The real meaning behind 15 common clichés

Posted: June 3, 2019 in Did you know?

Common clichés

common_clichesSlang is an interesting linguistic phenomenon. Even if you’re a native English speaker, you may not understand some of the things Americans say if you’re from another anglophone country. Even within a country, slang can vary from state to state or region to region.

But certain slang terms and phrases are common throughout America, or even the English-speaking world as a whole, to the point that they’ve become clichés. These phrases tend to have quite a bit of interesting — and often unexpected — history that may change the way you look at them or give you some clarity as to how to properly use them. You may find yourself quite surprised as to the real meaning behind these 15 common clichés.

‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’

apple_a_dayThis famous English originally came from a Welsh saying that translates to “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” The saying encouraged a custom that didn’t actually extol the benefits of eating an apple, however. It was a Welsh custom to eat apples with caraway seeds, which were thought to have health benefits. Since then, however, the many health benefits of apples have been scientifically proven.

‘Let the cat out of the bag’

cat_ouutta_bagWhen someone has let the cat out of the bag, it means that they have revealed information to someone else that the latter did not previously know. The phrase’s origins are not entirely clear, but there are two possibilities. The first is that it is a reference to the cat-o’-nine-tails whip, which was used as a punishment on Royal Navy ships — a sailor informing on another sailor’s disobedience would be said to have “let the cat out of the bag.” The second common explanation refers to a common scam in which someone buying a suckling pig would actually be sold a cat instead, but would not realize this until they opened the bag they were given.


scot_freeThe word “scot” in Old or Middle English means “tax.” As such, someone “getting off scot-free" was originally used to literally describe someone who’d gotten away with not paying their taxes.

‘Adam’s ale’

adams_aleAdam’s ale, of course, doesn’t refer to the world’s first beer but is rather another way of referring to water, stemming from the idea that water would be all that the first man had to drink in the Garden of Eden. Specifically, Adam’s ale is pure water that hasn’t been adulterated in any way, such as he would have drunk. The phrase became particularly popular during the temperance movement on the 1830s, which promoted water as a pure and healthier alternative to alcohol.

‘Resting on your laurels’

resting_on_your_laurelsWhen someone is described as resting on their laurels, it paints a picture of someone who has become complacent as a result of being overly satisfied with their achievements. In ancient Greece, laurel wreaths were a symbol of status and victory, and one would only be wearing one after having accomplished quite a bit. Once you start resting on your laurels, however, you’ve become a bit lazy and perhaps too sure of yourself to apply yourself further.

‘Long in the tooth’

long_toothA person that is long in the tooth is simply someone who is old. However, while there is a lot that changes in your health as you grow older, the length of your teeth isn’t one of them. The phrase actually refers to horses, whose teeth do grow as they age and can be used as a means of determining how old one is.

‘Baker’s dozen’

bakers_dozenThe phrase “baker’s dozen” refers to 13 rather than 12 and dates back to medieval England. When selling a dozen loaves, it was common practice for bakers in that time period to include an extra one in order to avoid being accused of shorting customers. This was due to a law passed by King Henry III that standardized the weight of a loaf of bread, after which bakers could get in serious trouble for giving a customer less than what was paid for.

‘As pleased as Punch’

pleased_as_punchIf you’re pleased as Punch, it has nothing to do with a drink; instead it refers to a terrible puppet character named Mr. Punch. “Punch and Judy shows,” which have been popular in England since the 17th century and are commonly found at British seaside resorts, feature short scenes in which Judy often falls victim to Punch’s physically abusive behavior. The puppet shows have declined in popularity since the second half of the 20th century, the phrase describing Punch’s gleefulness at causing havoc lives on.


silver_tonguedThe term “silver-tongued” is not a reference to color or metal but rather sound. Dating back to at least the late 16th century, the use of the word “silver” here is one that is obscure to us today. Something being described as silver can mean that it has a melodious sound, such as that of ringing silver. Someone who is silver-tongued, therefore, is well-spoken and persuasive as a result.

‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’

fat_lady_singsThis phrase evokes the image of the stereotypically fat soprano that closes out an opera show, specifically “Götterdämmerung,” the last of Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” cycle of operas. At the end of the show, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde — usually played by a big woman — has a 20-minute farewell scene right before the finale of the entire opera cycle. “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” is usually meant to be encouraging, a reminder that the present circumstances do not necessarily indicate the outcome of a situation, particularly when it comes to games or sports.

‘Blow a raspberry’

blow_raspberry“Blowing a raspberry” is when you place your tongue between your lips and blow to produce a rude sound similar to flatulence, usually to signal your derision toward something. Used in most English-speaking countries since at least the late 19th century, the phrase is an excellent example of Cockney rhyming slang, a humorous type of slang associated with the English working class and used throughout Britain. “Raspberry” is a shortened way of saying “raspberry tart,” which rhymes with “fart”; ergo, “raspberry” is slang for “fart.”

‘Writing on the wall’

writing_on_wallWhen someone says that the “writing is on the wall,” they’re referring to the fact that a situation is very clearly and inevitably going to become unpleasant or difficult. The phrase is Biblical in origin, coming from the story of Belshazzar’s feast in the Book of Daniel. In the story, King Belshazzar is feasting and drinking from sacred vessels looted from a temple when a disembodied hand appears and writes on the wall a warning that God has numbered the days of the kingdom because of Belshazzar’s impiety. Even after Daniel interprets this message for him, Belshezzar ignores the warning, leading to his downfall.

‘Paint the town red’

paint_the_town_redIf you and your friends set out to “paint the town red,” it means you’re going out for some wild and extravagant fun. The phrase dates back to 1837 and to a specific group of friends led by the Marquess of Waterford who, in a night of drunken revelry, vandalized the English town of Melton Mowbray by breaking windows, knocking over flower pots and even literally painting several doors, a statue and a tollgate red. While that does sound like fun, the group did get into quite a bit of trouble, so we advise more caution for when you go out drinking with your friends.

‘Getting your just deserts’

getting_your_desertMany people get this phrase wrong, referring to someone as getting their “just desserts.” The real phrase is far less tasty, however. The word “desert” in this context means something one has earned or deserved. As such, if you’re getting your just deserts, you’re up for some sweet karma rather than a delicious sweet treat.

‘A dime a dozen’

dime_a_dozenThe common phrase “a dime a dozen” actually originated in reference to eggs. A popular marketing gimmick in the 1800s was to price food and drink items so that one could boast that customers only needed a dime for it. Eggs, which are typically sold by the dozens, were priced as such back then, although they’ve changed quite a lot in the decades since and were probably much more expensive the year you were born. Saying something is "a dime a dozen" means it is very common, and therefore, not very expensive or noteworthy. It’s mainly used in the United States, making it a regional slang term that others might not understand.

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