It's pretty amazing that some of the common proverbs and expressions we use date back 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. Many come from ancient Greece and Rome, civilizations that were dominant and influential. Similarly, we borrow a lot of phrases from the Bible, the world's best-selling and most widely distributed tome, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Ancient fables also spawned innumerable expressions that have lasted through time, perhaps because they often include a memorable animal character who dispenses some bit of wisdom or practical advice [source: Horgan].
The following 10 common expressions all have intriguing back stories, starting with the tale of an immortal man with one mortal body part.
When something is your "Achilles' heel," it's a fault or weakness you have, despite overall strength, that can potentially cause failure. The weakness may be physical: "He is a star quarterback, but his injury-prone throwing arm is his Achilles' heel."Or it might be emotional or mental: "She was a good writer, but her Achilles' heel was that she was a terrible speller."
This expression comes from Greek mythology, specifically a guy named Achilles. Achilles' mother dipped him in the river Styx as an infant, an act that bestowed upon him extreme strength and immortality. He became a great champion — the best Greek fighter during the Trojan War — until the fateful day when Trojan prince Paris took aim and speared him in the heel with an arrow, causing him to bleed to death. But wasn't he immortal? Make that almost. When his mother dipped him in the river as a baby, she held him by one heel, which thus wasn't bathed in the river's magical waters and became the only part of his body that was unprotected [sources: Mythagora]. Oops!
Today, we use the phrase to mean someone is complaining when nothing's really wrong. It's also used when a person asks for help when he doesn't need it. For example: "The governor says if our taxes aren't doubled, he'll have to close all of our schools. But he's just crying wolf."
So, who is this wolf we speak of? It comes from an Aesop fable. Aesop was a former Greek slave in the late to mid-sixth century B.C.E. when he allegedly penned (or related) hundreds of morality tales, collectively known as known as "Aesop's Fables" [source: Horgan].
One was about a young shepherd boy who was bored while tending the sheep all day. So to drum up a little excitement and have some company, he ran toward the village screaming, "Wolf! Wolf!" The villagers ran out to meet him, and some stayed a while. Score! The boy was so happy that he repeated his trick a few days later. Once again, the villagers ran out to him, only to find, once again, that there was no wolf. Then, disaster struck — a real wolf trotted out of the forest and threatened the boy's flock. He cried, "Wolf! Wolf!" a third time, but no one ran out. The villagers were tired of his tricks. The moral, says Aesop, is that "A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth."
In the ancient world, this was literally true. The Romans built some 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers) of roads stretching from Britain, through Spain and Northern Africa, and east to the Danube River and Tigris-Euphrates River System. The first great road, the Appian Way, was built in 312 B.C.E. [source: Encyclopaedia Brittanica]. Emperor Caesar Augustus erected a monument called the Milliarium Aureum (golden milestone) in Rome's central forum, and the distances along all of those 50,000 miles were measured from this point, which was also the point at which all of the main Roman roads diverged [source: University of Notre Dame].
Nowadays, we use the expression to mean that there's more than one way to achieve an outcome. This metaphor was already in place as early as the 1100s [source: American Heritage Dictionary].
You might remember this as a lyric from the '80s Police song, "Wrapped Around Your Finger." It means being caught between a rock and a hard place, or two equally unattractive options.
In Greek mythology, the hero Odysseus was sailing home from the Trojan War through the Strait of Messina (which separates Italy from Sicily) where he was beset by two monsters on either side. Scylla was a giant with six heads, each having three rows of shark-like teeth, who devoured whatever came her way. (It was a personification of a reef.) Charybdis was a whirlpool on the opposite shore that sucked in ships that sailed near her. Avoiding one conflict meant coming too close to the other [source: Encyclopaedia Brittanica].
Odysseus had to figure out which was the lesser of the two evils as he had to pass through this strait to reach home. He chose to sail closer to Scylla since he risked losing only a few men as opposed to losing the whole ship if he went closer to Charybdis.
When someone talks about opening Pandora's box, it's not a good thing. Pandora's box is a source of troubles. For example, if you start dating your boss, your friends might say you're opening a Pandora's box.
This expression comes from the story of Pandora, the first woman on earth according to Greek mythology. In the tale, Zeus, the father of the gods, created Pandora as a punishment because his cousin Prometheus gave fire to man against Zeus' orders. While the gods and goddesses gave Pandora positive gifts, like beauty and charm, she was also given qualities that could be used for either good or evil, such as curiosity and persuasion. Pandora was also presented with a jar that Zeus told her not to open. But her curiosity got the best of her and she opened it, whereupon out flew all the troubles of mankind – war, famine and so on. In some versions of the story, Pandora hastily tried to close the jar but the only thing she managed to preserve was "hope."
The tale of Pandora is an origin myth, an attempt to explain the start of something — in this case, why bad things happen in the world. Much like Eve's experience in the Garden of Eden, the world was a perfect place before Pandora opened her jar. Pandora's jar became a box in the 16th century due to a translation error [source: Myths and Legends].
Robin Williams is well-known for making this motivational Latin phrase the motto for his English class in the 1989 flick "Dead Poets Society." But that was certainly not the start of its popularity. The phrase was penned by Quintus Horatius Flaccus, aka the lyric poet Horace, in the first century B.C.E. Horace wrote in his "Odes Book 1":
Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
Aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero
This means, "While we're talking, envious time is fleeing; pluck the day, put no trust in the future." When you read the entire sentence, the full meaning becomes clear. Make the most of today, because there's no guarantee you'll be around tomorrow. And even if you are, who knows what tomorrow will hold?
