Idioms That Make Our Skin Crawl

Isn’t there a nicer way?

How often do you toss out a familiar but sinister-sounding saying without thinking about how crazy it would sound if you were being literal? Where did these phrases come from? If you want to know why we talk about “skinning a cat” or cutting off body parts as easily as we say hello, you're in the right place. Let's walk through the histories of a few rather macabre (or just unsettling) idioms that even your grandmother might be saying.

Here, kitty, kitty...

"There's more than one way to skin a cat."

Meaning: There's more than one way to achieve an aim.

While we’re sorry to report that cat fur was briefly in fashion in the late 1800s, we’re happy to say this phrase didn’t come about due to any literal gruesomeness. The American humorist Seba Smith first used this reference to felicide in a short story, The Money Diggers, in 1840: “This is a money digging world of ours; and, as it is said, ‘there are more ways than one to skin a cat,’ so are there more ways than one of digging for money.” There are references to earlier, similar usage, in the 1600 and 1700s, but there, the unlucky creatures were usually dogs, and their means of death varied from being choked with pudding (yes, pudding) to hanging.

Put that knife down!

“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face."

Meaning: Don’t act in a way that would damage yourself more than it would the object of your anger.

The earliest documented usage of this phrase is way back in the 12th century. One line of thinking says it's merely reflecting the harsh reality of punishment and revenge in the Middle Ages (when losing one’s nose wasn't an uncommon fate). But another theory involves long-told stories of pious and pure Scottish nuns, disfiguring themselves in the face of advancing hordes of Vikings.

Could that...happen?

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Meaning: Don’t recklessly eliminate the essential along with inessential.

The earliest notation of this German proverb is found in German satirist Thomas Murner’s 1512 book, Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools). It shares the page with a woodcut illustration depicting a tired-looking woman tossing—no, dumping—a barrel of water, along with a cherubic, round baby, into a pond. The proverb was popular in German culture, and the English adopted it in the early 1800s. Another, mostly debunked, theory posits the expression is related to the practice of family members using the same bath water—head of household (Lord) being first, youngest infant last—and the fear that the baby could be accidentally tossed with the dirty water.

Ew.

“By the skin of your teeth.”

Meaning: Narrowly, barely.

This odd expression derives from translations of the book of Job, in which the titular character suffers mightily at Satan’s hands. The King James version of the Bible reads, in Job 19:20, “My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” The Geneva Bible renders the phrase as "I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe." If skinne-covered incisors were really a thing, we’d still give this metaphor high marks for its efficacy in signifying a very close call. Although, saying that one met their tax deadline, “by the hair of their chinny-chin-chin,” is pretty effective, too. It's just as weird, and a little less...gross.

But only a leg.

“Break a leg." Meaning: used in theater, this is wishing a performer good luck.

There are a good number of theories on the earliest usage and intent of the phrase, involving everything from the Lincoln assassination to the appreciative stomping of Ancient Greek audiences. The truth is probably found in a mix of things, all of which came much later: 1. A 1920s Irish writer, exploring superstitions, wrote that the wish of harm, as in “break a leg,” was far safer than wishing “good luck.” 2. Bowing or curtsying was also referred to as “breaking a leg,” and those movements imply a successful performance. 3. Theater understudies found a linguistic way to wish bodily injury upon actors whose parts they’d studied!

At least they don't bite?

“To open a can of worms.” Meaning: opening something that’s better left alone.

This idiom—since it’s related to fishing—feels as American as apple pie, though it can bring on the creepy-crawlies. And it is American, thought to have originated in the 1950s. It’s related to opening, or knocking over, a can of bait worms, which then equals a big mess. One of the earliest citings is in 1951, from The Edwardsville Intelligencer in Illinois: “The question of command for Middle East defense against Soviet aggression is still regarded as ‘a can of worms’ at General Eisenhower’s SHAPE headquarters here.” It’s also thought to be an Americanized form of “Pandora’s box.”

Not exactly delicious.

“Heart in one’s mouth.”

Meaning: feeling intense dread or fear.

The feeling of having one’s heart in one’s mouth is thought to derive from the violent palpitations of the heart in a moment of fear or panic. One of the earliest citations is found in Homer’s Illiad, when Hector’s wife Andromache first realizes the death of her husband: “That was my husband’s noble mother I heard, my heart is in my mouth and my legs are numb.” It’s more commonly seen starting in the 1500s, but the ancient Greek reference is the earliest noted.

Who’s measuring?

“Blood is thicker than water.”

Meaning: family (blood) ties trump all others.

Rough and perhaps misinterpreted references to the bonds of bloodline are found in early German literature, with one 13th century translation seemingly pretty clear: “I also hear it said, kin-blood is not spoiled by water.” From the 1600s forward, the more modern version is found in European literature, and it first appears in America in the early 1800s. In an interesting twist, there is some evidence that the original meaning was meant to convey that blood covenants, say, between soldiers on the battlefield, were stronger that the bonds of “waters of the womb.”

Check the cupboards.

“Skeletons in the closet.”

Meaning: an incriminating or embarrassing secret.

Victorian era Gothic novels seem to be at the root of this particular colloquial. Edgar Allan Poe alluded to literal images of dead bodies entombed in old houses, but it was William Makepeace Thackeray who used the phrase in the same way we use it today. “There is a skeleton in every house,” Thackeray wrote in an 1845 magazine essay. Note: In the UK, you’ll want to substitute “closet” for “cupboard.” The phrase changed as “closet” in the UK came to mean a private room, and “water closet” became synonymous with “toilet.”