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Idiomatic Expressions: When What We Say Is Not What We Mean

Published: January 7, 2017

We use them all the time, and never give them a second thought — idiomatic expressions. Those are the phrases we use that have a different meaning than the words used to express them.

We “hold our horses,” “bark up the wrong tree,” and “kick the bucket.” We make decisions at the “drop of a hat,” or “beat around the bush” when we do not want to come right out and say what is on our minds.

Because they are commonly used terms, we tend to understand one another when an idiom shows up in writing or conversation. What is fun, though, is delving into how these everyday bits of talk came to be. There is legend and logic, it seems, behind the ways we color our conversations.

A visit to the historic Matthew Curtiss House enlightens visitors as to the commonly held belief that to “sleep tight” means to have the ropes strung from side to side on the bed frame and holding up the old straw-filled mattresses wound tightly, to ensure a peaceful rest. There is no denying that many antique beds actually have a crank to tighten up those ropes. (The “and don’t let the bed bugs bite” that follows on the heels of a wish to “sleep tight” may refer to the fact that straw-filled mattresses, when not regularly freshened up, were a haven for bugs.)

For those who prefer a less romantic explanation, though, The Oxford Dictionary and others prefer that “tight” is just another word for “sound,” and the expression “sleep tight” did not come into usage until the 20th Century. To sleep tight, it is said, means to simply sleep soundly.

To “kick the bucket” is a slang term for dying. Most often, it is believed to refer to the rather gruesome idea of a suicide or hanging victim standing on a bucket, noose about the neck — and kicking out the bucket from beneath, resulting in death. It seems plausible; but various sources note that it is a butchering term. When the slaughtered animal is pulled up, the hocks are fastened to a gambal, otherwise known as a bucket. Thus, the dead animal kicks the bucket.

But hold your horses — that is, refrain from quick action or reaction — is a phrase that actually has its roots in riding horses or driving horse-drawn carriages, when a slower start or forward movement needed to be checked.

The ball is in your court, if it is up to you to respond to an action or challenge of any kind. This 20th Century saying stems from the sports world, most likely tennis. When that ball soars up and over the net to the opponent, it is time for a responding action.

Another idiomatic expression rooted in sports is that of “back to square one.” We understand it means to go back to the beginning, usually when problem solving has come to a stand still with no resolution. Often thought to have arisen out of children’s board games or hopscotch, both of which have consequences driving a player back to the starting square, more than one online source recognized it as sourced from football.

At, it is explained that football radio commentators of the 1930s had a method of dividing (mentally) the football field into numbered grids. They then used those numbers to explain the plays to listeners. “Square One” was in front of the home team goal, and when a goal was kicked by the home team, it was described as being “back at square one.”

It is easy to “beat around the bush” when uncomfortable with saying something outright. The etymology of this phrase dates back to the medieval era when high-ranking huntsmen hired men to flush out prey by giving bushes a sound whacking. It seems like a pretty tame job to have — unless one happens to be hunting boars or other dangerous animals that may not care to be smacked while in hiding. Enraged prey could do quite some harm to these “beaters,” so the more cautious of them took to beating around the bush in order to not become the victim of an angry animal.

“Barking up the wrong tree” is another term derived from hunting practices. Dogs used to track the clever raccoons, a nighttime activity, could lose track of the animal or be tricked into believing the creature had scrambled up one tree, when in reality the masked raider might be a tree or two away (laughing, no doubt). Trained to bark at the base of a tree when the raccoon was treed, hunters could find that the dog was barking up the wrong tree and the prey had long ago escaped. To “bark up the wrong tree,” in modern times, thus, is to follow up a false cue. (Resulting, perhaps, in having to go back to square one…)

Legend has it that being “saved by the bell” refers to a fear, resulting from the days of the Plague, that one could be buried alive by accident. A rope tied to the deceased’s wrist and extending above the grave, where it was tied to the bell, was said to prevent these unfortunate occurrences. Should a “dead” person wake up and find him/herself entombed in the ground, a swift yank would make the bell tinkle. Hopefully, someone would be nearby to hear the ringing. It is a nice story, but one that is generally debunked, no such contraption ever having been verified as having been put in use.

“Saved by the bell,” rather, refers to boxing, and is a term that popped up in the late 19th, early 20th Century. A boxer could be saved from being counted out, should the bell marking the end of a round ring in time. It is no wonder, then, that a “Whew!” of relief usually accompanies “Saved by the bell!” when it rolls off the tongue today.

There is no longer any actual waving of head coverings or letting caps fall to the ground, but for those inclined to act or say something without hesitation — “at the drop of a hat” — the history behind this phrase does indicate that hats genuinely were tossed to the ground to signify the start of a fight or race. From the times of the US Wild West, when any good gentleman or bandit wore a hat, the headpiece was also used to signal a greeting, whirled about in excitement, and slammed down in a challenge or to mark a victory.

It is easy to “go with the flow,” whether by a river or not. This expression is commonly thought to refer to the free and easy days of the 1960s, but actually has roots far further back in time. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar makes reference to this desire to be agreeable and acquiesce to whatever those around us are doing, saying, or feeling. Other etymologists believe 2nd Century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius advised adhering to a merging with others’ ways.

On the other hand, it may simply be that the ebb and flow of actual tides influenced this saying — and it just has a nice sound to it that caught on.

If information is not second hand, it is said to be “straight from the horse’s mouth,” or directly from a reliable source. Why is that? Because a horse’s teeth tell no lies. They do reveal the animal’s health and age, and any horse trader “worth his salt” (from the ancient Roman practice of paying a heroic soldier in salt, then a valued commodity) knows to check inside an animal’s mouth to see for him or herself if the seller is being truthful. For the same reason, do not “look a gift horse in the mouth” if a bit of luck could be sullied by the truth.

The use of idioms in written or spoken language adds levity and color; an opinion that, perhaps, can be “taken with a grain of salt.”

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