Old Colonial era idioms & sayings we use today

Old Colonial  Sayings We Use Today


get off your high horse – you should  stop behaving arrogantly – military leaders, nobility etc.  led parades on horseback, as a sign of their superiority and to increase their prominence.


hold your feet to the fire  – a inquisitor to applied  flames to the feet as a  method for extracting confession for heresy, during the Crusade’s. 


haul someone over the coals – in the Middle Ages, suspected heretics were literally hauled over a bed of burning coals. If they survived they were considered innocent, and guilty if they did not.


caught with or pants down – caught unawares tending to natures call.


worth an arm and a leg – a painter of a portrait charged  more he had to additionally paint arms and legs on the subject.


keep you nose to the grindstone – knife grinders when sharpening blades was to lie flat on their fronts with their faces near the grindstone in order to hold the blades against the stone


to beeline it – from the behavior of bees. When a bee finds nectar it returns to the hive and displays to the other bees the direction of the find. The other bees then ‘make a beeline’ for it.


as mad as a hatter – the effect of Mercury exposure used in the manufacture of felt hats lead to mercury poisoning, one of the symptoms of which is insanity.


you have a screw loose –  as  machines began to be used in the 1700’s, screws frequently loosened causing the machine to break down. If you are having a malfunction, you may have a screw loose as well.


not fit to hold a candle (not fit to hold a match) – a snide remark  suggesting that one is so unfit, he can’t hold a match or candle for another.


the whole none yards –rich enough to buy the whole suite that took 9 yeards. A lesser suite may not have matching vest, pants, etc


 dressed to the nines – he looks like he purchased the best. From purchasing the best suite using nine yards of cloth to make it..


face the music – from the tradition of disgraced officers being ‘drummed out’ of their regiment.


cut from the same cloth – when making suits, tailors use fabric from the same roll  of cloth to make sure the pieces match perfectly.


living high on the hog -The best and most expensive cuts of ham come from the upper part of a pig’s haunch


in the nick of time – even into the 18th century, some businessmen kept track of transactions and time by carving notches (nicks) on a “tally stick.” Someone arriving just before the next nick was carved would arrive in time to save the next day’s interest – in the nick of time.


black ball – the expression is derived from 18th century clubs. New applications for membership were examined by the ruling committee – secret votes were then cast by putting balls into a container. Red balls meant acceptance and black ones rejection. It only needed one black ball for the application to fail.


don’t let him  pull the wool over your eyes– street thugs would pull the wig (wool)  down over the victims eyes in order to confuse him. Bigwigs were worth robbing


put the damper on it  – a damper is a part of a piano which presses on the strings and cuts out their sounds.


square meal –  from the square plates used to serve the food on .  (Used such as “You should get your “three squares”  or  “three square meals” every day).


in a pickle– trapped without apparent means of escape as pickle in a jar.




getting your goat – this  refers to an old English (Welsh?) belief that keeping a goat in the barn would have a calming effect on the cows, hence producing more milk. When one wanted to antagonize/terrorize one’s enemy, you would abscond with their goat rendering their milk cows less- to non-productive. 


take it with  a grain of salt – salt was thought to have healing properties and to be an antidote to poisons.


at the drop of a hat – instantly – from a traditional way of starting a race in the 1800’s.


dyed in the wool –  from the process of coloring wool, which can be done at various stages; to dye ‘in the wool’, before spinning is the earliest stage it can be done, and it gives the most thorough effect.


take a gander – (gander was earlier the common word for a goose) a goose craning its neck to look at something.   


pull out all the stops – apply best effort – from the metaphor of pulling out all the stops on an organ, which would increase the volume.


caught red-handed – It’s based simply on the metaphor of a murderer being caught with blood still on their hands,


a red-letter day – a special day – saints days and holidays were printed in red as opposed to the normal black in almanacs and diaries


it has a ring of truth – sounds or seems believable – from the custom of testing whether coins were genuine by bouncing on a hard surface;


post-haste – from the old direction written on letters: ‘Haste, post, haste’. ‘Post’ here meant ‘postman’; it earlier meant the horsemen stationed at intervals along post-roads, whose duty was to convey mail to the next stage.


