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The origins of well known phrases

Category: Copywriting | Date: | Author: Sarah Fielding

Everyday English conversations are smattered with idioms – well known expressions that we all understand and regularly use, but don't appear to have any direct reference to what we are actually trying to say. I’m compiling a collection of them here – along with an explanation as to their origins, so that the next time they crop up in conversation, you can amaze your friends with your etymology knowledge!

By the skin of my teeth

Meaning – A situation one barely managed to escape from.

Origin – The phrase first appears in English in the Geneva Bible, 1560, in Job 19:20, which provides a literal translation of the original Hebrew: "I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe." Of course, skin doesn’t have teeth so the writer is referencing a notional minute measure.

No holds barred

Meaning - If something is done with no holds barred, it's done without restriction, rules or restraint.

Origin - From the sport of wrestling, in which certain dangerous holds are not usually allowed. However, if wrestlers are in a 'no-holds-barred contest', there are no restrictions and they can use whatever holds they like. The earliest reference to a 'no holds barred' bout is 1892.

Whole new ball game

Meaning  - An alternative; a different thing altogether.

Origin – The phrase originates from baseball where it is used to connote a change in tactics or a change in which team is ahead in a game.

Get the ball rolling

Meaning - The phrase is used to describe the commencement of an activity.

Origin - It originated in the genteel game of croquet where if the first person to go was good enough, he/she could win without anyone else having a turn. Therefore players would toss a coin to see who would ‘get the ball rolling’.

The way the cookie crumbles

Meaning - Often used to underline the failure of an action or an unexpected result.

Origin - The phrase is a variant of the expression ‘such is life’ and it’s said to have been used in the US since the 1950’s, with Jack Lemmon making it popular in the film The Apartment.