1. “hammer and tong” — When you go hammer and tongs at someone or something, what you are doing is fighting or arguing with an individual with a lot of energy and force, or going at a task with the same energy and resolve.
The hammer and the tongs were two tools generally used by a blacksmith. We all know what a hammer is; as for the “tongs”, well it was the instrument which helped the blacksmith remove red hot metal from the fire and place it on the anvil. The blacksmith held the metal down with the help of the long tongs and beat the hot metal into shape with the hammer.
Since this activity of beating the metal into shape involved a lot of vigorous hitting, the expression “to go hammer and tongs” began to be used to refer to any activity where an individual went after something or someone vigorously.
2. “at the end of my tether ” — at the point of frustration or at the end of one’s endurance
A tether is a rope which is used to restrict the freedom of grazing animals by tying one end around their neck and the other to a stake in the ground.
3. “to kick the bucket” — to die
In slaughterhouses, the rail on which pigs are hung after slaughter to drain off the blood is known as the bucket bar. Muscle spasms after death sometimes lead to the dead pig twitching as if to kick the bucket bar, hence the expression.
4. “absence makes the heart grow fonder” — our feeling for those we love increases when we are apart from them.
In 1604, Shakespeare echoed this sentiment in “Othello” (Act 1, scene ii), when Desdemona confessed, “I dote upon his very absence.” James Howell, in “Familiar Letters” (1650) says that, “Distance sometimes endears friendship, and absence sweeteneth it.” There are other references to this proverb in literature, but it was originally the first line of an anonymous poem which appeared in Davison’s “Poetical Rhapsody” in 1602.
5. “back handed compliment” — a compliment that also insults or puts down at the same time.
Back-handed is synonymous with left-handed. For example in tennis, a backhand stroke is a strike by a right-handed player from the left side of the body. The left side of the body has always been deemed sinister. The Latin word for left is sinister. Hence, back-handed means round-about, indirect, or devious.
6. “blow off some steam” — to enjoy oneself by relaxing normal formalities
Boilers are commonly used in steam heating systems and steam engines such as those used in a steam locomotive. The boilers contain water that is heated by burning some fuel such as oil. The heated water turns to steam, which is then sent through a system of radiators (in the case of heating systems) or harnessed by a steam engine.
The steam creates considerable pressure in the boiler. If the pressure becomes too great, there is a danger of the boiler exploding. Hence boilers are equipped with safety valves called blow off valves that open if the pressure becomes to great. “Blowing off steam” prevents explosions by relieving the pressure in a boiler by venting excess steam and pressure.
7. “can’t hold a candle to…” — to be far less competent or have far less skills than someone else
Before electric lights, someone performing a task in the dark needed a helper to hold a candle to provide light while the task was performed. Much as a helper might hold a flashlight today. Holding the candle is of course the less challenging role. Someone who is not even qualified to hold the candle is much less competent than the person performing the actual task.
8. “clear as a bell” — clearly understood
Bells such as the type used in churches are large and loud. Their sound can be heard from a great distance. Bells sound a single, clear note so their sound is distinctive and not easily confused. Before electric sirens and amplification systems, bells were a valuable means of signaling people and alerting of important events like an impending attack. The bell and the message intended could be heard clearly over a large area.
Back in the 1910’s, many companies were trying to get into the manufacturing and selling one the hottest items around, the phonograph. One of those companies was the Sonora Chime Company. This company started the Sonora Phonograph Company and used “Clear as a Bell” as their slogan, touting the fidelity of their machine’s sound reproduction.
9. “close, but no cigar” — nearly achieving success, but not quite
Carnival games of skill, particularly shooting games, once gave out cigars as a prize. A contestant that did not quite hit the target was close, but did not get a cigar.
10. “dressed to the nines” — dressed flamboyantly or dressed well
Common lore has it that a tailor making a high quality suit uses more fabric. The best suits are made from nine yards of fabric. This may seem like a lot but a proper suit does indeed take nine yards of fabric. This is because a good suit has all the fabric cut in the same direction with the warp, or long strands of thread, parallel with the vertical line of the suit. This causes a great amount of waste in suit making, but if you want to go “dressed to the nines”, you must pay for such waste.
11. “show your true colors” — to show your true intentions
Color(s) has numerous meanings. An early use of the word is flag, pennant, or badge. Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board in order to elude or deceive the enemy. The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true national ensigns before firing a shot.
Someone who finally “shows his true colors” is acting like a warship which hails another ship flying one flag, but then hoisted their own when they got in firing range.
12. “with a grain of salt” — with a healthy dose of skepticism, suspicion, and caution
Salt is now an inexpensive and readily available commodity. But it was once very valuable due to its high demand as a food preservative and relative scarcity. Salt was thought to have healing properties and to be an antidote to poisons. To take (eat or drink) something “with a grain of salt” was to practice preventive medicine. One would do this if they were suspicious that the food might be poisonous or may cause illness.
13. “mind your Ps and Qs”– behave properly
Comes from the early pub days when beer and ale was served in pint and quart containers. The tab was kept on a chalkboard used to count the pints and quarts consumed. To watch your Ps and Qs is to control your alcoholic intake and behavior.