10 Old Sayings With Historical Origins

Old Sayings With Historical Origins

The English language suffered many alterations throughout the ages, appropriating a multitude of idioms, sayings, and slang phrases along the way. As such, you will hear native speakers use many common phrases in day to day speech, phrases that sound quite strange when you think their actual meaning. These expressions have become so common that many people don’t even stop to consider what they’re really about or how did they enter the lexicon in the first place. For your consideration, here are ten of the most common old sayings used by native English speakers.

The Third Degree

Extreme interrogation methods are commonly known as “the third degree”. The precise origin of the phrase is unknown, but there are a number of theories. One of them alleges that it came from Freemasonry, where members of the order would undergo strenuous interrogations before becoming “third degree” masons. Less credible theories include the claim that the phrase is related to one of the many degrees of murder, while another theory attributes the phrase to a 19th century New York policeman, Thomas F. Byrnes, who had a fondness for saying “Third Degree Byrnes” in reference to his grueling interrogation style.

By and Large

Although currently know to mean “to a large extent”, this phrase owes its existence to sea life. The phrase has been in existence since the sixteenth century, and it is actually a combination of two nautical terms. “By” referred to a state in which a ship was moving into the wind, while “large” was a reference to a situation in which a ship was sailing with the wind at its back. So, “by and large” meant that a ship was traveling in any and all directions in relation to the wind, which is why today it is a substitute for phrases like “everything considered.”

Reading the Riot Act

Read the riot act is now a phrase used to warn an unruly or uncontrollable bunch of people to calm down. But in the past, when the riot act was created in 1715 England, it was an actual document. It would be read to rioting mobs warning that extreme measures would be taken if they did not disperse and go home in an hour. It worked for some time, but at one time, the reading of this act went unheeded, and the result was the infamous Peterloo Massacre, after which time the act was finally put to rest.

Painting the Town Red

A night of wild fun is at times called “painting the town red.” The phrase was actually born in 1837 when Marquis of Waterford, a known trouble maker, went on a drinking spree with friends through Melton Mowbray, an English town. While at it, the mischievous bunch caused all kinds of mayhem, including painting a swan statue red. Still, there is a competing theory claiming that brothels from the American West are the reason for the phrase, where it was used as a reference to men acting like the entire town was a red-light district.

Running Amok

The saying became popular in the eighteenth century, but as a medical term. At the time, running amok referred to a condition where an otherwise reasonable tribesman would go around doing seemingly senseless killing. Europeans noticed the strange behavior in Malaysians. Amok actually comes from the word “Amuco”, the name of Malaysian warriors known to behave as such. Although the term is now commonly used to refer to the act of behaving wildly, it is still used to refer to a medical condition.

Resting on Laurels

In ancient Greek, laurel leaves were considered a sign of achievement and class because Apollo, the Greek god of music, poetry, and prophecy, wore them as his crown. Greek and Roman athletes received wreaths made of laurels after winning in the Pythian Games. The recipients were called “laureates”, and could even “rest on their laurels” because they could enjoy their past successes. Today, however, the term has a negative undertone as it refers to people who derive immense satisfaction from their former accomplishments.


Today, diehard refers to having an unassailable belief in something, but that wasn’t always the case. In the 1700s, diehard referred to those who would struggle the longest after they were hanged. The popularity of the phrase would grow further in the 1811 Battle of Albuera when William Inglis, a British officer, urged his men to stand their ground and “die hard”, later earning the casualties of the battle the name “the Die Hards.”

Crocodile Tears

As it turns out, crocodiles don’t even cry. So, how is it that this inaccurate fact managed to form the basis of one of the most common phrases in the English language? John Mandeville, a traveler from the fourteenth century, alleged that crocodiles cried after eating their prey because of the remorse they felt for their actions. Shakespeare was also instrumental in popularizing the phrase, and today it means showing insincere remorse.

White Elephant

Today, this popular phrase means something that is more trouble than its worth. In the past, this was more literal. Back in Thailand, a white elephant was considered sacred, and also a very great gift. Unfortunately, the burden of feeding and caring for the elephant was also crippling. As a matter of fact, the white elephant was often used as a reward by the royalty to his rivals. The unfortunate recipient would often end up exhausting everything they owned to care for the elephant.

Turning a Blind Eye

The failure to react appropriately to a glaring reality is often referred to as “turning a blind eye.” The origin of this phrase is quite interesting actually. An 1801 British soldier, Horatio Nelson, who was blind in one eye, allegedly ignored his superior’s command to retreat by looking through the telescope with his blind eye and then claiming he never saw the signal. Britain’s position in the battle seemed overmatched by a fleet of Danish-Norwegian ships. Fortunately, Nelson managed to secure a victory, and also invent a phrase that is still in use.