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

Gone to the Dogs: Idioms

Last week, we looked at feline-inspired idioms with The Cat’s Out of the Bag. For today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, let’s take another trail in the labyrinth where we find our canine companions.

Check out the following dog-related idioms and their origins.

Barking up the wrong tree. Back in the 1800s, people went raccoon hunting. (Meanwhile, all I have to do is wait for the raccoons to show up to my porch where my sons will shoot them with airsoft bullets to scare them away.) Since raccoons are nocturnal, hunts occurred at night when sight was limited and scent was a better clue. Hunters would bring dogs to pick up the scent. If a raccoon climbed up a tree, a dog would stand at the base and bark up at it, signaling the hunter to climb the tree and get his prey. But if the hunter climbed and no raccoon was found, that dog was “barking up the wrong tree.”

Gone to the dogs. In medieval times, the rich discarded their table scraps and partially eaten food by throwing out for the dogs. Impoverished, starving folk could be found sifting through the leftovers with the dogs, looking for something to eat. Thus, one who is down on his luck and has deteriorated has “gone to the dogs.”

Dog eat dog. This is usually expressed as “It’s dog eat dog out there!” or “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” According to Christine Ammer, author of Cool Cats and Top Dogs (and Other Beastly Expressions), in 43 B.C. a Roman man of letters Marcus Tarentius Varro said “Canis caninam non est.” Had you been studying your Latin faithfully, you would know that translates as “Dog does not eat dog.” He meant to suggest that even animals like dogs have limits and will not destroy their own kind. Surely, we humans could show some restraint as well!

But as any pit bull gambler and schoolyard graduate will note, dogs do eat dogs. Thus, by the Industrial Revolution, the phrase “dog eat dog” to connote a cut-throat, competitive world had taken hold. By 1789, the London Times printed:  “As it is an established fact, that sharper will not rob sharper, nor dog eat dog.”

Every dog has his day.  Stuart and Doris Flexner explain in Wise Words and Wives’ Tales: The Origins, Meanings and Time-Honored Wisdom of Proverbs and Folk Sayings Olde and New that medieveal Dutch scholar Erasmus gave the history on this one. He said that the phrase was used after the death of Euripides, a Greek playwright, who was mauled and killed by a pack of dogs in 405 B.C. (presumably loosed upon him by a rival). The saying refers to the presumption that even the most lowly person will at some time get revenge on an oppressor, no matter how powerful the oppressor may be.

Greek biographer Plutarch first recorded the phrase in Moralia (written in 95) as “Even a dog gets his revenge.” In 1539, Englishman Richard Taverner wrote, “A dogge hath a day” (Proverbes). By 1670, John Ray gave us “every dog hath his day” (A Collection of English Proverbs). It’s a great saying, but still a shame that Euripedes had to get ripped to shreds by canines for this phrase to make its way to us.

Working like a dog. I’ve never seen dogs engaged in particularly hard work myself. However, Looney Tunes got this one right with its Ralph E. Wolf & Sam Sheepdog cartoons. Sheepdogs are said to work from dawn to dusk for nothing more than food, a place to sleep, and affection. Perhaps this phrase should be “working like a sheepdog,” since no one has accused chihuahuas of being overly taxed.

Dog days. I became especially interested in this one after downloading Florence + The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.” Ancient Romans noted that the hottest days of the year (late July/early August) coincided with the appearance of Sirius, the Dog Star, and thus believed that the star contributed to the heat of the day. Therefore, these hot summer days became known as the dog days.

Wag the dog. You might know this phrase from 1997 film of its title with Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman. However, the original proverb came from the 19th century. Rudyard Kipling wrote in The Conundrum of the Workshops (1892): “We know that the tail must wag the dog, for, the horse is drawn by the cart.” What that means is that a tail wagging the dog is like putting the cart before the horse. So to “wag the dog” is simply to put the wrong priority first.

Of course, there is the idiom that includes both canines and felines: It’s raining cats and dogs. Where did we get that one? There is an ancient nautical myth that cats had some sort of influence over storms, and a Norse (Viking) myth that dogs were a symbol of storms. Ancient mariners believed that cats caused the rain and dogs brought the gales. Thus a major thunderstorm was referred to as “raining cats and dogs.” The phrase is first recorded in literature in 1738 by Jonathan Swift (A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation).

Are you a cat person, a dog person, both, or neither? Can you think of any other dog idioms? What are your favorite canine-inspired sayings?

Sources: The Pet Wiki, The Phrase Finder, Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack, Word,, Cesar’s Way, Wikipedia

ROW80: I am participating in Round 2. My goals can be found by clicking the #ROW80 tab at the top. I will post my first update on Sunday, April 8.

The Cat’s Out of the Bag: Idioms

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, where we enter the labyrinth of language and look for something interesting among the hedges. Today’s topic is in honor of our feline friends. I was going to do a post with idioms that included both dogs and cats, but there are so many that I will need to cover “man’s best friend” next Wednesday. Stay tuned.

