How phrases were coined

 In Phrases and Clauses

As you become more familiar with speaking, reading and writing English, you discover that the most common phrases in use are so deeply embedded in  the language that few people stop to think about their origins.  We look at the origins of three phrases that occur often in English:

Common phrases and their meanings


“Break the ice”

This has two meanings:

1. To relax a tense or formal atmosphere or social situation
2. To make a start on some endeavor.

The first meaning comes from the lines of Lord Byron’s poem “Don Juan” (1823):

“And your cold people [the British] are beyond all price,
When once you’ve broken their confounded ice.”

The second meaning refers to ice which is broken on a river or lake in the springtime.  The ice was broken to let boats pass, and activity begin.  So this meaning is how one marks the start of a new project.

“It’s raining cats and dogs!”

  • meaning: It is raining a lot!

This saying is over 350 years old.  It comes from the words of a play written in 1652 by Richard Brome, called “The City Witt”.  One of the characters, Sarpego, says:

“From henceforth…

The world shall flow with dunces…

And it shall rain…

Dogs and Polecats, and so forth.”

“Mad as a hatter.”

  • Utterly insane

This phrase has an intriguing origin.  Up to the 20th Century, mercury was used as a stiffening agent in the manufacturing of felt hats. We know now that mercury is a very poisonous metal, but hatters (or hat makers) then did not. The effect of the hatters’ continuous exposure led to them suffering from mercury poisoning, one of the symptoms of which is insanity.

Famously, Lewis Carroll wrote about the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” in 1865.


P.S. The phrase about inventing or quoting a phrase: ‘To coin a phrase’ is based on the metal round blanks used to make coins. Coin used to mean “wedge,” and the wedges that were used to stamp the round metal blanks were called “coins.”  Because these metal blanks were “coined” money, they got the name “coins.”

So, ‘coining’ a phrase simply means creating a phrase.

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