Spilling the Beans: The Meanings and Origins of Popular Expressions

by multilingualmania on November 16, 2010

in History, Language Learning

spillingthebeansonthecatspyjamasIn the past we have written about the necessity of learning and using idioms in order to achieve high levels of proficiency in a second language. Throughout the years that I have studied Spanish, idiomatic and popular expressions are what seem to trip me up every time that I have tend to have a miscommunication. In one of my previous posts, I discussed the fact that even some of the parents love to tease me by throwing in expressions and idioms that confuse and surprise me a little.

I just read a book called Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pajamas: Popular Expressions-What They Mean and How We Got Them, an interesting book that discusses the meaning and origins of many popular expressions and idioms in English. This book would be especially relevant to anyone who is learning English as a second language, although teachers who teach English as a second language (ESL) and people who are interested in languages would also find the book to be interesting.

The book highlights the meanings of popular expressions in English and provides a context for how the expression got started. For example:

  • The expression “barking up the wrong tree” means that someone is wasting their energy on something. The term originates from the sport of raccoon hunting in the 1800s, when hunting dogs would sometimes howl at the wrong tree when raccoons were able to escape.
  • The expression “beating around the bush” means to tiptoe around a matter in a roundabout way. The term originates from the hunting method of catching birds, where hunters would beat the bushes in order to drive the birds into the nets of another hunting team.
  • The expression “bite the bullet” means to buckle down in order to do something. The term originates from the days during surgery when anesthetics weren’t used and doctors would give a soldier a bullet to bite down on during surgery.

I found the book to be very interesting because I have never even considered the origins of the expressions and idioms that I hear on a frequent basis. I am going to think twice the next time that I hear a phrase like “ants in your pants”! You can read more about the book here.

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