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Home --> Language --> Phrase Craze

Phrase Craze

The — often dubious — origins of popular phrases.

Ratings Key

        Green bullet = true
        Red bullet = false
        Multiple status bullet = multiple truth values
        Yellow bullet = undetermined
        White bullet = unclassifiable veracity

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definition of our rating system.


Red bullet Numerous sayings listed in the popular "Life in the 1500s" e-mail sprang from ordinary living conditions of that era.

Yellow bullet Hat makers became crazy from the fumes produced by mercury-soaked felt, hence the phrase 'mad as a hatter.'

Yellow bullet Death benefits paid to beneficiaries of soldiers who died in battle were often enough to pay off the mortgages on family farms, hence the deceased was said to have 'bought the farm.'

Yellow bullet The origin of our saying "Bless you!" when someone sneezes stems from an ancient desire to safeguard the sneezer's soul or to commend the dying to the mercy of God.

Yellow bullet Disputed parentage of a child born aboard a ship was resolved by listing the newborn as a "son of a gun."

Red bullet The exclamation "Holy smoke" derived from the burning of the ballots used to elect a Pope.

Yellow bullet The phrase "Kilroy Was Here" began as a ship inspector's mark in World War II.

Multi-colored bullet Someone who cheats at cards is properly styled a card shark, not a card sharp.

Red bullet "One for the road" and "On the wagon" date to offers of a last drink for a condemned prisoner.

Red bullet Barkeepers kept track of patrons' tabs via chalking p's and q's on the wall (for pints and quarts), hence the admonishment to "mind your p's and q's."

Red bullet To "let the cat out of the bag" comes from cats being sold as pigs or sailors being whipped for transgressions.

Red bullet "Little History Lesson" e-mail accurately explains origins of many common phrases.

Green bullet The phrase "salad days" was coined by William Shakespeare.

Red bullet "Another kick at the cat" began with someone who had it in for housecats.

Red bullet "The whole nine yards" began as a reference to the contents a cement truck.

Green bullet "Always a bridesmaid but never a bride" originated with an advertising campaign for mouthwash.

Red bullet "Let me put in my two cents" gained its linguistic origin thanks to the game of poker.

Red bullet Quitting "cold turkey" results in the skins of addicts in withdrawal resembling that of plucked turkeys, hence the origin of the term.

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