Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 10

I almost feel sad coming to the last section of my blog series where I concentrating on idioms and colloquial phrases. I began my investigatory journey back in May of 2017 and I must admit that I have learned a lot. And I guess that learning the true origins of these crazy sounding phrases was the reason why I started looking into all of this. So as I come to the end of this blog series, I think I have left some of the best for last. (Here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9) The remaining six have some of the best origins; and are some of the most interesting idioms and cooky colloquial phrases. They are: “Dot the i’s and Cross the t’s”, “For the Love of God/Pete”, “Your Eyes are Bigger than your Stomach”, “Til the Cows come Home”, “The Writing is on the Wall”, and “Blood is Thicker than Water.


“Dot the i’s and Cross the t’s”

Origin: Quite simply the phrase is in reference to the adding of the dots and crosses to the letters that have been written, specifically in cursive. If the writer is not careful, this process is sometimes forgotten. The phrase itself is believed to have began in the 1800s and was used by teachers as an admonition to students. They were told to make sure they ‘dot their i’s and cross their t’s’ when writing. One of the first usages was by a teacher in the 1800s where he said, “be meticulous and precise, fill in all the particulars, as in Laura had dotted all the i’s and cross the t’s, so she wondered what she’d done wrong.” William Thackeray also used the expression in a Schribner’s Magazine article in 1849 where he said, “I have dotted the i’s.”

Meaning: To pay close attention to the smallest details in a task.

For the Love of God/Pete” –

Origin: Similar to the origin of the phrase “for God’s (Pete’s) sake” that we discussed in part 4, the phrase came into popular usage more than a century ago. “For the Love of Pete” was used first in writing in 1906, which would lead us to think that “for the love of God” was used much earlier. People are not sure why they started saying ‘for the love of Pete’ instead of saying ‘for the love of Bill’ or ‘for the love of George’; but we know that they used it as a euphemistic replacement for God. Now over a hundred years later, the saying has stuck around. The expression is used to try to implore someone to do something; and what better way to prompt someone to do something quickly than to question their love of God. To say that if they truly loved God that they would do that specific task.

Meaning: A phrase used to express exasperation, annoyance, surprise, or a yearning for someone to do something.


Your Eyes are Bigger than your Stomach” –

Origin: A phrase that has been used in my family since I can remember, ‘your eyes are bigger than your stomach’ has been around for a really long time. No one exactly knows the origin but the phrase seems pretty straightforward. Similar to the phrase ‘bit off more than you can chew’, the phrase isn’t always (if ever) associated with food. The phrase was used metaphorically in the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s 1580 essay Of Cannibals where he discussed the exploration of the New World by saying that “…I am afraid our eyes are bigger than our bellies, and that we have more curiosity than capacity…” The phrase was also used in John Lyly’s didactic romance Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (another work written in 1580); “(b)ut thou art like the Epicure, whose belly is sooner filled than his eye.” So whether its being used in late 1500s literature or a reference by my grandpa to my plate full of food; the phrase has and will continue to have its place in the plethora of idioms and colloquial phrases that we love.

Meaning: A figure of speech meaning that someone took more food than they could eat; but is used to refer to anytime a person does something that they can’t handle.

Til the Cows come Home” –

Origin: I don’t use the expression ’til the cows come home’ often but I have always loved the imagery in the expression. But the beauty that I always thought was being referenced was that of the picturesque scene of cowboys riding across the plains bringing the herd of cattle in after grazing. To my amazement, this has nothing to do with cowboys and more to do with a cow actually coming home. The phrase is used in the Jacobean play The Scornful Lady by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher to say to “sit and turn boys,/Kiss till the cows come home…” while the same phrase was used in another Beaumont/Fletcher play The Captain and says to “Drink till the cows come home.”  The reference to the cows returning is in reference to the cows that would be milked early in the morning, graze on the grasses in their pasture throughout the day, and would return home that night. So in this usage, you have all day to do whatever it is that you need/want to do. I think now, the saying refers to a much longer period of time; but I think that the meaning still has its original feel. And I’ll feel that way til the cows come home.

