English has so many great phrases in it. They help to color our language and make it more fun to speak! But where do these phrases come from? Knowing the origins of common English phrases can make learning both more interesting and more fun, so keep reading!
Here are the origins of some of our favorite, common English phrases.
Run of the Mill
If something is run of the mill, it’s an ordinary, everyday-type thing. If you’ve had a week where nothing out of the ordinary happened and it was lackluster (quite normal), you’ve had a run of the mill type of week.
But where does the phrase come from?
Most likely it comes from things manufactured by a textile mill before they were decorated or embellished. These clothes weren’t sorted for quality, so could be expected to be quite ordinary and regular, or rather, just produced en masse (all together, in a large group).
Get on a Soapbox
Has anyone ever told you to get off your soapbox? It’s one of the most common English phrases that’s used for when someone makes a spontaneous speech, or is on a roll about a favorite topic and just talks and talks. You may hear this phrase a lot in politics, where people are very passionate about what they talk about.
The phrase comes from the late 1800s, when people would stand on top of soap boxes or shipping crates (strong boxes) to use as makeshift (ersatz, temporary) podiums to talk to large crowds. It would set them at least a head’s height (the length of the head) above the others.
What was the last thing you got on a soapbox about?
Read the Riot Act
It’s never pleasant when someone is reading you the riot act. Reading someone the riot act is to give a stern (very strong, severe) warning or even yell at someone as a way of intimidating them into some type of opposite behavior.
The origin of this common English phrase is from a 1714 British law called the Riot Act, which was supposed to prevent (stop before they happen) riots. It only came into effect when someone read it out loud, so when too many people started gathering, a police officer would “read the Riot Act” and let them know they needed to leave or would be punished (reprimanded, have trouble).
When something bad happens, it’s always nice when there’s a silver lining in the end. A silver lining is when something good happens, despite other bad things going on simultaneously (at the same time).
A silver lining comes from a line by Milton, author of Paradise Lost, which talks about a bright ring of sunlight around a dark cloud that makes it look like the cloud has a silver lining. The whole phrase, “every cloud has a silver lining” came into the English language in the 1800s, despite Milton’s poetry being around for much longer.
Through the Grapevine
At work, it’s very likely that you’ve heard something through the grapevine. Hearing something through the grapevine is when you get some information that has traveled from person to person, (very!) possibly with some twists (distortions of facts, mistakes) along the way. Information you’ve gotten through the grapevine might not be the most accurate (correct, true), so be careful not to believe everything you hear!
This common English phrase comes from grapevines, literally, which are long and twisty (not straight, knotted, tangled), going from cluster (bunch, group) to cluster of grapes. It was first used in relation to communication in the 1850s when the telegraph came into use. The “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person.
Have you used any of these phrases before? What do you think of the origins of common English phrases? Does it make you want to use them more? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
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Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, yoga instructor, and wouldn’t tell you to get off your soapbox…unless you had been there for too long!