get it straight from the horse’s mouth – this is an old farming expression. When farmers buy horses, they look in their mouths to see the teeth. The farmer could find out a lot from looking at a horse’s teeth, such as the age and physical health of the horse. The person trying to sell the horse might pretend that it is in a fit condition when really it is not, so farmers prefer to rely on looking at the teeth.


whipping boy –boys designated to take the punishment for  them- someone who is regularly blamed or punished for another’s wrong-doing – as princes, Edward VI and Charles I had boys (respectively Barnaby Fitzpatrick and Mungo Murray) to take their punishment beatings for them, hence ‘whipping boy’. Around the same time Henry IV of France enjoyed the same privilege; his whipping


the third degree – this phrase origin can be found within the Masonic Lodge. Within the lodge there are 3 degrees; the Entered Apprentice, the Fellowcraft and the Master Mason. The Mason’s questioning for the third-degree was known to be an intense ordeal, frightening and unpleasant. Additionally, it is more physically challenging that the first two degrees. The term has come to be used for any long an arduous questioning or interrogation.


put through the mill – an allusion to grain being crushed by a millstone. suffers an ordeal


not worth a plug nickel– plugs are the holes made in coins to extract some metal which can be used for other purposes. Coins so tampered with are no longer legal tender. Nickels being coins of small denomination lend themselves for use in this phrase.


chiseler – a thief who steal portions of coins chiselsing off small pieces.


clip joint –  location where portions of coins are clipped off by thieves.    


getting fleeced – being  robbed  –  as a sheep isrobbed  of it’s fleece.


put your best foot forward – a gentleman upon greeting others literary puts his best foot forward extending his leg as he takes a bow.


a big shot– a person  receiving a large cannon salute.






feather in your cap – it was once a common practice to award a feather to a soldier who had killed an enemy. These feathers were worn on the helmet, or other headgear and were considered symbols of social status much as modern soldiers receive and display medals.


pull out all the stops – this phrase comes from the pipe organs in churches and classical music. Each pipe has a “stop” that acts as a baffle that controls the amount of airflow. The volume of the organ can be adjusted by adding or removing the stops. By pulling out all the stops, all pipes are playing at their loudest.

a wind fall – when a storm blew the tree down, it could be claimed by anyone… a wind fall.  An unexpected bit of  good fortune

read the Riot Act to you – The Riot Act of 1715 was meant to address groups gathering and threatening the peace. A magistrate could read part of the Act commanding people to disburse in the King’s name or face action. In the 1880s Americans began using the term to mean “scold”.

having a field day  – citizens would gather annually on muster day to watch the militia drill, enjoy food and drink, socialize and have a fun time.

Home & Hearth


square meal – a dinner plate was a square piece of wood with a “bowl” carved out to hold your serving of the perpetual stew that was always cooking over the fire.


dessert – after finishing a  meal in  the dinning room, the dinning room  would be desserted , and people would go to the parlor to eat sweets.

easy chair – a  cushioned chair tht concealed a chamber pot!

At the end of my tether a tether is a rope, which is used to restrict the freedom of grazing animals by tying one end around their neck and the other to a stake in the ground.

threshold –  a houses with dirt or stone floors were covered with threshing to keep the floor warm . People added a wooden board to hold the threshing in — a threshold

sleep tight – before box springs were in use, old bed frames used rope pulled tightly between the frame rails to support a mattress. If the rope became loose, the mattress would sag making for uncomfortable sleeping. Tightening the ropes would help one get a good night sleep.


don’t let the bed bugs bite – mattresses were stuffed with corn husks or threshing which attracted bed busg. But with colonials not taking baths but every several months, surely bed bugs found a  comfortable habitat in the bedding .


pot luck – what was available, not knowing for sure what you might receive. eat whatever was in the oven pot… taken a chance 


eating humble pie – servants ate “umbel pie” which was made from deer waste while their Master and his guests had the better cuts of meat.


pop goes the weasel – the yarn winder (weasel) would make a “pop” sound when it was finished winding.


turn the tables –  tables only had one finished side. The other side, less expensive to make, was more rough. When the family was alone, they ate on the rough side to keep the good side nice for company. When company came, the whole top lifted off and was turned to its good side.


cold shoulder – when a guests would over stay their welcome as house guests, the hosts would (instead of feeding them good, warm meals) serve their too-long staying guests the cold meat,  thereby giving  them  the COLD SHOULDER.


