7 Modern Expressions That Date Back To Ancient History

These words and phrases may seem ordinary, but a closer look reveals their ancient (and sometimes bizarre) origins.
modern expressions

“It’s raining cats and dogs!”

“He’s flying by the seat of his pants.”

“I’m going cold turkey.”

Let’s be honest: some English expressions are just plain weird… and raise a lot of questions. Namely, where the hell did that originate? Many of these sayings come from relatively recent history, like “going cold turkey,” which first appeared in 1921. But interestingly, a number of slang words and phrases have roots that can be traced back to ancient times and faraway lands. Here are 7 of our favorites:

1. Decked Out

This commonly used phrase stems from Middle Dutch — the form of the Dutch language spoken from around 1200-1500. The word dekken means “to cover,” which makes sense because if someone is “decked out” they’re covered in fancy clothes, jewelry, etc. It can also describe objects, like your house, which might be decked out with flashing Christmas lights that you leave up until February.

2. Idiot

Don’t worry, we’re not talking about you. But you can thank the Greeks for this word, which we all throw around a little too loosely. As you probably know, ancient Greece was big on the whole democracy thing, so people who didn’t participate in the political process or in their community were viewed in a negative light. The Greek word idiotes was used to describe those people, who were considered ignorant and overly preoccupied with themselves (_idios means “self”).

3. Moron

Hey, what’s with all the name-calling? Blame the ancient Greeks again. This regularly used insult comes from the Greek word móros, meaning “foolish” or “stupid.” Fun fact: In Greek mythology, Moros was the name of the god of impending doom. No relation; the two words are completely different.

4. To Butter Someone Up

This is one of those expressions you use without thinking and then do a double take, what did I just say? Taken literally, it sounds messy and unpleasant, but it actually means heaping praise and flattery on someone in order to get something from them. This phrase is rumored to originate from an ancient Indian religious custom. People would throw balls of butter (or ghee) at statues of gods when seeking their favor. We don’t recommend trying this custom on your boss…

5. Goth

Remember those kids in high school who wore all black, listened to punk rock, and went a little crazy with the eyeliner? You may have guessed that the term goth is short for gothic, a medieval style of architecture and literature. But you may not have known that the words goth and gothic refer back to ancient history. The Goths were a Germanic tribe that invaded Rome in the third century and are said to have played a role in the fall of the Roman Empire. The Romans considered the Goths uncivilized barbarians (naturally). But those “barbarians” held pockets of power for a few centuries. Fast forward to medieval Europe, where Gothic architecture was seen as uncultured and barbaric, as opposed to its predecessor, Renaissance architecture. The architecture led to the dark, horror-based literature and culture, which inspired those kids from your high school.

6. Running Amok

When your children are bouncing off the walls, screaming and acting wild, you might say they are “running amok.” But after you learn the origin of that expression, you will probably think twice before using it. The word “amok” likely comes from the Amuco — a group of warriors in Malaysia who were known for their indiscriminate violence. It is also likely derived from amuk, which is a Malay word meaning “attacking furiously.” It was used to describe seemingly sane tribesmen in Malaysia who would go on random killing rampages. In Malay culture, some people believed these rampages were caused by evil spirits possessing the attacker. The phrase “run amok” was popularized by the explorer Captain James Cook, who wrote about the phenomenon in his book _Voyages in 1772.

7. Cat Got Your Tongue?

Next time your snarky friend asks you this when you can’t think of what to say, reply with this little gem of a story. Rumor has it that in ancient Egypt, liars and blasphemers would have their tongues cut out and fed to the cats. Cats were considered gods, so the tongues made for a nice human sacrifice. A second unproven explanation for the saying is that the English Navy would use a multi-tailed whip called a “cat o’ nine tails” to brutally punish misbehaving sailors, hitting them until they were rendered speechless. Either of these stories should leave your friend without a comeback, to which you can say: “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?”

You seem smart, and we're not just buttering you up.
Learn A New Language