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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  1. JennieIW says

    I love this stuff! I found this for “crocodile tears”:

    “It is proverbial that crocodiles cry like a person in distress to lure men close enough to snatch and devour them, then shed tears over the fate of their victim. References to this proverbial belief are found in ancient Greek and Latin literature.”

  2. Pam@IW says

    Jennie, that is a good one! I hope people add more to this because I love reading about them.

    I did find out that many of the expressions have numerous theories behind them.

  3. Deborah says

    I remember watching a show, I think it was called “Did You Know” or something like that.
    Anyway it was how the ‘shot glass’ came about.
    It was the old west and bullets were a commodity.
    Cowboys would get paid maybe once a month or by the season.
    They would go to the saloon and put a bullet on the bar and the bartender would pore them an amount of whiskey. They used the ‘jigger’ at the time but the worth of a bullet was less than a jigger so the ‘shot glass’ was born.

  4. Deborah says

    Also on the same show was how the term “On the wagon” and “fell off the wagon” came about.
    In the old west entertainers would travel on wagons going from town to town putting on shows, Like being on tour today.
    They were not allowed to drink while they were ‘on the wagon’ if they ‘fell off the wagon’ and had drinks they were left there and not allowed back on the wagon.

  5. Pam@IW says


    I love anything about the West, especially the wild, wild West. I never knew either of those. Very interesting.

  6. Deborah says

    I found it interesting too Pam. I’ve never heard anything about either of those 2 facts since.
    I know cowboys would get paid in money and were allotted so many bullets and how the story went was saloon owners were just as happy to get paid in bullets.

  7. Ann@IW says

    My mom said she was touring a colonial house in New England and the tour guide explained 2 American phrases to the group. “Upper crust” came from the homemade bread colonial families baked in a fireplace. The bottom crust would be tough and burned by the time the upper part of the bread was baked perfectly. The bread was sliced horizontally. The “upper crust” was reserved for the man of the house or honored guests.
    Also, the dining table was often just a board propped on crude legs flanked by benches. The man of the house sat in a chair at its head. This is where we get the phrase, “Chair-man of the board.”

  8. Deborah says

    The term ‘room and board’ with board meaning meals makes sense to me now Ann.

    “Also, the dining table was often just a board propped on crude legs flanked by benches”

  9. Pam@IW says

    I have a brother named Pete so when I was little I always thought my mom was talking about him, LOL.

  10. JennieIW says

    Jen, I did a quick search and several sites agree that “for the love of Pete!” as well as “for Pete’s sake!” are both ways of swearing (sort of) without blaspheming. An exasperated person might be tempted to say “for the love of God!” (and some people do say that), but that’s taking the Lord’s name in vain (I guess?), so people would substitute St. Peter. St. Peter=Pete.

  11. Jen says

    Thanks Jennie!!! My grandma used to say it to me and now I say it to my kids. My son always asks me, “who is Pete and why do you love him?”.

  12. Pattypie says

    Love this post!

    I always find it interesting to discover where sayings came from. We toured Ann Hathaway’s cottage in England as part of the tour the guide told many stories of where sayings came from. They showed this special candle holder that held the candle in the middle instead of at the base and they said when a young man came calling to court a daughter if the father liked him he would light the candle at one end and when it burned down….light it at the other end and when the candle was finished burning it was time for the young man to go home. If the father didn’t like the suitor he lit the candles at both ends at the same time so the suitor would have to leave early!

  13. Elizabeth Owens says

    Such an interesting post!! I never would have guessed that’s where smart alec came from

  14. DG Middendorf says

    So much fun to read. When you are over 50 you think you have heard them all but really you never know just why we say them.

  15. Lily@IW says

    “Smart alec” is so interesting. I love this post. I had no idea that “pleased as punch” had something to do w/the puppet.

    Deborah, I especially enjoyed learning about what you posted.

    Thanks to everyone who shared, these are fun. I hope others continue to contribute. Nothing comes to my mind at the moment, but I’ll be back.

  16. Peggy Greco says

    These phrases are really cute;thanks for sharing. There is an expression I have Heard sometime and don’t know what it means; “You’re talking to me like my foot’s asleep”.

  17. Maria Iemma says

    this was a very enjoyable post – I love the sayings and the explanations and I admit that I did not know the meaning of a couple…

  18. Lily@IW says

    Well, I learned that “flash in a pan” is supposed to have come from the California gold rush days. The prospectors would see a flash or glint of light while they were panning for gold and then be disappointed that their eyes tricked them and there was nothing there.

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