living high on the hog – a  perosn who ate or served the most expensive part of meat (the shoulder) was living well.


chew the fat–  cut off a little to dried fatback to chew with the guests when sitting around for a gab session


to salt away – salt the meat to preserve it, to save it  for the future.


hit the hay – sleep on bedding of straw 




hush puppies – to quiet the hungry barking puppy dogs when frying up the corn bread, some would be tossed to them along with the verbal admonishment “hush puppy”.  


bring home the  bacon – if you brought home the bacon, you were earning enough to feed your family well


strike while the iron is hot –  in working with metal  the best results came from striking the iron while it was still hot.

board—the table was usually just a board  in most homes or many small establishments.

a boarding house – offered a bed and board (table)

to turn the tables –the top of the table was smooth and the under side rough. The table board was often turned over for the messy affair of eating.  

chairman of the board– the head of the family sat on his chair at the head of the table or board and the women and children sat on the bench along the side of the table

board games – games played on the  board (table).

pay across the board – pay everyone who is at the board (table)

keeping everything above board –  to keep your hands or cards on the table where they could be seen.

to burn the candle at both ends– to light a candle at both ends to give off more light.

hit the sack – a sack is a bed mattress. Early mattresses were often made from a cloth sack .


Gun Related


a long shot -a vain attempt  when firing at a distant target.


point-blank –literally firing from such a close range as to be sure of hitting the target.


going off half-cocked – a weapon half-cocked is the safety position  of the weapon. A person who was too anxious,  may forget to  cock his weapon fully so that it would shoot. 


a skin flint – someone too thrifty to use new flint, taking  a knife and chipping  or skinning pieces from the old flint until it is serviceable.


a flash in a pan – a misfire when only the powder in the pan lights but fails to ignite the power in the barrel.


lock, stock and barrel  – the three parts of a gun – lock (firing mechanism), stock (wood), barrel (metal tube). Purchasing a  whole weapon would be to purchase it lock, stock and barrel. 


set your sights – picking your target in your gun sight


taking dead aim – set your sights  to kill your target


keep your powder dry– be prepared for action


hand me another round –  hand me a  round musket ball


bite the bullet – the practice of chewing on a bullet when being doctored when no painkiller was available. 


under the gun – means laboring under a threat of a gun pointed at you. Either you finish fast, or you get shot.


short  sighted – can’t see the target


out of sight – not in your gun sights any longer


give it your best shot– take your time and make the shot good


a short fuse– a short fuse on a cannon would result in a quick firing. A short fuse on a person would be referring to their quick temper  going off.



Hunting Related


beat around the bush –  beating bushes scared birds out of their hiding places in the bushes – to  waste time  trying to flush your game  beating adjacent bushes intead of the one contain the gamet.


loaded for bear– having loaded the heaviest size shot and larger load of powder


barking up the wrong tree – from a confused dog


happy hunting ground – heaven for the hunter


a sitting duck– completely exposed and unaware of the threat


get your ducks in a row– line up your shot


give it your best shot – do your best


hound to death–  chasing the game with the hound dogs till the game dies from exhaustion


barking up the wrong tree –  dogs mistaken  to games location


like shooting ducks in a pond – so easy to hit a sitting duck 


it’s in the bag –  the game is put in the bag


Ship Related



taken aback – a sudden shift in wind to come up blowing the sails back against the masts, putting the ship in grave danger of having the masts break off and rendering the ship totally helpless. The ship was taken aback.


groggy – comes from the description of the feeling that many British sailors experienced when they would drink too much “grog,”-  a mixture of rum and water.


armed to the teeth – this is a pirate phrase originating in Port Royal Jamaica in the 1600’s. Carrying  a knife in their teeth for maximum arms capability.


down in the doldrums – depressed lazy state – doldrums  were an area of the ocean near the equator between the NE and SE trade winds, noted for calms, sudden squalls and unpredictable winds.


steer the way the crow flyes- the crow, was an essential part of the navigation equipment on sailing ships. These land-loving birds were carried on aboard to help the ship find land that was out of sight. When the crows were released,  the bird’s invariably headed towards land. The ships  helmsman was told to steer the way the crow flyes.


crow’s nest – as ships grew and the lookouts stood watch in a tub located high on the main mast, the name “crow’s nest” was given to this tub becausee this  is where  crows  released from their cage to seek land.

don’t go overboard – letting your excitement cause you leap from the ship before you are ready.


to the bitter end –at the end of your rope-  from the metaphor of a rope being payed out until to the ‘bitts’, which were the posts on the deck of a ship to which ropes were secured. When the rope had been extended to the bitter end there was no more left.











