The True Origins of 10 Weird American Expressions

Even though your mother always told you to think before you speak, you probably use a lot of expressions in everyday conversations that you've never really thought about before. You just take for granted that other Americans know what you're saying even though very few of us know why we started saying it. But use some of these phrases with a child or a person outside the U.S., and you'll suddenly realize how ridiculous the expressions are. At least after you read the origins of these 10 idioms we use, you can explain to them where the phrases started and maybe convince them that you aren't totally crazy.

  1. Take the cake

    A stealer of sweets probably could be described as taking the cake, but typically this phrase refers to someone being the best at something. It has evolved to also being used when someone is in disbelief. If you've ever been to an elementary school carnival, you'll be familiar with the origins of this phrase in the U.S. The cake walk is a game of luck where people walk around a circle while music plays and then stand or sit on a number when the music stops. If your number is drawn, you win a cake to take home. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, winning a cake walk was something to take even more pride in. In the South, normally in African-American communities, couples were judged on how much flair they had in their struts, so taking the cake really gave you bragging rights.
  2. Beat around the bush

    Beating around the bush is what a guy does when his girlfriend asks, "Do I look fat?" and she actually does. He just avoids the question at hand by listing all her other good qualities (unless he's smart and automatically says no to that inquiry every time). The phrase "beating around the bush" comes from the hunting days of the 1400s. Hunters wanted to drive wild boars out of the bushes so they could kill them before the boars had the chance to ambush them. Of course, boars can be enormous with sharp tusks that can rip you in half, so the hunters themselves didn't want to get too close. They hired special workers to beat the bushes and get the monster pigs to come out. Reasonably, the hired help was scared, too, so they often just beat around the bush, trying to keep their distance from the dangerous situation.
  3. Pass the buck

    Sayings in English are confusing when they use words that have several different meanings. This leaves the phrases open to lots of nonsensical theories about where they came from. Today we probably think of a deer or a dollar when we hear "buck" but it's also a term that was formerly used in poker. Americans really loved poker during the 1800s but in those wild times, if someone suspected that you were a dirty dealer, you might end up dead in a gunfight. In order to keep everyone honest and allay suspicions, people in the poker game would take turns being the dealer. When you were the dealer, you would have a marker (normally a knife with a handle made of buck's horn) known as a buck in front of you. Today we call it the button. When you were done serving as dealer, you'd pass the buck, and thus the responsibility, on to someone else.
  4. In like Flynn

    When a guy's having a particularly successful encounter with a woman at a bar, he might smugly announce to his friends that he's "in like Flynn." The phrase isn't always used to refer to sexual accomplishments, but the origins of this expression are definitely carnal. Australian actor Errol Flynn was known for his romantic movie roles in the '30s and '40s and for his womanizing lifestyle. In 1942, he was charged with statutory rape, but was acquitted. The "not guilty" verdict didn't stop Americans from using his name as a synonym for ladies' man, though. "In like Flynn" became a very popular way to talk about a man's success in the bedroom, and even women (in the modest 1940s, keep in mind) began using it to mean success in general, though they might not have known its scandalous origin.
  5. Close, but no cigar

    The carnival worker makes his living and gets his entertainment by belittling strong men who can't win prizes at their midway games. The commonly used phrase "close, but no cigar" has its origin in this delightful taunting by carnies. In the 19th century, one of the popular games for men who wanted to show off their muscles was the one where you use a hammer to hit a lever, which every macho man hopes will cause a weight to skyrocket to the top of a column and ring a bell. For this feat of strength, the contestant would earn a cigar. But if someone tried to ring the bell and the weight neared the bell without hitting it, the fair worker might say something like, "Close, but no cigar." This saying started being used for any near-success that just didn't quite meet the mark.
  6. Go postal

    Working for the postal service doesn't seem like such a bad gig. You get to drive on the wrong side of the car, get lots of holidays, and don't face any more obvious dangers than dogs and paper cuts. But apparently delivering mail is stressful enough that it brought the phrase "go postal" into our culture. The saying, which describes someone who suddenly bursts out in violent rage, popped up in our vocabulary somewhere between the mid-'80s and '90s. Several incidents of postal workers snapping brought the phrase into the public lexicon. In 1986, a postman walked into the office and killed 14 co-workers before committing suicide. At least four other shootings by postal workers occurred by 1993. Even though the U.S. Postal Service spoke out against the saying, people in fits of rage are still stamped as "going postal."
  7. Cut to the chase

    This phrase meaning "get to the point" originally was used by people who wanted to jump to the exciting part of a film. Much like the pleadings of a little boy who wants to skip the mushy kissing scenes in a movie and head straight for the action clips, "cut to the chase" referred to the preferences of audiences (and sometimes directors) of silent films in the 1920s. The movies were normally full of romantic gestures and other boring stuff, but they often ended with a thrilling chase. Many early movie-goers would've like the director to just cut to the chase and not make them suffer through the dull love story. The expression has grown to mean that someone wants to avoid the unnecessary details and get down to the important points.
  8. Jump the shark

    Everyone knows of a TV show that has "jumped the shark." This is what you call it when a series that used to be good has undeniably lost its appeal with no hope of coming back. This moment of time is normally marked with a ridiculous plot point that is supposed to draw in audiences but ends up being both unbelievable and insulting to viewers who used to defend the quality of the show. The expression is actually the best known example of the moment when a good show went bad. In 1977, after four seasons, Happy Days took a turn for the worse when Fonzie literally jumped a shark. Wearing short, cut-off jeans and his signature leather jacket, the show's bad boy waterskis over a group of sharks on a dare. If the outrageous stunt wasn't enough to turn viewers off the show, Henry Winkler's upper thighs sealed the deal.
  9. No dice

    You might use the phrase "no dice" to indicate that you didn't get the results you wanted the same way you might say "no good" or "nothing doing." The origin of the expression is pretty literal: the absence of dice kept someone from getting the results they wanted. In the early 1900s when dice weren't being used for Yahtzee and Candy Land, many people were using them illegally for gambling. If groups of these hooligans were caught by the police, they would do anything to keep the cops from finding the dice, sometimes even swallowing the evidence. Most courts couldn't convict gamblers if the police officers didn't actually see the dice. "No dice" started meaning "no conviction" and eventually gained the connotation it has today of meaning that you didn't get what you wanted.
  10. Gung ho

    We use this phrase now to describe anyone who is enthusiastic and eager to do something, normally a little too much so. But it really started as a military motto that literally means "work together" (stolen from the Chinese "kung ho") that was used by a Marine battalion during World War II. The battalion's leader, Lt. Col. Evans Carlson would hold gung-ho meetings, something he picked up as a marine observer in China; the group would get together to figure out their problems and discuss their orders. The expression really took hold (and gained the meaning we all know) after a movie titled Gung Ho! came out in 1943 that depicted a Marine who would do whatever it took to get his job done.


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