We all have favourite sayings and similes we use. Sometimes there’s just no better way to describe a situation than with an analogy, and I know I use “my two cents” and “don’t judge a book by its cover” a lot. But if you think about some of our sayings, quite a few don’t make much sense. Often the reason is that the meanings are archaic and you need to know their origins to understand them. So here are a few of the stranger ones demystified. 😉
5) It’s raining cats and dogs
When has it ever rained cats and dogs? Obviously never, so its literal meaning makes little sense. But its origin is hard to pin down as well. The most likely origin is that in London in the 17th century, heavy rain used to fill the streets and carry along dead animals and people created the analogy over time.
4) A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
I think this is one of the best sounding proverbs and its meaning is fairly obvious: that it is better to accept a small advantage and what you have now than to risk everything in search of more. The bush part often trips people up, but it dates back to medieval times when a falcon might rest on your hand, the “two in the bush” being prey.
3) Make no bones about it
Make no bones about it is fairly odd if you think about it. What do bones have to do with stating something without hesitation or objection? But its origin is in an earlier phrase: “to find bones in”, particularly in a meal or soup. To find no bones meant you had no problems; the saying likely evolved from that.
2) There’s more than one way to skin a cat
Some of these sayings don’t seem to like cats much. This one means that there are several ways to do or achieve something, and the most likely origin is that the cat originally referred to a catfish (which has a tough skin) and the saying was shortened over time. It’s also possible that it’s a variation of the expression “to skin the cat”, which was a child’s gymnastic trick, the “more than one way” being the different ways of performing the trick.
1) As straight as a die
I’ve always found as straight as a die very strange, in that its literal meaning is to be honest and true; how does that relate to a die being straight, something which it obviously isn’t? The simile actually dates back to an earlier saying, “make this borde as smoothe as dyce”. If you think of dice being smooth and “true” in casting them, then it makes more sense.
25 thoughts on “5 sayings that don’t make sense”
I’ve always hated the “six of one, half dozen of the other.”
CJ: Another strange one. Why would you compare things that are so similar; it just seems obvious, like a lot of others, and that’s where many sayings just seem unoriginal. I don’t care for birds of a feather flock together much either, but at least it makes sense. 😉
This reminded me of the phrase “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” That’s a confusing phrase. What are we supposed to be proving – that it’s a pudding?
I read somewhere that the expression comes from an older meaning of the word “prove”, which was “to test”. So “the testing of the pudding is in the eating”, which makes much more sense.
Many of these proverbs sound cheap or clichéd to us today, but one has to remember that they are very old. I bet whoever came up with them thought they were really profound or witty at the time!
CJ: Yeah, that’s another strange one, particularly when people abbreviate it again to “proof of the pudding”; that makes no sense at all. I’ve heard it used a lot in debating theoretical ideas; it really means you need to experience something to know it’s true, doesn’t it, so I can see why – just wish they’d use the correct phrase! 🙂
That they’re so clichéd now is kind of what’s fun about them, and they probably were very profound at the time. I’m still waiting for it to rain cats and dogs, though. 😉
How about the porof that it is in fact “pudding” is in the “eating” or could the whole thing reall be proof in the putting>
Maybe. There’s definitely a few ways these sayings could have evolved. They might even have evolved differently in different countries and localities.
I used to have trouble with “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” I think someone explained to me that if you eat your cake you don’t have it anymore…
I still have trouble with “All but forgotten” or “all but wasted” or whatever you want to but – surely this would mean that it’s not forgotten?! Unless you stick a comma in there, “All, but forgotten” might mean it’s been everything, but now it’s forgotten.
My favourite idiom is a french one – “Il n’a pas les yeux dans la poche.” Literally – he doesn’t have eyes in his pockets (or the pockets). The meaning is similar to our “He has eyes in the back of his head.”
CJ: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” bugs me as well; not because it doesn’t make sense, but because you could just as easily say “you can’t have it both ways”, which is what it really means. So it’s pretty redundant and now is used more for weight loss ads, which have nothing to do with its real meaning! 🙂
I’d not thought of “all but forgotten” like that, but I see what you mean. If something is “all but forgotten”, then you’re supposed to have just remembered it or had something come to mind, but taken literally it doesn’t make much sense… it’s more modern than other sayings, so I’m not sure how that would have originated. Perhaps it’s just a turn of phrase that’s caught on? I hate “doing it tough” myself; with all the descriptive words we have available, “doing it tough” is the best we can come up with? 😯
That’s a good one. It’s interesting how a lot of sayings are similar in different countries; shows we share a lot in common, even when we’ve developed so differently.
Actually, I think “all but forgotten” does make sense. I actually came to this site looking for some answer about it, since I didn’t quite get it either… all but forgotten seems to mean it’s “everything EXCEPT forgotten.” However, reading everyone’s comments made me realize that it’s actually quite sensible. “But” is considered a logical operator, and literally stands for “and.” So, if I wrote “The dog and the cat ran” I would mean “D&C” where D is “The dog ran” and C is “The cat ran.” I could also write “The dog but the cat ran” and I would also mean “D&C.” So, “all but forgotten” actually does mean the same as “all, but forgotten.” It simply means it’s both everything and forgotten.