In full disclosure, I am a cat person. While there are some lovely dogs out there, I gravitate toward the furballs who largely ignore you unless they want food or petting on their own schedule. In case you care, here are my cats:

Eclipse & Shadow

And now for the feline-inspired idioms and their origins.

The cat’s meow. A lot of slang words were introduced in the 1920s, including “the cat’s meow” — meaning something excellent or outstanding. It was introduced by American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who also coined “dumbbell,” “for crying out loud,” “hard-boiled,” and another popular cat idiom: “the cat’s pajamas.” From what I can tell, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. But it caught on.

Couldn't find "cat's meow" comic. Here's "dumb-bell."

Cat got your tongue? Several theories exist on this one. Here’s one to make you cringe: Hundreds of years ago in the Mideast, liars had their tongues cut out and fed to the king’s pet felines. Well, maybe. But the first incidence of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary occurs in 1911, so this phrase wasn’t used much before then. It may simply be the general superstition about cats (e.g., don’t cross a black cat) that inspires this phrase meaning you can’t talk.

Not enough room to swing a cat. I had heard that this phrase came from 17th century sailors swinging the cat o’ nine tails, but according to Albert Jack (White Elephants & Red Herrings) this isn’t about a whip. Two centuries earlier, there was a “sport” of swinging cats by the tail into the air, making them moving targets for archers. This activity occurred at fairs and festivals, and if there were large crowds, there wouldn’t enough be room to swing a cat.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. After reading the swing-a-cat story, I was so relieved to find that this one isn’t even about cats! Catfish are easy to catch, but their skin is difficult to remove. Apparently, there are several ways to skin a catfish, but no one in their right mind would skin a beautiful furry feline.

Curiosity killed the cat. The original phrase was “care killed the cat” from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play, Every Man in His Humor: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” Don’t ask me what that line means. In Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it was defined as “Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives [see below], but care would wear them all out.” That same year, the word “care” was exchanged for “curiosity” in The Galveston Daily News: “It is said that once ‘curiosity killed a Thomas cat.'” This new turn of the phrase was used by O’Henry in 1909 in Schools and Schools: “Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat; and if emotions, well recognized as feminine, are inimical to feline life, then jealousy would soon leave the whole world catless.”

I don’t know why care, or worry, would kill a cat to begin with. However, curiosity hasn’t always had the positive connotation it has today. Curiosity has at times been seen as challenging the status quo (tsk, tsk). Lord Byron called curiosity a “low vice” in Don Juan. I personally prefer the line I’ve seen several places: “Curiosity didn’t kill the cat; it was framed.”

A cat has nine lives. The number nine is considered sacred or mystical in some religions and mythology. Think about the trinity of trinities, nine muses, “dressed to the nines,” and a cat’s nine lives. Thus, when people in the Middle Ages had no X-Box or American Idol to entertain them, they threw cats off towers and watched them fall. Surprisingly, cats survived the murderous drop by twisting their bodies and landing on four paws. A cat seemed mystical in that moment: Surely it must have nine lives! My conclusion: The medievalers needed to get one life.

Let the cat out of the bag. Two good options here. First, back in the Middle Ages, people bought their food from the local marketplace. Apparently, some vendors were less honest than others. This idiom comes from a person purchasing a piglet at the market. While the vendor exchanged money and distracted the customer, the piglet in the bag would be exchanged for a cat. Only when the customer arrived home would the secret be discovered, as they “let the cat out of the bag.” Second, and far less appealing to me, there was once a game in which a cat was put in a bag filled with soot and hung on a tree. The game’s object was for competitors to cut open the sack, let the cat free, but not get covered with soot themselves.

Are you a cat person, a dog person, both, or neither? Can you think of any other cat idioms? What are your favorite feline-inspired sayings?

Sources: The Pet Wiki, The Phrase Finder, Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack, Lambiek Comic Shop, Cat-ch Phrases, The Word Detective, Moggies – Online Cat Guide, Westminster Gazette, Askville by

Truly Colorful Idioms

Idioms are one of my favorite things to look up and discover their origins. Idioms are phrases or sayings which have an underlying and generally understood meaning apart from the literal words themselves. For instance, “dead as a doornail” or “break a leg.”

Curiously, we have quite a few idioms which revolve around COLOR. For today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, we’ll navigate a labyrinth of phrases that include colors.

Blackmail. The word “mail” here is the old Scottish word for rent (which actually comes from Old Norse “mal” meaning contract). In the 1600s tenants paid their rent in silver coins known as “white money.” However, the Highland clan chiefs began threatening tenants with violence if they didn’t pay for “protection.” This additional rent soon became known as “black rent” or “black mail” – the opposite of rent paid on the up-and-up. During the 1900s its meaning was extended to the act of demanding money to protect another’s secrets.

