Top 7 Sayings with Origins: Popular Quotations

Discover the fascinating origins of common sayings like caught red-handed and rule of thumb. Uncover the stories behind some of the most popular phrases in English language.

There are many sayings that people use on a daily basis to communicate with their audiences. These quotations have become so common that speakers rarely stop to consider their source. Most of them are derived from historical events and legends. Read on to find out more about the unusual stories behind the origin of the most common sayings.

1. Caught Red-Handed

To be caught red-handed means to be found doing or initiating something wrong. This phrase was derived from the practice of ancient laws. If a person slaughtered a neighbor’s animal, he was only convicted when there was an evidence of the animal’s blood on his or her hand. Fresh meat alone didn’t make someone guilty.

2. Eat Humble Pie

Eat humble pie means giving an apology and being ready to suffer the humiliation that comes along with it. This saying dates back to the Middle Ages. During this time, the king would hold a large feast after a successful hunt. His family would be served with the finest meat while those of the lower status would receive a pie comprising of the innards and entrails, referred to as “umbles.” So being served “umble pie” was a sign of humiliation.

3. Give the Cold Shoulder

This is a rude way of telling a person that he isn’t welcome. Today, giving someone a cold shoulder is considered rude and disrespectful (see cold shoulder jokes). However, in the medieval England, it was actually considered a polite gesture. After a feast, the guests were given a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of pork, mutton or beef. This was a sign that hosts used to communicate to their guests that it was time to leave.

4. Blood is Thicker than Water

This quotation simply means family comes before everything else. It was derived from the ancient Middle Eastern culture. During this period, a blood ritual between men was a symbol of stronger bonds than those of family. For instance, warriors who shed blood in the battlefield symbolically shared that blood. They were said to be “blood brothers,” with stronger bonds than that of biological brothers.

5. Break the Ice

You break the ice when you initiate a friendship or settle a room by telling a joke. Before the invention of cars and trains, port cities and towns that thrived on trade suffered a lot during the winter season. Frozen lakes, seas, and oceans prevented commercial ships from entering the city. To rescue the icebound ships, city authorities used small ships to break the ice. Those small ships were referred to as “icebreakers.”

6. Rule of Thumb

A rule of thumb is a general principle that is based on practical experience rather than exact measurements or scientific methods. Its origin can be traced back to the ancient English law, which allowed husbands to discipline their wives using a stick as long as it was not thicker than their thumb. Although this practice is no longer acceptable, the phrase rule of thumb continues to be used to refer to a rough estimate or practical guideline.

7. Bite the Bullet

You are biting the bullet when you endure a difficult or painful situation with courage and perseverance. It originated from the practice of battlefield medicine in the 19th century, where soldiers were given a bullet to bite on during surgery without anaesthesia. This was done to both distract them from the pain and to prevent them from biting their tongue.