Idiom’s abound in the English language ,ranging from the ever popular “raining cats and dogs” to my personal favorite “when the shit hits the fan.” The historical origin of each idiom can be traced, often to the Bible or Shakespeare. Others can be traced to more recent events – “drink the KoolAid,” describing blind obedience, or “Land it in the Hudson,” a business term describing salvaging a doomed project. Some project strong visuals. (Just dwell for a moment on shit hitting a fan.)

Four different derivations are presented for each idiom. Three are “distractors” The fourth is real, as identified in various reference books. Your job is to choose the correct derivation.

Knuckle Down (or Under)

What is the origin of the idiom “Knuckle Down.”

  1. Early anthropologists noted that one could make the distinction between apes, who walked on their knuckles, i..e the knuckles were down, and monkeys, who walked with their palms flat. Therefore “knuckle down” came to be an expression for superior intelligence and hard work of the ape.
  1. While nowadays knuckles refer to the hand joint, originally the term meant any joint, including the knees or spine. Therefore, one who was knuckled over or down, had his knees bent in a position of defeat.
  1. The term refers to barehanded streetfighting, in which someone who was knuckled under was knocked out.
  1. Knuckles were considered the poorest cut of meat. Therefore, someone who was knuckled under referred to someone who was working hard to escape poverty – the goal was to eventually live high on the hog.

Blood, Sweat and Tears

What is the origin of the idiom “Blood, Sweat and Tears?” (two are correct)

1.  From Winston Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons in 1940 when British morale was at its lowest point after the failure at Dunkirk. He spoke with brutal honesty when he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

2. From the John Dunne poem of 1611 in which he spoke of the travails and glories of love,

“It is with thy tears, or sweat or blood

Nothing is worth our travail, grief, or perishing

But those rich joys which did possess her heart.”

3.  Attributed to Queen Elizabeth who publicly professed herself a “woman wanting both wit and memory,” in keeping with the chauvinist sentiment at the time, but she also privately wrote, “this crown only stays on my head with blood, sweat and tears,” referring to the constant palace intriques.

4.  From the Bible, Book of Job, God tests the faith of the righteous man Job, by destroying Job’s property, killing off his family and then afflicting him with loathesome sores. Job exclaims, ” And yet I will persevere through these blood, sweat, toil and tears.”


Deep Six

What is the origin of the idiom “Deep Six,” (to bury or be dead).

  1. A grave commonly measures 3 feet wide by six feet deep.
  1. The six refers to the sixth level of sleep, the deepest level.
  1. In the original game of high stakes billards the six ball was the death ball, and if you sank the ball on the first shot, the opponent had the choice to kill you.
  1. Deep six was a nautical expression referring to the depth of shallow water; deep six referred to a depth of sixth fathoms. Something buried at a depth of deep six would likely remain submerged even a low tide.

By the Skin of Your Teeth

What is the origin of the idion “By the Skin of Your Teeth?’

  1. From the Bible, Job 19:20, “My bone cleaneth to my skin and my flesh and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.”
  1. From the Shakespeare play Othello, in which Iago says to Desdemona, “I shall but love you for all eternity beyond when the weary hand of time both rob you of spirit and leave me only with a hint, the skin of your fair and glistening teeth.”
  1. From an American Indian betting game involving rolling a collection of teeth collected from game animals. At stake was the animal’s skin.  Some Indians attempted to eke out a living this way, but it was said to be a marginal life, “living by the skin and the teeth.”
  1. From a Celtic punishment in which an acidic solution was poured over the teeth of liars and mendicants, leaving the teeth blackened so that all could see. Those who escaped this punishment were said to be saved by the skin of their teeth.

A Flash in the Pan

  1. A culinary term referring to the quick sudden flame associated with cooking at high temperatures in a frying pan.
  1. The old-fashioned muzzle-loading musket contained a “pan'” which held the gunpowder. As the musket was cocked and the trigger pulled, a flint would snap down, igniting the powder and creating a brief “flash in the pan.”
  1. Based on a California gold-mining term when prospectors would get momentarily excited when they say a “flash” of apparent gold in their mining pans. In most instances the flash turned out to be fool’s gold.
  1. The “pan” refers to the upper layer of atmosphere that often absorbs lightning bolts. A flash in the pan refers to a type of heat lightning that does not reach the ground.

Blue Blood

What is the origin of the idiom “Blue Blood?”

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  1. The blood of hemophiliacs has a slightly blue tinge, and was used to refer to the vast numbers of Queen Victoria’s descendants with the disease.
  2. Noble families of Castile claimed that their blood was undliluted with other races, as evidenced by its blue color in their veins, easily seen through their pale skin.
  3. The Greek physician Hippocrates proposed that a person’s personality depended on the balance of body humors, one of which was blood.  Blue blood identified those with thoughtful intelligence.
  4. Debrett’s Peerage is a compilation of all the titleholders in England, and was often consulted to determine the “bloodstock” of a woman; i.e. whether a man was marrying above or below his station.  The covers of the book is a distinctive bright blue, and thus families in the book are referred to as “blue bloods.”

To The Bitter End

What is the origin of the idiom “To The Bitter End?”

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  1. The end of a nautical cable attached to a restraint is called the bit.  The cable cannot pass through the bit.
  2. The “Bitters” were slums at the far East End of London.
  3. Laudanum is an extremely bitter tincture of opium.  Victorian women were frequently given laudanum for menstrual cramps and a variety of other vague ailments.  Nurses spoon fed laudanum to fussy infants.  Unfortunately, like all opioids, laudanum often resulted in addictions., referred to as the “bitter end.”  Mary Todd Lincoln was one such addict.
  4. Joseph Bitter was a famously long-winded and bombastic speaker in the English Parliament in the mid 1800s.





Third Degree

What is the origin of the idiom “Third Degree?”

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  1. Third degree burns are serious, typically requiring skin grafts to heal.
  2. Police interviewing techniques are organized into degrees.  The third degree allows nonviolent physical contact.
  3. Based on Euclid’s masterwork of geometry where he first described the three degrees of plane geometry.   This remained the standard until Einstein added the fourth degree, or dimension, of time.
  4. There are three degrees of membership in Masonic lodges, the third being the most difficult to achieve.

Nest Egg

Which of the following is the correct origin of the idiom “nest egg.”

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  1. The original expression was “next egg,” referring to the additional zero, or egg, that signified a thriving bank account.
  2. The extra egg a bird lays that exceeds the target brood size knowing that inevitably one egg will fail to hatch.
  3. Farmers would mark an overly large, likely double yolked egg by adding straw to its spot in the egg carton.  Cartons with nest eggs were considered very lucky.
  4. The practice of putting an artificial egg into a hen’s nest to encourage more egg laying.