A Piece of the Puzzle

English is a diverse language, taking stories from around the world to create sayings and idioms that make speech more interesting. Every day we use about 15,000 words a day to create idioms, slang, and old sayings from around the world to spice up our language.

White elephant

White elephant parties are quite common, especially during the holiday season. The object of a white elephant is to bring a ridiculous and useless gift and then exchange it for another present. While this is a fun party, the term white elephant actually comes from Thailand. In Thailand, white elephants were sacred beings and it was against the law to force a white elephant to work. If someone offended the king, the king would give a white elephant as a passive-aggressive gift. The person would have to accept the gift out of fear of offending the king and would be forced to feed and shelter the elephant. However that person would not be allowed to put the elephant to work, and with the cost of feeding the elephant, it would eventually result in bankruptcy.Somehow over the decades, the term white elephant became absorbed as a harmless and fun tradition among many.

Let the cat out of the bag

This saying means to let a secret out. Once you let the secret\cat out of the bag, you will never get the secret\cat back into the bag. Of course, this analogy only goes so far once you start to wonder how in the world did they get the cat into the bag in the first place. In the 18th century market, they must have found a way. Farmers would often sell piglets in a bag, but sometimes they would capture a feral cat and stuff it in a bag. Then they would sell the cat to an unsuspecting victim and instruct them not to open the bag until they got home so the piglets would not escape. Of course, once they got home, they would open the bag to find a feral cat. Not a very pleasant surprise.

Don't count your chickens before they hatch

This idiom comes from the part of a story written by Aesop. It goes something like this: A milkmaid was carrying a pail of milk down the road. She was thinking to herself,"Using this milk, I will make cream which  I will make into butter. I will sell the butter it at the market, and with the money I earn, I will buy myself some eggs. Eventually, these eggs will hatch and grow into chicks. The chicks will grow into chickens and make baby chicks of their own. Then, after I sell a few chickens, I will go buy myself a dress and go to the local fair. And when the young lads swoon around me, I shall flip my hair and walk away."As she was thinking to herself, she stumbled and dropped the pail of milk. Her mother, watching, shook her head and said,"Don't count your chickens before they hatched."

Butter someone up

Usually, when a teenager needs money, he or she will use the oldest trick in the book and try to butter up his or her parent. The saying, butter someone up, comes from an ancient Indian custom. They would take cooking butter, ghee, and throw them at the statues of the gods till they thoroughly covered the statues in butter. It was then believed that the gods would smile down on them and grant these butter throwers blessings and good fortune.

These four words are just four tiny pieces of the puzzle that make up the English language. There are thousands upon thousands of everyday words and sayings that have their own stories. The English language is just one giant story that took hundreds of years and thousands of cultures to tell.

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Dave Child

Dave is the founder of Readable.io, and has been building websites since the early 90s. He's one of those fortunate people who gets to do what he loves for a living.



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