Learn about the origins of common idioms—and get ideas on how to express them in photos. We’ve got a dog in this hunt.
What is an idiom? Let’s set the groundwork here. An idiom is a phrase with a figurative meaning that’s different from its literal meaning. These figurative meanings are understood within culture, and they often change over time. A lot of idioms have debated origins, all of which impact their current definitions.
In this piece, we’ll examine a few of the idioms we’re all familiar with and show how their meanings can be conveyed through photography.
Idioms are figurative language, but they usually originate from something in the real world. Images via iofoto and Danielle Balderas.
Okay, enough geeking. Let’s get to the fun stuff.
Bite the Bullet
This idiom means to endure pain or strenuous effort in a process. Back in the olden days—before anesthesia—soldiers who needed immediate surgery were given a leather strap or bullet to bite down on, as a distraction while enduring pain. It was recorded first as an idiom in 1891 in Rudyard Kipling’s book The Light That Failed.
Here’s the excerpt:
“‘Steady, Dickie, steady!’ said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. ‘Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.”
So, what does “biting the bullet” look like in photos? Of course, you can literally show someone biting a bullet. But, beyond this literal interpretation, biting the bullet is conquering a struggle, fighting through a trial, and never giving up.
It looks like breaking through the wall in a marathon or conquering a fear of public speaking.
Many things we accomplish in life require us first to endure hardship. Images via Nejron Photo, LightField Studios, ensadyota, and Volodymyr TVERDOKHLIB.
Pull Out All the Stops
Any classically trained musicians reading this? Pulling out all the stops means to put in whatever effort and detail required to reach a desired ending.
The phrase refers to organ playing. In a pipe organ, sets of the pipes within it are called “ranks.” To control the level of air flow through the ranks, “stop knobs” were introduced.
When all the stop-knobs are pulled, air would burst through the organ, creating a blast of sound! The functionality and timing of it all is pretty complex, hence the effort involved to make an impactful sound.
Beyond organ playing, “pulling out all the stops” could look like working late. It can also look like relentlessly pursuing a passion or completing a task with a high level of detail.
Pulling out all the stops requires a high level of effort and concentration. Images via Stanislaw Mikulski, Gorodenkoff, Rawpixel.com, and mavo.
Sleep Tight (and Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite)
Before we had memory foam and remote-controlled mattresses, people slept on sacks stuffed with hay, corn husks, or feathers. (Bonus: This is also how the idiom “hit the hay/sack” came about.)
Depending on your status in society, you may have even had a bed frame (lucky!). Rather than resting on a frame of wooden slats, though, old mattresses would sit on ropes.
If you were of high status, a servant would tighten the ropes prior to you going to sleep. They would also bid you “sleep tight,” meaning to rest safely and soundly.
“Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” refers to the bugs attracted to any and all mattress stuffing. Bedbugs don’t care about class! Images via Peter Dedeurwaerder, Erica Richardson, PinkyWinky, and Sergey Mironov.
There is some debate as to the validity of “sleep tight,” as it wasn’t recorded until after springs and beams were introduced into bed-making. The theory is that the phrase focuses entirely on the meaning of the word “tight,” which means to feel safe and secure.
Ultimately, when showing this idiom in a photo, it’s all about safety, closeness, and care. But, who would have guessed it all started with some shoddy rope?
The “tight” in this idiom is similar to how we describe people who are personally close—a.k.a. when people are tight with one another. Image via Pressmaster, Dragon Images, Rawpixel.com, and Monkey Business Images.
Egg on Your Face
To be “caught with egg on your face” means to look foolish over your behavior or something you said. There’s a theory that it all started in old theater. When a bad performance took place, audience members would throw vegetables and eggs at poor performers.
There’s also a theory that it came from farm dogs getting into the chicken coop. You’d know which canine is guilty, because he’d have crusted yolk and shells around his mouth.
Either way, having egg on your face boils down to a feeling of shame and embarrassment, rooted in your own foolishness.
