What the? Where Did That Come From?!

Have you ever heard a word or phrase and wondered how that came into being? I ponder this type of query often and so set about finding some answers to a few common phrases…..

It’s raining cats and dogs; unusually wet weather

In older times it was common for pet animals to sleep in the rafters, close to the hay roof as it was one of the few places they could find warmth. The problem being, when it rained hard, the wooden beams would get wet and it was not an uncommon occurrence for the cats and dogs to fall down from the roof. Hence the term, raining cats and dogs.

Happy as Larry; Incredibly happy or excited

Who was Larry, you ask and why exactly was he so damn happy?! Larry Foley, was actually a larger-than-life pugilist, an undefeated Australian middleweight boxer who had his heyday in the 1890’s. He reportedly won a considerable fortune in prize money, garnering $150 000 for one particular bout. So, when a New Zealand newspaper celebrated his win with the relevant headline, ‘Happy as Larry’…..the phrase seemed apt and has since stuck around.

As mad as a hatter; Completely and utterly crazy

There are a number of theories about the root of this simile. Perhaps the most interesting and possibly most plausible, was offered in “The Journal of the American Medical Association” (vol. 155, no. 3). 

The highly toxic metal Mercury, used to be used in the manufacture of felt hats, so milliners or ‘hatters’ would quite commonly come into contact with this particular poisonous metal. Unfortunately for some, the effect of such exposure often leads to mercury poisoning, of which, one of the key symptoms is insanity.

To make no bones about a matter; To speak frankly or directly regarding a topic

The earliest form of this expression was around as early as 1459 and used to mean to have no difficulty. It seems evident that the allusion refers to the occurrence of bones in stews or soup. Soup without bones would offer no difficulty, and accordingly one would have no hesitation in swallowing soup with no bones.

To throw in the towel / sponge; To surrender or admit defeat

The original format of this colloquial catch phrase, ‘to throw up the sponge’ began sometime around the 1800s and was a sporting reference relating to the sponge used to cleanse combatants’ faces at prize fights. The boxer’s manager throwing in the sponge would signal that their side had had enough. Therefore the sponge was no longer required. In recent years, towels have been substituted for sponges at a fight, consequently the outmoded expression also got updated

To break the ice; Either to make a start on something or to relax a tense social situation

This particular phrase came into general use through the lines of Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” (1823):

And your cold people [the British] are beyond all price,
When once you’ve broken their confounded ice

The metaphorical ice in question is that on a river or lake in early spring, before the thaw. A break in the ice allows boats to pass, marking the beginning of the season’s activity after the winter freeze. This is why the expression has been connected to the start of enterprise, for over 400 years.

So now you know! There’s usually a root cause for everything, especially when it comes to language.

Just a little teaser for the end. Did you know that Lord Sandwich couldn’t leave his gambling den for lunch and ordered his food to the table which is how the word sandwich came into being.

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