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11 everyday phrases you'd never use if you knew their grim origins.

“We’ll be holding a wake at my Mum’s house. I wonder why they call it a wake? I mean, it’s not like she’s going to wake up anytime soon.”

It was an off the cuff remark, it got me wondering: why was the ‘afterparty’ of a funeral called a wake? And when I found out, the answer wasn’t pretty:

A party that was thrown around the body, just to make sure the corpse didn’t “wake” up.

Presumably this phrase was coined before people learned how to correctly take a pulse but the more I looked into it, the more I came to realise the phrases we use freely today often have a sinister back story.

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If you’ve ever dropped ‘you’re pulling my leg’ or ‘what’s the matter, cat got your tongue?’ into conversation, you’re probably not aware of the grim, and often terrifying, origin of the sayings. And I can’t help but think that once you are across these, you’ll probably be a little less comfortable using them. For example:

1. ‘Saved by the bell.’

What we think it means: Being considered fortunate because a metaphorical or literal bell has sounded.

The grim reality: This saying comes from a fear of being buried alive. Back in the day (presumably before people knew how to read pulses), the dead were buried with string tied to their wrist: this was passed through the coffin lid and up through the ground, then tied to a bell. Then some unlucky person would have to sit in the graveyard all night and listen, in case the ‘corpse’ wasn’t really dead and was ringing the bell to let people know.

Creepy as. Image via Creative Commons

2. 'Drinking the Kool-Aid.'

What we think it means: Drinking the refreshment - Kool-Aid - or buying into an idea with massive enthusiasm.

The grim reality: It's  a reference to the 1978 cult mass-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Jim Jones, the leader of the group, convinced his followers to move to the town. Late in the year, he ordered his "flock" to commit suicide by drinking grape-flavoured Kool-Aid laced with potassium cyanide. In what is now commonly called "the Jonestown Massacre", 913 of the 1100 Jonestown residents drank the Kool-Aid and died. The lesson? Cults are bad. And it's never good to go along a doomed or dangerous idea because of peer pressure.

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By all means drink it, just don't "drink" it. Image via iStock.

3. 'Going postal.'

What we think it means: To lose patience with a situation and go off the deep end as a result.

The grim reality: The phrase is derived from several violent incidents involving United States postal workers in the late 1980s and early 1990s who shot and killed fellow workers and members of the public. One of the first, and worst, incidents occurred in an Oklahoma post office in 1986 when Patrick Sherrill killed 14 co-workers with a pair of .45 caliber pistols before taking his own life. So you know, just be extra nice to the postie when you next see him.

Image via. Creative Commons.
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4. 'Paying through the nose.'

What we think it means: Paying an excessive amount for something.

The grim reality: The term is linked to a "nose tax" from Norse mythology. If people refused to pay their taxes to the king, their noses would be slit or cut off. There are probably a few out there in 'big business' who are glad this is no longer the literal meaning or they'd have a whole lot of trouble smelling the roses right now.

Water with asparagus for six bucks. Seems (un) reasonable. Image via. Instagram.

5. 'Meet a deadline.'

What we think it means: The time when something must be finished.

The grim reality:  A Civil War term for an actual line that was drawn around a prison; if prisoners tried to cross the literal 'deadline', they'd be shot in the head. Every student around the world is glad this isn't the way they treat people who go over deadlines today.

Image via Pinterest.
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6. 'Basket case.'

What we think it means: Someone who's crazy, going crazy or generally has a crazy aura.

The grim reality: This is a United State military term from World War I where soldiers who'd lost arms or legs in battle were literally carried off the battlefield in a basket. Super grim.

It's a super grim backstory. So here'a picture of a kitten in a basket instead. Image via. Pinterest.

7. 'Cake walk.'

What we think it means: An easy path to success.

The grim reality: Slaves would have an annual ball that featured an event called a "cake walk", where they'd dress up like the white slave owners and mimic the way they walk, with the the best walk impersonation earning the winner a cake. The owners of the plantations oversaw the competition and were well aware that the slaves were mocking them. The cake walk eventually made it into minstrel shows with white performers in black face mocking black slaves mocking white people. Yeah, it's probably best if we just stop using "cake walk" now.

Image via. Creative Commons.
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8. 'Treadmill.'

What we think it means: An exercise machine you run on.

The grim reality: The treadmill was invented in Victorian-era England as a huge cylinder that people would run on to power a mill as it raised water or crushed rocks. And those people were prisoners. Yes, the treadmill was a hard-labour punishment. Which, when you think about it, isn't too far from today's version.

where did these sayings come from
Image via iStock.

9. 'Cat got your tongue?'

What we think it means: What, you've got nothing to say?

The grim reality: There are two tales that have made their way history to explain this saying. One involves people being in such unbearable pain they couldn't even talk after they were publicly flogged with a cat-o-nine-tails whip. The second, from Medieval times, meant anyone who committed blasphemy would have their tongue cut out and fed to cats. Which is what I threaten my children with daily so, we really haven't evolved all that far.

where did these sayings come from
Image via. iStock.
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10. 'Pulling your leg.'

What we think it means: Having a joke or playing a trick on you.

Grim reality: In the18th century in England, thieves would rob people by literally pulling their leg. One thief would pull someone's leg to trip him, while the other would run up and rob their pockets. Which, you know, means it was less about having a laugh and more about serious assault.

Image via iStock.

11. 'Rule of thumb.'

What we think it means: A standard or commonly used approach to a problem.

The grim reality:  This (truly grim) English law from the19th century allowed men to beat their wives using a sticks as long as those sticks weren't more than the width of their thumb. How kind of the authorities to minimise the damage potential of the weapon men could domestically assault their wives with. Good times.

where did these sayings come from

We probably won't stop using these common phrases and to be honest, modern day usage is totally acceptable. But it is eye-opening to understand their horrible histories.

Here are 10 more surprising origins of common phrases. 

Did you find any of these surprising? Did we miss any? Share in the comments below:

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