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