While this expression has been uttered for millennia, it first wormed its way into the English language in the early 19th century, when the poet Lord Byron used it (he was an admirer of Horace) [source: Martin]. Many English proverbs, incidentally, lecture us to be wise with our time, such as, "Strike while the iron is hot" and "The early bird catches the worm."
We can thank the biblical Book of Daniel for this phrase, which means doom or misfortune is about to occur. For example, if two people are discussing the layoffs occurring in their company and one says to the other, "The writing is on the wall for all of us," she means their jobs are likely to be eliminated, too.
In the Book of Daniel, chapter 5, King Belshazzar of Babylon and his court are enjoying a decadent feast, drinking wine from goblets taken from the sacred temple in Jerusalem. Suddenly, a disembodied hand appears and writes these words on a plaster wall: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. Terrified, the king brings in the prophet Daniel to interpret what they mean. Daniel tells him God is angry at Belshazzar for worshipping false idols rather than God. (Literally, the words mean "number," "weigh" and "divide" so the implication is that God has weighed or judged Belshazzar and his days are numbered [source: Wilson].) As punishment, his kingdom will be taken away from him and divided. That night the king is murdered and his lands are taken over by an invading tribe.
When we use the phrase "sour grapes," we're indicating someone is disparaging something just because they can't have it. For example: "It's just as well they didn't have that dress in my size. It's actually quite gaudy."
This expression comes from the fable "The Fox and the Grapes," attributed to our old friend Aesop. Many of his stories consisted of animals displaying humanlike qualities.In this tale, a starving fox tries several times to reach a bunch of juicy grapes dangling just out of reach but is unsuccessful. To assuage its disappointment, it says to itself, "I'm sure they were sour." Although Aesop is given credit for this story, its first known English usage wasn't until 1760 [source: Martin].
Interestingly, some scholars say a better translation of the fable from Greek to English would result in the phrase "unripe grapes" [source: Martin]. But, "Those must be unripe grapes" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
A common food-related expression with links to the ancient past is "butter someone up." It's used to mean excessively flattering someone, usually so that they'll do something for you. For example, you say to your friend: "Cathy, that dress is beautiful and fits you so well! And your hair looks lovely, too!" Cathy might well reply, "Why are you buttering me up?" Because you need a favor, naturally.
Many claim this phrase has its origins in ancient India, when people used to lob little balls of ghee butter at the statues of various gods when they were asking them for favors. In Tibet, there's an even older custom of crafting butter sculptures when the new year rolls around; the sculptures were viewed as a means of bringing happiness and peace in the coming year [source: Frederick].
However, some argue that the phrase has nothing to do with the Indian tradition. Instead, they say, it originated because of the imagery — spreading smooth butter on a piece of bread is like spreading nice words on someone. Let's go with the butter-ball theory. It's a lot more fun.
This can be a bit perplexing. After all, no one has skin on their teeth. So what does it mean? It means you escaped or achieved something — death, a bad date, a top grade — by a very slim margin.
We have the Bible to thank for this phrase, and specifically the Book of Job. Job is a character who undergoes innumerable tragedies, and sighs, complains and rails against God because of this, although he never loses his faith. In Job 19:20, Job says, "I am nothing but skin and bones; I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth." He's saying he's narrowly escaped death — that he escaped death by a margin so slim, it's as thin as the skin on your teeth. No one has skin on their teeth; that's the point, and it's why it indicates such a minute amount [sources: Addis].
What does 'Massachusetts' really mean? Find out what you really know about the names of America's states with our HowStuffWorks quiz.
Author's Note: 10 Expressions that Came from the Ancient World
I always enjoy reading these types of lists — the ones that explain popular expressions or sayings — so it was a lot of fun to research and write my own!
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- Bible Gateway. "Job 19." (Oct. 30, 2014) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Job+19&version=NIV
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- Lit2Go. "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Aesop's Fables. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/35/aesops-fables/375/the-boy-who-cried-wolf/
- Martin, Gary. "Carpe diem." Phrases. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/carpe-diem.html
- Martin, Gary. "Sour grapes." Phrases. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/sour-grapes.html
- McCulloch, Scott. "10 Idioms from the Ancient World." Ancient Life. Jan. 14, 2012. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.ancientl.com/roman/idioms-greek-hebrew/
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- Merriam-Webster. "Sour grapes." (Oct. 30, 2014) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sour%20grapes
- Myth Web. "Achilles." (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.mythweb.com/encyc/entries/achilles.html
- Mythagora. "Achilles." (Oct. 31, 2014) http://mythagora.com/bios/achilles.html
- Myths and Legends. "Pandora's Box." 2006. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/origins562-pandoras-box.html
- Play Shakespeare. "King Lear Scenes." (Oct. 30, 2014) https://www.playshakespeare.com/king-lear/scenes/563-act-i-scene-1
- Poets. "Carpe Diem: Poems for Making the Most of Time." 2008. (Oct. 30, 2014) http://www.poets.org/text/carpe-diem-poems-making-most-time
- University of Notre Dame. "All Roads Lead to Rome: New acquisitions relating to the Eternal City." Sept. 14, 2011. (Oct. 27, 2014) https://italianstudies.nd.edu/news/26040-all-roads-lead-to-rome-new-acquisitions-relating-to-the-eternal-city/
- Wilson, Dick R. "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin." BibleStudyTools.com. (Oct. 30, 2014) http://www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/mene-mene-tekel-upharsin.html