Tag Archives: sayings

10 strange common sayings (and getting them right and wrong)

OOOPS!!  Apparently this list has previously been published on Listverse recently, but thats not where I found it, I found it hanging off another page that was apparantly taken from the Listverse post, I just liked it, I made no claim to having wrote it originally, I did however rewrite a lot of it my way.

One of the things that almost always confuse people who are learning English as a second or third language are some of the sayings that we all use, without really knowing what they truly mean, or in some cases totally mangling the real meaning.

Here are ten common strange sayings that most people have used at some time or another, it’s very interesting to trace these sayings back to the original and see how the meaning has changed over time.

1. Scot Free

This saying in fact is not a reference to the old myth about Scottish people being tight with their money, meaning that they’ll get something for free if they can. The word “scot” come from old Norse, and it means “payment”, usually a payment to a landlord or official. So “scot free” simply means to get away without having to pay. It’s most often used today in conjunction with discussions about penalties for committing a crime, if someone gets off with a light sentence or no sentence you’ll often hear someone say that he/she got off “scot free.”

2. Fit as a Fiddle

This one often confuses people, because the word “fit” has a different meaning now than when this saying originated, “fit” as in the meaning of being healthy is a 19th century word. The original meaning is “suitable”, which is still used in the phrase “fit for a king”. Originally “fit as a fiddle” just meant “as right or appropriate as it can be”.

3. Another Thing Coming

This one annoys me somewhat, because if you actually think about the saying
that most people use “If you think that, you have another thing coming” you’ll realise that it doesn’t make any sense at all, whereas the proper saying “If you think that, you have another THINK coming” means exactly what it says. That what you think is so wrong, you’ll have to think again, that makes perfect sense.

4. Eat Humble Pie

This one means exactly what it says, apologising for something in a humble manner, the origins of this come from the middle ages when the poorer people ate the cuts of meat and portions of the animals that the rich people wouldn’t touch, the offal and various other bits, they called this “umble”.  So eating humble pie signifies that you are lowering yourself by apologising for a mistake.

5. Rule of Thumb

This one is a great one, there has sprung up around this one a lovely and sadly highly untrue reference to a law that stated that a man could beat his wife if he used a rod no thicker than his thumb. The reality is much more commonplace, it just means that you’re doing something by estimating, rather than using an exact measure.

6. On Tender Hooks

This is another phrase that is also misspelled, like thing for think, the actual phrase is “on tenterhooks”. A tenter is a medieval tool used to make cloth, tenterhooks were small hooks over which the fabric would be stretched, hence it came to mean to be left hanging, or in a state of suspense.

7. Take a Raincheck

Another common phrase that has now come to have three different meanings, the original meaning originated from the practice of offering a replacement ticket to a baseball game that had been rained out, for a game at a later date, hence a “raincheck”. This morphed into retail jargon to mean an offer to sell an out of stock goods AT the currently advertised price when it arrived back in stock. Now it has also morphed into a general response, as in ‘I’ll take a raincheck on that”. However it seems to have an acquired a negative connotation as in most “rainchecks” are never picked up on, like dates, or drinks.

8. Free Reign

Also another spelling error, though in essence the phrase still retains the original meaning, the etymology is vastly different. Most people seem to think that a person given “free reign” has the “royal” power to do what they want, when in fact the correct phrase is “free rein” and comes from the time when Horses were the only means of mass transport, when navigating a rough track or winding mountain path the horses were given “free rein” on the understanding that the horse was better equipped to find a safe path through than the rider.

9. Wreck Havoc

Another spelling error, which has more to do with how people pronounce the word than not knowing how to spell it properly, the proper word is “Wreak” which is properly pronounced “reek” however a lot of people pronounce it  “rek” hence the obvious error. “Wreck” means to destroy something, whereas “wreak” means to “cause something to happen” so you “wreak havoc”.

10. Beg the Question

Something that most people think they know the correct meaning of, but in reality 99% of you would be wrong. “To beg the question” does not mean “to raise the question”. Originally the phrase was “to begge the question” and first appeared in the late 1500’s in English and is a reference to a question (or phrase) which implies the truth of the thing it is trying to prove.

And now I bet you are VERY confused, so lets have an example; “Why does England have fewer trees per acre than any other country in Europe?” This is a “begged question” – the person asking is implying that England has fewer trees – when in fact, it may not. If you feel you must use this saying, then perhaps using an alternative would be better “prompt the question” means the same thing and is not open to confusion.


I don’t think that means what you think it does.

To all intense and purposes.

Pedal to the medal.

I could care less.

These are somewhat of a pet peeve of mine, I don’t mind if you use cliches, but I do mind if you use them and get them wrong, and then insist that you aren’t wrong, and even when shown a definitive source will still insist that you are right and that the OED and all other sources are wrong.

I can understand how it is possible for someone to get these and many others wrong, after all most people do not sound out each and every syllable of a word in a sentence and when you speak quicky  ‘to all intents and purposes’ sounds very much like ‘to all intense and purposes’, however when you write it down it should be very obvious that intense in that sentence does not make sense or fit in with the rest of it.

The same with ‘pedal to the metal’ spoken quickly it can sound like ‘pedal to the medal’ however once you write it down the same thing applies, knowing that it means to ‘put your foot down’‘ or to just hurry up at full speed, then medal just does not fit or make sense.

And using ‘could care less’ instead of the obvious ‘couldn’t care less’ is just sheer laziness, just analysing the saying should show you why you are making a mistake, obviously if you could care less then you do care at least somewhat.

I could write whole pages on sayings that people mangle, most are just due to mishearing things, when you say them the glaring error isn’t quite so obvious, but when you write them down, and insist that you know better than the whole combined intellectual might of the OED, then I will call you on them.