Five Surprising Origins of Common Phrases


All of us use certain phrases, expressions and figures of speech in our daily lives, mostly without giving them much thought. We know what they mean, but what about where they come from? Here is a list of five common phrases that you have probably heard and even used before, and their sometimes surprising origins. Hopefully, the less you’ve thought about the roots of these phrases, the more fun it is to discover them.


The most famous ‘mad hatter’ is certainly The Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. His being crazy in the story is whimsical and funny, but the condition that The Hatter suffers from is actually a dark true-to-life illness.

The expression first appears in 1829. At that time, felt hats such as top hats made from animal fur were very popular in North America and Europe, but making them was a complicated ordeal. Turning fur into felt for a hat often required using mercury. Over time that mercury would build up in the bodies of hatters, causing them to suffer from mercury poisoning. The symptoms of mercury poisoning include mood swings and irritability, but also lack of coordination, difficulty speaking, and depression. It’s not totally clear if being “mad as a hatter” means being crazy or angry, and considering the symptoms of mercury poisoning it seems that either meaning fits.


This one simply means that you are well versed in something, and if you share your knowledge with someone then you are “showing them the ropes”. Today this expression can be used in almost any situation, but its origin is with the sailing ships of the 1800s, and most probably before that.

Right about the time that this expression was first recorded, in 1840, large sailing ships were the way that people, mail, goods and war were transported around the world. The many sails of those ships had to be controlled by literally miles of ropes, along with even more heavy rope to hold the masts in place. It was no small task to get used to all those ropes and their various functions, which is why knowing the ropes means that you have a good grasp of something.


If you’ve ever heard the expression hijinks, you probably know that it means wild or playful behavior. But you probably don’t know where such a strange term came from. Fittingly, it has its roots in a 16th Century drinking game!

The word “jink” means to move quickly or unexpectedly, which probably happened a lot in the Scottish game of High Jinks. Players rolled dice, and the loser of the roll would have the choice of performing an embarrassing task or drinking more alcohol. 200 years later, “high jinks” had become more than a game – it was a part of the English language. But the game still sounds like fun.


Most people have used this phrase at one time or another to say that they’re going to bed. About a century ago, mattresses were not nearly as fancy as they are today. In fact, a sack filled with hay would pass for a mattress in the early 1900s, which is also where we get the expression “hitting the sack”.


They’re in every cop movie, TV show, and – we almost forgot – they’re very important to real cops too. They are the Miranda Rights; the words that begin with “you have the right to remain silent”. Almost everyone has heard the Miranda Rights and some people even know what they’re called, but here is the short history of that name.

In 1966, the United States Supreme Court overturned Ernesto Miranda’s conviction of robbery, kidnapping and rape. Miranda confessed to the crimes under police interrogation, but it was found that he was not informed of his constitutional right against self incrimination (to remain silent) or that he had the right to consult an attorney. At his second trial, Miranda was again convicted and sent to prison. But by 1968, the text of the Miranda Warning was finalized and became a necessity for every criminal arrest. It is intended to protect suspects from intimidating police questioning known as the “third degree”, which got its name from the Third Degree of master mason in Freemasonry. Advancing to this level required an interrogation ceremony.


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