Genealogy Tip: Idioms through the Ages

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards describes the meanings and origins of idioms (figurative phrases) 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 idioms will help you better understand what your ancestors were saying – and finding out the history of these sayings can be quite entertaining!

Below is a list of 24 common phrases, followed by a chart showing their meanings and date of publication – or (if mentioned in correspondence) the date they were written. Can you put them in chronological order from oldest to newest? The answers appear in the following chart.

Happy Hunting!

Idioms:

_____ A) A piece of cake
_____ B) A taste of your own medicine
_____ C) Add fuel to the fire
_____ D) Big cheese
_____ E) Blessing in disguise
_____ F) Bring home the bacon
_____ G) Burning one’s boats
_____ H) Call it a night
_____ I) A dime a dozen
_____ J) A piece of cake
_____ K) Actions speak louder than words
_____ L) Apple of someone’s eye
_____ M) Bigger fish to fry
_____ N) Can’t cut the mustard
_____ O) Caught between a rock and a hard place
_____ P) Clam up
_____ Q) Come hell or high water
_____ R) Costs an arm and a leg
_____ S) Couch potato
_____ T) Cut to the chase
_____ U) Dead ringer
_____ V) Don’t judge a book by its cover
_____ W) Every dog has his day
_____ X) For the love of God (or something else)

Answers (oldest to newest):

IdiomMeaning and Origin
A taste of your own medicineWhen someone receives the same treatment, usually negative, that they gave someone else (in “Aesop’s Fables,” written sometime between 620 and 564 B.C.)
Add fuel to the fireSomething that worsens an already bad situation (first used about 1 A.D. by Roman historian Titus Livius in his “History of Rome”)
Burning one’s boatsTo act in a way that destroys any chance of returning to the way things were (in 711 A.D. the Muslim army entered the Iberian Peninsula; their commander, Taria bin Ziyad, ordered his boats to be burned so that his men would have to conquer the country or be killed)
Apple of someone’s eyeTo be loved and adored (attributed to King Alfred the Great of 885 A.D. in Wessex, England, in his translation of Pope Gregory’s “Pastoral Care”)
Bring home the baconTo make money (supposedly came from a story dated to 1104 in Great Dunmow, in Essex, England, of how a couple so demonstrated their marital devotion to the Prior of Little Dunmow that he awarded them a flitch – side – of bacon)
Big cheeseThe person in charge (first appeared in English in roughly 1200 A.D.)
Every dog has his dayEveryone gets their chance to do something big (recorded as being said by Elizabeth I in a letter to her brother sometime during her reign from 1558 to 1603)
Actions speak louder than wordsIt’s better to do something than just talk about it (by John Pym, the English parliamentarian, recorded in 1628 in Hansard, in the record of the proceedings of the UK parliament)
Bigger fish to fryI have more important things to do (first published in “The Memoirs” by English writer and gardener John Evelyn in 1660)
Blessing in disguiseSomething good and beneficial that did not initially seem that way (in James Hervey’s hymn “Since All the Downward Tracts of Time” in 1746)
Caught between a rock and a hard placeMaking a choice between two unpleasant choices (in Homer’s “Odyssey,” which was written down sometime between 750-650 B.C.)
Call it a nightGoing to bed (it was originally “call it half a day,” first recorded in 1838, which referred to leaving one’s place of employment before the work day was over)
Come hell or high waterYou are willing to do everything to accomplish it no matter what obstacles in your path (the first printed reference comes from an Iowa newspaper, the “Burlington Weekly Hawk Eye,” dated May 1882)
Dead ringerSomeone the same as someone else (this idiom was used in the “Manitoba Free Press” in October 1882 to describe a horse that was substituted for another, similar in appearance, in order to defraud the bookies)
Can’t cut the mustardCan’t keep up with the competition (it first appeared in the 1889 edition of the “Ottawa Herald” referencing President Cleveland, saying he “couldn’t cut the mustard”
Clam upTo stop talking (first seen in the 1910s in print)
Cut to the chaseSkip the irrelevant parts, and go straight to the main point (believed to have come about in the era of the silent films in the beginning of the 1920s, when audiences preferred the chase scenes to those scenes involving dialogue (shown as captions on screen)
For the love of God (or something else)Consider what I’m saying (usually said in frustration; “Pete” and “Mike” were euphemisms for God used since the early 1920s – this idiom used by James Joyce in his 1922 book “Ulysses”)
A dime a dozenSomething that is very common (first published in 1931 in the “Northern Miner” newspaper)
A piece of cakeSomething that is easy to understand or accomplish (Ogden Nash is the first known to have used it, in a poem in his 1936 book “Primrose Path”)
Don’t judge a book by its coverDon’t judge someone or something by how it looks (attributed to a 1944 edition of the “African Journal of American Speech”)
Costs an arm and a legSomething that is overpriced or very expensive (first published in a December 1949 edition of the “Long Beach Independent”: “Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say ‘Merry Christmas’ and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.”)
Couch potatoA sedentary person who spends a lot of time seated, often watching TV (first seen in an American cartoon in the 1970s that showed two idle and inactive characters which were named “Couch Potatoes”)

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

2 thoughts on “Genealogy Tip: Idioms through the Ages

  1. “Cost an arm and a leg” is a saying dating back to early years (1600-1869) and was about a painter that painted portraits. He would charge more for putting in arms and legs. So most people just had their faces painted. That is where the saying started. It cost an arm and a leg to have the full portrait done.

    1. Thank you for adding this as a source as it wasn’t in any of the books and sites I used to research but it makes sense! Do you mind telling me where you learned this?
      Happy hunting!

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