Have you ever wondered about the meaning of ‘A penny for your thoughts’ and other idioms that populate the English language?
Do You Know What You’re Saying?
Wait. What’s an idiom?
Idioms are expressions peculiar to a specific language with meanings that are different from their literal interpretations. The word ‘idiom’ was coined in the late 16th century, from the French and Latin words (originating from Greek) meaning ‘peculiar phraseology’ and ‘make one’s own’.
English is filled with idioms that may seem wildly out of place in the language of our era. They flavour our conversations and add further meaning to our sentences. They amplify our communications and have become so deeply ingrained in our language and culture that they are sometimes difficult to recognise as idioms.
Let’s look at some of the more common idioms and how they came to be.
Ah, history. You know my penchant for it. As always, I promise to keep it brief (says Gail).
‘A Penny for your thoughts’ and other idioms
Break a leg
This saying is used to wish someone luck or give them encouragement. The idiom came about in theatres and performance houses in relation to the old belief that uttering ‘good luck’ to a performer would instead bring bad luck – therefore, the opposite must also apply.
Its true rise to popularity came in the early 1920s, the golden age of theatre and ‘talkies’ movies that introduced sound.
Another use of the idiom is to encourage a person to put in the most amount of effort possible to the point of ‘breaking a leg’. This was also common throughout the early 1900s. Some speculate that this version of the idiom also has links to the assassin and actor John Wilkes Booth, who broke his leg attempting to leap onto the stage of Ford’s Theatre following the murder of Abraham Lincoln.
Beat about the bush
This common idiom has been around for centuries, tracing back to the 1440s in the poem Generydes – A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas:
‘Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo, Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.’
As the poem suggests, the idiom has evolved from the original literal interpretation of beating around a bush, irritating the birds within and thus, enabling the hunting party to catch the birds as they fled. The earliest recorded version to include ‘about’ within the phrase is found in the 1570s.
Reaching peak popularity at the beginning of the 1900s, ‘beat about the bush’ is used to tell someone to hurry up. It also formed connections with the next idiom we discuss, ‘cut to the chase’. The two are often used in conjunction with each other despite the time difference between their origins.
Cut to the chase
Brienna (see end of post) says that as someone who often rambles on, she has heard the phrase ‘cut to the chase’ – get to the point – more than a handful of times in her life. Yet another idiom that has found its way into everyday conversations, media and writing, this phrase has its early origins in the silent film industry, especially comedies, which often reached their climax in chase scenes. It seems that inexperienced screenwriters or directors would stretch out a film with unnecessary dialogue, boring the audience and drawing out the time before an exciting chase scene. Movie studio executives used ‘cut to the chase’ to mean that the film should get straight to the interesting scenes.
An earlier version of the phrase (1880–1940) was ‘Cut to Hecuba’, used in matinée performances of Hamlet to mean to cut the long speeches before the reference to Hecuba.
‘Cut to the chase’ is relevant in today’s world of instant messaging and live news and media, with many people preferring to get straight to the important and relevant pieces of information: instant gratification.
A penny for your thoughts
Meaning ‘tell me what you’re thinking’ and usually said to someone who’s off with the fairies, this idiom first appeared in the written language c.1522 in The Four Last Things by Sir Thomas More:
‘In such wise yt not wtoute som note & reproach os suche vagaraunte mind, other folk sodainly say to them: a peny for your thought.’
However, ‘a penny for your thoughts’ wasn’t popularised until after 1562 when it appeared in The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood. The idiom originated in an era when a penny was worth a great deal more than its current value.
The use of this idiom has noticeably declined over the last few decades and is more commonly used by older generations. Will this strange idiom weave its way out of our language completely?
To kill two birds with one stone
Despite its somewhat negative connotations, the 17th-century idiom ‘kill two birds with one stone’ appears to have a figurative origin. It means to achieve two objectives with one action. In our age of multitasking and deadlines, its meaning maintains its relevance.
The Oxford English Dictionary records a 1655–56 exchange of views about free will between the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the Anglican Bishop John Bramhall:
‘T. H. thinks to kill two birds with one stone, and satisfy two arguments with one answer.’
An earlier version of the idiom appears in a 1632 book A Complete History of the Present Seat of War in Africa Between the Spaniards and Algerines.
There is also speculation that the phrase has its roots in the Greek mythological tale of Daedalus and Icarus. With both men trapped, and hungry birds flying above waiting for their demise, Daedalus uses stones to strike down the birds in order to create their own wings to escape on. He consequently discovers a throwing motion that allows him to kill two of the birds with one stone. Who knows?
The last straw
The last idiom we explore, fittingly, is ‘the last straw’, sometimes ‘the final straw’, an idiom that expresses anger and frustration. It’s the final tiny irritant or burden on top of a series of other seemingly minor burdens that causes what may appear an extreme reaction.
The idiom refers to the proverb ‘the last straw that breaks the camel’s back’. Variants of the proverb include ‘The last drop makes the cup run over’ (1655), ‘The last feather that breaks the horse’s back’ (1677), and the oriental proverb ‘It is the last straw that overloads the camel’.
The earliest recorded use of the phrase is in The Edinburgh Advertiser (1816):
‘MR. BROUGHAM remarked, that if it [a tax on soap] were only 3d. a head, or 4d. and 5d. upon the lower orders, yet straw upon straw was laid till the last straw broke the camel’s back.’
‘The last straw’ has fluctuated in popularity over the centuries. Nevertheless, it remains a valid and colourful way to express irritation and anger.
As we’ve seen, idioms have wormed their way into our our everyday language and vocabulary. They add vibrancy to our communications and often a little humour as well.
Will you notice the next time you use an idiom?
After all, the devil is in the details …
Acknowledgements for ‘A Penny for Your Thoughts’ and Other Idioms
The post ‘A Penny For Your Thoughts’ and Other Idioms is a collaboration between Brienna Cottam and Gail Tagarro. Brienna is a student at the University of the Sunshine Coast where she’s studying the course Bachelor of Creative Writing. She undertook an internship with Gail Tagarro of editors4you.com and WriteDesign Publications for several weeks in 2019.
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