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Thursday Thirteen#2 Phrases & Their Origins

January 23, 2008

I was visiting my son and his family recently when my 6-year-old grandson overheard me say, “She just rubs me the wrong way.” After a few moments of thought (one can only imagine what he invisioned!), Caleb came up to me and asked, “Well Grandma, which way did she rub you?” Needless to say that got a huge laugh before I explained that it was just an old saying. Being six years old, this was not a good enough answer for Caleb, so we went to the computer and Googled the origin of the saying. I found a wonderful sight, and located information good enough to satisfy Caleb. I also found the origins of the following phrases, some I had not heard before and others I had heard but was surprised by their origins. I hope you find these as interesting as I did.


Thirteen Things about Cricket’s Hearth…13 Phrases & their Origins

1. Rub the Wrong Way – The term goes back to colonial times and wide oak-board floors. Once a week, servants had to wet-rub and then dry-rub these floors. Seems simple? Well if it wasn’t done with the grain, it looked awful because streaks were made. To the owner, this was worse than not doing it at all as it was a real embarrassment to any company that came! So a servant was called clumsy or inept by their employer. Today the term means relates to anyone (cleaning floors or not) who irritates others by a clumsy word or action.

2. No Spring Chicken – New England chicken farmers discovered that chickens born in the Spring brought better prices than old birds that had gone through the winter. Sometimes farmers tried to sell the old birds as a new spring born chicken. Smart buyers often complained that a tough fowl was “no spring chicken” and so the term is used to represent birds (and even people today) past their plump and tender years.

3. Saved by the Bell – Many years ago, being buried alive was a common occurrence. So common in fact, people who were paranoid about such a fate were buried in special coffins that had a rope to pull from inside that attached to a bell above the ground. At night a guard was set to watch the graveyard and listen for any bells to ring, and thereby dig up the living person who rang their bell, thus the person was “saved by the bell.”

4. Show Your True Colors – Warships often carried flags from many countries in order to elude or fool their enemies. The rules of warfare stated that ships were required to raise their true national flag before firing. To get a closer advantage, a dishonest ship captain would falsely fly one flag until he was well within firing range and then hoist his real flag. Thus someone is said to “show his true colors” by deceptively acting one way to get what they want, but then show their true selves once they have received what they were after.

5. Cracked Up – During the Civil War, makeup mostly consisted of beeswax. Ladies had to partially melt the makeup beside the fire before applying it. Soon after it was on, the makeup would harden. If the lady laughed or smiled it would crack the makeup which made her face look like it was “cracking up.”

6. Nip It In the Bud – Horticulturists learned many years ago in order to produce good fruit a plant had to have a lot of the buds snipped off. This improved garden produce but was disastrous to the individual buds. It became proverbial that when a bud was nipped off it would definitely no longer produce any fruit. Today the phrase is used to refer to a sudden halt in any plan or project in which no further progress will result.

7. Wrong Side of the Bed – In ancient times, the left-side of the body or anything “left” was considered sinister, mysterious, dangerous or evil. Innkeeper’s pushed the left sides of the bed in each room against the wall so a guest had to get up on the right side of the bed. Today, people tend to center their bed in the room and do not bother to think about which side they are getting out of. The term “getting up on the wrong side of the bed” simply refers to someone who is irritable or clumsy.

8. Face the Music – When a soldier was being dishonorably discharged, he was given his walking papers and then forced to walk through the ranks of his fellow comrades while instruments played a special march for ousted soldiers. The ritual wasn’t fun but the soldier had to deal with it directly, thus he had to “face the music.”

9. Putting on the Dog – After the Civil War, lap dogs were a social status symbol among the wealthy. (Even today – look at how Paris Hilton goes around with ‘Tinkerbel’ all dressed up) Back then, French Poodles were the main symbol of wealth. So anyone who was being flashy was said to be “putting on the dog.”

10. Spill the Beans – This phrase is based on an old voting system by the Greeks where they used a voting bag. Members of the group would drop either a white bean (yes) or a dark bean (no) into a bag to vote on a new member. When a clumsy person (or possibly drunk) accidentally dropped the bag showing all the beans (votes) it was said that he “spilled the beans” thus revealing the secret votes to everyone.

11. Hell on Wheels – This phrase goes back to the days of the Wild West. When the transcontinental railroad got started thee was a lot of open land between towns. Opportunists after the money of those men working on the railroad in these open spaces simply rented flatcars and turned them into mobile brothels and gambling casinos. Religious leaders considered such activities the work of the devil and said anyone who participated in the activities offered on these cars were doomed for hell. Thus, these flatcars with prostitutes, gambling and drinking were called “hell on wheels.” Today the phrase is used to describe a reckless driver or a compliment for a very energetic person.   

 12. Fork It Over – This term originates from England when peasants had to pay their landlords (Noblemen) rent in silver. When they didn’t have any silver, then they had to pay their rent from their crops. Shrewd rent collectors would decrease the market value of the crops just before the rent was due in order to get more. The peasant would then shovel his crop into a wagon with a pitchfork and grumble about the unfairness. Today, rather than a pitchfork, we just use our hands and “hand over” our rent money or what ever we are paying (and grumble about the price). 

And a just description of the deep freeze we are having in Ohio . . . 

13. Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls Off a Brass Monkey – On a war ship, the cannon balls would be stacked in a pyramid shape. The base where the cannon balls were stacked upon was made of brass and was called a monkey. When it got cold out on the high seas, the brass would contract, causing the stacked balls to fall off their base, thus it was “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”

1. Sandycarlson

2. SJ Reidhead

3. mellanie

4. Chelle Y.

5. fullbodytransplant

6. Lazy Daisy

7. Ellen

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11. Morgan

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21./22. maryt/the teach

23. Joyful Days

24. On a Limb w/Claudia

25. Deanna Dahlsad

26. marnini

27. Tasina

28. Natalie

29. momhuebert

30. Cindy Swanson

31. Tink

32. Barb

Get the Thursday Thirteen code here!The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others’ comments. It’s easy, and fun! Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!

33 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2008 6:56 pm

    Thanks for this lesson! I enjoyed what I learned here, especially No.9.

  2. January 23, 2008 6:57 pm

    That’s a very good list.

    The Pink Flamingo

  3. January 23, 2008 7:07 pm

    What a great list! Very interesting! #3 is a little freaky!

  4. January 23, 2008 7:12 pm

    Those were really interesting!

    I would love to join the recipe contest, but I am so horrible in the kitchen! 🙂 Really, I cannot cook at all!

  5. January 23, 2008 7:33 pm

    This is fascinating stuff. I use at least half of these, now I know where they come from. Thanks.

    I will get you a recipe tommorrow when I am back at work!

  6. January 23, 2008 7:49 pm

    What a great list…these were really interested. I loved the stories behind the phrases.

  7. Ellen permalink
    January 23, 2008 8:00 pm

    That was great!

  8. January 23, 2008 8:05 pm

    Great list…but all I can hear is Barney Fife…”Nip it..just nip it , You got to nip it in the bud” LOL!! You did lots of research, Thanks for sharing it!

  9. January 23, 2008 8:06 pm

    I never knew you used #13 in America!

  10. January 23, 2008 9:15 pm

    This was really cool. I use most of the phrases and it’s interesting to find out their origins. Happy TT.

  11. January 23, 2008 9:23 pm

    Wonderful and informative! 🙂 Happy TT and thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  12. January 23, 2008 9:34 pm

    Okay, saved by the bell just gave me the creeps. Yikes. Have a great TT. 🙂

  13. January 23, 2008 9:39 pm

    What great stuff…Ive heard the majority of them but forgot what they meant. I love it!! Its funny that we still use those terms today. Happy TT and thanks for stopping by:)

  14. January 23, 2008 9:56 pm

    This is my favorite TT so far this week. You did a fantastic job. Thanks for sharing what you discovered.

  15. January 23, 2008 9:59 pm

    Great list. I love these types of things!

  16. January 23, 2008 10:48 pm

    Word and phrase origins are always so interesting. Happy TT. Thanks for stopping by.

  17. January 23, 2008 10:59 pm

    I can’t wait to share these with my boys… They love learning about this kind of stuff. Thanks.

  18. January 24, 2008 1:09 am

    “Saved by the bell” was a shocker. I was sure it had to do with church bells. Not (shiver) being buried alive! (Thanks for stopping by my TT)

  19. January 24, 2008 6:25 am

    I love this list! My son will be checking this out today too! Some of those I was familiar with ,but saved by the belll ugh!
    Thanks for stopping by mine!

  20. January 24, 2008 8:31 am

    I love those quotes! Will have to share with the kids… Happy T-13!

  21. January 24, 2008 9:18 am

    Always love to learn something from these TT lists! Thanks, cricket! Your list will do me well at a cocktail party! “Did you know…” Ha! Thanks for visiting my TT post!

  22. January 24, 2008 9:21 am

    Don’t get me wrong, cricket…I love bloggers! Come back and read my post again. You’ll see! Sometimes I get funny and sometimes I get sarcastic but never angry. I love commenting and people commenting on my blog.

  23. January 24, 2008 9:48 am

    Oh, that was fantastic!! I laughed & learned. What a great start to my day!

  24. January 24, 2008 10:09 am

    Gosh! I really learned something here. Thank you for collecting all of this information. I am always amazed at what rich culture and history lies just below the surface of our language.

    Happy TT

  25. January 24, 2008 10:15 am

    Every time I think of the way folks were mistakenly buried alive like that.. :shudder: Thankfully, bells then have a very happy sound indeed!

  26. marnini permalink
    January 24, 2008 11:51 am

    I have a six year-old named Caleb too.
    I loved this TT-it was so fun and educational.
    #3 is going to stick with me, I never knew most of these

  27. January 24, 2008 2:16 pm

    What a great list. I have a big coffee-table book that explains a lot of stuff like this. So fun to discover the meaning behind these gems. Thanks for sharing.

  28. January 24, 2008 3:41 pm

    I really enjoyed this list! 🙂

  29. January 24, 2008 4:43 pm

    Strange, somehow I knew most of these already, except 9 and 13– they were new to me. Great list.

  30. January 24, 2008 5:28 pm

    OK, that was a TRULY fascinating list! I found out I was wrong about a lot of them…and I learned several that I had never know before. Great job!

  31. January 25, 2008 9:46 am

    Very interesting TT! I like to know the origins of words. Great link you shared!
    Thanks for visiting my 13 books TT and welcome to the TT-family!

  32. January 25, 2008 8:56 pm

    As a new blogger, I am spreading my wings. I have been tagged, and in turn tagged you at random to join us in the Six Things Meme. Please link to my blog at

  33. Linda Rutherford permalink
    February 11, 2008 9:46 am

    Can I ask how or where “tim buck too” started?

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