I’ll never get tired of sifting through the many old sayings and idioms that are such a significant and vital component of the English language.

In the 28th installment of this ongoing series (which began in December 2011), here’s a look at the origins of several more.

•Hold your horses.

As we all know, if someone says this, they’re urging someone else to slow down and be more patient.

The phrase originates from the days when horse transportation was common, and was used to literally tell someone to stop their horses or prevent them from moving away. 

•Pipe dream.

When people have these, they and others sort of instinctively know the thing being dreamt about isn’t likely to happen.

The term originated in the 1800s when people would smoke opiates through a pipe. When they were high from the drugs, they would talk about dreams and ambitions they would almost certainly never experience.

•Jot down.

I frequently forget to do or get something if I don’t grab a pen and paper and do this.

The word “jot” is derived from the old Middle English word “jote,” which basically meant the same thing jot means now.

•Cut your teeth.

People often use this phrase when describing how they got started in a field of employment or some other activity.

This term can be traced back to the 1600s when “cut teeth” meant teeth first emerging through a baby’s gums. When it took on its current meaning is unclear.

•Carte blanche.

When someone has this, we know they are free to choose any course of action.

It’s a French phrase meaning “white paper,” and began to take on its current meaning in the early 1700s.

•Funny farm.

As we all know, if someone is sent here, they’re going to a mental institution.

The phrase comes from the slang use of the word “funny” to mean weird, and the description of “mad” people as being “funny in the head.” It started showing up the way we know it now in the 1950s. 


You might hear (or use) this phrase as a descriptive term during a conversation about a haughty, pretentious rich relative.

The expression comes from the French words “haut toit,” meaning “high roof,” from which pretentious folks hundreds of years ago would literally look down on the “lower” classes.

•Making out.

We all know what two people are doing when they’re doing this, but how does this phrase relate to such behavior?

While its exact origin isn’t really known, the term probably stems from the question young people often ask each other after one has been on a date: “How did you make out?”

•The whole shebang.

We of course know this means the “entire thing” in whatever way it’s being used, but what the heck is a shebang?

Shebang is an American word first used by Civil War soldiers (and famous poet Walt Whitman) to mean “rustic dwelling” or “hut.” In 1872, Mark Twain used it to mean “vehicle,” but that same year it appeared in a newspaper with its current meaning.

I have no idea why.

•Fork over.

A common phrase meaning to give something to someone else (most likely of value), probably somewhat unwillingly.

Dating back to the early 1800s, the term comes from the underground slang “to fork,” used in reference to picking someone’s pocket using only two fingers (resembling a two-tined fork).

•Tide over.

When your mom said the stale cracker she just gave you should “tide you over” until dinner time, she was saying that it should curb your hunger until then. Likewise when your dad said the two dollars he was giving you should tide you over until allowance day.

Like many old sayings, the phrase is derived from an old seafaring term and was recorded as early as the 1600s. Sailors would sometimes depend on the tide to help them get somewhere, and they would need to wait – riding the tide – until the water was deep enough to move.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Doug Davison

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 ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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