Welcome to A to Z of Idioms, a blog all about idioms and their origins!
Imagine you’re an alien, visiting Earth from outer space. Your first destination is London, where you find yourself in the crowded carriage of an Underground train from Oxford Circus to Victoria. You stand there, enchanted by all the animated conversations happening around you, when suddenly an odd phrase catches your attention:
“That’s what he said! Straight from the horse’s mouth!”
You’re completely perplexed by this strange string of words, and come to the conclusion that horses must speak English!
Of course, to a native speaker, this exclamation makes perfect sense. You instinctively know that it means you heard the information directly from a person who is most knowledgeable on the subject. But if you look at the phrase in isolation, it’s completely ridiculous – it conjures up rather amusing images of a person conversing with a well informed horse.
I think it’s really fascinating that we use these little phrases of English everyday, without even thinking, or knowing where they came from. So I’m going to make it my quest to research the A to Z of our most commonly used idioms, and discover their origins!
I’m going to research various sources, from books on etymology and linguistics, to online articles and journals – I will of course reference them all!
But first of all – let’s get back to basics. What exactly is an idiom?
An idiom is a set phrase which, if you took the individual words in isolation, wouldn’t make much sense. But used as a whole, it essentially describes a situation in a figurative manner. For example, if you were to describe a pregnant lady as having “a bun in the oven”, this doesn’t mean they literally have a bun cooking in the oven in their kitchen at home, as the individual words might suggest! Used as a fixed phrase in this context, it simply means that she is carrying a baby.
What is interesting is how these phrases come about; there must be some kind of logic to their meaning, otherwise we wouldn’t understand what people are talking about half the time!
And so begins the journey, and as tradition dictates, I start with the letter A…