The Surprising Origins of Popular Idioms

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Popular sayings and idioms often come from the most surprising of places, with their root often able to be traced back time out of mind. Yet certain areas of activity have proven to be far more generative of common sayings than others.

Of those, it’s arguable that nothing can match the influence of four particular areas of focus – sports, gaming, food and work – on our daily jargon.


Sports and competition have always been a rich seam of idioms to mine – so much so that many people use sayings derived from sporting pursuits in their day to day without any notion of their athletic origins.

When we want to impart the importance of remaining focused on a particular task, there are several ways we can express this. Though the baseball idiom to keep your eye on the ball says it better than anything else can.

Likewise, when all is going as expected, we can turn to the golfing world to grasp the inspiration that things are proceeding par for the course.

Though be warned that should things go awry, you may need to take a leaf out of the pugilistic art of boxing and regrettably throw in the towel.


Outside of sports, no sector has contributed as much to common parlance as the world of gaming. In fact, there are so many casino words thrown about in our day to day lives that it borders on the ludicrous.

This makes sense given that, in many ways, games serve as the perfect mirror reflection of life, making terms employed in one perfectly applicable to the other.

When someone is grasping for a means of stating that they want to back their decision or action at all costs, without the possibility of retreat, the betting term of doubling down can come in surprisingly handy.

After all, such risks can go off without a hitch providing you play your cards right – that is, maximise the potential advantages you have in the hand you’ve been dealt.

Should all go well, there’s a very real opportunity for one to hit the jackpot.


Much of day to day life is structured around and focused on food and cooking. Not only does it provide nourishment to the body, but it creates opportunities for people to connect amidst their busy lives. As such, it should come as no surprise that it holds particular sway over the way we speak.

We all know that sometimes the shortest route to achieving something with a minimum of effort or fuss is to reduce the number of competing voices, ideas or opinions involved. The same can be said for cuisine, where it is frequently known that too many cooks spoil the broth with their meddling.

Some idioms from the culinary arts are always ready to remind us that things can always go from bad to worse, or in other words they can go out of the frying pan and into the fire. This is particularly true if we make the perennial mistaking of biting off more than we can chew.


While play is clearly a lucrative source of sayings, the same can easily be said for its opposite – work. After all, most people spend the majority of their adult lives – when not sleeping – at work.

Some such idioms speak to a bygone era, but still manage to speak to our present experience. This is why we all know that putting in after-work hours, or a special effort, into completing a task is known as burning the midnight oil, even in our modern age of electric lighting.

Of course, sometimes we need to rethink our approach entirely. In such times, the particularly evocative idiom of going back to the drawing board – the instrument once chiefly used for designing products before the arrival of computers, comes in handy. Whatever one does, one needs to keep in mind the bottom line, without which one’s finances fail to add up, and your business goes bust.