idioms and their origins

by loo wei juan, photo credits.

The English Language has always been a fluid organism, its meaning constantly shifting and evolving over time. Have you ever thought about a word or phrase – really thought about it, and wondered how it has come to bear its current meaning? Here are some commonly known idioms and their unexpected origins.

“Crossing the deadline”

During the American Civil War, prisoners of war were kept in stockades with a line drawn within the stockade. As soon as a prisoner took one step past the line, they were shot immediately by the guards; hence the line became known as the deadline.

Modern Meaning: A deadline is now commonly known as the time at which assigned work need to be completed by or a debt needs to be paid.

“Saved by the bell”

During the 19thcentury, there was a prevalent problem of people being buried alive. Coffins, when dug up and opened, revealed evidence of scratch marks on the inside of the coffins. The terrified people came up with a system of linking the interior of buried coffins to bells above the graves. Should one find himself trapped in a buried coffin, the bell could be rung to signal for help. Sounds scary.

Modern Meaning: Saved by the timely intervention of something or someone.

“The graveyard shift”

One person would have to be stationed at a graveyard at all times to listen out in case the bell (See “saved by the bell”) was rung in the middle of the night. The person taking the graveyard shift would have to sit in the middle of an empty graveyard at night, waiting to hear if a bell was rung by someone…or something, a most grave occupation indeed.

Modern Meaning: A shift of work between the early hours of the morning.

“Skeleton in the closet”

There was a common practice in the 18th century of digging up corpses and using them for educational purposes. As this practice had not yet been legalised, the skeletons were typically hidden in cupboards, or closets.

Modern Meaning: A shameful secret that could be disastrous if found out.

“Pressed for an answer”

In the middle ages, confessions were extracted out of prisoners through torture, particularly by placing heavy weights on the chests of the prisoners until they surrendered the confession the authorities demanded.

Modern Meaning: An answer or reply is urgently needed.

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