As I’ve said before, I never get tired of examining the origins of the countless old sayings and slang words and phrases that are so often uttered in every day conversation by users of the English language.

Here’s a look at some more.

•Bless you.

It’s pretty rare for someone to sneeze and not have someone else in the vicinity say this (or “God bless you”).

The origin stems from people believing in the past that a sneeze caused a person’s soul to be temporarily expelled from their body, and the verbal blessing was used to help prevent the devil from snatching the sneezer’s soul.

Nowadays, it’s still generally accepted as a polite thing to say.

It’s interesting to note that instead of “bless you,” some Americans say “Gesundheit,” the German word for “health.” The emergence of this term came from the numerous German immigrants who moved to the United States a couple hundred years ago.

It’s probably safe to say that many Americans don’t realize it’s a German word and are unaware of its actual meaning.   

•Gone to pot.

As we all know, when something does this, it has reached a point of being undesirable and maybe even worthless.

The phrase can be traced back to the 1500s when ingredients of a recipe would “go to pot,” and the journey of items dropped into the pot (whether animal or vegetable) was viewed as a one-way trip with a very short future ahead.

The still familiar metaphorical usage based on major deterioration or ruin became popular in the 1600s. 


When people are branded with this well-known title, it’s because they’re not exactly conducting themselves in the smartest manner.

The term joined mainstream jargon in the early 1900s, and the implication is that a person’s head has more bone than brain.

•Barking up the wrong tree.

This is certainly a recognizable saying meaning that someone is mistaken or has pursued a goal by way of incorrect means.

The origin of the idiom dates back to the early 1800s when hunting raccoons with packs of dogs was popular in America. Basically, if a dog mistakes which tree a raccoon has taken refuge in, the coon could escape. 

•Dog days of summer.

While it might seem appropriate, this common phrase doesn’t stem from lazy dogs lying around on hot and humid late summer days.

The ancient Romans referred to the star Sirius as “The Dog Star.” Sirius is so bright that the Romans thought it radiated extra heat toward Earth.

When Sirius would appear in the sky near the end of July, and the hottest days of the year followed, they referred to the period as “dies caniculares” or “days of the dog star.” That phrase was shortened over the centuries to simply “dog days.”

•Face the music.

It’s widely known that when someone does this, they accept a given set of consequences (not usually desirable) or own up to responsibility caused by their actions.

While there isn’t a specific origin that’s easy to determine, there are a couple of possibilities that stand out.

One is that when actors set foot on stage long ago (and perhaps faced some level of stage fright or anxiousness), they faced the orchestra pit where the production’s music came from. 

Another is from the tradition of disgraced military officers being “drummed out” of their regiment.

•No dice.

Of course, this phrase refers to something being generally unattainable.

It originated in the U.S. in the early 20th century when gambling was illegal in many states and gamblers were careful to hide their dice when confronted by the police. The standard rule of law was “no dice, no conviction,” so gamblers could avoid punishment if dice weren’t found.  

•Shoe to drop.

Clearly, when we’re waiting for “the other shoe to drop,” it’s with the expectation that a circumstance is about to take place related to another.

This saying’s origin comes from the manufacturing boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when apartment-style housing in New York City and other large cities often had bedrooms directly above and underneath one another.

A common experience shared by tenants was hearing a neighbor removing their shoes in the apartment above. After one shoe hit the floor, there was an expectation for the other shoe to soon make a similar sound.


As we know, this means something is disorderly or messed up.

The “turvy” part comes from a derivation of the old English word “terve,” which means to overturn, and the “topsy” part came from “top.” So hundreds of years ago, this phrase was likely used to describe something that was upside down and over time acquired its more chaotic and disorganized meaning.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at

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