The Surprisingly Dark Origins of 8 Common Phrases


Many English speakers don’t give much thought to the idioms they use on a regular basis. Some common sayings have silly backstory, while others are more disturbing than they seem out of context. From poisoning to war, here are the dark origins behind everyday phrases that may be part of your vocabulary.

1. Mad as a Hatter

The phrase mad as a hatter may sound fanciful, but it refers to a serious medical condition that once plagued the millinery industry. In the 18th and 19th centuries, fur felt (which is more durable and lightweight than wool felt) for hats was made by treating animal skins with nitrate of mercury. Workers exposed to this toxic substance over time have developed symptoms such as tremors, slurred speech, hallucinations, and mental and emotional instability. The popularity of the phrase mad as a hatter shows how widespread disease was, but mercury continued to be used in hat making well into the 20th century. The United States officially banned it from felt production in the 1940s.

2. Shotgun

Today, hunting rifle simply means sitting in the passenger seat of a vehicle, but according to How Stuff Works, this place carried great responsibilities on the stagecoaches of the Old West. If a coach was carrying something valuable, the person sitting next to the driver could be tasked with fending off would-be thieves and wild animals with a literal shotgun. Although the concept originated in the Wild West, the expression hunting rifle itself was not widely used until the 20th century – after occasionally appearing in newspapers, then often in Hollywood westerns, until it got its less violent interpretation which applies to travel by car.

3. Take it with a grain of salt

Today, if someone tells you to take information “with a grain of salt”, you should be skeptical of its veracity. The origin of the phrase is a bit murky: according to one theory, the phrase was meant literally when it appeared in a troubling context in 77 CE. The Greek writer Pliny the Elder included the words “addito salis granoin his translation of an antidote to poison. The passage of his treatise natural history bed:

“Take two dry walnuts, two figs, and twenty rue leaves; crush them all together, adding a grain of salt to them; if anyone takes this mixture on an empty stomach, he will be proof against all poisons for that that day.”

It’s a possible explanation for why we say to take something “with a grain of salt”, but experts disagree on when the phrase as we know it today is appeared for the first time. According to Merriam-Webster, grain of salt was first used in its modern, idiomatic sense in 1647.

4. Drink the Kool-Aid

The origin of this saying, meaning “follow the crowd”, comes from the Jonestown massacre. On November 18, 1978, over 900 members of the Peoples Temple movement died in a mass suicide involving a fruit-flavored drink containing cyanide and other drugs. The murder-suicide orchestrated by cult leader Jim Jones is considered one of the deadliest unnatural disasters in United States history. (Although the tragedy took place in Guyana, the majority of the victims were American citizens.)

Today, drink the Kool-Aid can apply to anyone who blindly embraces a group or trend, especially if it’s to their detriment, but there are a few reasons why you should rethink the use of this phrase. Besides being in bad taste, it’s not accurate: Jonestown victims actually drank an unbranded powdered drink called Flavor Aid, leading to one of the most unfortunate cases of widespread the brand of all time.

5. Meet a deadline

Word deadline had to be taken literally in the 19th century. During the Civil War, a dead line marked the boundary surrounding a prison, sometimes in the form of a ditch or line in the dirt. Captive soldiers crossing it risked being shot. After the war, the term took on less serious implications. Hitting a deadline isn’t exactly a desirable situation today, but you won’t be killed for turning in your essay late.

6. Bite the bullet

Someone is usually told to “bite the bullet” before going through something unpleasant. Centuries ago, something unpleasant was considerably more painful than a boring chore or an inconvenient meeting. According to one theory, the phrase originated with wounded soldiers undergoing battlefield surgery without anesthesia; they were given something solid but malleable to bite on, like a ball, which kept them from screaming in pain or biting their tongues. But some have questioned that theory, pointing to the lack of evidence and the fact that surgeons had leather straps in their kits for patients to bite on.

Another origin story applies the same idea to whipping victims. In the definition of the term slang Nightingale in his 1796 book A classic dictionary of the vernacularthe English lexicographer Francis Grose mentions soldiers who would “chew a bullet” while being whipped:

“A soldier who, as they say, sings to the halberds. It is a point of honor in certain regiments, among the grenadiers, never to shout, nor become nightingales, under the discipline of the nine-tailed cat; for avoid that, they’re chewing a bullet.”

Flogging punishments and surgery without anesthesia are fortunately less common today, but the saying has stuck.

7. Hot Blow

A heat stroke is a person (usually young) who has the annoying habit of displaying his success. Originally, the term described a special type of cannonball thrown at enemies. Hot shots were heated on open grates or in ovens for the purpose of setting fire to opposing ships. Because red-hot iron balls could easily ignite gunpowder, they had to be handled with extreme care and skill.

8. Show your true colors

The phrase show your true colors native to the high seas. To gain the confidence of an enemy ship, warships would unhook their flag and display the colors of another country, also known as false colors. Once within range, the disguised ship would change flags, “thus showing its true colors”. Pirate ships were known to use the same trick to get closer to the ships they were targeting. Now, the same expression applies to people who act deceitfully to get what they want before revealing their true nature.


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