mental_floss Blog » The Quick 10: The Origins of 10 Curious Phrases
1. “At the drop of a hat” comes from the days of gunfights on the frontier, when the drop of a hat was the signal for the shootout to begin.
sheep2. “Beat the tar out of” is thought to have come from sheep farmers, who would slather tar on a sheep’s cut when it got nicked from shearing. Later, they would have to beat the tar out.
3. “Buckle down to work” originally meant a knight buckling down all of his armor before a battle.
4. “As fit as a fiddle” used to be “as fit as a fiddler,” because a fiddler jumped and danced around so much while playing, he had to be in good shape.
5. “To skin a cat” doesn’t actually mean a feline. It means a catfish – the skins of catfish are notoriously tough and hard to remove for cooking.
6. I always thought “start from scratch” referred to baking, but I suppose even the baking reference had to come from somewhere. It came from handicapping competitors during races: a line is scratched in the dirt; the person who starts there gets no special advantage.
7. “Under the weather” is a sea-faring term which means you’re at sea when the weather changes for the worse.
8. “Paddywagon” is really a not-very P.C. term – it refers to the old stereotype that Irish people (“Paddy” being a common Irish name/nickname) tend to get arrested the most because of their hot tempers.
9. “Kick the bucket” comes from slaughterhouses, where, after slaughter, hogs would be hung up by a pulley with a weight called a bucket. I wonder if this goes back even further – perhaps a bucket was actually used for the weight once upon a time.
10. “Eating humble pie” came from “umble pie,” a meat dish made of entrails and other animal leftovers. Women and children, AKA “umbles,” had to eat these parts because all of the best cuts of meat went to the man of the house.