More wacky English idioms

English is a very creative language. It’s so creative the origins of some of our idioms are lost or at least difficult to trace.

‘Skeleton in the closet’ for one. Skeleton is an old word, 16th century at least, from German. It was coined in the UK in the early 1800’s. Skeleton in the closet is used in America; apparently in England it has undergone a change and is now a ‘skeleton in the cupboard’.

How about ‘air your dirty laundry’? Obviously from a time when people hung their laundry out to dry. But when? So far, haven’t found that date. This idiom is one I think of as from a woman’s experience since women have always been charged with doing the wash.

‘Baptism by fire’, another one of my mother’s favorite expressions. First mentioned in the Bible (Matthew 3:11) the OED lists its English use as beginning in 1822, as referencing a soldiers first experience in battle.

‘Pooh’, a more genteel expression than the one we use to day.  This is also from the 16th century, from the Scots, and it has taken on a variety of spellings and connotations.

As one would expect, a lot come from sports or activities related to sports. Having a ‘chip on one’s shoulder’ was actually a popular method of settling quarrels in the nineteenth century. A boy would place a chip on his shoulder and dare his opponent to knock it off. Carrying a ‘chip on one’s shoulder’ comes from the same thing. Really? This is how they settled quarrels?

‘Loaded for bear’, one I use all the time. From the 1880’s and was used to describe a player in a baseball game.  I would have expected it to be from hunting.

Most of the idioms seem to arise from male activities and male interests, but not all. Before it took on a perjorative connotation, spinster was a description of almost every woman; everybody but the richest woman spent significant time spinning for her family.  I commented in an earlier post about the loss of knowledge about weaving words. Coincidence? Well, a year or two ago Archaeology Magazine commented that some digs were now concentrating upon the world of women and slaves. I’ll just bet their view of the world was different from the men!


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