Idioms for the New Year

It’s that time of year when resolutions are made, optimism is high, and people desire a fresh start! Whether you are one to make New Year’s resolutions, or one to mock those who do, you’ll likely hear some idioms used with regard to beginnings.

For Amazing Words Wednesday, let’s take a look at a few and their origins.

Turn over a new leaf. It’s time for a fresh start, to do something different, to turn over a new leaf! “Leaf” in this case refers not to the red, orange, or brown thing that just fell from the tree in your back yard, but rather the page of a book. The phrase appears to date all the way back to the 1500s. To turn over a new leaf, therefore, means to turn the page and start a new chapter of your life.

Back to the drawing board. Maybe 2012 didn’t work out like you wished, so you need to head back to the drawing board. A drawing board is a drafting table used for preparing designs or blueprints. This phrase gained acceptance and use during World War II when military blueprints and plans were a success . . . or a failure–suggesting the need to return to the drawing board to draft something new. In 1941, Peter Arno used this as a caption for his cartoon in The New Yorker magazine:

Start from scratch. If you haven’t begun one of your New Year’s goals, you must start at the beginning, of course–or start from scratch. Sporting events historically had a practice of scratching onto the ground a start line (with a sword or other tool). References to this line as the “scratch” exist for horse racing, boxing, cricket, and golf. The first direct reference to “start from scratch” appears to be for a running race–from the British The Era newspaper in 1853: “The manner in which the men have been handicapped [is]: James Pudney (of Mile-end) and James Sherdon (of Sheffield), start from scratch . . .”

Back to square one. If you started a goal before and it didn’t pan out, you can always go back to square one. As with several oft-used idioms, the origin for this phrase is a bit uncertain. One plausible theory is that the phrase arose in the 1920s when British rugby commentators divided the field into eight rectangles and referred to the starting point as “square one.” From my own research, I’m leaning toward hopscotch as being another likely candidate for the use of “back to square one.” In hopscotch–a game which seems to have originated in the 17th century–play starts at square one.

Jump on the bandwagon. So you’ve been wanting to try something that has worked for others–a new diet, a writing challenge, a hairstyle. Maybe it’s time to jump on the bandwagon. In the 1800s, bandwagons were used to transport musicians and circus performers around the American South to entertain audiences. Politicians caught on and decided to bring their own bandwagons on the campaign trail. The band would begin playing and attract a crowd, at which point the politician would jump on and use it as a stage for his own message. In 1899 Theodore Roosevelt referred to this practice of joining an activity that’s working well for others: “When I once became sure of one majority they tumbled over each other to get aboard the band wagon.”

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If your efforts are less than successful in January or February, don’t give up! If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. It’s a common phrase, but do you know where we got it? I didn’t. Although often credited to William Edward Hickson in his “Moral Song” of 1857, this proverb appeared in print in 1840. American educator Thomas H. Palmer wrote in his Teacher’s Manual an encouragement for schoolchildren to do their homework: “‘Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The whole poem is below. While intended for children, this saying applies to us adults too!

Thomas H. Palmer, Teacher’s Manual (1840)

Or for the pessimists realists…


What are you resolved to do in 2013? Turning over a new leaf? Going back to square one? What other New Year proverbs or sayings are you familiar with?

Sources: The Phrase Finder; White Elephants & Red Herrings by Albert Jack; The Word Detective; Online Etymology Dictionary; Book Browse; Google Books

36 thoughts on “Idioms for the New Year

  1. I’m blank right now on starting over proverbs. But I’ll tell you I plan to do a little of both turning over a new leaf and going back to square one. I’m making changes on my blog and focusing more on actually writing fiction (since I’ll be, you know, publishing a book and all). 😉

  2. This was great! A few of these I definitely didn’t know, like starting from scratch. (I thought it had to do with baking!) The most surprising one was turning over a new leaf – I knew leaf referred to a page in a book, but for some reason I never put that concept together with the saying. I’d always wondered what the leaves on a tree had to do with starting anew, LOL. Thanks, as always, for the lesson, Julie!!

  3. I hope to Turn Over a New Leaf and Go Back to Square One this year… I really need to start seriously exercising for the first time in my life and get back to a place where I feel is healthy.

    1. You and me both, honey! I’m SO embarrassed how much weight I’ve gained this past year. It’s almost as much as I did with my second pregnancy. But more importantly, I breathe hard after climbing stairs. I prefer to reserve my gasping for more exciting activities.

      I’ll be here to cheer you on! Woot-woot! You can do it, Tiffany!!!

  4. As a former graphic designer who got my degree before computers took over the field, I’m quite familiar with going back to the drawing board. 🙂 I hadn’t heard the others, though. Now I’m wondering where the term to bake something from scratch originated….

    1. Same place, Jennette. According to Word Detective; “A runner ‘starting from scratch’ received no handicap or benefit–whatever the contestant accomplished was due solely to his or her own efforts. So, too, is a cook baking a cake without the benefit of Betty Crocker or her ilk said to be making it ‘from scratch.'” I didn’t know that before either!

  5. Wow, never knew any of this stuff. I’m definitely turning over a new leaf this year! And the page in the book makes ever so much more sense tha turning over a maple leaf!

  6. This was a very cool post Julie. I too used “turning over a new leaf” this week and had to look it up in order to make sure I used the phrase properly. Yes, we’ve turned over a new page, a fresh start. It’s a positive way to look at what we can achieve in the new year. I hope you have a great one Julie! It was so great to see you! 🙂

  7. As always I love your Amazing Word Wednesdays. I fascinates me where things come from. Thanks

  8. Great post, Julie! I always thought “turning over a new leaf” had to do with seasonal changes. I have egg on my face for not knowing that one. (I wonder where that idiom comes from, now that I think of it.) Thanks for the language lesson.

    1. You made me curious! Several choices of origin for “egg on my face,” but after reading them, I’m going with Albert Jack: Victorian theatres put on comedies in which one poor schmuck actor would have eggs broken on his forehead to make him look foolish. The phrase, however, really became more common in the 1900s. Does that sound convincing? 😉

  9. Thanks for an interesting post. I live with a wordsmith, one who used to write a local column “On Words,” so appreciate your love and fascination with them. I’m looking for an idiom for perseverance, something about the tortoise and the hare I imagine, for that is what 2013 will be for me: continuing with one foot in front of the other as I wend my way through (I hope) final revisions in my now six year process of getting this memoir on paper (and it only covers two years of my life!). I’m a work in progress as is my book.

    1. Thanks so much! How about “slow and steady wins the race”? Or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”? Or a favorite Winston Churchill quote: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Best wishes with your memoir!

  10. LOVE this. Word/Grammar nerds unite!! I always thought “start from scratch” had something to do with recipes. Happy 2013! I look forward to many more of your posts this year (and a book, too, I hope!!).

  11. A post for linguiphiles everywhere… I love word origins. Someday I dream of having a full Oxford English dictionary set in my livingroom just so I can look up and follow word histories.

    As for making things from scratch… Does anyone know how much a gallon of that stuff goes for? I could use a few dozen given all the stuff people seem to make from it. 😉

    1. My dream involves the OED too. Like I will have “made it” in life if I get on the NYT Bestseller list AND have the Oxford English Dictionary in my home. 😉 Hope you achieve your dreams, Eden!

  12. Happy New Year, Julie.

    Interesting list. I never knew about “bandwagon,” and I;’d never have guessed. If you’re really into idioms you should try Brewster’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It’s got a good 1000 pages of the things! That should keep toy reading for a good amount of the year 🙂

    Hope you have a great 2013.


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