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5 Common Phrases Demystified

Chances are that you’ve already casually used several phrases today that you don’t actually understand. You might have said something like “That guy’s a dead ringer for silent movie era film director Fatty Arbuckle!” while not actually knowing where the expression “dead ringer” comes from. (Not to mention the high probability that you don’t know what Fatty Arbuckle looked like. Here’s a clue: fat.) Not to worry! Today we’re going to elucidate some of the most commonly used yet least understood idioms of the English language.

5 Beat Around the Bush

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With a sweet, sweet taste of irony, we’re not going to beat around the bush on this one – the expression comes from exactly what you’d expect: beating a bush. Hunters would shake bushes to rouse birds from them, and as the actual hunt is the purpose of hunting, the “bush beating” was a prelude to the more important matter.

4 Fly Off the Handle

People who are quick to anger and transition from “I’m great, how are you?” to “I HATE MANKIND! YOU MUST ALL DIE!” are said to “fly off the handle.” This one is an American Original – it dates to frontier times when miners, farmers, woodcutters, and the like would spend their days using various tools, like picks and axes, with heavy iron heads atop wooden shafts. Over time, wood sometimes shrinks and contracts, thus allowing a sharp, heavy, wildly dangerous chunk or iron to sometimes go “flying off the handle.”

3 Stir Crazy

All cooped up? Getting a case of cabin fever? Need something to happen, some action, some buzz? Why, it sounds like you’re getting a little stir crazy, huh? This expression comes from hip 1800s slang for prison, which people called “the stir.” As in: “You stabbed someone? Well, it’s off to the stir for you!” Sitting in a prison cell for a long time made people go stir crazy. The remedy? Less stabbing.

2 Loose Cannon

You know the type: They play by their own rules, go left when others go right, and don’t listen to things like “You can’t do that, it’s illegal and incredibly stupid!” If this was the 19th century and we were British seamen, though, a loose cannon would be taken as something a bit more literal. The expression referred to a cannon that had come loose of its moorings and was rolling around the ship, smashing into things and liable to blast a hole through the hull at any moment. Augh!

1 Dead Ringer

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A “dead ringer” is used to indicate an almost perfect resemblance between two things, usually people. The origin of the phrase is based on the comparison not of people, though, but of horses. A “ringer” was a horse falsely claimed to be of a certain breed and pedigree in order to solicit higher bets in races. As for the “dead,” just think of expressions like “dead center.” So dead ringer is merely a simpler way to say “superlative doppelganger.”

Steven John

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