Many idiomatic expressions are so odd they often have us wondering at their origins: “keep a stiff upper lip”, “buck up”, “keep your chin up”, “keep your nose clean”, “keep your hands clean”, on and on. My favorite idiom for encouraging strength and determination is “put your big-girl panties on”.

How can it “rain cats and dogs?” At one time, it was said, the storm ravaged streets of British towns were in such bad shape that many cats and dogs drowned, as if they had fallen from the sky. The phrase appears in its modern form in Jonathan Swift’s A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation in 1738: “I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.”

The most accepted cat and dog story says that in olden times, homes had thatched roofs. Cats and dogs liked to hide in them. In heavy rain, the animals were often washed out of the thatch, so it would seem to be raining cats and dogs.

What, you might ask, is “the skin of one’s teeth”. There have been many theories. The most believable explanation is that it refers to the thin porcelain exterior of a tooth. “By the skin of one’s teeth”, meaning “narrowly” or “barely”, and referring to an escape from disaster. It’s from the Book of Job, in which Satan persecutes Job with terrible ordeals, until God releases him.

Why do good things “cut the mustard”? This expression seems to have lost its flavor. But for almost a hundred years, the word “mustard” has been used to mean something good or excellent. In other words, “hot stuff”. The first appearance in print of cut the mustard was by O. Henry in 1907, in a story called The Heart of the West: “I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard.”

When you need to accept something difficult or unpleasant, you might be told you will have to “bite the bullet.” The first recorded use of the phrase? When doctors were short on anesthesia during a battle in a war, they would ask the soldier to bite down on a bullet to distract from the pain, first recorded use of the phrase in 1891 in The Light that Failed, a novel by Rudyard Kipling.

The “cat got your tongue.” The English Navy used to use a whip called “cat-o’-nine-tails” for flogging. Another possible source could be from ancient Egypt, where liars’ and blasphemers’ tongues were cut out and fed to the cats.

You want to sum something up in a concise way, or “in a nutshell”. The phrase goes back over 400 years to the 16th century. Shakespeare’s Hamlet uses it to mean something compact when he says, “I could be bound in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

SOURCES: World Wide Words, Oxford Blog,, Cambridge English Dictionary.

JACK SMITH is a retired Shenango Valley high school and college English teacher.


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