And Bob's your uncle! What's behind the funniest phrases in the English language?

And Bob's your uncle! What's behind the funniest phrases in the English language?

Have you ever wondered why you bite the bullet or win something hands down? The English language is full of funny little sayings we all spurt out from time to time without so much as a second thought.

But now University linguistics lecturers have revealed a list of the 30 most obscure phrases in the English language and just where they've come from. See how many of these you say in everyday life.

1. Bite the bullet

Meaning:To have to do something very unpleasant
Origin: Wounded soldiers in WW1 being operated on without anaesthetic literally had to bite a bullet to deal with the pain

2. Fly by the seats of your pants

Meaning: To do something without a clear plan, to improvise
Origin: Used in a 1938 headline to describe Douglas Corrigan’s 29 hour flight from Brooklyn to Dublin, which was meant to be to California. Corrigan had filed for a transatlantic flight two days earlier but it was rejected because his plane was not considered fit for the job. Upon landing in Dublin he claimed his compass had packed up…

3. Go doolally

Meaning: To go mad
Origin: After the Indian garrison town of Deolali where British soldiers waited, sometimes for months, to be taken back to Britain after their tour of duty. There was nothing to do and many may have been suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

4. It’s brass monkeys outside

Meaning: Freezing cold and miserable weather
Origin: ‘Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’. A ship’s cannon balls used to be stacked on a brass structure called a ‘monkey’; the brass would contract in arctic temperatures and the cannon balls would fall off

5. Three sheets to the wind

Meaning: Very drunk and walking correspondingly unsteadily
Origin: ‘Sheets’ refers to the ropes with which a sail is fastened, two per sail. If out of four sheets, one was not properly fastened, the ship would become difficult to control and would be ‘to the wind’, moving as erratically as a drunk

6.  Separate the wheat from the chaff

Meaning: To distinguish between quality and worthlessness
Origin: The phrase comes from Matthew 3:12 where John the Baptist describes the man to come after him: ‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ In the Old Testament the image of winnowing is also used in Psalm 1:4: ‘…the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.’

7. Skin of your teeth

Meaning: Barely managing to do something
Origin: Job describes his state (Job 19: 20): ‘My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh, / And I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.’ The phrases suggests something so thin and elusive as to be insubstantial

8. Through the eye of a needle

Meaning: To undergo a near impossible process
Origin: From Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; and Luke 18:25. Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for a rich person to get to heaven

9. Happy as a sand boy

Meaning: To be very happy indeed
Origin: In Bristol there were pubs where fine sand from sea caves was strewn on the ground to soak up spills. The lads who collected the sand were partially paid in drink and were consequently usually quite merry or happy

10. Sweet Fanny Adams

Meaning: Emphatically nothing at all
Origin: This can be seen as a euphemism with Fanny Adams standing for F. A. Fanny Adams (8) was the victim in a 1867 murder case, cut into pieces and thrown into the River Wey. A broadside ballad about the murder referred to her as ‘sweet’; a term British Naval slang later adopted to refer to tinned stew, apparently not very popular with the sailors

11.  Up the duff/in the club

Meaning: To be pregnant
Origin: ‘In the club’ refers to The Pudding Club. Both, duff and pudding are euphemistic expressions

12. Butter up

Meaning: To flatter someone with the aim of getting them to be of assistance
Origin: A figurative saying to illustrate that someone is smothered in pleasantries

13.  Kick the bucket

Meaning: To die
Origin: Popular understanding is that in a lynching someone would kick the bucket away from under the person about to be hanged. However, a 1570 English dictionary records the word ‘bucket’ as a synonym for ‘beam’ - animals for slaughter would be hung upside down from such a beam and would kick the bucket (or beam) in their struggle during slaughter

14.  Storm in a teacup/tempest in a teapot

Meaning: A lot of trouble or argument over nothing of importance
Origin: The ‘tempest’ in a teacup or teapot is an image used in Roman philosopher Cicero’s De Legibus in approximately 100 BC. ‘Billows in a spoon’


15.  Bob’s your Uncle

Meaning: To achieve something with great ease
Origin: In 1886 PM Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (Lord Salisbury) surprisingly made Arthur Balfour Chief Secretary of Ireland; Balfour was ‘Bob’s’ nephew…

16.  Eat Humble Pie

Meaning: To submit to something below one's dignity, to admit one is wrong
Origin: Umbles, from Middle English, comes from Old French nombles meaning loin. It refers to offal, a meal for the poor

17.  Mad as a hatter

Meaning: To be completely insane
Origin: In the 18th and 19th century mercury was used in felting – and hat making; the madness of hat makers was the result of mercury poisoning

18.  Piss Poor

Meaning: To be extremely poor
Origin: In ancient times, urine was used in tanneries to soak the animal hides. A way for very poor families to make a few pennies was to sell their urine

19.  Kangaroo Court

Meaning: A fast, unfair legal procedure
Origin: 19th century American courts, especially in the Gold Rush, would skip procedures to assure quick sentencing. Australian prospectors, of which there were a considerable number, likened this to kangaroos hopping or skipping

20. Skeleton in the cupboard

Meaning: Something embarrassing to hide
Origin: Until the 1830s it was illegal to dissect human bodies, so grave-robbers and murderers supplied medical schools and doctors with bodies. These had to be hidden in case of raids. William Thackeray, satirical writer of Vanity Fair, used this phrase for the first time in print in 1845

21.  Carry your heart on your sleeve

Meaning: To be very open and transparent
Origin: In Othello Act 1 Scene 1, 64 Iago says “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve…” meaning he would be exposed

22.  It was a dickens of a job

Meaning: A very difficult job
Origin: Shakespeare used this weakened form ‘Dickens’ for ‘devil’ or ‘devilkin’ in The Merry Wives of Windsor ‘I cannot tell what the Dickens his name is’ Act 3 Scene 2

23.  Have a butchers

Meaning: To look at something
Origin: Much Cockney Rhyming slang leaves out the word that actually rhymes to confuse the uninitiated. This goes back to ‘butcher’s hook’, which rhymes with ‘look’

24.  Haven’t seen you in donkey’s years

Meaning: In a long time
Origin: The longevity of donkeys and the length of their ears

25.  Taking the Mickey

Meaning: To make fun of someone
Origin: As so often in rhyming slang, the actual rhyming word, Mickey ‘Bliss’ is left out. Some sources claim he was a 1950s BBC radio personality, but Mr Bliss remains elusive

26.  It’s raining cats and dogs

Meaning: Raining very hard indeed
Origin: An instance of rhyming slang after frogs were whipped into the air during a storm and came back down again with the rain (as testified to in historical accounts)

27.  Horses for courses

Meaning: Different people suited to different things
Origin: Horses perform better on certain courses. A horse that does well on a damp course may not do so well on a dry course

28.  Red herring

Meaning: Something misleading
Origin: To train young hunting dogs to follow a scent, the carcass of a cat or fox or, at a pinch, a smoked and salted herring (of a reddish colour) would be dragged along the ground. There is also the suggestion that it would have been used to see if the dogs would be put off the scent they were meant to follow

29.  Win hands down

Meaning: To do something without a great effort
Origin: In horse racing, a jockey winning comfortably does not need to use a whip and can ride to the finishing lines with his ‘hands down’

30.  Point Blank

Meaning:Very close up and right on target
Origin: From the French ‘point blanc’, referring to the white circle at the centre of the target for archery or shooting practice. The meaning of being right on target was therefore the original meaning before it came to signify close up, from where it is easier to hit the ‘point blanc’