Reader's Digest US
Gadzooks The Surprising Sources Of Great Sayings Image Credit: Reader's Digest US
Gadzooks The Surprising Sources Of Great Sayings Image Credit: Reader's Digest US

Gadzooks! The Surprising Sources Of Great Sayings

WHEN EXACTLY do “the cows come home”? Who was the first person to “steal someone’s thunder”? English is full of colorful expressions that have lost the connection to their delightful origins. That said, when you learn the checkered past of some of these phrases, you might think twice about using them.

Jacopo Della Quercia

“To steal one’s thunder”

Thor and young-adult demigod Percy Jackson may be fiction’s most celebrated thunder stealers, but it was an 18th-century dramatist named John Dennis who popularized the phrase. Dennis invented a device to simulate the sound of thunder for his plays—so clever that a rival dramatist copied his method for a production of Macbeth. “Eternal curses light on these scoundrels!” Dennis is said to have declared. “They have stolen my thunder and don’t know how to roll it!”

“Let the cat out of the bag”

Who would even put a cat in a bag? The answer may lie in medieval markets, where people used to sell piglets tied in bags for farmers to carry home. A shady dealer might swap the piglet in the sack with a less expensive animal, such as a cat. So when you let the cat out of the bag, you were exposing the con to everyone.

“The seven-year itch”

Before the phrase became associated with Marilyn Monroe’s iconic skirt, the “seven-year itch” felt much worse than a playful subway breeze. The term originally referred to scabies, an itchy infection caused by mites burrowing underneath a person’s skin. Its “seven-year” moniker referred to how long the bugs could linger. Yuck!

“The cold shoulder”

Giving someone &


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