Meanings and Origins of Traditional English Phrases | Back-Roads Touring Company


During your stay in the UK you're likely to hear some rather quirky phrases. 


This page contains a list of words and phrases in everyday use that have an interesting origin. If you know of any that we can add to this list, please send them to us - by using our handy Contact Form






'A Square Meal'

The saying having a square meal comes from the English Royal Navy during the time of Nelson. In order to stop the plates/ dishes slipping around on the table when the ship was at sea, four pieces of wood were nailed to the benches in the shape of a square to stop the plates from slipping... hence 'having a square meal'.

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The word "sincere" has some interesting roots. One story is that it comes from the ancient marble quarries of Rome. Apparently, unscrupulous stone dealers covered the marble's imperfections with wax. The practice eventually became illegal, as the Roman Empire certified that all marble must be "sine cera" or "sincerus," meaning without wax - genuine. So, to be sincere is to be genuine.

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Hadrian's Wall, built to guard the Romans northern England border against the marauding Scots, had forts situated at regular intervals along its length. Every two weeks the soldiers got to sleep inside them and this is where our term for two weeks, 'Fortnight' comes from.

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'The whole nine yards'

This originated in the Great War. A Vickers machine gun boasted a nine yard magazine belt. To 'give them the whole nine yards' meant to use up the entire belt on the enemy. Submitted by Ben Edwards.

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'To let your hair down'

In Tudor England the ladies wore their hair up, and in 'wimples' (those pointed bonnets you see in paintings). Beneath, their hair was piled high and pinned.

Naturally, in the bed chamber, caps and hats, as well as other garments, were disposed of. It was a time for wanton behaviour and abandonment - but only in the bedroom, and in private.

Hence, letting one's hair down was a practical as well as a symbolic thing.

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'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'

No, it's not as coarse and rude as it might appear! This very common description of the British winter weather actually comes from the times when the navy fought with cannon balls. These were stored on deck, besides the actual cannon. With the rolling of the ship the balls would roll aound the ship. They were welded to small stable upright called, a brass monkey. In the bitter cold the weld could snap and the let loose the balls!

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'Dear old Blighty'

'Blighty' is another nickname for Britain. In the first World War, soldiers would pray for a 'blighty'. This was a wound that would get them back to 'Blighty' for treatment. Some people say it's a corruption of 'beauty' but more probably it's derived from a Hindu word meaning 'stranger' and picked up by the British while ruling India.

Battlefields Tours

'He (or she) follows every
Jack Straw that comes along'

It means that he/she has no mind of his/her own and just does whatever someone else says. Jack Straw was an itinerant hedge row preacher. Submitted by Patti Johnson.

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'Bloody' a much used British curse

This very common swearing word is a shortened form of 'By God's blood'.

On the 'graveyard shift' they would know if someone was 'saved by the bell' or he was a 'dead ringer'

England is old and small. When they started running out of places to bury people they would dig up coffins after so many years and reuse the graves. In reopening these coffins about 1 in 25 were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realised they had been burying people alive. So they tied a string on the decease's wrist and led it through the coffin lid and up through the ground and tied it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night and listen for the bell. Submitted by Marg Duncombe. 'Graveyard shift' also refers to the practice of sitting there overnight to guard against the grave robbers digging up the bodies!

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'Don't throw the baby out with the bath water'

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and were still smelling pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the B.O. Baths were a big tub filled with hot water.  The man of the house had the privilege of nice clean hot water. Then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all were the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Submitted by Marg Duncombe.

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'It's raining cats and dogs'

Houses had thatched roofs, thick straw pile high. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the pets, dogs, cats and other small animals, mice rats, bugs, lived in the roof. When it rained, it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Submitted by Marg Duncombe.

This is also the reason why four poster beds developed. The idea of the 'roof' was to keep from nasty things falling into your open mouth when asleep! The side curtains kept out the drafts.

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'Burning a candle at both ends'

Once upon a time the only light in a house was provided by the taper. This was kept alight usually on a holder beside the fire. It provided a small amount of light. If special vistors came and more light was demanded then the taper was lit both ends.

