By Brett Cafferty

Idioms are defined as a group of words having a meaning not deducible from the individual words but instead established by usage. A recent article I came across was written to help new English speakers gain understanding of idioms that are frequently used in business and social situations – definitely not a piece of cake! This led to a search of a few common idiom phrases and their origins.

“Close, but no cigar” comes from traveling fairs and carnivals in the 1800s. The prizes back then were targeted to adults, usually cigars or bottles of whiskey. If you missed the prize at a carnival game, the carnie folk would shout, “Close! But no cigar!” By the 1930s, the phrase had extended beyond the fairground to mean any situation that was a near miss.

“Cold shoulder” is another one from the 1800s. If guests overstayed their welcome, the hosts would serve them a cold cut of shoulder meat (pork, mutton, or beef shoulder) – inferior in taste and the toughest part of the animal as a not so subtle signal that the meal was over and it was time for them to be on their way. It has morphed into any time your “friendliness” towards another has worn thin.

“Pull out all the stops” is a common term for using all available resources to achieve a desired result. This originally referred a pipe organ’s stop knobs, which are used to regulate the sound and volume. When the stops of the instrument are all pulled out, it opens the air flow to every pipe, which in turn makes the volume incredibly loud.

“Let the cat out of the bag” came about in the 1700s when piglets were sold in the street markets and placed in bags. A common scam was to replace the paid for piglet with cat that was much less valuable. When a cat was let out of a bag, the fraud was revealed. Now it’s mainly used for those who divulge a secret too soon.

“Chew the fat” was a common sailor’s term referring to the days when ships had to carry food that wouldn’t spoil. One of these was a tough, salted pork skin consisting largely of fat that would only be eaten if all other food was gone… the sailors often complained as they tried to consume these dregs of the food chain. Hence, this phrase for talking with no real purpose or outcome. 

Within all this, I often feel sorry for those trying to learn “American English” as a second language, because many times our words do not mean what the words mean! Thank goodness for LinkedIn, Reader’s Digest, Merriam Webster, and ESL teachers everywhere who are there to help wade through our sometimes strange language and phrases.