We all know, and probably use, everyday expressions, idioms and phrases such as “turning over a new leaf” or “letting the cat out of the bag.” And sayings like these are so common, that most people know exactly what they mean. If you turn over a new leaf, you start anew. If you let the cat out of the bag, then you’ve exposed a secret. But, did you know that many of these phrases and expressions are hundreds of years old and have histories with literal meanings. Oh yes, there was a cat in a bag and a “leaf” was actually turned. Read on — some of these are sure to surprise you!
We all know that to be over a barrel is to be in a bad situation with no likely solution in site — to feel helpless. But history tells us that there was a literal explanation, likely derived from a time when criminals were whipped or beaten. They were tied over a barrel for their punishment.
We all know that the upper crust refers to the wealthy, elite, or upper echelon of people. But did you know that the literal meaning has something to do with real bread crust? This expression dates back to the 1800’s when baked bread came out of the oven with the “lower crust” hard and burnt from baking on the over floor so it was often cut off and either used as a plate or given to the servants. The king and queen, of course, were given the “upper crust” which was baked to perfection.
Ahhh… riding the gravy train. This expression is used to imply little was done for a big return. It can mean being paid well for doing very little, or receiving big benefits when little is being done to earn it. But, the history is believed to be rooted in the railroad industry of America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when fortunes were amassed by the owners of the railways. Gravy was an early 1900’s slang term for easy money, hence the railroad owners were riding the gravy train.
To turn over a new leaf is to start fresh, but the history dates back to the 1500’s when “leaves” were the common name for pages in a book. So to turn over a new leaf meant to turn to a blank page and begin a new lesson.