English is a crazy language. And as in all languages, idioms form a unique part of its lexicon. Over time they sneak their way into daily use, more often in spoken rather than written language. When some idioms are taken literally, they convey the meaning quite clearly and concisely: “Hit the nail on the head,” “Between a rock and a hard place,” “Best of both worlds,” etcetera. Oftentimes, however, the literal translation gives no clue to the meaning of these frequently nonsensical phrases. We tend to sprinkle them into our conversations because they convey our language with color and humor. But do we ever ponder exactly how they came about? where or how they originated? In order to determine if their origins are as silly and absurd as they can be when taken literally, I embarked on an Internet journey and, to my surprise, usually found multiple theories of origin for many. Following are some of the most commonly accepted:
Raining cats and dogs. (En español: Está lloviendo a cántaros.) Many homes in bygone times had thatched roofs in which domestic animals such as cats and dogs would like to hide. When it rained heavily, the animals would either be washed out of the thatch or scurry out in search of better shelter. Thus, it would seem to be raining cats and dogs. The phrase had its literary debut in 1738, when Jonathan Swift penned, “I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs” in his A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation.
Cat got your tongue. (En español: No decir ni pío=to not say a word) It seems each suggested origin of this phrase is rather sinister. First, in the 1800s, a recalcitrant sailor of the English Royal Navy might be subjected to a brutal lashing with a cat-o’-nine-tails, a leather whip with nine straps, each knotted several times which tore into flesh mercilessly. When the poor sailor had been flogged sufficiently to render him speechless—or unconscious—he might’ve been asked, “Cat got your tongue?” And next, another not-so-nice version comes from ancient Egypt, where cats were worshipped. Liars, blasphemers, and outspoken government or religion critics would have their tongues cut out . . . and fed to nearby cats.
Feeling under the weather. (En español: Indispuesto; bajo las aguas) This is another idiomatic phrase that has its origins aboard ships of yesteryear. History tells us sickness and disease were rampant on sailing vessels. When the number of sick sailors exceeded the space in the ship’s log to enter their names, they would be recorded in the column typically reserved for noting weather conditions. Hence, sailor so-and-so was “under the weather.”
A piece of cake. (En español: un trozo de tarta) It’s thought that this phrase originates from the 1860s. It seems in some parts of the U.S. at the time, slaves would participate in a game where couples would perform a dance imitating the mannerisms of their masters. The most graceful couple would receive cake as a prize.
Thick as thieves. (En español: Uña y carne) This is an easy one. In the 1700s, “thick” was used to mean “closely allied with.” Thieves, then and now, were folks generally thought to be conspiratorial in nature. Joining the two terms is an easy way of describing close friends who share each other’s confidences.
And, finally, a bit of honest-to-gosh actual courtroom exchanges to tickle your funny bone:
Q Are you married?
A No. I’m divorced.
Q What did your husband do before you divorced him?
A A lot of things I didn’t know about.
Q How did you happen to go to Dr. Cheney?
A Well, a gal down the road had had several of her children by Dr. Cheney, and said he was really good.
Q Officer, what led you to believe the defendant was under the influence?
A Because he was argumentary, and he couldn’t pronunciate his words.
Q Have you ever been arrested?
Q What for?
A Aggravating a female.
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