Idioms have always fascinated me. What do they mean and what is the story behind them?  I have compiled a list of a few of my favorite ones that you might find interesting as well.

They dropped me like “a hot potato.” This is an idiom that can refer to a person, a thing, or a thought.  I recently  had an attractive job offer which I really wanted, but because I had made some comments at a public meeting that did not fit the prevailing opinion, they dropped me like a “hot potato.”  The story of that idiom goes back to the 1800s.  You may have noticed that when a baked potato comes out of the oven, it is quite hot, probably because it sat at 400 ˚ F for an hour. The average potato is 80% water and is covered with a thick peel, therefore, retaining heat very well.   Children of the 1800s did not have a lot of toys, so they played with what was available.  The object is to toss a hot potato to the next person as quickly as possible while music was playing. Once the music stopped you can’t throw it anymore and may well have to drop it because it was too hot.

When you have a hurtful experience, whether physical or emotional pain and someone belittles you for that, it is called “adding insult to injury.”  That goes back to the Roman writer Phaedrus who expounded on an Aesop fable of a bald man who tried to swat a fly that bit him on the head but missed.  The fly laughed and commented, “You want to avenge a little insect’s sting with death?  What will you do to yourself who has added insult to injury?”

The line got more traction in 1947 when US newspapers commented on football knee injuries. They said that nature needs to get back  to the drawing board, “The human knee is nothing to look at but also a piece of bum engineering.”

It was also used for the title of an episode in the “Get Smart” TV series and has been used as the title for several books.  The one that I must definitely read is, If at First You Don’t Succeed go Back to the Drawing Board with Wine.

 “Don’t cross the bridge ‘till you come to it, is an old proverb and of excellent wit.”  This was first seen as a direct quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s long poem, The Golden Legend that he wrote in 1851, and applies to all situations where you don’t need to concern yourself with a problem, decision, or issue in the present moment as it may never come up.  When you face it is time to decide how to respond, not before.

“Drastic times call for drastic measures,” is  Hippocrates paraphrased who said, “for extreme disease extreme methods of cure are most suitable. This is still true.  The only cure for cancer is still by surgical excision, pretty drastic!

Geoffrey Chaucer of Canterbury Tales originated the line, “T’is nought good a slepyng hound to wake,” Written in Troilus and Criseyde around 1380. Given that then, as well as now, dogs startled from sleep are unpredictable.  But metaphorically, the meaning has given rise to other related idioms, “leave well enough alone” or “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The latter reminds me of my father-in-law, whose life long guiding motto was, “if it’s broke, fix it, if you can’t fix it, force it, if you can’t force it, break it!” But it also reminds me of me, “If it ain’t Baroque, it ain’t worth listening to.” But better yet if it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it!

The phrase “to make a long story short” is often employed to get to the point, to leave out all extraneous details and bring the story to an end.  The words are credited to Henry David Thoreau who cleverly toyed with it in a letter in 1857, “Not that the story needs to be long, but it will take a long time to make it short.”

There is a method to my madness.” It is right out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to explain one’s strange behavior as not as crazy as it would appear.

I am going to play the “devil’s advocate” and argue against your belief that cold weather causes colds.  In fact, cold weather does not cause colds, it is viruses that do.  Although cold weather drives us indoors and gives the virus a better chance to spread through close contact. You will be surprised to learn that the Vatican actually had a devil’s advocate position, advocatus diaboli whose job was to argue against the canonization of a candidate to uncover misrepresentation or flaws that favored an individual.  The office was established in 1587 but rescinded by Pope John Paul II in 1983, which dramatically increased the number of Saints canonized from 330 in the previous 390 years (0.85 saints per year), to 483 new Saints from 1978 to 2005 (17.89 saints per year), including Mother Theresa.  It was a good thing for Saint candidates not to have a devil’s advocate in those years.

“Cutting corners” is an idiom that implies using the economy to decrease costs, save time, or get fast results.  This is done by using cheap materials, sacrificing safety, or not checking details. The term comes from driving.  If you come to a sharp corner and cut across diagonally to save time you risk hitting an unseen oncoming vehicle.  It could also be applied to tailoring, cutting corners would save on material, being cheap, and not concerned about quality or details.

“Take everything with a grain of salt” had a different meaning in ancient times as it has now. In older times, salt was considered an antidote to poison.  Pliny the Elder recommended taking “a grain of salt” to make things go down easier. The Roman general Pompey believed he would make himself immune to poison if he took a small amount of it.  To help him swallow it, he took it with a grain of salt. The Latin word “sal” means both “salt” and “wit” or “awareness.” The phrase “cum grano salis” then can be interpreted as “with a grain of caution.” This is the modern interpretation: Have a healthy level of skepticism before you accept anything.

“Deadline” was a term during the Civil War that was much more literal than now.  Prisoners were kept in pens surrounded by a line drawn on the ground that if the prisoner crossed it, he would be shot dead. 

“Spilling the beans” goes back to ancient Greece.  The first democracy voted by placing beans in a container, white for “yes” black for “no.”  If someone spilled the beans, they revealed the result of the vote before the appointed time to do so.

“Dyed in the wool,” describes a person who is unchangeable, uncompromising, and unwavering.  This derived from wool that was dyed before being made into cloth would hold its color better right after being sheared. 

“At the End of the Day” is the appropriate idiom to end this essay.   It was first used by biologist Thomas Huxley, also known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” to sum up, his life’s work at the end of the day have I earned my wages or not?  In this essay, “When all is said and done,” have I piqued your interest in idioms?