A Look at Common Phrases & Their Origins: Idioms Edition

Language evolves over time—sometimes, in strange and unpredictable ways. The English language is one of the world’s most verbose, according to the Oxford Dictionary. But why is this? It seems the language, of Germanic origin, has a tendency to adapt words from other languages for its own use.

There’s plenty of proof for this when it comes to Romance languages which directly left their imprint on words like beef (from French boeuf) and poultry (from poulet). The same goes for newer words, as well. The phrase ‘to run amok’, for example, came from the colonial travels of Captain James Cook, who misassigned the word based on a meeting with a tribe in Malaysia. He’d been going for ‘mengamok’.

English turns of phrase haven’t just come from other cultures and languages, though. In fact, English has a way of coining unique phrases, many of which have left their influence in a lasting way. Let’s cover two very different parts of life to examine how these idioms develop over time.

First, we’ll cover poker, a game that transcended borders and evolved over centuries. Then, we’ll take a more abstract look at the animal kingdom and how we’ve adapted our understanding of it into our everyday language.



The game of poker has survived many evolutions. Today, many prefer online poker because they can play in tournaments, home games, and cash games all in the same place. Compared to brick-and-mortar casinos, virtual platforms offer convenience—and savings. Regardless, players are still going to use quite few turns of phrase from the storied world of poker. 

Before we list out some of these phrases, it’s worth pointing out that the word ‘poker’ comes from two European variations. The first is Germany’s ‘pochen’ and the second is France’s ‘poque’. The word poker was first coined in New Orleans in the mid-1800s. 

Here are a few phrases from poker that you’ll recognize immediately:

  • Poker face: Maintaining an unreadable face while playing a poker game, usually to misdirect other players and avoid revealing any tells.
  • Going all-in: A player goes ‘all-in’ when they place all their chips on a bet.
  • Upping the ante: A player raises the bet value.
  • High stakes: A game that involves a large buy-in amount.
  • Wild card: A designated card that can stand for any other type of card, decided on by the player.
  • Put your cards on the table: A player reveals their cards in the final showdown, which determines whether they win or lose.




Compared to a game like poker, ‘animals’ is a vague category. However, humanity used to be much more closely tied to the natural world—and we relied on animals from livestock to domestic dogs to carrier pigeons to help with daily life. As such, it transpires that ‘animals’ is perhaps not such a vague linguistic category after all. 

Sayings and phrases that link back to the animal kingdom are incredibly interesting. Many also point back to prior beliefs about animals, life, and, of course, our place in the world. Let’s dive into a few of the strangest fauna-based sayings in the English language. You may notice an emphasis on cats and horses.

Did you have any idea where these sayings came from?

  • Cat got your tongue: The most interesting theory about this phrase stretches back to Ancient Egypt, when some had their tongues literally cut out and fed to cats.
  • Barking up the wrong tree: This harkens back to the 1800s when hunting dogs would fail to locate their prey, literally barking up the wrong tree.
  • Rubbed the wrong way: This term came from a Mary Hughes book and referred to rubbing a cat’s fur in the wrong direction, eliciting a negative reaction.
  • Hands down: This horseracing term refers to when a jockey had a strong enough lead that they could let their hands (and their reins) down before crossing the finish line.
  • Get off your high horse: This harkens back to the days of military campaigns when whoever had the tallest horse was literally in power.
  • As happy as a clam: Originally, this phrase included ‘…at high water’, since clams were less likely to be hunted during high tide. Plus, their shape gave them the appearance of smiling.


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