Ship Related


clean bill of health – this widely used term has its origins in the “Bill of Health”, a document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.


going to the head – the “head” aboard a Navy ship is the bathroom. The term comes from the days of sailing ships when the place for the crew to relieve themselves was all the way forward on either side of the bowsprit, to which the figurehead was fastened.


learning the ropes –learning all the names and uses of the lines on the ship


toe the line – the crew would  be called to order putting their toes on a seam of the deck to maintain a straight line.


scuttlebutt – the cask from which the ship’s crew took their drinking water — like a water fountain — was the “scuttlebutt”.  Salilors would gather around the “scuttlebutt”  the hear the latetest news or gossip,


clean bill of health – this widely used term has its origins in the “Bill of Health”, a document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.


son of a gun– a defamatory or abusive word or phrase applied to boys conceived between the cannon aboard ship.


at loose ends – from the unraveling of the ends of rigging ropes on a sailing ship.



busting your chops – at the turn of the century, wearing very long sideburns– called mutton chops or lamb chops was in vogue. A bust in the chops was to get hit in the face.


keep your shirt on – the prelude to a fistfight was to remove your shirt. Shirts required a lot of labor to make and were more expensive than today. Someone thinking of starting a fight might take off his shirt to prevent damage.


caught red-handed – it’s based on the metaphor of a criminal of assault being caught with blood still on their hands.


feather in your cap – it was once a common practice to award a feather to a soldier who had killed an enemy. These feathers were worn on the helmet, or other headgear and were symbols of social status much as modern soldiers receive and display medals.


bury the hatchet – when making peace, native Americans used to bury weapons to show that fighting had ended and enemies were now at peace. Today, the idiom means to make up with a friend after an argument or fight.


over a barrel – comes from laying someone over a barrel for a whipping  or punishment which involved holding someone over a barrel of boiling oil, etc. where the alternatives for the victim are to agree to demands or be dropped in the barrel.

bite the dust – how the dying soldiers had fallen with their faces in the dirt.




spinster – unmarried woman – in Saxon times a woman was not considered fit for marriage until she could spin yarn properly. Interestingly, and in similar chauvanistic vein, the word ‘wife’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘wyfan’, to weave, next after spinning in the cloth-making process.


mind your own Bee’s Wax – this came from the days when smallpox was a common disease that caused disfigurement.  Those who survived the disease were left with pock marks on their body and face.   Ladies would fill in the pock marks with beeswax.   However when the weather was very warm the wax might melt.   But it was not the thing to do for one lady to tell another that her makeup was melting. 


saving or losing face – the noble ladies and gentlemen of the late 1700s wore much makeup to impress each other. If they sat too close to the heat of the fireplace, the makeup would melt and “lose face.”


crack a smile– if you did have too much wax on your face and happento  smile, you could crack your wax, especially when it was cold outside.



Tavern Related

chalk it up  – to help remember, a tavern keep, might use chalk to mark upon his wall the bill of

 a patron who wished to pay at a later time. This was a reminder to collect owed money.


upper crust  – bread was divided according to status. The lesser class got the bottom which might be burned while and the better sort got the top, or the golden brown uppercrust.


room and board   – the word “ board” comes from the eating table usually just one board, sometimes two, set on trestles, making a long narrow surface to eat from. Coming to dinner was called “coming to the board,” a table cloth was referred to as “board clothes,”


turn the tables – the table only had one finished side. The other side, less expensive to make, was more rough. When the family was alone, they ate on the rough side to keep the good side nice for company. When company came, the whole top lifted off and was turned to its good side.


cash on the barrelhead  – money would have to be placed on the heads of the barrels (used as tables) when drinks were provided came to mean immediate payment for service.


mind your P’s & Q’s  – keep track of how many Pint and Quarts you have consumed


put in my two cents worth  – has its origin in the game of poker. When playing poker you have to make a small bet before the cards are dealt called an “ante” to begin play in that hand.


