“LETTING THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG!” – Some common expressions explained

It’s considered wisdom among writers to try and avoid cliches these days but, while I see the danger in overusing them, I like our little idiomatic expressions. Since learning Bangla and living in Bangladesh for five years, I’ve also enjoyed classic cliches such as “to have a foot in two boats”, “to kill a mosquito with a cannon” and “what the goat won’t eat, the fool won’t say”. They’re so much fun!

So, I was entertained – and learned something – when Scriptonite posted recently about the origin of some common English expressions.  It makes fascinating reading and I discovered I’ve used some expressions slightly incorrectly – such as “Got to pot”.

So here’s the first few for you to “whet your appetite” (which comes from the idea of sharpening your appetite like you would a tool on a ‘whetstone’ – notice the correct spelling of ‘whet’). There, you see? Once you get hooked on these things you just got to know more…


“Let the Cat out of the Bag

Meaning: ‘to reveal a secret’

It is actually the sister phrase of ‘pig in a poke’.  Cats were often used by unscrupulous market traders, who sold them on in sealed bags as piglets.  It was first found in print in a 1760 edition of London Magazine.

A Pig in a Poke

Meaning: buyer beware’

Don’t buy a pig in a poke’ hails from the mid 19th century.  A ‘poke’ is a bag, and at market you never buy a piglet in a bag without checking.  Those who didn’t may well return home to find they had not purchased a pig, but a cat.

Basket Case

Meaning: An infirm person, incapable of fully functioning

This phrase actually originates from the US Military after World War I and refers to soldiers who had lots both their arms and legs, and therefore had to be carried in a basket.  The phrase first appeared in print as a denial. This bulletin was issued by the U.S. Command on Public Information in March 1919, on behalf of Major General M. W. Ireland, the U.S. Surgeon General:

“The Surgeon General of the Army … denies … that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated … of the existence of ‘basket cases’ in our hospitals.” In explanation of the term, this from the New York paper The Syracuse Herald, March 1919:

“By ‘basket case’ is meant a soldier who has lost both arms and legs and therefore must be carried in a basket.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Meaning: Stuck between two unenviable options.

This is a 20th century version of older variations on the phrases ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ and others. Evolved during the Banking Panic of 1907 which hit the mining and railroad industries hardest.  It refers to a working man having to choose between exhausting, poorly paid work at the rock face, or unemployment.

In the Doldrums

Meaning: ‘in low spirits’

This from The Phrase Finder project:

“The Doldrums is the region of calm winds, centered slightly north of the equator and between the two belts of trade winds, which meet there and neutralize each other. It is widely assumed that the phrase ‘in the doldrums’ is derived from the name of this region. Actually, it’s the other way about. In the 19th century, ‘doldrum’ was a word meaning ‘dullard; a dull or sluggish fellow’ and this probably derived from ‘dol’, meaning ‘dull’ with its form taken from ‘tantrum’. That is, as a tantrum was a fit of petulance and passion, a doldrum was a fit of sloth and dullness, or one who indulged in such.”

It’s been found in print since the early 19th century.

Best Man

Meaning: Normally a close male associate of the groom at a wedding.

In feudal times, it was common place for rival Lords to storm a wedding and steal the bride for political reasons.  The groom would pick his Best Man, as the best fighter, charged with ensuring the bride to be survived the day without kidnap.”


To carry on reading click here: “Letting the Cat out of the bag”: What do our favourite phrases actually mean?



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