Daily Thoughts

Origin of Cliches and Popular Sayings

Bad to the Bone
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicensePhoto by  narih lee “Cliche: Bad to the Bone”

Many of us have used an old standby phrase at some time or another, and we may not of even known it. But for every cliche and popular saying lies it’s origin.
Some folks may see cliches as  a lazy way of thinking or writing, mainly because they are so overused, but they have still become a major part of the English language. Regardless of their popularity, many of the reasons they’ve emerged have vanished like a fart in the wind. 🙂
Now that we all know the subject we’re talking about, let’s get right to the nitty gritty.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

This old cliche goes back a long ways. It’s actual first print was found in an anonymous poem that appeared in “A Poetical Rhapsody”, this was a collection of sonnets, odes and elegies and was printed back in 1602! The sentiment was made popular as cliche during the 19th century because of it’s use in a song. “Isle of Beauty” by Thomas Haynes Bayly.


Ax to Grind

This is a very popular cliche that I’ve actually used quite a few times. Normally in the form of “I’ve got an axe to grind”, I’m sure many of you may of heard this one from time to time.


This phrase has often be attributed to Benjamin Franklin because of his story, “Too Much for Your Whistle”. Since Franklin talks about a boy being talked into sharpening an axe for a man that claims he can not use a grindstone. But Benjamin Franklin wasn’t actually the one to first use this phrase.


The first man to actually use the phrase, “An Axe to Grind” was congressman Charles Miner. He had a piece published in the Pennsylvania newspaper titled, “Who’ll Turn Grindstones”, this was on Sept. 7, 1810. In this article, Miner told a story from his childhood quite similar to Franklin’s story. But Miner was persuade into sharpening an axe for a gentleman without any payment or thanks for doing the job.


So because of this incident, every time Miner would see a merchant being overly polite to a customer, he would think, “he has an axe to grind”.


The Female is Deadlier than the Male

In “The Female of the Species” by Rudyard Kipling there was a few lines that this cliche can lay the blame.

“When the Himalayan peasant meets the

he-bear in his pride,

He shouts to scare the monster, who

will often turn aside.

But the she-bear thus accosted rends the

peasant tooth and nail,

For the female of the species is more deadly

than the male.”


Hell Hath no Fury Like a Woman Scorned

This is a great one and is used quite often still today. A couple of 17th century English dramatists, John Fletcher and Colley Cibber wrote some plays that included these famous lines.
But it was in fact William Congreve in his tragedy, “The Mourning Bride” that actually wrote the lines which would enter into Cliche-dom.

“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,

Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”


Hold the Fort

This one is great, it’s so easy to use and I’ve used it many a time. When you go to the store or something, who ever is left behind, you tell them, “Hold the Fort down!”


General William Tecumseh Sherman once sent a message from Kennesaw Mountain to Allatoma, Georgia that said, “Hold the fort, I am coming!”” This was during the civil war in a battle held October 1864.


But the simple phrase, “Hold the Fort” later became popular when used as the title to a religious song in 1874.


Keeping Up with the Joneses

We’ve all heard this one. It’s a matter of trying to maintain a specific social status with your fellow folk. In 1913, a comic strip named, “Keeping Up With the Joneses” was first printed in U.S. newspapers. Arthur Momand, the author of the strip had planned on calling it “Keeping up with the Smiths,” but changed to Joneses just before publication. Although it was a great comic, production stopped in 1931 right when the depression was in full swing. But that didn’t stop the cliche from continuing on.


Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

This is not as popular as many of the others, but still sounds just as crazy. This cliche was more than likely started by George Bernard Shaw. In his “Pen Portraits and Reviews”, in 1909 he stated, “Like all reactionists, he usually empties the baby out with the bath.”

There are way to many cliches to list them all here, but I’d love to see the comments flooded with different ones that may be unique to your culture or household. The English language is not the only language that is filled with variations.
For those of you that can only relate to your cliche phrases using a language other than English, please attempt to translate them in the comments below.

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8 thoughts on “Origin of Cliches and Popular Sayings
  1. Which one do you want? right palm to the hospital or left one to the graveyard…
    It’s so popular in my place when two people wants a fight or duel… 😀 (sorry if it’s so bad, I’m not good in english)

    1. Oh wow I love that one! It sounds very similar to the American Gangster saying, “You want a fresh one” (While they’re hand is drawn back to smack you).

      I’ll have to remember that one, “Which one do you want? right palm to the hospital or left one to the graveyard”

      Thanks Darasi

  2. Oh yeah, there are soo many cliches around us so it’s easy to get lost in their actual meaning) Thanks for so detailed explanations. will keep them in mind)

    1. Yah it’s crazy how many of these cliches there are floating around. Some of them are great, but others are a little hard to understand. They say the English language is one of the hardest languages to learn because so many words may sound the same yet are spelled differently and have different meanings. That makes the cliche even harder to understand at times. But it’s neat to know where some of these originated I think.

  3. Ahh, it’s always good to know what’s the origin of one or another saying! Thank you for sharing!

    1. There are so many of these types of saying and cliches and they all have a unique story as to how they were started. Thanks a bunch for dropping by.

  4. I heard the quote ” In for a penny, in for a pound” just last night. Any idea where that may have come from.

    1. Actually Delmar the earliest reference I could find on this one was back in 1695 by E. RAVENSCROFT which said “Well than, O’er shooes, o’er boots. And In for a Penny, in for a Pound.”
      Basically it’s a reference suggesting if you are going to start something, then you may as well follow through to the end.
      It has also been known to represent the severity of a crime. Such as stealing a penny is just as bad as stealing a pound.

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