The Sh!t End Of The Stick: Bizarre Origin Rumors For Strange Idioms

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. Then again, some things are just too good to be true.

Here’s a selection of bizarre origin stories behind some of our strangest idioms. The majority of these tales are at least ten feet tall, but some are actually true!

the short end of the stick

Getting the short end of the stick means you've been dealt the worst outcome in a situation or the least desirable part of a bargain. Often, short in the expression is replaced by a vivid crappy, or—stronger yet—sh*tty.

It's sometimes even claimed that short is a euphemism for sh*t

Rumor has it, this idiom relates to ancient Roman public toilets. These toilets were very public: open-air benches with holes in them, sometimes as many as 50 holes to accommodate the equivalent number of ... butts. Toilet paper was unheard of, and so communal sticks wrapped in cloth were used to wipe up #2s. If a Roman grabbed the stick by a certain end, well, they got the sh*t end of the stick.

Is this the definitive origin? Not likely. The exact analogy behind this expression—found as short end of the stick by the 1930s but dating all the way back to the 1500s in earlier forms—has been lost.

as mad as a hatter

Most people attribute the expression as mad as a hatter to Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter character in his 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Johnny Depp’s clown-faced, red-eyed, orange-haired portrait of the character in the 2010 movie only made the Hatter seem Madder.

But, Carroll didn't create this idiom. First off, mad in the expression has the sense of "insane," not "angry." It's supposed that as mad as a hatter comes from the poisonous hat-making industry in the 1700s–1800s. Hatters used mercury, which is toxic, in the process of turning fur into felt lining for hats. Prolonged exposure to the toxins caused many workers to hallucinate and tremble (which was called hatter shakes). And so, by 1820, the idiom had become a popular way to characterize "insanity."

bite the bullet

Now, bite the bullet is similar to “grin and bear it”:  it's to bravely accept the pain and show the fortitude to get through hardship that comes your way.

The most popular origin rumor for this one is that American Civil War soldiers literally chewed on bullets while army doctors cut off badly wounded, unsalvageable body parts. However, documents don’t exist to back this up, and in all likelihood, early forms of anesthesia would’ve probably been used.

That said, soldiers in England may have bit the bullets under a different kind of duress. In its 1796 edition, the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, written by a lexicographer whose sources included the ragamuffins of London's streets, references “chew[ing] a bullet” as a way proud soldiers would keep from crying out when being whipped.

piss-poor

Folk etymologists have widely circulated the rumor that the idiom piss-poor comes from a time in history when urine was used to tan leather. Impoverished families, the story goes, looking for a few extra coins would sell their collected pee to tanneries.

Alas, this tale, as compelling as it may seem, doesn't have a pot to—well, you know.

The expression piss-poor, meaning of "extremely inferior or disappointing quality or rating," is much more recent, dating to the 1940s. At this time, it became popular to use piss as a sweary intensifier (kind of like the F-word in that's f***ing awful). The American poet Ezra Pound used piss-rotten in 1940. People evidently liked the expression and piss-easy, piss-awful, even piss-elegant (meaning “pretentious”) are other examples from that era. 

skeleton in the closet

Of course, having a skeleton in the closet today doesn’t literally refer to a rotting corpse hiding under your sweaters. The figurative expression refers to something undesirable or shameful that’s kept secret to avoid potentially ruining one’s respectability.

The phrase was coined in 19th-century England. According to origin rumor, the skeleton in the closet has something to do with body-snatching, a practice in the 1700s and 1800s. The story goes that doctors would conceal in cupboards (skeleton in the cupboard is a variant) illegally obtained corpses and skeletons, which they would use for medical research.

While grave-robbing did occur, there’s no evidence tying the practice to the idiom.

eat humble pie

The phrase eat humble pie means to "to suffer humiliation" or "to be forced to apologize humbly."

Now, humble pie ("humiliation") is based off umble pie, which was a pie made from the innards (called umbles, previously numbles) of a deer. Yum.

Some surmise that people in humble circumstances often had to eat umble pie, thus suggesting an explanation for the word-swap.

pull someone's leg

To pull someone’s leg means to deceive or mislead in a humorous and harmless way. The true origins of this expression (first recorded in the early 1800s) are unknown, but here are the strange and misleading rumors about it:

Depending on who’s trying to pull your leg, the idiom originated either in medieval markets or the filthy streets of Victorian London. Thieves were said to have crouched on the ground to literally pull at the legs of unwary (rich-looking) passers. Once tripped up, victims were robbed of all belongings.

The other rumor concerns execution by hanging. It’s said that in England centuries ago, individuals were employed to pull on—and even hang from—the legs of the executed in order to ensure a quick and certain death. If this were true, how did the meaning of pulling someone’s leg go from confirming a person’s fatal demise to joking around for fun?

dead ringer, saved by the bell, and graveyard shift

Today, a dead ringer is a "look-alike." Saved by the bell means “Whew, you narrowly missed some nastiness!” And, the graveyard shift is the red-eye, overnight work schedule that flips your day on its head.

These idioms have all been connected to the same bit of lore: Long ago in England (it’s always “long ago” and always in England), people worked overnight in graveyards in case they heard the dead (really, the too-hastily-buried un-dead) ring bells tied to their wrists. The graveyard shift workers then unburied the dead ringers, who—WHEW—were literally saved by the bell.

Unfortunately, all this is just a fanciful fable. The truth involves sailing and boxing. We'll explain that another day.

mind your own beeswax

The true story behind this expression is yawn-worthy. Mind your own (or none of your) beeswax probably dates to the early 1900s with the dull explanation that beeswax is just a playful replacement for business. But, you’re dying for some grist from the rumor mill, aren’t you?

Let’s go back to the 1700s—and automatically the added centuries make the story more interesting. Before inoculations against it, smallpox was one of the many deadly diseases people had to contend with. Those who survived were usually badly marked by pox scars (hence the term pockmarked).

Legend has it, pockmarked women spread beeswax over their skin to smooth its appearance. This is where the story diverges. In one version, a woman who got uncomfortably close to a fellow beeswax-ee would be told to “mind her own beeswax.” As in, “quit staring at mine, move back, and worry about yours.”

The other version is even classier. (Sarcasm intended.) A woman who sat too close to the fire would be reminded by a sympathetic companion to “mind her own beeswax” and tend to her melting face. 

SIGN UP FOR A VOCABULARY BOOST IN YOUR EMAIL
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

Enter your email for quizzes, quotes, and word facts in your inbox every day.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.