Our genteel Ms. Austen is also known for such phrases as shut up, dirt cheap, dog-tired, dinner party, and brace yourself. In fact, she is quoted 1,641 times in the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary!
Here is a list of idiomatic expressions originating with some of our favorite authors and books of old. Enjoy!
- Break the ice – The Taming of the Shrew – This phrase means to do or say something to relieve tension, get a conversation going at the start of a gathering, or when people meet for the first time.
- Dead as a doornail – Henry IV – In the words of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, this expression means that someone or something is morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead. Not just merely dead, but most sincerely dead.
- There’s method in one’s madness – Hamlet – This means that there is a reason behind someone’s mysterious actions or words.
- Set one’s teeth on edge – Henry IV – This phrase is often used when feeling intense discomfort or irritation, especially in response to a harsh sound like the noise of nails scratching a chalkboard.
- Wear one’s heart upon one’s sleeve – Othello – If you wear your heart on your sleeve, you openly show your feelings or emotions rather than keeping them hidden or secret. This phrase can also be used as criticism for being too open and consequently vulnerable to disappointment.
- The world is one’s oyster – The Merry Wives Of Windsor – Though the original context had more violent intentions (slicing one’s opponent open like an oyster), today it means you can achieve anything or go anywhere because you have the opportunity or freedom to do so.
The Christian Bible
- By the skin of one’s teeth – Book of Job – To narrowly escape a given circumstance. In the case of Job, it was a stark description of the advanced stage of disease Satan had inflicted on him.
- Live off the fat of the land – Book of Genesis and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – The phrase means getting the best of everything without having to work hard for it.
- At one’s wit’s end – Psalm 107 – This means to be so worried and exhausted by problems or difficulties that you do not know what to do next.
- Like a lamb to the slaughter – Book of Isaiah – This phrase refers to someone who is blissfully unaware of a disaster about to befall them.
- A fly in the ointment – Book of Ecclesiastes – This is a minor irritation that spoils the success or enjoyment of something.
- Go down the rabbit hole – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865 – Lewis Carroll coined this term as the title of the first chapter in his book where Alice enters Wonderland by following a rabbit down a hole. It is often used as a metaphor for someone entering a surreal state of mind, way of thinking, or situation. The same title gave us “Mad as a hatter” with the idea that hatters, who used mercury to set their felt hats, were a bit looney-tunes.
- I can’t do [X] to save my life – The Kellys and the O’Kellys, 1848, by Anthony Trollope – This phrase indicates someone is no good at or will inevitably fail at a given activity.
- Fly off the handle – Thomas C. Haliburton, a Nova Scotian politician, judge, and author, coined this phrase in 1843. It means to suddenly lose one’s temper. It was inspired by the way an ax-head will fly off its handle if loose. Haliburton also coined the phrase “won’t take no for an answer.”
- Goody Two-Shoes The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes – This 18th century Christian retelling of Cinderella begins with a poor orphan with only one shoe. She is given two shoes by a rich man as a reward for her virtue.
- Hold a candle to – The fower cardinal vertues of a Carmelite fryar by Edward Dering (1641) – Apprentices used to hold candles so that more experienced workmen were able to see what they were doing. Someone unable to do this menial task would be of very low status. Today it describes a person or thing that is distinctly inferior to someone or something else.
- Keep up with the Joneses – Keep Up With The Joneses by Arthur (Pop) Momand – This American phrase emerged in 1913 as the title of a comic strip in the New York Globe. It refers to emulating or not being outdone by one’s neighbors.
- Love is blind – The Canterbury Tales, 1387, by Chaucer – This means that loving someone makes them unable or unwilling to see a person’s faults or differences.
- Pot calling the kettle black – Don Quixote, 1605, by Cervantes – This phrase suggests that one shouldn’t accuse or criticize another of something they’re also guilty of.
- A sight for sore eyes – A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation, 1738, by Jonathan Swift – This means a welcome sight; something or someone you’re glad to see.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in words that are named after notorious personalities, proverbs that are often incomplete or misconstrued, or what makes a word autological.
See the previous or next Fun Facts About English.
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