Where Did Those Classic “Catch Phrases” Come From?

Where Did Those Classic “Catch Phrases” Come From?
Where Did Those Classic “Catch Phrases” Come From?

Part 1

When you hear “cat got your tongue” or “I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning”, do you ever wonder where those old sayings came from? I know I do― and believe me, I’ve heard some doozies in my lifetime, especially from my Grandmother (God bless her soul). What I found through my historical search was fascinating.

I listed a few of my favorites. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did.

Saved by the Bell:


Today’s Meaning: Rescued from an unwanted situation.

History: I can’t imagine how scary it would be if I were buried alive, but back in England according to folklore 1 out of 25 people were accidentally buried that way… alive. Since the poor couldn’t afford coffins, graves would be dug up, and the new body placed in with the other occupant and 1 out of 25 coffins uncovered had fingernail scratched embedded into the wood. To prevent future mistakes, they’d tie a string that was attached to a bell stationed above ground when the body was buried, and then at night, if they’d hear a bell ringing they’d quickly uncover the coffin, and save the person inside. Thus the meaning “saved by the bell” came into play.

Waking up on the wrong side of the bed:

Today’s Meaning: Waking in a foul mood.

History: Anything on the left side was considered evil, wrong or sinister and it was bad luck to get up on that side of the bed. Innkeepers would push the left side of the bed against the wall, so people were forced to exit only on the right side. I’m glad we don’t still view “left” that way. With king and queen sized beds, we’d have a lot of grumpy people on our hands.

Butter someone up:

Today’s Meaning: A form of flattery.

History: Ancient Indians would throw balls of butter on the statues of the gods in search of favor or good fortune.

Cat got your tongue:

Today’s Meaning: Rendered speechless or at a loss for words.

History: I found two sources for this old saying. One― The English Navy uses a whip called the “cat o’-nine-tails” for flogging. It was said to be so painful that the victims were rendered speechless. Two― When people were convicted of blasphemy or lying, their tongues were cut out and fed to cats.

Caught Red-Handed:


Today’s Meaning: Caught in the act of wrongdoing.

History: The old law stated that if someone butchered a stolen animal, they had to be caught with the animal’s blood still on their hands to be convicted of a crime. Someone caught with freshly cut meat was not proof of theft, only bloody hands.

The whole 9 yards:

Today’s Meaning: Give it your all or to try one’s best.

History: I found two meanings. One― During world War II fighter pilots were given a 27-foot long chain full of ammo. Therefore if they unloaded the whole chain on a single target, they’d say it was giving them “the whole nine yards”. Two― The Scottish needed 9 yards of fabric to make a quality kilt; therefore the owners were revered with higher esteem if they had “the whole nine yard”.

Let your hair down:

Today’s Meaning: To be at ease or in a relaxed state.

History: Women were peered down upon as a Parisian noble if they appeared in public without their hair up in an ornate style. To acquire that intricate style, it took hours and hours of preparation and plenty of hairpins and clasps. As an aristocrat, it was a relaxing ritual to come home at the end of a long day and “let your hair down”.

Rub the wrong way:

Today’s Meaning: To irritate, bother or annoy someone.

History: Colonial American servants were required to clean the floors with a wet and dry rub each week. If they went against the grain, it would cause streaks and scratches to form and make the wood look old and worn. If they did a bad job, it would irritate the homeowner.

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SOURCEBeverley Miles