Many years ago I have a 6th grade student in my reading class from Germany. The story in the reader was by James Kjelggad who wrote the beloved dog story, Big Red. She couldn't understand what the phrase "kicked the bucket" meant.
I explain to her it meant someone had died. This to her was weird and confusing, but an excellent illustration of the puzzlement others have of common American phrases that say one thing, but mean another. Editors call them cliches and warn writers against their usage, but to us they convey how we speak besides being just plain fun.
Here are a few examples to wrap your tongue around and savor.
"The whole nine yards" It means you've given a project or a job everything you have. During WWII the machine guns on fighter planes were fed by belts of cartridges 27 feet long. When ammo was exhausted in a dog fight the gunner had given it his whole nine yards.
"Through thick or thin" This phrase means you are loyal to someone during both bad and good times. Originally it may have meant a person traveled through thick brush and thin woods to reach a destination.
"Cool your heals" Who hasn't been kept waiting in a doctor's office? Looks as if this comes from the age when a horse was the mode for distance travel and referred to allowing the horse to rest.
"Kick up your heals" is a close relative with a completely different meaning of either dancing or having a good time doing something that doesn't quite meet with common approval. Horses play and stretch their muscles by kicking up their back feet.
"Plain as a pikestaff" doesn't mean a person is ugly per say, but it does indicate a degree of unattractiveness. A pike or a pole polished smooth from constant use had three uses. One as an aid to walking long distances and two as a barrier placed across a private road where the owner collected a fee before allowing someone to cross his property on his road. This usage gave rise to the names of many country roads where the practice was common. The third use is a stylized method of self-defense.
"Best Bib and Tucker" Your Sunday go to meeting attire or your best clothes. Of course, a bib is much like those babies wear, but it was also an article of dress for women and men that extended from the neck to the waist. The "tucker" was a band or string that held it in place.
"Over a barrel" means you are in deep trouble. An early method of CPR was to place a drowning victim over a barrel and roll it back and forth to force the water out of their lungs. People have been known to have survived the treatment.
We want to thank the brothers Funk of Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia Company for their delightful little volume Hog on Ice and other curious expressions, pub. 1948. If you want to learn more about how we got many of our common expressions ask for it at your public library or it is still available on Amazon. Our copy is rather worn and torn, because it's fun to read and explore. Leave a comment and add to our collection of phrases that say one thing, but mean another.
Nash Black, author of Games of Death.