Where Did That Phrase Come From?


When I was growing up I heard my grandmother use several expressions or phrases that I would eventually repeat without really knowing what they were all about. One such phrase she used frequently was “she was dressed to the nines!” When I was young I remember wondering what the number nine had to do with the way the person was dressed. Did she have earrings on in the shape of the number nine or perhaps a necklace with the number nine? I am quite sure that I most likely stared a hole through that person the next time I saw them trying to figure out why she was dressed in nines and then wondering if perhaps my grandmother needed a new pair of glasses.

Eventually, as I got older I was smart enough to realize that she was saying that someone was very elaborately dressed for whatever event they were attending. However, I never really understood the meaning behind it.  I remember asking different people when I was a teenager (this was before the internet and the ease of finding out information) where the expression came from and receiving several different answers.

One explanation that was given to me was that tailors used nine yards of material to make a fancy suit. Another theory is that the British Army’s 99th Regiment of Foot from the mid 1800s was very smartly dressed and people would refer to them as being “dressed to the nines.” Apparently with a little research, that theory has been shot down because the phrase was used way before that Regiment was in existence.

Here are some other expressions that have piqued my interest as to what the history is behind them.

Steal One’s Thunder -to use someone’s ideas or inventions to their own advantage.

In 1704 playwright John Dennis invented a new method of creating the sound of thunder for a play he had written. The play failed but  the method was used shortly after in a production of Macbeth in the same theater.  He was quoted as saying “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”

Let The Cat Out Of The Bag – reveal a secret.

Several theories found here with one being the shock and surprise one has when a cat exits a bag that it has been enclosed in. Another one is that a stall keeper in a marketplace, back in the day, would substitute a cat for a much more valuable piglet and would be exposed for fraud once the buyer would let the cat out of the bag.

Pleased as Punch – to be quite happy.

The 17th century puppet, Punch, from the Punch and Judy show would feel very pleased with himself after he would kill someone.

Get Your Goat – to annoy or make angry.

The most common explanation for this one is that goats were placed with racehorses to keep them calm back in the day. Competitors who wanted a particular horse to do badly would go into the stall the night before a race and steal the goat so the horse would become unsettled and perform badly.

Smart Alec – too smart for your own good.

Alec Hoag was a pimp and a  thief in New York City in the 1840s. He would rob his wife’s clients while they were doing their “business” with her. Eventually the police found out and Hoag enlisted several of the officers on his side by giving them a share of the stolen goods. He ran into financial difficulties and stopped sharing with the police and he was eventually arrested and sent to prison. He escaped from prison and when he was captured he was given the name “Smart Alec” by the police for being too smart for his own good. After that they would refer to anyone who would try and think up schemes to get out of giving the police their payoffs as a “Smart Alec.”

There are many more phrases out there that makes one wonder where the origin of the phrase or expression comes from.  Do you have any you would like to add in the comments below?

Pam Buttikofer is a co-founder of Imperfect Women.

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