From meeting a deadline to basket case to cake walk — the dark origins of words and idioms.
I like idioms. They’re like less judge-y cliches.
I’ve been slowly gathering candidates for this list of idiomatic words and phrases we use — generally without thinking about or knowing where they come from — that have some pretty rough origin stories or histories. I’m not sure if the info on this list will lead to anyone using the words and phrases less (although a few of them definitely have to go) — but at least we’ll realize we’re saying something edgy when we use them.
Here are 11 common words and phrases that have surprisingly dark origins.
1 | Blockbuster
What it means today: A failed video chain.
What it meant three years ago: A massively successful movie.
Where it comes from: The British developed bombs in World War Two called “blockbusters” — because they were powerful enough to destroy an entire city block. Modern vacant Blockbusters are just destroy a block aesthetically.
2 | Paying through the nose
What it means today: Paying an excessive amount for something.
Where it comes from: A term that linked to a “nose tax” from Norse mythology — where if people refused to pay their taxes to the king, their noses would be slit or cut off. I’m just grateful it’s a phrase about finances and noses and isn’t directly linked to anti-Semitism. Thank you for the rare flash of self-restraint, history.
3 | Uppity
What it means today: A person who’s self-important or arrogant.
Where it comes from: An Jim Crow era term used to describe a black person who was successful or, essentially, didn’t view themselves as a second-class citizen. This awful historical context comes up every few years when some talking head inevitably refers to the President or another prominent black leader as “uppity” then SWEARS they didn’t know it had a racial connotation.
4 | Meet a deadline
What it means today: The time when something must be finished.
Where it comes from: A Civil War term for an actual line that was drawn around a prison; if prisoners tried to cross the deadline, they’d be shot in the head. By the 1920s, it had evolved to the current meaning — I’m thinking NOT because in Industrial Revolution-era America, people were shooting their workers in the head if they left before they screwed enough caps onto tubes of toothpaste. At least let’s hope not. Is Upton Sinclair still around to investigate?
5 | Skeleton in the closet
What it means today: The biggest secrets from your past you’re hiding.
Where it comes from: This isn’t definitive — which is strange, because this one seems to clearly lend itself to an obviously dark origin — but the prevailing theory is that 18th century doctors used to hide cadavers in their closets so they could use them for experiments and teaching. It would actually be disappointing if that isn’t the origin. Like if it just turns out to be a phrase that sprang out of people lying about hiding Halloween decorations or taxidermy projects or something, I’ll be way disappointed.
6 | Basket case
What it means today: Someone who’s crazy, going crazy or generally has a crazy aura. Even if they go to a shrink to analyze their dreams and she says it’s a lack of sex that’s bringing them down.
Where it comes from: A U.S. military term from World War I, where soldiers who’d lost arms or legs in battle were literally carried off the battlefield in a basket. That’s super grim.
7 | Cake walk
What it means today: Easy path to success.
Where it comes from: American slavery. Slaves would have an annual ball that featured an event called a “cake walk” where they’d dress up like the white slaveowners and mimic their walk. The best walk impersonation would earn a cake. It wasn’t as rebellious as it sounds, though — apparently the plantation owners oversaw the cake walk, knew the slaves were making fun of them, and allowed it. The feeling of having the power over the event where they were mocked gave them even more authority. The cake walk then eventually made it into minstrel shows with white performers in black face mocking black slaves mocking white people. Probably best if we just stop using “cake walk.”
8 | Treadmill
What it means today: Exercise machine you run on. (Or jog, or walk uphill, or stand while you wait for your friend to finish working out. That last one is pretty common at the gym.)
Where it comes from: The treadmill was invented in Victorian-era England as a huge cylinder that people would run on to power a mill as it raised water or crushed rocks. And those people were… prisoners. Yes, the treadmill was considered a hard-labor punishment.
9 | Cat got your tongue?
What it means today: Don’t have anything to say?
Where it comes from: There are two theories behind the etymology of the phrase — and they’re both R-rated. Well… actually PG-13 rated — graphic violence, no nudity. (1) The term comes from people being in such unbearable pain they couldn’t even talk after they were publicly flogged with a cat-o-nine-tails whip for punishment. Or… (2) in Medieval times (the times, not the restaurant/show), anyone who committed blasphemy would have their tongue cut out and fed to cats.
10 | Pulling your leg
What it means today: I’m perpetrating a mild joke or trick on you.
Where it comes from: In 18th century England, thieves would rob people by literally pulling their leg. One thief would pull someone’s leg to trip him, another thief would run up and take the stuff out of his pockets while he was on the ground. The British always do things extra subtle or extra loud — this one falls into the Benny Hill latter category.
11 | Rule of thumb
What it means today: A standard and/or well-known metric or approach to a problem.
Where it comes from: Although this has been somewhat (but not completely) debunked, it’s linked to a 19th century English law that allowed men to beat their wives using a sticks — as long as those sticks weren’t more than the width of a thumb. Oddly enough, even if that isn’t really the origin of “rule of thumb,” it’s been linked to the phrase so often that it’s de facto associated with it. It’s the “if enough people say irregardless it becomes a word” of mind-boggling domestic violence.