The origins of 5 common phrases



‘Mad as a hatter’

Meaning: A crazy person.

Origin: In the 18th and 19th centuries mercury was used in the production of felt which was a common material used for hats at the time. People who made these hats, known as ‘hatters’ were frequently exposed to trace amounts of the metal which caused some of the workers to suffer from dementia, caused by mercury poisoning.

 ‘Armed to the teeth’

Meaning: Well equipped or prepared.

Origin: In the pirating era of the 1600’s flintlock guns were just being adopted. These guns took a long time to reload after firing so the pirates were accustomed to carrying several loaded guns on them, they would also carry a knife between their teeth.

 ‘Beat about the bush’

Meaning: To take a long time to get to the point.

Origin: The first known use of this phrase was in 1440. In bird hunts, some participants would beat the bushes where nesting birds lay in order to rouse the birds, enabling others to catch them in nets. The ‘bush-beating’ was therefore a precursor to the actual event.

‘Cold shoulder’

Meaning: The act of dismissing or disregarding someone.

Origin: The origin is disputed. A popular belief is that an unwelcome guest would be served an inferior cut of meat – a cold shoulder of mutton. But the phrase first appears in print in 1816 with no connection to food of any kind, and may instead have simply grown out of the literal action of keeping ones back to a person you wish to avoid.

‘Steal one’s thunder’

Meaning: To draw attention away from another person.

Origin: In the 17th century a machine which made sounds like thunder was created by the writer John Dennis for one of his plays. After the play flopped another playwright copied his machine and used it in his play. Dennis was quoted as saying. “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”