5 Common Expressions with Sinister Backgrounds

The English language is one of the finest when it comes to the potential for colorful, lyrical speech. Nevermind that it is infuriatingly hard to master based on how often it shatters rules and logic, English is the poet and prose writer’s best friend because it is so rich in imagery and nuance. Much of this nuance is lost on the modern user, however, as we have forgotten where many of our common phrases originated. We casually toss out expressions that have come to mean one thing in modern English, but which meant something way different back in the day.

5 Bury the Hatchet

To “bury the hatchet” is to put differences aside, to forgive and move on, and to settle a grievance. It is derived from the American Indian practice of actually burying a hatchet, axe, or other weapon in a symbolic gesture of peace before a meeting between tribes took place. The implication is that it’s better to bury a hatchet in the ground than in someone’s head.

4 To Get Away with Something “scot-free”

To get away with something “scot-free” is seen as a positive, right? In the Middle Ages, though, it essentially just meant to dodge taxes. Old English got the word “skot” from an Old Norse word that referred generally to a debt, or money owed. Those who managed to dodge paying the many taxes and tariffs levied on medieval folks were dodging their “skots,” thus getting off scot-free.

3 Happy as a Clam

The expression “happy as a clam” is an American original dating back to the mid-1800s. It becomes slightly less charming when you know that the whole phrase is “as happy as a clam at high water,” and decidedly less cute when you know that by extension it means “as happy as a clam at high water because that is the brief period of time when they are safe from being eaten by predators.”

2 On the wagon

“On the wagon” is the right place to be for folks who have dependency issues with alcohol and other substances. But it might have been a pretty bad place to be, if one common origin for the expression is to be believed. Some people believe that the original folks who were “on the wagon” had taken their last drink because the wagon was carrying them to the gallows.

1 Bless you!

“Bless you!” we say after someone has a little sneeze. Why? So they don’t drop dead after days of anguish from a horrid plague, of course! The practice of saying “bless you” (or “God bless you,” of course) dates back to the sixth century, when a terrible plague spread across much of Europe and the Near East. Pope Gregory, from whom we get Gregorian chants, the modern calendar, and even the word “gregarious,” also contributed the now common practice of saying “bless you” after a sneeze, as a sneeze was often the first sign of infection. Think of it as a holy hedge against wretched death!
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