Off the Topic: Where did that saying come from?

This month’s Off the Topic theme was inspired by Sherpa’s Office Manager. She was explaining the origins of many popular sayings such as, “It’s raining cats and dogs” and “The whole 9 yards,” which made me interested in pursuing this topic.   As it turns out, the most popular sayings are also the most highly debated; making it very difficult to pinpoint their exact origin and meaning, and creating a very lengthy process to do so.  The following popular sayings are both interesting yet have more definitive, concise answers.  Hope you all enjoy!

“Pull out all of the stops”

Meaning:  Make every possible effort.
Origin:  The popular belief is that this phrase derives from the manner of construction of pipe organs. These instruments have stops to control the air flow through the pipes and pulling them out increases the musical volume. This seems to be the type of casual easy answer that is the hallmark of folk etymology. In this case, the popular belief isn’t a fallacy but is in fact correct.

“Hat trick”

Meaning:  A series of three consecutive successes, in sports or some other area of activity.
Origin:  The first sport to be associated with the term “hat trick” was cricket. From the 1870s onward, ‘hat tricks’ are mentioned in cricketing literature and the theory goes – and there aren’t sufficient records to be precise about this – that if a bowler dismissed three batsmen in a row, a collection was taken and the proceeds were used to buy him a new hat. Another belief is that a hat was passed round and the bowler kept the proceeds. That explains ‘hat’, but why ‘trick’ exactly? The feat is difficult and is quite a rarity in cricket, there having been only 37 hat tricks in Test cricket history, but ‘trick’ doesn’t seem the obvious word for it. What may have influenced the choice of words was the sudden popularity of stage conjurers’ ‘Hat Tricks’, which immediately preceded the first use of the term on the cricket field. The magician’s Hat Trick, where items, typically rabbits, bunches of flowers, streams of flags etc., are pulled out of a top hat, is well-known to us now but was a novelty in the 1860s.

“Close but no cigar”

Meaning:  To be very near and almost accomplish a goal, but fall short.
Origin:  The phrase, and its variant ‘nice try, but no cigar’, are of US origin and date from the mid-20th century. Fairground stalls gave out cigars as prizes, and this is the most likely source.

The term appears in US newspapers widely from around 1949 onwards; for example, a story from The Lima News in Lima, Ohio in November 1949 was titled ‘Close But No Cigar’ because, The Lima House Cigar and Sporting Goods Store narrowly avoided being burned down in a fire.

 “Cut to the chase”

Meaning:  Get to the point – leaving out unnecessary preamble.
Origin:  This phrase originated in the U.S. film industry. Many early silent films ended in chase sequences preceded by obligatory romantic storylines. The first reference to it dates back to that era, just after the first talkie – The Jazz Singer, 1927.

The precept, as it applies to films, is as prevalent now as it was in the silent film days. Many films aimed at a young male audience involve plot devices that allow for fast-speed chases. There is usually a token love interest storyline before everything in sight ends up in pieces.

 “In the buff”

Meaning:  Nude
Origin:  A buff-coat was a light leather tunic which was worn by English soldiers up until the 17th century. The original meaning of ‘in the buff’ was simply to be wearing such a coat.The later meaning of in the buff, meaning naked is an allusion to the color of the skin, which is somewhat like the color buff (a light browny yellow). This was first recorded by Thomas Dekker, in his work Satiro-mastix or the untrussing of the humorous poet, 1602. In this he likens ‘in buff’ to ‘in stag’, which was a commonly used term for naked in the 17th century.

 “No dice”

Meaning:  A refusal to accept a proposition – equivalent to ‘nothing doing’.
Origin:  This is a US phrase and originated there in the early 20th century. Gambling with dice was illegal in many states and so gamblers went to some pains to hide the dice when challenged by the police. Courts would sometimes throw out cases if the dice weren’t offered in evidence. There are several court records where gamblers were alleged to have swallowed dice to avoid arrest.  It is very likely that the ‘no dice – no conviction’ ruling is the source of the current meaning of this phrase.

 “Start from scratch”

 Meaning:  Begin (again) from the beginning, embark on something without any preparation or advantage.
Origin:  As well as the common meaning of the word ‘scratch’, that is, ‘a slight tearing or incision of the skin’, there is another meaning which is used in a string of phrases that include the word. These expressions include ‘come up to scratch’, ‘scratch golfer’, ‘toe the scratch’ (a variant of toe the line), ‘make from scratch’ and ‘start from scratch’. What all of these have in common is the notion of ‘scratch’ being the beginning – a point at which there is no advantage or disadvantage. This meaning originated in the sporting world, where ‘scratch’ has been used since the 18th century to describe a starting line that was scratched on the ground.


It’s always interesting to learn about origins of phrases that have been passed down from all walks of life.  A lot of times we find ourselves using sayings like these without actually knowing where they came from or what they truly mean.  Hopefully, some of my above research taught you some interesting facts about the more common sayings we use today.  Thanks again for reading!


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