Meaning: To do something for an extended period of time.


The Writing is on the Wall” –

Origin: If you spent a lot of time in Sunday School as a child, you have probably heard of Daniel. No, not my son Daniel but ‘the Daniel and the lion’s den’ Daniel? That ringing a bell now? If you are one of these people who spent lots of time in church or have read the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, then after me telling you that it has something to do with Daniel; you may be able to pick up the origin of the phrase ‘the writing is on the wall’ relatively quickly. If not, I’ll try to quickly explain. The story starts in chapter five of the Old Testament book of Daniel where we find King Belshazzar in the midst of a great banquet that he had thrown for his nobles. He was drinking his wine and he gave orders to his people to bring the gold and silver goblets that his father (King Nebuchadnezzer) had taken from the temple in Jerusalem so that he and the people at the banquet could drink from them. This was done in great disrespect to God and they worshipped their gods in mockery of the Christian God. While drinking the fingers of a human hand appeared on the wall and wrote “mene mene tekel upharsin” upon the plaster on the wall. The King was petrified to the point that his knees weakened and he turned pale with fear. He brought in all his enchanters, astrologers and holy men of his religion. No one could tell him what it said nor interpret its meaning. After a while the queen came in and told the King that there was a man (Daniel) who had a keen mind, knowledge, understanding and could interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Daniel came in and told the King that he had disrespected the God that had allowed his father to have that kingdom in the first place. He told him that he had not been humbled and that by drinking wine and praising his gods from holy vessels was wrong. Then he spoke of the words (since your Aramaic may be a little rusty as well, I’ll spare the exact translation) saying that the writing was; “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God has numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Tekel; thou art weight in the balances, and art found wanting. Peres; thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.” The King was slain that night and the kingdom was given to a Mede. So the saying is quite literally in reference to someone who couldn’t see the ‘writing that was on the wall’. He could not see the warnings that were apparent because he was caught up in his sinful life.

Meaning: To not be able to heed the warnings that are in front of you.

Blood is Thicker than Water” –

Origin: While blood is quite literally thicker than water; the phrase ‘blood is thicker than water’ is ancient. The oldest record of the phrase can be traced back to 12th century Germany. A variation of the phrase first appeared in the 1180 medieval German epic Reinhart Fuchs (aka Reynard the Fox) by Heinrich de Glichezaere. The German proverb (originally ‘blut ist dicker als wasser’) in the different form was used by Reinhart Fuchs where he said “ouch hoer ich sagen, das sippe blut von wazzere niht verdirbet” or as translated into English as “I also heart it said, kin-blood is not spoiled by water.” This is used to say that no matter the distance (or water between them), family ties do not change. Some historians have tried to imply that a blood covenant (made between two people who cut their hand, shake hands to show a bond by the blood from each partner flowing in each other’s veins) is stronger than that of the ‘water of the womb’ (meaning people with whom they shared a womb; but there has been nothing found to support this claim. Nor is there any support for the claim that it is in reference to the bond of soldiers who ‘spill blood’ with one another being stronger than that of their family (or whom they share a womb). Essentially, the ancient proverb has shown up in countless written works and was even how one Civil War soldier explained how he chose sides. Whatever you think, the fact is is that blood is thicker than water in reality and whomever you consider to be your blood; that relationship knows no bounds.

Meaning: Famous English proverb that says blood relationships are deeper than any other bond.


Featured Image – The Cow Boy 1888 image by and accredited to John C. H. Grabill – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsc.02638, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2615100

Illustration from Illustrated History of Furniture, from the Earliest to the Present Time from 1983 by Litchfield, Fredrick accredited to unknown artist – http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/12254, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=480563

Picnic plate full of assorted food by and accredited to Itai – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2527136

Daniel Interpreting the Writing on the Wall: illustration from the the 1890 Homan Bible by and accredited to illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible – http://thebiblerevival.com/clipart/1890holmanbible/bw/danielinterpretingthewritingonthewall.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11987583


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