Origins Of Popular Catch Phrases

Common phrases all have a simple origin. Here's four of them
Origins of Popular Catch Phrases
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Read the Riot Act

If anyone ever threatened to read you the riot act as a kid, you probably knew to quiet down. You also probably wondered how serious they are to invoke such an ambiguous directive. But at one time, there actually was a Riot Act. It was read, and no one was kidding. Fearful of Jacobite mobs, George I passed the Riot Act in 1715 after the disposed Stuarts congregated en masse to usurp Hanover rule.  And to disperse the mob, the magistrate made this presentation :

"Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse

themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King."

Failure to comply could have led to three years in prison, but the necessity began fading away in the 19th century and almost completely disappeared by the 20th. The first use in a less official capacity appeared in William Bradford’s Letters in 1819.

"She has just run out to read the riot act in the nursery."

Funny how once the phrase lost its teeth that it became child’s play and has mostly remained there.

Spill the Beans

When you spill the beans, you let out a secret.  The origin dates back to the Greeks, and the sanctity of the secret ballet.  Paper still probably a pretty hot commodity for the highly literate culture, they got the jump on democracy at end of a stalk.  Voters would cast their ballots in bean form, and the color would represent the choice. No hanging chads to corrupt the count, the franchise still may have succumbed to the old adage: it's not who casts the votes, it's who counts them.  But a more common problem was probably unavoidable. A clumsy counter may have knocked over the legumes, and the secret of the count was revealed. Thus, they spilled the beans.

Cross the Threshold


girls still probably dream of the day when their Prince Charming carries them over the threshold and begins their wedded bliss. But real life and the origins are not quite as benign. After the Romans captured the city of Sabine, the pillaging army could not find wives to settle down with. So they kidnapped daughters from the neighboring town.  As a result, these women entered their new homes against their will and were figuratively carried over the threshold. 

The ancient autrocity eventually evolved into a more celebratory ritual from Roman women. The soon to be bride would innocently run off with her mother, and the bridgegroom would playfully intervene with his party. The entire group would then carry her off and bridge their new threshold together. 

Skeleton in the Closet

Medical Science obviously required subjects to advance.  Apply a leach, drill a cranial hole or curing the common cold with cocaine did take a lot of trial and error to eliminate these and many others as elixirs.  A slightly more enlightened approach involved studying the body, and dead ones certainly sufficed. The problem was that storing one in your 17th century reading room could open aspiring doctors to more than ridicule. So the offending corpse had to be stored undercover or in a closet. Providing ongoing opportunity for discovery, the secretive practice came to be known as having a skeleton in the closet and became a commonplace assumption. Eventually, the phrase morphed into describing someone who had a secret that would completely unsettle one's status quo. 

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  • iggy  01-12-2017
    Catch phrases have power because they are designed to catch peoples interest. You touched on several that have been used for years. I like the one "it is what it is" meaning things are the way they are and you can not change them. They are usually five words or less and bring to mind an exact meaning or understanding of a situation. Remember, every one has at least one skeleton in their closet.
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