Origin of Some Popular English Idioms IV

A Pipe Dream

Definition: A plan or a dream for the future that could never come true or be achieved.

Origin: Metaphorical, and probably related to the fact that the drug opium can be smoked in a pipe, and when it is taken people often have very pleasant, dream-like experiences.

Mumbo Jumbo

Definition: Something that doesn’t make sense or it’s not clear because it’s too complex.

Origin: The phrase probably originated from the MandingoThe Mandingo (also known as Mandinko, Mandinka or Malinke) is a West African ethnic group. They also belong to the larger Mandé group of peoples. word Maamajomboo – a masked dancer that took part in religious ceremonies.An early travel journal, ‘Travels in the Interior of Africa‘ (1795) describes ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ as a character, complete with “masquerade habit”, that Mandinka males would dress up in order to resolve domestic disputes. In the 18th century mumbo jumbo referred to a West African god.

A Whale of a Time

Definition: If you have a whale of a time, you have a great time and really enjoy yourself.

Origin: This idiom alludes to the largest mammal to describe something very large and impressive. US slang from around 1910.

Going great guns

Definition: Doing really well in whatever you’re doing..

Origin: British Naval slang. The original was “blowing great guns.” The really big gales would rage so hard against the ship that even the great guns would be forced out of place.

(to) spill the beans

Definition: To divulge information inadvertently.

Origin: This has been traced back to the ancient Greeks who held secret ballots for membership of clubs by using beans. A white bean was a ‘yes’ vote, a brown bean a ‘no’ vote. The beans were counted in secrecy so that a prospective member would not how many people voted for or against him. If the jar containing the beans was knocked over, that secret might get out.

Another possible explanation is that gypsy fortune tellers in Turkey do not have crystal balls, neither do they read tea leaves. One of the many ways they tell fortunes is to spill beans out of a cup and interpret the resulting pattern.

If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed then Mohammed must go to the mountain

Definition: If one’s will does not prevail, one must submit to an alternative.

Origin: Proverb notably recorded in Francis Bacon’s Essays, ‘Of Boldness’ (1625), where it probably made its first appearance in English, as: ‘If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill.’ Bacon had it in the form of a Spanish proverb in his commonplace book but the ultimate source is probably the Hadith – the traditional sayings of Mohammed but not included in the Koran.

Mohammed asked for miraculous proof of his teaching and ordered Mount Sofa near Mecca) to come to him. When it did not, he took this as a sign of God’s mercy – because if it had moved, he and his fellows would have been buried – so instead he went to the mountain to give thanks.

going to the dogs

Definition: To go downhill, down the drain, and end up in a bad state.

Origin: This form (known by 1619) appears to have grown out of, or alongside, the expression to the effect that something is only fit for ‘throwing to the dogs’ (which Shakespeare uses on several occasions). The suggestion that it is a corruption of a Dutch business maxim: ‘Toegoe, toe de dogs’ [Money gone, credit gone] is probably fanciful.

if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen

Definition: Don’t persist with a task if the pressure of it is too much for you. The implication being that, if you can’t cope, you should leave the work to someone who can.

Origin: Modern proverb, invariably associated with Harry S Truman. In 1960, the former US President said: ‘Some men can make decisions and some cannot. Some men fret and delay under criticism. I used to have a saying that applies here, and I note that some people have picked it up’ When Truman announced that he would not stand again as President, Time (28 April 1952) had him give a ‘down-to-earth reason for his retirerement, quoting a a favourite expression of his military jester Major General Harry Vaughan, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’

Author: Robert

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