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 eight feet tall, but some are actually true!

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 is replaced by the more evocative cr@ppy, or—best of all—sh*ty. There’s a reason for that. It may be 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. Sanitation was not a big deal and toilet paper was unheard of. Communal sticks wrapped in cloth were used to wipe up #2s. If a Roman grabbed the stick by a certain end, well, he got the sh*t end of the stick.

Is this the definitive origin? We hope so. It’s pretty sick, huh?

Most people attribute the expression mad as a hatter to Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Johnny Depp’s clown-faced portrayal in the 2010 movie did nothing but make the Hatter seem Madder (his red-rimmed cat eyes were the same color as his hair, for crying out loud). But, Lewis Carroll didn't create this idiom. 

Mad as a hatter comes from the poisonous hat-making industry in the 1700s and 1800s. Workers used a toxic substance called mercury nitrate 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 pretty popular. 

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

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 1796, the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, written by a lexicographer whose sources were the ragamuffin of London's streets, references “chew[ing] a bullet” as a way soldiers would keep from crying out when being whipped.

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 looking for a few extra coins would sell their collected pee to tanneries.

There’s a splash of truth in this rumor pot, but that’s all. Ancient Rome did collect urine from its citizens for the purpose of tanning leather, and in fact imposed a tax on the pee. But, piss poor doesn’t have anything to do with Ancient Romans who didn’t even have a pot to—well, you know.

The idiom’s origins are much more recent, dating back to WWII. At that time, it was popular to use piss as an intensifier (kind of like the F-word). The American poet Ezra Pound coined 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. 

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 common in the 1700s and 1800s in Britain (and the US). The story goes that doctors would conceal in cupboards illegally obtained corpses and skeletons, which they would use for medical research. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. While body snatching did occur, there’s no evidence tying the practice to the idiom.

The phrase eat humble pie is a British equivalent to the American expression, eat crow. To eat humble pie means, essentially, to eat one’s words or to act apologetically in admitting an error.

Humble pie is not a made-up dish and to literally eat humble pie is, indeed, a sorry act: The original pie was not actually humble, but it was made of umbles, a Medieval English word for the heart, liver, and entrails of an animal. So, humble pie is basically bowel tart. Just saying.

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

To pull someone’s leg means to deceive or mislead in a humorous and harmless way. The true origins of this expression 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?

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 all relate to the same rumor: 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 undead) ring bells tied to their wrists. The red-eye workers then unburied the musical undead, who—WHEW—were literally saved by the bell.

Unfortunately, all this is just a luscious lie. The truth involves sailing and horse racing. We'll explain that another day.

The true story behind this expression is yawn-worthy. Mind your own beeswax probably dates to the 1930s 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, the small pox 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 babe would be told to “mind her own beeswax.” As in, “quit staring at mine and for God’s sake, move back.”

The other version is even funnier. 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.

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