In the pink. The phrase did not originate from the color itself. Its first use is found in Romeo & Juliet (1597), as Mercurio states, “Why, I am the very pinke of curtesie.” In this instance and several others, “pinke” meant tip-top, the highest, the peak. Perhaps using the word “pink” to indicate excellence derived from Queen Elizabeth I’s admiration of Dianthus flowers, commonly called Pinks. These flowers are both pink in hue and edged like pinking shears. So to be “in the pink” is to be in the most excellent condition possible.

Green with envy. According to The Phrase Finder, “the Greeks believed that jealousy was accompanied by an overproduction of bile, lending a pallid green cast to the victim.” I have yet to see anyone with an actual green complexion when envy strikes, but it is an effective saying.

Caught red-handed. The phrase “caught red-handed” is first seen in English novelist George Alfred Lawrence’s Guy Livingstone in which the presence of stolen goods caused the character to say, “we were caught red-handed.” In fact, the word “redhand” or “red-handed” had been used since the 15th century and originated in Scotland. It simply refers to having blood on one’s hands, which was proof of involvement in a killing.

Once in a blue moon. While there are a couple of other possible explanations, I’m going with a more commonly accepted one. In 1819, The Maine Farmers Almanac listed dates of “blue moons.” Various moon phrases were given names (e.g., “harvest moon”), and “blue moons” occurred in those years when there were 13 moon cycles rather than the typical 12. The extra moons were called blue. They don’t happen often, of course; thus, “once in a blue moon.”

Paint the town red. In our town, the D.A.R.E. drug awareness program for school is accompanied by an encouragement to “paint the town red” with red ribbons everywhere. However, the theories on where this phrase came from are hardly as innocent. One suggestion is that in 1837 the Marquis of Weatherford and his friends went on a spree in the town of Melton Mowbray and, among other misdeeds, painted it red. Although the event itself took place, no references to red painting were recorded at that time.

Another option comes from The New York Times in 1883 when a reporter wrote: “Mr. James Hennessy offered a resolution that the entire body proceed forthwith to Newark and get drunk… Then the Democrats charged upon the street cars, and being wafted into Newark proceeded, to use their own metaphor, to ‘paint the town red’.” Perhaps the drunkenness is related to a red flush on one’s skin. This still doesn’t explain the phrase’s origin.

A final suggestion was that the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan was painted pink in 1853 in honor of a visit from Prince Albert. But then, why paint the town red when the building was painted pink?

Red itself often refers to blood, so perhaps the original meaning was to have such a violent spree that blood was spilled around the town. I think I’ll opt for the nice ribbons instead.

Red Herring. A red herring is a misleading clue, usually in a mystery. In the 18th and 19th centuries, herring was common in Britain. This fish was preserved by salting and smoking, which resulted in a deep brownish red color and a strong smell. Early animal-lovers in the 1800s wanting to preserve the fox could throw hounds off the hunt with red herrings.

Tickled pink. The word “tickled” here doesn’t mean to touch someone in a way that makes them laugh; it’s an older usage which means to give pleasure. “Tickled pink” is to be so pleased that you appear pink (as when blood rushes to the skin’s surface). Its earliest written reference was in 1910 in The Daily Review, an Illinois newspaper: “Grover Laudermilk was tickled pink over Kinsella’s move in buying him from St. Louis.”

White Elephant. Perhaps you’ve participated in a White Elephant gift exchange, in which you pull out some useless, unwanted item from your home and place it in a pretty gift bag for some other sap. Back when Thailand was Siam, whenever a white elephant was discovered, the king automatically took ownership but not possession. One could not neglect, ride, or work a white elephant, so it was a huge burden to have one. In fact, the king was said to give a white elephant as a special royal gift to those who displeased him. You couldn’t refuse the royal gift, but then you had to take care of said elephant without getting any use from it. Frankly, I’m happy that all of the white elephant gifts I’ve received required no feeding and shoveling.

White knight. In Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, Alice is rescued by the White Knight from the Red Knight. He represents the chess piece of the same name. In the tale he is clumsy, but helps Alice nonetheless. Indeed, the term now simply means “one who comes to the rescue of another” (Merriam-Webster).

Yellow-belly. What the color of one’s stomach has to do with one’s level of courage, I’m not certain. There are several theories. However, the most convincing one involved the Texas revolution. The Wisconsin Enquirer reported in 1842 that “We learn from Capt. Wright, of the N. York, that it is the intention of the Texans to ‘keep dark’ until the Mexicans cross the Colorado, and then give them a San Jacinto fight, with an army from 5000 to 7000 men. God send that they may bayonet every ‘yellow belly’ in the Mexican army.” Was that merely a reference to the skin color of Mexicans? I suspect so. Thankfully, such racist tones have not lingered with the use of the term (that I know of). A “yellow-belly” is simply a coward.

What other color idioms can you think of? Why do you think we use color in our common sayings?

Sources: Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack; The Phrase Finder; Merriam-Webster online; Wikipedia

One more thing: Roni Loren‘s erotic romance novel has debuted! Congrats on her release of Crash Into You.