The Origination Of Some Common Phrases
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The Origination Of Some Common Phrases

The history and meaning of four sayings used today.

The Origination Of Some Common Phrases

Every day we use phrases that we may understand the meaning of, but how often do we know the history behind that phrase? Just like any kind of slang word or catchphrase that we make up today, the term usually has a story behind it. Many phrases we use today have been around for 50 or more years, still showing relevance to our society today. Here are a couple common phrases and their origination to remember next time you're playing a trivia game, or just to give context to these sayings.

1. Hands Down

Meaning: to win easily with little effort

Origin: A term starting in horse racing. Jockeys need to keep the reigns tight to get horses to run but if a jockey and their horse are far enough ahead that he can loosen the reigns, ie. letting his "hands down" and still win the race became known as winning hands down (Phrase Finder). This phrase eventually spread to be used for other sports as well in the early 20th century.

2. Heard it through the Grapevine

Meaning: a rumor or unofficial piece of information attained through informal means

Origin: Shortly after the telegraph was invented the term "grapevine telegraph" was first coined in 1852 (Phrase Finder). It was a reference to the telegraph that consisted of thousands of kilometers of wires to be placed high in the air by telegraph poles, which many thought resembled the strings used to train grape vines (Bowen). During the Civil War people spread rumors using the telegraph and if asked where you heard a story from people would answer "I heard it through the grapevine" meaning the telegraph (Bowen). The phrase stuck around after the telegraph was long gone and continued to reference the passing of rumors down a line of people but by word of mouth instead (Bowen). This phrase was made more popular Marvin Gaye song in 1968 called "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"(Phrase Finder).

3. Beat around the bush

Meaning: To postpone coming to the point

Origin: This phrase comes from a literal action in which people "beat around the bush". In bird hunting, people would beat around a bush trying to rouse birds so that their hunting partners would be able to get a shot at them (Phrase Finder) Beating around the bush was the pregame to the main point of the bird hunting, which was to get a bird. Therefore this phrase spread to be used to describe when someone is not getting to the main point (Phrase Finder).

4. Basket Case

Meaning: Someone who is insane or is acting in a crazy fashion

Origination: Basket case used to be a term used for someone with a disability in that the Surgeon General denies that there were any "basket cases" in their hospitals during WWI in a bulletin from 1919 (Upton). The newspapers wanted to define this term for their audiences so they said it referred to men with no arms and legs, needing to be carried bya basket, whether that is what the Surgeon General meant is speculated (Upton). The image above shows two men who lost limbs in WWI. In 1944 during WWII the Surgeon General again denies any "basket cases", and so the phrase original meaning fell out of popularity, most likely for lack of literal basket cases, from then the phrase was used to refer to mental disability or crazed behavior (Upton).

There are tons of phrases with specific historical meaning behind them, start looking up the terms you often use or hear. After all, you help keep 50+ year old sayings alive by continuing to use them, continuing the phrase into the future--might as well know it's past.


Bowen, T. (n.d.). Phrase of the week: I heard it through the grapevine. In Retrieved September 16, 2016, from

Upton, E. (2013, January 30). Why We Call Someone Who is Insane A Basket Case. In Today I Found Out. Retrieved September 25, 2016, from

(n.d.). In The Phrase Finder. Retrieved September 16, 2016, from

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