When people get caught with egg on their face, they often respond with a non-verbal reaction to shame—like looking down or covering their face with their hands. Images via Evannovostro, Everett Collection x2, Antonio Guillem, Prostock-studio, Studio Romantic, and SeventyFour.
A Skeleton in Your Closet
Throughout life, we never stop learning and pursuing our passions, even if those passions involve a cadaver! (Let me explain before this blog gets flagged.)
Before the UK passed the Anatomy Act in 1832, there was a huge need for corpses. Doctors needed access to cadavers to advance surgical studies.
Somewhat unfortunately, people weren’t dying fast enough and families weren’t donating bodies. This led to rampant grave robbery. Grave-robbers would secretly sell corpses to medical students and doctors. But, when authorities came a-knockin’, medical professionals would hide the “skeletons” in their closets.
Fortunately, I’m not going to grace you with any images of real corpses or skeletons. Still, this idiom depicts keeping secrets and feeling shame.
Figurative skeletons we keep in our closets often stay hidden because we don’t want to hurt the people close to us—or ourselves.
Unfortunately, it’s common for closet skeletons to revolve around societal beliefs on sexual orientation or substance addiction. Images via New Africa, Roman Samborskyi, Shchus, tommaso79, and freemind-production.
Give the Cold Shoulder
This looks like ignoring someone and having a cold demeanor toward them. It means to no longer offer warm communication or hospitality, and it derives from travelers overstaying their welcome.
At dinner, unwelcome guests would be served a cold, less-desired cut of meat, like the shoulder. This would be an indicator for the guest to scram as soon as possible.
This type of discomfort for confrontation is common. Because we sometimes lack the ability to verbally communicate confrontation, we rely on our actions.
This can look like ghosting someone (a modern idiom) after a few dates or even changing your locks.
Today, this often means not answering calls or texts—or even intentionally avoiding inviting people to events. Images via ninefotostudio, Quality Stock Arts, fizkes, Diego Cervo, GaudiLab, and pathdoc.
Starting from Scratch and up to Scratch
These idioms are paired together, because one folds into the other. To “start from scratch” means to go back to the beginning. The word “scratch” here refers to a line drawn on an impressionable surface to define a starting point.
We’re familiar with this practice in sports like foot races and boxing. In boxing, if a fighter was approaching his breaking point, he would have to stand at the scratch line, in order to stay in the match. If he could still stand, he was considered “up to scratch.” In turn, the scratch line became not only a starting point, but also a standard to uphold and maintain.
These are some more idioms that got their start in sports. Images via Everett Collection, sirtravelalot, and Everett Collection.
Starting from scratch means starting over, with a new beginning. This can be exciting, like pivoting into a new career, going on a first date, or moving to a new city.
Starting from scratch isn’t always up to you, but you do have some control over getting up to scratch. Images via amenic181, fizkes, Rawpixel.com, Andrew Angelov, and mentatdgt.
Meeting a Deadline
Anyone in a corporate setting is familiar with this one. Of course, we know it means completing a task in a certain amount of time. Initially though, it was a tangible boundary for prisons.
In the 19th century, prisons created boundary lines around their properties. If prisoners made their way on or over that line, guards could shoot them.
Thankfully, office workers won’t get shot for missing a deadline. Meeting a deadline today simply looks like personal goal setting or getting college applications submitted.
Meeting a deadline feels a lot better today than it did a couple hundred years ago. Images via Roman Samborskyi, Pixel-Shot, TZIDO SUN, Tijana Moraca, and Andrew Ostry.
Beat Around the Bush
This idiom means to avoid the main point or event. It came from a literal practice in bird hunting. Medieval bird hunters would rustle bushes to awaken their prey. This would make birds easier to poach during their hunt.
We’re all culprits and victims of this idiom, and it most often comes up in confrontation. If a moment of confrontation isn’t very direct, a person might “beat around the bush” by offering a few compliments prior to delivering difficult advice or criticism. Ick.
It’s always best to not beat around the bush. Images via DC Studio, Olena Yakobchuk, and bbernard.
Cover image via Victor Moussa.