Common Phrases That Are Completely Antiquated

With a Grain of Salt – CFJ_Nuanced_Cecil.baeef534.

It turns out that we still use quite a few outdated phrases, many of them commonplace. Ever found yourself saying, “Take it with a grain of salt” when warning someone to be discerning about information they’ve heard from a questionable source? How about accusing someone of “jumping on the bandwagon” when you find out they like something just because it’s popular? Or telling someone to “get off their high horse,” because you feel like they’re being condescending?

Ever wonder where those phrases came from? All the common expressions on this list are literally antiquated expressions stemming from times long past: when a horse’s mouth could tell you how much that horse was actually worth, or when soldiers had to literally bite down on a bullet in lieu of painkillers when being treated for an injury.

Read on to discover the true origins of your favorite outdated phrases still in use, and discover their earliest meanings. The oldest one here even dates back to 77 A.D.!

“Close, but no cigar”

During carnivals in the 1800s, cigars were rewarded as prizes for winning carnival games. The updated saying would be, “Close, but no stuffed teddy bear.

“Burning the midnight oil”

Working extra hard or late into the night – in a time before electricity, candlelight or lamp oil was used for lighting. When you stayed up late to work, you literally burned the lamp oil at midnight.

“Jumping on the bandwagon”

In the mid-1800s, circuses would parade around town before setting up, with bandwagons leading the parade. They drew large crowds, and politicians started renting space on the bandwagons to get face time with an audience. Over time, politicians would make calls of action not to “jump on the opponent’s bandwagon,” and the phrase took on a negative connotation, meaning to mindlessly go along with whatever became flashy or popular.

“Roll up the window”

When passengers or drivers in cars need to adjust a window, they commonly refer to it as “rolling” the window up or down. This comes from the days before power windows performed the act at the push of a button, back when someone had to actually move the window themselves by physically cranking or “rolling” a lever in their car door.

“Get off your high horse”

Before the automobile, owning a horse was a sign of prominence, and since nobility and high-ranking military officials were primarily the ones who owned them, to “get off your high horse,” literally meant to dismount your horse and humble yourself. Today, it’s implied that the person is acting superior, often in a moral context.

“As mad as a hatter”

In the 17th and 18th centuries, hat-makers (hatters) often had cognitive issues (or went mad) as a result of mercury poisoning, a side-effect of manufacturing felt hats. The famous Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland is also a play on this phenomenon.

“Take it with a grain of salt”

This idiom is one of the most ancient, originating in 77 A.D., although it wasn’t used in its modern sense until around the 17th century. A grain of salt was thought to aid in the digestion of food, and also as a component in an antidote for poison, so for hundreds of years, the phrase was literal. The figurative meaning: don’t take everything at face value, but use your own discernment to sort out the truth.

The passage where this originated comes from Pliny’s Naturalis Historia:

After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.”

“Dressed to the nines”

Dressed to the nines meant that you were rich enough to literally purchase the entire nine yards it took to make a tailor-fit outfit (including a vest, jacket, etc.). It’s still in use today to mean that someone is dressed in their best.

“Time to face the music”

In Great Britain and the early American colonial era, disgraced military officers were drummed out of their regiment when discharged. Nowadays, this implies that we have to face the fallout of our misdeeds.

“Carbon copy”

Before copying machines were an office staple, copies were made by sliding a piece of carbon paper between an original document and blank paper. Though an intermediary paper soaked in ink is no longer necessary, this phrase is still invoked to mean “an exact copy. If you’ve ever wondered what the “cc” in emails actually stands for, this is it.


In 18th century social clubs, membership was voted upon by a committee. Typically an anonymous vote was cast using different colored balls. A positive vote was cast for membership with a red ball, and a black ball meant a negative vote. Some clubs required only one black ball vote to reject an applicant’s membership. So literally, to be black balled meant to be voted against and denied membership.

“At the drop of a hat”

Instead of a gunshot to indicate that a race had started, in the 1800s it was customary to drop a hat to begin.  Consequently, this phrase indicates that someone is ready to do something “instantly.”

“Pulling out all the stops”

This idiom meaning “applying your best effort” originated from when organists would literally pull the stops from every pipe on an organ in order to play at maximum volume.

“Straight from the horse’s mouth”

Purchasing a horse was an expensive endeavor and unless you knew where to look, you could easily be swindled. A horse’s teeth, however, could tell you all you needed to know: the age, health, and general condition of the horse. So, literally, the horse’s mouth told you the truth. While “To hear it from the horses mouth” is no longer literal, it means that you are getting the truth from an indisputable source.

“Put your best foot forward”

When bowing to nobility, a gentleman would literally put his best foot forward, extending his leg to take the bow.  So, this indicates that someone should make their best effort at the task at hand.

“In the nick of time”

Through the 18th century, businessmen often kept track of debts owed (and interest that built on loans) by carving notches (or nicks) on a “tally stick.” When someone arrived to pay off their debt before the next nick was carved, they’d save that day’s worth of interest, thus arriving “in the nick of time.”

“Bite the bullet”

When no painkiller was available (in makeshift battlefield tents, for example), soldiers literally had to bite down on a bullet during surgical operations. To bite the bullet now just means to endure something necessary but unpleasant.

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