Friday Five…Implausible Idioms!


Implausible Idioms

The English language is so full of awkward exceptions, sneaky silent letters and incomprehensible idioms, we’re baffled that anyone actually manages to master it!

But ever thought about what you’re really saying? When we were young and we asked granny where some of our favourite phrases originated, it all seemed to make sense. But now we’re a bit older we’ve done the maths… and something doesn’t add up.


To throw the baby out with the bathwater

Apparently, in the time before power showers it was customary that baths would be taken one after another in a big tub full of hot water. First the man of the house, next the other males, followed by the women and children – until finally when it came to the turn of the baby the water would be so filthy you could actually lose the poor thing in it and end up chucking it out of the window!

But… even bathing in a tub would’ve been the preserve of a few lucky ones due to the monumental task of filling it without household access to running water. More common would’ve been a small basin and a sponge. Not quite so easy to lose a baby in.

To rain cats and dogs

Thatched roofs were so warm and snuggly due to their thick straw that animals would cuddle up there to conserve heat – dogs, cats, mice, rats, bugs. They would be rudely awakened from their slumber in heavy rain, when their lodgings would become slippery. It’s inevitable that from time to time some unlucky critter lost their grip… hence ‘it’s raining cats and dogs.’

Although rats and mice most likely also burrowed into thatched roofs, they would have to have been on the outside to slip off. More plausible suggestions include an allusion to the fury of ‘going at it like cats and dogs.’ Or even that heavy rain would have sometimes washed the corpses of dead animals along the filthy streets.

To bring home the bacon

Back in the day, pork was a luxury item – so bacon would be hung up quite visibly to display the families’ wealth, provided by the male head of the household (now we see what Lady Gaga was going for!)

But… some writers have disputed this origin, suggesting the term referred to catching the greased pig at the fair and getting to take it home as a prize. We think this would make an amazing summer festival activity – let’s definitely bring it back! Alternatively  it may refer to a 12th century tradition, mentioned in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath,’ of awarding a ‘flitch of bacon’ to married couples who could swear to not having regretted their marriage for a year and a day (this one does still exist in a few English villages!)

To get off scot free

Commonly mistaken for referring to how tight-fisted Scottish people are with money, and hence how they manage to get everything for free.

But… ‘scot’ is actually an old Norse word for ‘payment.’ So, much less offensive and with no connotations to Scottish people, it is actually a literal translation of ‘payment free’.

Free reign

Most often believed to mean doing exactly as one pleases, just like her majesty the queen.

But… this error has been passed on due to a misspelling of the phrase. It originated as ‘free rein’ and refers to the days when horses were the main mode of transport. When navigating a steep path or winding road it was possible to relax the grip on the reins, allowing the horse to pick out the safest path, which it was likely to do better than its rider.

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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