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Common Phrases With Weird Histories

woman backstage looking at performers in theater
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Have you ever thought about some of the strange phrases people use and what they mean? For instance, why do we say someone’s going to “paint the town red” or a person was “caught red-handed?” Here are a few common phrases and their histories.

“Turn a Blind Eye”

This idiom is often used to describe the act of ignoring undesirable information. While the origins of some phrases are hard to place, the general consensus for this one is that it came from the experience of a British naval officer in the 1800s. During the Battle of Copenhagen, Horatio Nelson’s ships were matched against a large fleet and his admiral commanded him to back down. According to the story, Horatio placed his telescope against his bad eye and said, “I have only one eye—and I have a right to be blind sometimes… I really do not see the signal.” Horatio moved against the fleet and won a decisive victory.

“Paint the Town Red”

This phrase likely originated from the connection between alcohol and reddened faces, but one particular explanation stands out. In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford brought a group of friends to the English town of Melton Mowbray for a night of drinking. A few hours and many drinks later, the group became rowdy and started vandalizing the town. By the night’s end, they had painted a tollgate, several doors, and a statue with red paint. They paid for the damages afterward, but the idea that “painting the town red” concludes a wild night lives on.

“It’s Raining Cats and Dogs”

This expression has many possible explanations. The most popular theory is that long ago, many homes were built with thatched roofs that provided scant cover during heavy thunderstorms. Cats and dogs would hide under these for shelter, but if the rain was heavy enough, they would go out into the street looking for better cover.

Other suggestions include the phrase’s derivation from a Greek saying that meant “an unlikely occurrence.” It could also come from Norse mythology, in which cats were once thought to have influence over storms, and dogs were seen as a symbol of bad weather.

“Break a Leg”

It’s widely known that this phrase is often used to wish theatre performers good luck before a show. Some possible origins include the superstitious belief that spirits wreak havoc on your wishes and cause the opposite to come true—so wishing someone bad luck will ultimately culminate in their good fortune. Another idea that originated in Elizabethan times suggests that the audience used to bang their chairs on the ground after a performance instead of clapping—and if said patrons were enthusiastic enough, their chairs’ legs might break. Yet another possibility is that “break a leg” in ancient English once meant “to bend at the knee,” and therefore saying this to an actor before a performance would actually mean “I hope your performance is good enough to merit bows upon its conclusion.”

“Caught Red-Handed”

This phrase probably comes from 15th-century Scottish law. People caught with blood on their hands—whether from poaching, murder, etc.—were usually considered “guilty” of a crime. The term “redhand” popped up numerous times in legal proceedings in Scotland during the aforementioned time period and eventually the phrase “caught red-handed” was used.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Listverse and Introvert, Dear, and she is currently working on her first novel. When she's not breaking down complex topics into readable material, she loves to stay on the lighter side and blog about Disney and Universal parks on Taylored Trips Blog. Read Full Bio »