The English language is filled with colorful turns of phrase. If you’re a native speaker of the language, you’ve probably learned plenty of them via osmosis. The meaning of them seems so obvious that you’ve possibly never thought why a fiddle is so fit, or why “cold turkey” means to quit something. Surely there’s some logic behind everything, but there are some English phrases that don’t make sense.
There can be many reasons as to why some phrases make no sense. Maybe their original meaning has been lost to time, or the definitions of individual words have shifted or atrophied. Let’s look at some of these idioms and proverbs closer, to see where exactly things go wrong.
English Phrases That Don’t Make Sense
to sweat like a pig
Meaning: to sweat a lot
This one might seem to make sense. Pigs sweat a lot, don’t they? Turns out, they don’t, really. They have a few sweat glands like other mammals, yes, but their preferred method of cooling down is to find a nice mud bath.
Why do we say someone sweats like a pig, then? Turns out it’s a shortening of an older phrase: “to sweat like a pig iron.” It’s from a process where hot iron was poured on sand, and it would form into little globules that looked pig-like (so the ironworkers would call it “pig iron”). As it cooled, it would gather droplets of water that made the iron look sweaty. It’s a pretty obscure origin for a very widely used phrase.
it’s raining cats and dogs
Meaning: it’s raining a lot
In all of recorded weather history, there have been a few occasions of animals falling from the sky. Strong winds during storms have caused water-friendly creatures like fish and frogs to pelt the very shocked humans on the land below. But never has there ever been a report of cats and dogs raining down.
Unfortunately, it’s unclear where the idea of pet showers came from. Theories range from it being a mishearing of the Old English word “catadupe,” which meant waterfall, to it being a reference to Norse mythology. We do know that the earliest reference to the idea comes from a 17th century poetry collection by Henry Vaughan, who wrote that a roof would survive “dogs and cats rained in shower.” Perhaps the idea, then, was simply that if dogs and cats did rain from the sky, they would do quite a bit of damage to the buildings below.
mad as a March hare
Meaning: not sane
Lewis Carroll played around with a lot of English idioms in his Alice in Wonderland series. He would base characters on these English phrases that don’t make sense because he thought it was funny. The phrase “to grin like a Cheshire cat,” for example, inspired the ethereal cat that’s always smiling in his books. Ironically, Lewis Carroll’s books became so popular that the phrases he skewered are mainly remembered because he used them. Their origins are often lost.
The character at issue here is the March hare, who is “mad” in the sense of “not sane,” not “angry.” What does it really mean, though? If you rearrange the phrase, it makes slightly more sense: “mad as a hare in March.” The idea is that March is the mating season for hares, and so the animals become particularly overactive. They aren’t “mad,” but they can certainly seem that way in the frenzy of breeding.
dog days of summer
Meaning: the hottest time of summer
August is the time of year when it feels like fall and winter will never come again. Yes, those are the dog days of summer. And sure, the image of a dog sweltering in the heat captures the feeling of the month pretty well. It does seem like at least a bit of a stretch to call them dog days, however, especially when all the animals are suffering under the sun.
As it turns out, the dog days of summer derives from a different star: Sirius. The star was the brightest point in the constellation Canis Major, which was a representation of one of Orion’s hunting dogs. The Greeks believed that during the times of year when Sirius and the Sun rose in the sky at the same time (July into August), the combined intensity of the two stars is what caused the summer heat. They were wrong, of course, but the phrase stuck around.
kick the bucket
Meaning: to die
There are countless euphemisms for death, some of which are more logical than others. This one, for instance, falls into the category of English phrases that don’t make sense. What could it mean to kick the bucket? Is the water in the bucket the symbol of your life? Perhaps stranger is that it’s such a common euphemism to use, to the point where it inspired another common phrase: bucket list.
The origins of this phrase are incredibly murky. It appeared in print starting in the 18th century, and even then it seems like people didn’t know what it means. Maybe it was a reference to someone being hanged, and kicking the bucket out from beneath themselves. Maybe it’s from an obscure practice in the meat industry of Norfolk, England, in which animals would be fastened to a wood post called a “bucket” before being killed. There’s also an old tradition in Christianity where a bucket of holy water would be placed at the feet of a dead person. We’ll probably never know for sure.
break a leg
Meaning: good luck!
Theater is filled with old superstitions. You should never say “Macbeth,” you need to keep at least one light on in the theater at all times and you should never whistle backstage. Most relevant here is that you shouldn’t say “good luck” because that will almost guarantee bad luck, so people instead say “break a leg.” If you think about it, though, why is this particular phrase the go-to in this situation? Wouldn’t the exact opposite of “good luck” be “bad luck”?
At this point, you might be unsurprised to know this is another phrase origin no one agrees on. One of the stronger theories is that it’s from an old German and Yiddish phrase, because “neck and leg break” sounded vaguely like “success and blessing.” One of its earliest uses was in World War I, when pilots in the German Air Force would sarcastically wish each other “neck and leg break” before taking off. It made the leap to theater at some point after that. Interestingly, one of the earliest uses connected with theater is by playwright Edna Ferber, who wrote about understudies hoping the stars would actually break their legs so that they would have a chance to go on stage. Maybe “break a leg” wasn’t always such a kind phrase, then.
the apple of my eye
Meaning: the person or object loved above all others
Of all the fruit in the world, it seems strange that the apple would be chosen above all others to be the symbol of love. Sure, apples are good, but are they really the sweetest possible thing to compare your love to? Probably not. The phrase “apple of my eye” is very old, and it didn’t always mean what it does today. It can be traced back at least to the 9th century CE, when it was written in Old English by King Ælfred the Great, but at that point it referred to the pupil of the eye.
It’s unclear how exactly the shift happened from “pupil” to “loved thing.” Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream of Cupid’s magic sinking into the apple of one’s eye, which seems to mean “pupil,” but Cupid’s powers are love-related, so there could be a double-meaning here. There is one part of the phrase we can demystify, though: the use of “apple.” For a while, the word “apple” was a generic term for “fruit” (that’s how pineapple got its name, despite not being an apple at all). Thus, the original “apple of the eye” was not the red or green fruit we eat today, but any fruit.
you can’t have your cake and eat it, too
Meaning: you can’t have it both ways
Is this really an English phrase that doesn’t make sense? It’s debatable. Some people think it makes perfect sense, while other have trouble parsing it. What does it mean to have a cake and eat it? The modern confusion might be because of the double-meaning of the word “have.” In certain situations, “having cake” is synonymous with “eating cake.” What the phrase is trying to say is that you can’t have your cake — as in, possess it — and eat it, because once it’s eaten you no longer have it.
The phrase probably made perfect sense to Thomas Cromwell, who was told by the Duke of Norfolk back in 1538 that “a man can not have his cake and eat his cake.” The phrase has gone through many variations since. The order has been switched often (Would it make more sense if it were “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too”?).