“Letting the Cat out of the Bag!” – What do our favourite phrases actually mean?


During a drunken conversation in the pub, I used the phrase “jumped the shark” with reference to Richard Dawkins (don’t ask!). Someone asked what it meant, and was thrilled to find out it was a reference to Happy Days – the writing team (having run out of steam in a late season) having The Fonz jump a shark while water ski-ing.  I was asked to put together a little blog post explaining some of our favourite phrases.  So here it is!

Let the Cat out of the Bag

Meaning: ‘to reveal a secret’

It is actually the sister phrase of ‘pig in a poke’.  Cats were often used by unscrupulous market traders, who sold them on in sealed bags as piglets.  It was first found in print in a 1760 edition of London Magazine.

A Pig in a Poke

Meaning: buyer beware’

Don’t buy a pig in a poke’ hails from the mid 19th century.  A ‘poke’ is a bag, and at market you never buy a piglet in a bag without checking.  Those who didn’t may well return home to find they had not purchased a pig, but a cat.

Basket Case

Meaning: An infirm person, incapable of fully functioning

This phrase actually originates from the US Military after World War I and refers to soldiers who had lots both their arms and legs, and therefore had to be carried in a basket.  The phrase first appeared in print as a denial. This bulletin was issued by the U.S. Command on Public Information in March 1919, on behalf of Major General M. W. Ireland, the U.S. Surgeon General:

“The Surgeon General of the Army … denies … that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated … of the existence of ‘basket cases’ in our hospitals.” In explanation of the term, this from the New York paper The Syracuse Herald, March 1919:

“By ‘basket case’ is meant a soldier who has lost both arms and legs and therefore must be carried in a basket.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Meaning: Stuck between two unenviable options.

This is a 20th century version of older variations on the phrases ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ and others. Evolved during the Banking Panic of 1907 which hit the mining and railroad industries hardest.  It refers to a working man having to choose between exhausting, poorly paid work at the rock face, or unemployment.

In the Doldrums

Meaning: ‘in low spirits’

This from The Phrase Finder project:

“The Doldrums is the region of calm winds, centered slightly north of the equator and between the two belts of trade winds, which meet there and neutralize each other. It is widely assumed that the phrase ‘in the doldrums’ is derived from the name of this region. Actually, it’s the other way about. In the 19th century, ‘doldrum’ was a word meaning ‘dullard; a dull or sluggish fellow’ and this probably derived from ‘dol’, meaning ‘dull’ with its form taken from ‘tantrum’. That is, as a tantrum was a fit of petulance and passion, a doldrum was a fit of sloth and dullness, or one who indulged in such.”

It’s been found in print since the early 19th century.

Best Man

Meaning: Normally a close male associate of the groom at a wedding.

In feudal times, it was common place for rival Lords to storm a wedding and steal the bride for political reasons.  The groom would pick his Best Man, as the best fighter, charged with ensuring the bride to be survived the day without kidnap.

Spill the Beans

Meaning: ‘to reveal a secret’

In Ancient Greece, some votes were conducted with beans; white and black beans denoted your vote.  Occasionally, a clumsy voter would knock over the jar of beans, revealing the vote.

Bite the Bullet

Meaning: ‘to grin and bear a painful situation.’

It comes from the days before anaesthetics. A soldier about to undergo an operation was given a bullet to bite.

Whipping Boy

Meaning: ‘a person who takes the pain of consequence for another’s action’

Prince Edward, later Edward VI, had a boy who was whipped in his place every time he was naughty.


Meaning: ‘Singled out/Labelled’

This comes from the days when livestock had their ears marked so their owner could be easily identified.

Long in the Tooth

Meaning: ‘Old/Past it’

When a horse grows old its gums recede and if you examine its mouth it looks ‘long in the tooth’.

Go to Pot

Meaning: ‘Become useless/tired out’

Any farm animal that had outlived its usefulness such as a hen that no longer laid eggs would literally go to pot. It was cooked and eaten.

Hat Trick

Meaning: ‘To score three times in one match.’

This comes from cricket. Once a bowler who took three wickets in successive deliveries was given a new hat by his club.

From the Horse’s Mouth

Meaning: ‘to get the truth from source’

You can tell a horse’s age by examining its teeth. A horse dealer may lie to you but you can always find out the truth ‘from the horse’s mouth’.

Right, that’s me done and dusted.

(That phrase actually refers to the times when documents were signed using pens dipped in ink.  They would take a while to dry.  In order to expedite the process, absorbent dust was sprinkled on fresh writing, left for a moment and then tipped off.  This would leave the ink dry enough for the document to be rolled and sealed.)

But I digress, I hope you enjoyed this piece.  Make sure you share, and help us better understand the history of the phrases we take for granted.

Scriptonite Daily is a citizen funded news site. If we want to make an alternative media, then we need to build it. Your donations make the difference.

Become a regular subscriber here

Payment Options

Make a one off donation here

10 thoughts on ““Letting the Cat out of the Bag!” – What do our favourite phrases actually mean?

  1. Pingback: “LETTING THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG!” – Some common expressions explained | Write Out Loud

  2. Didn’t Cameron let the ‘Cat out of the bag’ in his Mansion House speech? The Tory intent was always to dismantle what was left of the post war consensus. Austerity was certainly ‘A pig in a poke’ and we are left ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ ‘biting the bullet’.

  3. Pingback: "Letting the Cat out of the Bag!" - W...

  4. Another horsey one: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” from the telling its age one. It’s better to have something for free even if it is past its best.

Leave a Reply