I imagine the origin to be something like “I thought I had everything, but there were a few things forgotten.” Making the phrase shorter turns it into “I had all, but didn’t have the forgotten.” Even shorter? I’d all but forgotten.
“All but ___” is a common construct that means “almost ___” https://grammarist.com/usage/all-but/
4) A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
In Dutch this saying is ‘literally translated’:
“Better one bird in the hand than ten in the air”
So does that mean the explanation is different? Interesting!
CJ: Wow, that is interesting… I didn’t know that! I Googled it and apparently there are four different versions of the saying: the familiar English one, but also different ones in Dutch, Spanish and German. They all have the same meaning, but I have no idea why they’re so different… if you think about how close together European countries are, though, perhaps it’s not so strange that certain countries would share sayings, if in different forms. Thanks for the comment, leeninoz. 🙂
straight as a die, I would interpret that as meaning when thrown it shows exactly what it is, dice can’t lie. it is what it is. i.e u roll a 6 it can’t pretend it isn’t… that makes sense i think..
CJ: Interesting idea. It could mean that; one reason it might not is that as dice aren’t really square, you can get different outcomes, particularly if it lands on its side. But it’s similar – a die can’t lie is the same as it being “true”, which makes sense.
The Phrases site has some interesting things to say about it, if you want to check that out.
On the other hand, if you think of ‘die’ in the sense of a stamping mold, if it isn’t perfectly aligned, your stamping will be worthless.
I like “all but forgotten”. I would think it applies to something that is not valued very much, whether or not it deserves to be. Whatever it is, it is no longer cherished, appreciated, enjoyed, or anything like that if it ever was. It’s practically out in the cold, forgotten all together, but someone does care to remember it in the back of their minds, but nothing more. I’m pretty sure I’m “all but forgotten” to a few individuals out there. Replacing forgotten with wasted sounds even better, although I think it’s far easier to waste things than forget about them all together.
I was thinking that the “die” they’re referencing is the tool that manufacturing plants use when cutting, forming metal. This would make a little more sense as it would need to be straight to get the part right.
I recently heard the phrase “all but forgotten” in the song Savior by Rise Against. My first interpretation revolved around the notion of something recollected but not remembered all too well, like remembering the name of a person and nothing else about them. The second/third time through I thought something “all but fogotten” might be something that has changed in meaning many times. For example, in remembering a person or experience, I may recall that I’ve felt good/bad/confused/angry/etc. about said person or experience. I may have talked about it, cried about it, thought about it, written about it, etc. to the point that I’ve done everything to the memory BUT forgotten it. Are there any other interpretations or meanings out there that might make more sens?
Your not comparing them, your saying that they’re the same. Whenever I’ve heard it used it’s always been my mum telling off my brother and I “Sounds like it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.” meaning we where both just as bad.
Thoughts & butterflies are free! If you “don’ care for” something live without. Just don’t berat the use by others, me in particular!
I think Giorgia was just letting me know that I slipped up as I didn’t explain why I’ve always found “six of one” clumsy very well – I know it’s meant to say the same thing but the language is a little confusing, which is why I don’t like it. But to each their own. I’m sure there are plenty of sayings I like that drive other people batty, for instance.
I too loathe the clumsy “six of one, half dozen of the other.” A favorite alternate version is the colorful local Chicago SouthSide phrase, “Swineheart, pigheart, it’s all the same.”
The German version is:
A sparrow in the hand is better than a pigeon on the roof.
I had a boss once that constantly said “half of one, six dozen of the other” thinking that was the saying. He still said it that way out of habit after I informed him it was incorrect. Now I find I use it that way to highlight that two things are NOT the same, or are very different. Oddly, people almost never pick up on the shuffled words and give me a look of “these are not the same, why would you say that?”
Actually “its raining cats and dogs” came from the middle ages, where farm animals would sleep on the roof top which is straw, to keep warm, when it would rain, the straw would become slipery and the animals would fall off.
“six of one, half dozen of the other.” = potayto, potaatoe, The final e in memory of Dan Quayle:-)
One bird in the hand is better than ten on the roof is the danish version of the saying, which is relevant if you want to eat the bird!
You can’t have your cake and eat it too, is probable the most misquoted phrase. The correct saying goes something like this, you can’t eat your cake and have it too.
Siskel & Ebert you ain’t!
I’ve never tried to be. I just find language and how it has evolved interesting, that’s all.
Just wanted to say thank you to everyone for your comments on this post over the years. I wrote this post almost 9 years ago now (wow that makes me feel old) and it’s become one of my most popular and wide-read posts over that time. I don’t have time to reply to every comment anymore but I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for sharing your thoughts and some of your sayings too. They’ve really added to the post. So thank you. 🙂