dates back to the 1600s, according to scholars.

More to come!

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

Related Articles:

5 thoughts on “Do You Know These Expressions Your Ancestors Used? (Part 2)

  1. While reading Josephus’s “Antiquities of the Jews,” I came across these idioms that go back to first century BC/AD.

    1. When Antipater had thus TAKEN OFF his brethren, and had brought his father into the highest degree of impiety, …Now all Antipater’s contrivances tended to make his way to TAKE OFF Herod,


    166. The occasion was this: This Matthias the high priest, on the night before that day when the fast was to be celebrated, seemed, in a dream, to have CONVERSATION with his wife; and because he could not officiate himself on that account,

    To “take(n) off” is to have someone killed.

    “conversation” is to have sex.

    1. Thank you for these–I didn’t realize these words meant these things. I will be doing some more research into these!
      Jessica Edwards

  2. The idea of “getting hitched” probably had to do with the hitching of a pair of horses, which then had to pull together to get a heavy load moving, just as two people have to pull together to make a marriage go well.

    1. In my researching this term I found that people think this might be the meaning but I was unable to find when they were thought to have started being used so didn’t include it. I had several other idioms dealing with marriage that ran into the same problem.
      I appreciate the idiom and continue to try to find sources for ones I haven’t included so far.
      Happy Hunting!

      1. The concept of pairing up two horses as a team to pull one wagon is the only explanation I had ever heard – I’m 66 years old! Never had I heard it mention the horse is hitched to the wagon because they are totally different things. In this form, the horse pulls the weight of the wagon. That sounds like a caveman dragging a captured wife by the hair back to his cave after clubbing her unconscious to stop her from resisting him!

        Whereas the concept of pairing two humans together to accomplish what neither could do alone just makes more sense to me.

        I understand Jessica Edwards’ desire to provide actual historical uses of phrase and meaning, but these phrases always had sound reasoning behind them. I believe my version is more likely despite its assumption of sexual equality which did not really exist in antiquity. Still, I think the pairing of similar things makes more sense than pairing an animal to an inanimate object.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.