Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

How Cliché: “B” List part two


A collection of everyday sayings from Christine Ammer’s Have a Nice Day–No Problem: A Dictionary of Clichés.

Beggars can’t be choosers
If one is in need, being selective isn’t always an option, an adage which remains today. This expression of not being overly particular has two possible beginnings. John Heywood’s 1546 proverb collection is one, and Thomas fuller’s version (1732) “Beggars and Borrowers must be no Chusers” is another.

Behind the scenes
A term originating from seventeenth and eighteenth century theater where violent action took place behind the scenery. The idea of activity, especially secrets or hidden information taking place out of the public view, was summed up in the phrase of “behind the scenes.”

6,846 Behind The Scenes Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images -  iStock
What can’t be seen might be a scene not meant to be seen

Betting one’s bottom dollar
Being very certain of something is the general meaning. This mid-nineteenth century phrase refers to gambling, when a person referred to betting the last of their gambling chips, or the bottom of their stack.

The Big Cheese
The Boss. The Head Person. The origins are solid on this phrase. It’s thought to be nineteenth century American slang American. The word could be derived from the Persian or Urdu word chiz or cheez which means “thing.” It’s also thought it’s a derivation of the word “chief.”

The big cheese Royalty Free Vector Clip Art illustration  -cart0300-CoolCLIPS.com
The Big Cheese: what rates as the chosen cheese?

Bite the bullet
Facing a painful situation might have come from those wounded in battle who had to face treatment without anesthesia and would bite down on a bullet to bear the pain. Rudyard Kipling has the line “Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid,” in his 1891 The Light That Failed. P.J. Wodehouse wrote the line in his 1923 The Inimitable Jeeves, “Brace up and bite the bullet. I’m afraid I have bad news.”

Bite the dust
To become defeated, even to one’s death conjures visions of old Western films where either the cowboys or the Indians fell in the fight to the dusty ground. In actuality this phrase has much earlier roots, as it is found in Homer’s Iliad, “…his fellow warriors…fall round him to the earth and bite the dust.”

Black sheep
To be a sheep culled out of the flock due to having wool that could not be dyed became an application for people. Sir Walter Scott wrote in 1816, “The curates know best the black sheep of the flock.” This later became known as “the black sheep of the family” referring to that one family member who stood out as an undesirable or had unacceptable characteristics.

The Black Sheep Gospel | Toko-pa's Official Website
“Just another baaaad label”

Blood is thicker than water
Family relationships being considered more valued than other bonds comes from the Middle Ages application that water will evaporate, becoming invisible, with no trace of existence; however, blood, even when dried leaves its mark, implying how blood ties are essential is still relevant today.

Break the ice
Originally this referred to how it was necessary to break up the ice so ships could sail through the water. Special vessels called “icebreakers” cleared away the ice and by the sixteenth century this term became more figurative than literal. Shakespeare applied this phrase, among other authors.

10 Common Phrases We Should Thank Shakespeare For
Kate broke more than ice in this farcical play

Business as usual
Carrying on, even when circumstances are difficult might have come from the practice of businesses posting a notice that stated that they would continue operating despite circumstances such as fire, flood, construction or other situations that might indicate not being available. Winston Churchill applied this idea in his November 1914 speech when he stated “The maxim of the British people ‘Business as usual,” which became a slogan for World War I.

Projects vs. BAU(Business as Usual) – Nic
Carry On, It’s Business as Usual

By the book
To strictly follow the rules is thought to originate from established criteria, as found in religious applications. This idea could be found in literature such as Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 The Murders in the Rue Morgue, “To have a retentive memory, and to proceed ‘by the book,” as a reference to the game whist.

By the same token
In the fifteenth century into the 1600s a “token” was a sign or symbol and “by the same token” had the meaning of “for the same reason” or “on the same grounds.” After 1600 “by the same token” referred to “the proof of this being…”, leading Charles Dickens to write in 1857, “Others caused large Fires to be made…; by the same token that two or three were please d to set their house on Fire…”

What sayings surprised you in their origin?



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2 thoughts on “How Cliché: “B” List part two

  1. I support the right for beggars to be choosers.

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