pitcher— a leather jug coated with pitch to hold it’s shape


Merchant & Tradesman Related

a bakers  dozen  – bakers once gave an extra roll for every dozen sold, thus the 13 were called a baker’s dozen.

a close shave – in the past, student barbers learned to shave on customers. If they shaved too close, their clients might be cut or even barely escape serious injury. Today, we use this idiom if a person narrowly escapes disaster.


a powder room – a closet where a man or woman of the 1700s could have a wig re-powdered,


blockhead –  from wooden head forms used to make and maintain wigs.

cut from the same cloth –  if you’re making a suit, the jacket and trousers should be cut from the same piece of cloth to ensure a perfect match, since there may be differences in color, weave etc. between batches of fabric.   Only if the whole suite is cut from the same piece of cloth can we be sure of the match. 

the whole nine yards  – when ordering a suite of clothes, a proper suite will take 9 yards of material. A klesser suite without vest and matching weave may take 5 or 6 yards of cloth.


let the cat out of the bag – a dishonest farmer, claiming to be selling a young pig, might substitute a cat or some other valueless animal in a tied bag.


a pig in a poke –  is obviously related; poke is an old word for a small sack and the whole expression means ‘something bought or received without prior examination or knowledge’.


in the pits – the sawman of the two man team who had to saw from underneath the lumber in the pit.














When digging up graves for relocation, coffins were opened. Some coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside of the lid. It was then realized that they had been burying people alive. Statistics were kept and it was found that one out of 25 coffins opened had scratch marks on the inner lids. 

saved by the bell an idea was introduced for the better prevention of being buried alive. The idea was to drill a hole in the lid of the coffin, tie a string on their wrist of the deceased and lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell on the limb of a tree or pole placed nearby.

graveyard shift – someone who would sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell and who could dig up the coffin if the bell rang.

dead ringer – the person who was saved by the bell

kill with kindness – from the story of how Draco met his death, by being smothered and suffocated by caps and cloaks thrown onto him at the theatre of Aegina, from spectators showing their appreciation of him, 590 BC.

hold a wakedead were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days to wait and see if they would wake up, hence the custom of holding a  ‘wake.”






What is it?



Colonial Items                        Was what?


A) Noggin                 a small mug or cup of ovens

B) Pipkin                              a small cooking pot

C) Trencher                          a wooden plate used at the table

D) Cricket                                  a low footstool

E) Peel                        tool used to take loaves out


F)Flagon                   a vessel used to serve liquids

G)Huckaback          a stout linen fabric used for towels

H)Manumit                              to liberate from slavery

I)Riddle                     a coarse sieve used for separating chaff                        

J)Chaise                    one horse carriage for pleasure





Colonial Medical  Diseases

Match the Colonial Disease Name with what it is called today

Draw a line connecting the name of the Colonial Disease Name with what it is called today


K)Consumption      Tuberculosis

L)Screws                   Rheumatism

M)Quinsey                Tonsillitis

N)Putrid Fever         Diphtheria

O))Grippe                 Influenza


P)St. Vitus’ Dance   Nervous Twitches disorder

Q)Ague                      Recurring fever of Malaria

R)Bilious fever        Fever from a  liver

S)Bloody Flux          Dysentery

T)Black Pox            Smallpox



Some Favorite Old Proverbs



A proverb is a short sentence based on long experience with the clear  ring of truth to it. –

BF  is   Ben Franklin (1706-1790)

Wish not so much to live long as to live well. BF

A good spouse and health is a person’s best wealth. BF

Keep conscience clear, then never fear.BF

A day is lost if one has not laughed. – French (on the conduct of life

He that lies down with the dogs riseth with fleas. – George Herbert (1593-1633)

A good spouse and health is a person’s best wealth. BF

Be slow in choosing a friend, slower still in changing.BF

Content makes poor men rich; discontent makes rich men poor. BF

Dally not with other folk’s spouses or money. BF

Do good to thy friend to keep him, to thy enemy to gain him. BF

Do not squander time for that is the stuff that life is made of BF

Don’t halloo until you’re out of the wood. BF

Each year one vicious habit rooted out, in time might make the worst man good throughout. BF

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. BF

Be civil to all; sociable to many; familiar with few; friend to one; enemy to none. –BF

Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards. BF

Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.-BF

Well done is better than well said BF

A lie stands on one leg, the truth on two BF

Copyrighted by JSS 4/2006

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