Strangest English Phrases Explained
Every language has its own phrases that sound normal if you’ve grown up with them but really weird if they’re new to you. If you’re not a native speaker, it may be difficult to grasp why “into the mouth of the wolf” means “good luck!” in Italian, or why “there’s no cow on the ice” means “don’t panic” in Swedish.
In its long and complex history, English has picked up plenty of mysterious sayings that even native speakers can’t explain. Even if you know what “a chip on your shoulder” means, you probably don’t know why. Is it anything to do with French fries? Let’s find out. Here they are: the origins of five of English’s weirdest phrases.
1. To steal someone’s thunder
Meaning: to draw attention away from someone else who was expecting congratulations or praise.
“She announced she was pregnant at my engagement party. She totally stole my thunder!”
John Dennis was hoping to become famous in the world of 18th Century London theater. He’d written a new play and invented a machine to create a thunder sound effect for the storm scenes. Unfortunately, the play wasn’t popular and was soon cancelled. The thunder machine, however, worked perfectly. Later, John Dennis attended a performance of Macbeth at the same theater … and was outraged to hear his own machine rumbling away in the background. He leapt to his feet, shouting, “That's my thunder, by God! The villains will not play my play but they steal my thunder." And a phrase was born.
2. Curry favor
Meaning: to try to gain an advantage by flattery or insincere friendliness.
“Our new colleague is always trying to curry favor with the boss.”
When most English speakers hear the word “curry,” they think of the spicy Indian dish. Curry is, after all, incredibly popular in the UK…so is that where “currying favor” comes from? In fact, this phrase dates all the way back to 1310, long before English speakers began enjoying chicken vindaloo. A “curry-comb” is a brush used to groom a horse and “Fauvel” was once a word for a chestnut horse. But what has grooming a chestnut horse got to do with flattery and fake friendship?
Medieval people enjoyed fables about animals, such as Reynard, the cunning fox; Chanticleer, the conceited rooster … and Fauvel, the ambitious horse. In a 14th century story by Gervais de Bus, Fauvel magically gets the chance to move into a palace. People make fools of themselves by fawning on the wealthy horse, flattering him, bowing to him…and grooming him. They curry Fauvel. But soon people started mishearing “Fauvel” as “favor”.
(Why is a brush for a horse called a ‘curry-comb’? The word “curry” here comes from the Old French correier – to prepare.)
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3. Pony up
Meaning: to pay money; to settle a debt.
“You never paid me back for those movie tickets. Come on, pony up.”
While “currying favor” is about horses, “pony up” isn’t. Instead, it’s probably about dates and psalms. March 25th marks the end of the first quarter of the year, and in Medieval England it was a day for settling debts. The Latin psalm that was sung in church every March 25th begins “Legem pone mihi, Domine…” The association between those words and money stuck: people began saying “Legem pone…” and in time “pony” to remind debtors it was time to pay.
4. Go cold turkey
Meaning: to give up a habit abruptly “No more Facebook for me. I’m going cold turkey.”
Before people started going cold turkey, they talked it. “Colonists trading with Native Americans (for goods including turkeys) might ask, “Are you here to talk turkey,” meaning blunt, straightforward business conversation. “Cold turkey” came to mean dealing with a problem in a simple, decisive way. That’s what an addict is doing when they try to give up their habit in one go, hoping to get through the cravings once and for all.
5. A chip on your shoulder
Meaning: to be sulky; to take out perceived grievances on other people.
“Ever since he didn’t get that promotion he’s had a real chip on his shoulder.”
The word “chip” can mean a lot of things in English – a small hole in a hard surface where a piece has broken off, a tiny group of electronic circuits, and a French fry! But a chip can also mean “a small piece of wood.” In 1840s America, boys who were in the mood for a fight would put a chip of wood on their shoulder and dare other youths to knock it off. It was a way of warning the world: “get in my way, and I’ll beat you up.”
Do you know the origins of a strange phrase? Tell us about it in the comments!