Origins of 5 Common Phrases

The phrase “paint the town red” has an interesting origin. It comes from an English prankster in the 1800s who actually painted the town red!

Our language today is influenced by history, both ancient and modern. This is evident in many of the phrases we use every day.

Close, But No Cigar

The saying “close, but no cigar” dates back to the 1800s, specifically to the traveling fairs and carnivals that were popular in America at the time. The prizes for these games were not stuffed animals, but rather cigars or bottles of whiskey. If you almost won a game but fell short, the carnival workers would say, “Close! But no cigar!”

Giving Someone The Cold Shoulder

The phrase “giving someone the cold shoulder” originated in the early 1800s when hosting guests for a meal. If a guest was not welcome, they would be served a cold cut of shoulder meat, which was considered the toughest and most inferior cut. This would send a clear message that the guest was not wanted.


The term “blockbuster” is used to describe high-budget, successful films. However, it actually originated from a type of bomb used by the RAF during World War II. The “block buster” was capable of destroying an entire city block, which is how it got its name. The term soon began to be used to describe anything big and exciting.

After World War II, the term “Blockbuster” continued to be used, especially in describing movies. By the mid-1950s, the term had become established to describe any movie that made at least $2,000,000 (which would be $17,500,000 by today’s standards). Thus, the term was born from a combination of aerial bombardment and cinematic advertising.

Moving on to the next saying, “Breaking The Ice,” its origin can be traced back to the saying “to forge a path for others to follow.” It means to establish a relaxed relationship in socially awkward situations, like a first meeting between strangers. The saying comes from specially designed navigation ships for icy waters, which would break through the ice with their reinforced bows and carve a safe path for the exploration vessels to follow.

Another interesting saying is “Painting The Town Red.” This phrase means to have a wild night out. Its origins lie in the antics of the Marquis of Waterford and his friends during a night out in the English town of Melton Mowbray in 1837. The Marquis was a prankster and always up for some hijinks. On this particular night, he and his friends engaged in a spree of vandalism which included painting a tollgate, a swan statue, and many front doors red. The legend goes that the Marquis paid for the damages, but the saying “Painting The Town Red” has lived on as a symbol of a wild night out.

So there you have it, five cool sayings with five equally cool backstories. The next time you hear one of these phrases, you can impress your friends by telling them where it came from!


1. “Rule of thumb” – what does it mean and where did it come from?

The phrase “rule of thumb” refers to an approximate or rough measure. It actually originated from a law in 17th century England that stated a man could legally beat his wife with a stick as long as it was no thicker than his thumb. Thankfully, this law was eventually abolished, but the phrase stuck around as a reminder of this disturbing historical fact.

2. “Bite the bullet” – how did this phrase come about?

“Bite the bullet” means to endure hardship or pain with courage. It originated from battlefield medicine in the 19th century, when soldiers would literally bite down on a bullet to help them bear the pain of surgery without anesthesia.

3. “Break the ice” – where does this phrase come from?

“Break the ice” means to initiate a conversation or interaction. The phrase comes from the literal breaking of ice to clear a path for ships to sail. In social situations, it refers to the initial awkwardness that can be eased by making small talk to “break the ice.”

4. “Saved by the bell” – why do we use this phrase?

“Saved by the bell” means to be rescued from a difficult situation at the last moment. It originated from a fear in the 19th century of being buried alive. People were buried with a bell that they could ring if they woke up underground, hence the phrase “saved by the bell.”

5. “Throw in the towel” – what’s the story behind this phrase?

“Throw in the towel” means to give up or quit. It originated from boxing, where a fighter’s coach would throw in a towel to signal the end of the fight and concede defeat. The phrase has since been adopted into everyday language to refer to giving up on something.

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