June 21, 2024

8 Strange Origins of Common Phrases

The English language is littered with unusual words and terms. Here are 8 strange origins of common phrases.


Larry Foley, originator of the phrase as happy as larry
Larry Foley, happy man

If you’re happy as Larry, then you’re pretty damn happy. But who was ‘Larry’, and why so cheery? Amazingly, this phrase refers to a real person from history; former Australian boxing champion Laurence ‘Larry’ Foley.

Born in Sydney in 1849, as a teenager Foley forged a reputation as a brutal street fighter, leading the notorious ‘Push’ gang in The Rocks district. Boxing was a popular entertainment in the Colonies, and Foley was able to leverage his street reputation into a professional boxing career; graduating from unsanctioned brawls to prestigious title bouts.

In 1879, Foley defeated Abe Hicken in a 16 round, bare knuckle contest to claim the Australian Boxing Championship. He retired two years later, having never lost a professional fight.

Foley then went into business; opening a combination bar and boxing academy on Sydney’s George Street. This proved a great success; Foley trained a number of future boxing champions, and remained a popular local celebrity.

His obvious enjoyment of his achievements lead to the coining of the phrase, ‘As happy as Larry.’


Cumulonimbus clouds, the origin of the phrase 'on cloud 9'
Cumulonimbus clouds

Being on cloud nine is probably about as good as it gets; a state of elation, or ecstasy. The origin of the term is almost the diametric opposite, rooted in scientific analysis.

In 1930, the United States National Weather Service introduced a detailed classification system for different types of clouds. This included three categories – High, Medium and Low – further subdivided into nine types.

The top of this hierarchy was the Cumulonimbus cloud; the ninth cloud, in the high category, AKA ‘Cloud Nine.’

Cumulonimbus clouds are towering, vertical clouds, stretching from 4 to 12 kilometres in height, and made of unstable, moist, warm air. If they expand beyond a certain size, they can form a ‘super cell’, which can then develop into a thunderstorm.

While they are not fantastical, they are the largest and most impressive of the different cloud types, which lead to the phrase, 'on cloud nine'.


A 'umble pie', the origin of the phrase to eat humble pie
Medieval pie

If you make a bold statement, and are later proven to be wrong, you may have to backdown and eat humble pie. Amazingly, the origin of this phrase rests on an actual pie, no longer eaten but once common in Europe.

‘Umble’ is an archaic word, previously used as a reference to offal; the heart, liver and entrails of animals. Umble Pie was a dish made from these ingredients, common in Europe in the Middle Ages.

While it was eaten at all class levels, the cheapness of offal meant Umble Pie was most popular among servants and the working class. In some eyes, to eat it was also seen as a diminishment of status; being forced to eat a poor person’s meal.

The similarity of the words ‘umble’ and ‘humble’ lead to the phrase, and the meaning, being taken down a peg.



A 'buck' knife, the origin of the phrase, to pass the buck
A traditional buckhorn knife

These phrases – one meaning to dodge responsibility, the other to get stuck with it – both share a common root; poker.

Poker is an American card game, most likely invented along the Mississippi River circa 1830 (there is some debate regarding the date). In early incarnations of the game, a visible marker was used to denote whose turn it was to deal. Reflecting the frontier nature of the region, a commonly used marker was a hunting knife, known locally as a ‘buckhorn knife’.

And so passing the ‘buck’ meant moving on to another players turn, while when the buck stopped with you, it was your turn.


Jackie Stewart, origin of the phrase life in the fast lane
Jackie Stewart: F1 ace

Life in the fast lane means you are living large and exuberantly. It is hard to believe, but this phrase only originated relatively recently.

Jackie Stewart was an English born race car driver, who competed in the Formula 1 championship between 1965 and 1973. He won three world titles, was runner up twice, and is regarded as one of the greats of the sport. Later, he had a decades long stint as a Formula 1 commentator, and was widely perceived as the voice, and face, of elite motor racing.

In 1989, Stewart appeared in a print advertisement for Toshiba computers. The tagline read: ‘Jackie Stewart lives life in the fast lane… like any modern businessman’; the first known use of this now widely utilised phrase.


Titling at the quintain, an old fashioned game
A fun time, in the 14th century

Another phrase related to speed is ‘Full Tilt’, used to indicate when someone is really going for it.

The phrase can be traced to the 14th century, and originally related to a curious form of recreation called ‘tilting at the quintain’, often performed at fares. A stake would be placed in the ground and decorated to resemble an enemy solider (often a Turk, or an Asian). The contestants would charge at the stake on horseback, and attempt to knock its head off; the gadget was configured such that if they missed, it would spin around and clip them in the back.

Going ‘full tilt’ indicated a player who was really engaged, or determined to succeed, at this pastime. Tilting at the quintain remained popular until the 17th century.


The only known portrait of William Shakespeare
The only known portrait of W. Shakespeare

This phrase derives from one of the greatest works in the history of literature.

William Shakespeare's collected works have gifted the English language an incredible number of everyday phrases, including;

  • ‘As luck would have it’
  • ‘Neither here nor there’
  • ‘Mum’s the word’
  • ‘With bated breath’
  • ‘Vanish into thin air’
  • ‘Wild goose chase’
  • ‘Eaten out of house and home’

And many others, including 'every dog has its day'. In 'Hamlet', Scene 1, Act 5, Hamlet says:

‘Hear you, sir; What is the reason that you use me thus? I lov’d you ever: but it is no matter; Let Hercules himself do what he may, The cat will mew, and the dog will have his day.’

Hamlet is speaking to Laertes, sister of Ophelia, former lover of Hamlet’s, who has just died. The two argue over who loved her more, and Hamlet is indicating both that Laertes is being melodramatic, and that his own viewpoint will win out in the end.

Sadly for all involved, there is no actual dog, of any kind.


One thought on “8 Strange Origins of Common Phrases

  1. Hi, thanks for your website – interesting stuff. A couple of minor factual errors in the phrase etymology article that I thought might be an easy fix.
    Jackie Stewart, although “British” is from Scotland and not born in England.
    Also, poker predates white settlement in America. It was modified over time, but it’s origins can be traced at the very least to France and Germany as “Poque” and “pochen” – brought to America by French colonists.

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