Black and white old fashioned photo of actors all with hands up next to their ears like they're listening for a phrase.

10 Common Phrases Whose Original Meanings Were Different

Ever wondered why we “bite the bullet” or what “cats and dogs” have to do with rain? 

Take a tour through the interesting origins of everyday expressions. These may be good ways to “break the ice” in future conversations.

Honeymoon

Couple on their honeymoon
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

Current Meaning:

“Honeymoon” can function as a noun, describing the post-wedding vacation, or as an adjective, indicating the place where newlyweds stay during their vacation, such as the honeymoon suite.

Original Meaning: 

The term dates back to the 16th century when it referred to the first month of marriage according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “moon” referred to this first, sweetest, part of marriage likening it to the quickly changing phases of the moon.

Other suggestions are that it is linked to the “Mead Moon” or “Honey Moon,” ancient names for the June full moon. June, historically, has been a popular month for both weddings and honey harvesting.

Rule of Thumb

man taking measurement of thumb
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

Current Meaning:

“Rule of thumb” refers to a practical, approximate method in English, originating in the 17th century. It was tied to trades using thumb measurements. Despite a false link to a law allowing wife-beating, no such law existed. In the 1970s, it was wrongly associated with domestic abuse, leading to efforts to discourage its use due to this misconception.

Original Meaning:

The phrase's exact origin is uncertain, with early appearances in works by James Durham, Sir William Hope, and James Kelly. Historically, it used thumb width for practical measurements in trades like cloth and brewing beer. It signifies a rough but practical approach, emphasizing experience over strict rules.

Bite the Bullet

Person biting bullet, upclose photo.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

Current Meaning:

“Biting the bullet” is a metaphorical expression used to describe accepting an unavoidable hardship or compelling point in a debate and facing the resulting challenges with resilience. The term, first recorded by Rudyard Kipling in 1891, conveys enduring pain or difficulty with fortitude.

Original Meaning:

The exact origin of “biting the bullet” is uncertain, but it may have historical ties to patients clenching a bullet during surgery to cope with pain. Limited evidence supports this practice. Speculated to have evolved from the British expression “to bite the cartridge,” it may also date back to 1796 with the phrase “chew a bullet.” Notably, in the era when the phrase originated, bullets were typically made of soft lead. The term was used literally in the 1975 film “Bite the Bullet,” where a character uses a shell casing to cover a broken tooth.

Break the Ice

Ice breaker ship
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

Current Meaning:

“Break the Ice” means to initiate conversation in a social setting.

Original Meaning:

The phrase's origins trace back to the time before modern icebreakers, when ships depended on smaller vessels to break ice in frozen waters, enabling larger ships to navigate. Over time, this maritime term was metaphorically adapted to describe initiating social interactions.

Saved by the Bell

Hand reaching through ground after buried alive
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

Current Meaning: 

A phrase commonly used when one is rescued from a difficult or dangerous situation.

Original Meaning: 

There is a common belief that this phrase came from people having bells installed in coffins due to the fear of being buried alive.

However, evidence points to this phrase coming from boxing when a boxer is near defeat, but saved from losing by the bell signaling the end of the round.

Throw in the Towel

Boxing gloves hanging in corner
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

Current Meaning: 

To give up or surrender.

Original Meaning: 

Derived from boxing, where a towel thrown into the ring by a boxer's coach signaled surrender or concession.

Cat's Out of the Bag

Friends exchanging secrets.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

Current Meaning: 

A secret has been revealed.

Original Meaning: 

The most likely origin of this phrase is from a scam of substituting a cat for a piglet in a bag at a market in the 1500s. If the buyer didn't check the bag before purchasing a ‘pig in a poke' (piglet in a bag) the secret was only revealed when the “cat was out of the bag.”

Graveyard Shift

Co workers working late into the morning hours.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

Current Meaning: 

Working late into the night or early morning.

Original Meaning: 

This phrase originated in the United States in the late 1800s, with its earliest known example in print found in The Salt Lake Tribune in 1897. It might sound ghostly, but the term simply refers to the hours of the middle of the night that are quiet and lonely like a graveyard. 

Raining Cats and Dogs

Business worker walking in heavy rain.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

Current Meaning: 

Heavy rain.

Original Meaning: 

This phrase is of unknown origins, but here are a couple of ideas put forth by Etymoligists. In the Norse myth of Odin, the storm god was often depicted with dogs and wolves, while witches have been depicted riding on broomsticks in the storms, bringing the association of heavy rain. It could also have come from the no-longer-used word catadupa which was an old English word for waterfall.

Chew the Fat

Two guys having a casual conversation
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

Current Meaning: 

Having a casual conversation.

Original Meaning: 

Sailors used to chew on fat-preserved meat, and while doing so, they would engage in casual conversations.

Grade School Ideas We Were Completely Wrong About

Confused woman reading book.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Just like phrases we take for granted, some ideas we take for granted. Many ideas we picked up in childhood (like that carrots can help you see in the dark) are dead wrong.

Author: Corey Turner

Title: Journalist

Expertise: Pets, Nature, Project Management

Corey Turner is a journalist, conservationist, outdoor enthusiast, and passionate pet owner. Corey founded FurBallFun in 2022. He's known for his honest pet product reviews and guidance for navigating pet behavior, health, and nutrition.