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8 common phrases you might not know the origin of

By / 07.23.11

Common Phrases Origins

Horia Varlan, <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/horiavarlan/4268897748/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_blank">Flickr</a>



The average male speaks about 6,000 words per day. Some of that is incoherent babble, and some of it might be quite intelligent. Obviously it depends on the speaker.

But what ties men together, from the verbose (Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann) to the men of few words (the father from “The Wonder Years”), is a set of common phrases. So we decided to take a look at some of those phrases, mostly our favorites, to see where they originated. The items below, while not exactly crutches of the most eloquent speaker, have become part of the fabric of the mainstream lexicon.

Photo credit: Horia Varlan, Flickr

8 Shit end of the stick
The good news is, this phrase is extremely versatile. The speaker can insert any term connoting a really crappy scenario, and it has the same meaning. But no one really knows for sure where this one came from. Theories range from nineteenth century logging to playground baseball games.

Looks like the originator of this great phrase won’t get the deserved notoriety; talk about getting the sh-t end of the stick.

7 Pipe dream
This phrase, meaning an unrealistic hope or fantasy, originates from the “dreams” resulting from opium hallucinations. The first written references were made from the late 19th century in and around Chicago, including this reference in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1890: “It [aerial navigation] has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years.”

More current pipe dreams, resulting from the use of a crack pipe, are probably more terrifying and depressing than opium dreams. But we’ll save a discussion of drug hallucinations for another day.

6 In your face
This phrase, an “exclamation of derision and contempt”, originated in the United States in the 1970s. One source says the earliest references come from sports, the earliest being Charles Rosen’s 1976 basketball novel, “A Mile Above the Rim.”

Ironically, today, you’re more likely to find the phrase on Twitter, where people can direct things towards each other’s electronic faces rather than their actual, real faces.

5 No holds barred
Although I’d love to tell you that Hulk Hogan, star of the 1989 classic film “No Holds Barred” crafted the phrase, it actually dates back earlier. But the tag line of Hogan’s film, “No Ring. No Ref. No Rules” does capture the meaning of the phrase, which means “without restrictions or rules.” The phrase comes from wrestling, specifically wrestling holds.

The earliest reference is from the Manitoba Daily Free Press in 1892: “The conditions of the match were best two in three falls Greco-Roman style; no holds barred.” The obvious conclusion here being — Hulk Hogan is awesome.

4 Jump the gun
This phrase, meaning, “begin something before preparations for it are complete” or “to act too soon or without due caution”, comes from track and field in the early 20th century. Because of nerves or for a sneaky advantage, some runners would take off before the pistol shot. To use another common phrase — don’t be that guy.

3 Going postal
The origin of the phrase, meaning “to become extremely or uncontrollably angry”, is in contained in phrase itself. The phrase is derived from several violent incidents involving United States Postal Workers in the late 1980s and early 1990s where USPS workers shot and killed fellow workers and members of the public. One of the first, and worst, incidents occurred in an Oklahoma post office in 1986 when Patrick Sherrill killed 14 co-workers with a pair of .45 caliber pistols before taking his own life.

In December 1993, The St. Petersburg Times, a Florida newspaper, made the earliest written reference to the excessive stress known as “going postal.” So just tip your mailman during the holidays, OK?

2 Doesn’t know shit from shinola
This phrase, which is indisputably awesome, means “Possessing poor judgment or knowledge.” Shinola is an old brand of U.S. manufactured shoe polish. World War II veterans coined the term to refer to morons who couldn’t make the distinction between shoe polish and shit, only one of which should be applied to shoes. But, as Forrest Gump, or possibly someone else once said, shit happens.

1 Last but not least
This one, commonly used on stage to indicate that the last performer or person introduced is just as important than those preceding, has its roots in theater. One source advises that the first print reference was made in the Edinburgh Advertiser in 1824. The phrase is also used to make less significant people feel less insignificant.

There’s a whole database of phrases with fuller explanations of the above available here.


TAGSArbitrary RankingsCatchphrasesfeaturedGoing postalIn your faceJump the gunLast but not leastListsNo holds barredOld sayingsPhrases you don't know the origin ofPipe dreamShit end of the stickshit from shinola
About Brett Smiley... Brett Smiley tries to write humorously and often fails. He blogs for New York Magazine and MTV Clutch and his work has also appeared in Sports Illustrated. He is an avid New York Giants fan and enjoys an occasional backhanded compliment.

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