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'Rule of thumb'

Before thermometers were invented, brewers would dip a thumb or finger into the mix to find the right temperature for adding yeast. Too cold, and the yeast wouldn't grow. Too hot, and the yeast would die. This thumb in the beer is where we get the phrase "rule of thumb".  Submitted by Marg Duncombe.

Another derivation comes from the ancient custom that men could beat their wives but only with a stick no thicker than their thumb! Thus having someone 'under your thumb'.

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'Mind your Own business'

Our ancestor's personal hygiene left much room for improvement. As a result, many women and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread bee's wasx over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman's face she was told 'mind your own bee's wax'.

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'Crack a smile'

Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term . Also, when they sat too close to a fire the wax would crack and drip!

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'Mind your P's and Q's'

In old England ale is/was drunk in pints and quarts. So when customers got unruly, the innkeeper would yell at them to mind their own pints and quarts and settle down.

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In 1794 Admiral Vernon of the British fleet decided to water down the Navy's rum. Needless to say, the sailors weren't too pleased and called Admiral Vernon Old Grog, after the stiff wool grogram coats he wore. The term "grog"soon began to mean the watered down drink itself. When you were drunk on this grog, you were "groggy", a word still in use today. Submitted by Marg Duncombe.

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'Wet your whistle'

Many years ago, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic mugs. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. "Wet your whistle" is the phrase inspired by this practice. Submitted by Marg Duncombe.

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'I'm feeling fair to middling'

It comes from cotton grading used in the late19th century to early 20th century in the southern United States. "Fair" was one of the lowest grades of cotton and "middling" was the next lowest used when a farmer brought his cotton to market! Submitted by Charles Brittain.

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It was the accepted practice in Anglo-Saxon England years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink (it was supposed to make the wife fertile and the husband virile). Mead is a honey wine, and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the
"honey month" or what we know today as the "honeymoon." Submitted by Tana M. Schiewer.

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'Goodnight, sleep tight'

In Shakespeare's time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. That's where the phrase "goodnight, sleep tight" came from. Submitted by Tana M. Schiewer.

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'One for the road'

During the middle ages and mediaeval period, the condemned were taken from London city gaols to Tyburn Hill for execution. En route, along what is today's Oxford Street, the cart stopped and they were allowed one final drink at a country inn situated on the road. The 'one' they were drinking was for the road to death.

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'Bring someone down a peg or two'

In olden times people would share a drinking vessel called a 'pigin'. This was passed around the drinking circle. You drank down to your mark or peg. If you upset the crowd you had to miss a few turns, hence brought down a 'peg or two'.

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'Pressed for an answer'

Horribly, people used to have heavy weights loaded onto their chests in an effort to squeeze a confession out of them at any interrogation. Quite literally 'pressed for an answer'.

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A 'wake'

Many people were buried alive in times past because it was not recognised that they might simply be in a coma. This was especially true of people who drunk as many would get dead drunk , and cider drinkers often lead poisoning. Thus a body was left out awhile, and a party thrown around it, just to make sure the corpse didn't 'wake' up!

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'By hook or by crook'

There are several derivations given. One is that peasants were permitted under the ancient forestry acts only to take from the forests that which they could reach from the edge with their hooks or shepherds crooks. Another version has it that Cromwell vowed to take Waterford in Ireland attacking either via the villages of Hook or Crook.

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'What a shambles!'

'It's shambolic'

Travel to the walled city of York in nothern England and you'll undoubtedly enjoy time in the narrow, cobble-stoned medieval, shopping streets.

These were known as 'the shambles'. Traditionally, this is where traders erected their temporary stalls and sold their wares from barrows, long before the idea of a permanent shop was feasible. In fact, such streets were a feature of all towns. You can imagine the virtual chaos as traders fought for space in these unregulated areas. It would truly have been shambolic.

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'Show a leg'

Apparently, when the ships of old were about to leave port, the sailors might try to smuggle a lady aboard, concealing her in their hammock. The officers or mates would do a final inspection of the ship and crew before she left. Anybody in a hammock was bidden to 'show a leg'. Should a hairless and shapely one dangle the owner was usually a Jill not Jack Tar and eviction swiftly followed!

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