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Holten: Where did we get all these sayings?

Have you ever thought about where sayings come from? Phrases like “Can you dig it,” “blood is thicker than water,” “caught red-handed,” “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and “kick the bucket.”

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We use them every day and we know what they are supposed to mean. But if we knew the origins of some of these sayings, we might be a little bit hesitant to use them.

For example, we often ask someone if the “cat’s got your tongue” when a person seems to be at a loss for words. However, we might be hesitant to use the phrase if we knew it originated with the ancient act of cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and feeding them to cats.

We also might not say “Saved by the bell,” if we knew that at one time people were very concerned about being buried alive, because it was a common occurrence at one time. So they were buried in special coffins that connected to a bell above ground and, at night, cemetery guards would listen for any bells in case they had to dig up a living person.

Yes, there are a lot of sayings out there and the stories about how the sayings originated are quite interesting. So I thought I’d fill you in on a few of them because, after you read this, you may or may not want to use them again.

Bite the bullet: Throughout history, like during the Civil War, there was no time to administer anesthesia before emergency surgery during battle. So surgeons often made patients bite down on a bullet to distract them from the pain.

Let your hair down: In Paris, people of nobility were expected to appear in public with elaborate hairdos and some of those hairdos required hours of work. So it was a relaxing ritual for these aristocrats to come home at the end of a long day and let their hair down.

Sleep tight: During Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. In order to make the bed firmer, one had to pull the ropes to tighten the mattress.

Waking up on the wrong side of the bed: In the “Olden Days,” the left side of the body or anything having to do with the left was often considered sinister. To ward off evil, innkeepers made sure the left side of the bed was pushed against a wall, so guests had no other option but to get up on the right side of the bed.

Don’t spill the beans: In Ancient Greece, beans were used to vote for candidates in elections or for organizations. One container for each candidate was set out before the group members, who would place a white bean in the container if they approved of the candidate and a black bean if they did not. Sometimes a clumsy voter would accidentally knock over the jar, allowing everyone to see the suddenly not-so-confidential votes.

Rule of thumb: English Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled in the 17th century that it was permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, if the stick was no wider than his thumb.

No spring chicken: New England chicken farmers usually sold chickens in the spring, so the chickens born in the springtime yielded better earnings than the chickens that survived the winter. Sometimes, farmers would try to sell old birds for the price of a new spring chicken but clever buyers would complain that the fowl was “no spring chicken.” The term then came to represent anyone who is past their prime.

The whole nine yards: World War II fighter pilots received a 9-yard chain of ammunition. Therefore, when a pilot used all of his ammunition on one target, he gave it “the whole 9 yards.”

The most interesting phrase, however, might be the one that’s a little closer to home.

Pass the buck: This phrase originated in the American Wild West during poker games. Most cowboys and ranchers carried a buckhorn knife, and whoever was due to deal the next hand would have the buckhorn knife stuck in the table in front of them. But that person, especially if the stakes were really high, could opt out of his turn at dealing by passing the buckhorn knife on to the next player.

That story, for some reason, reminds me of a quote by author Napoleon Hill, who once said, “Big pay and little responsibility are circumstances seldom found together.”

Holten is the manager of The Drill and the executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. He writes a weekly column for The Dickinson Press. Email him at