Those bizarre English phrases explained

These days, not all hatters are mad. Photo: Getty

These days, not all hatters are mad. Photo: Getty

If you’ve told to ‘bite the bullet’, or accused of being ‘mad as a hatter’, been forced to ‘eat humble pie’ and had no idea what these phrases meant, a team of researchers is here to help.

As part of a project commissioned by UK firm Privilege Insurance, two linguistics experts at The University of Bern in Switzerland set out to discover the history of many of the “downright surreal” phrases in the English language.

Why Aussies really butcher the English language
• Forty strange facts about the English language
• Two of these will boost your brain power

It led Dr Franz Andres Morrissey and Dr Jurg Strassler on an linguistic odyssey.

“Looking for the meanings of the many colourful, puzzling and at times downright surreal sayings takes us on a journey through history and sports, military and nautical realms, literature and culture and beyond,” Dr Morrissey said in a statement.

Here are some of their most interesting finds.

“Going doolally”

Meaning to go mad, this phrase has its origins in the military. According to Dr Morrissey and Dr Strassler, it is named after the Indian garrison town of Deolali.

British soldiers waited in Deolali to be taken back to Britain after touring the country, often for many months. There was little to do to keep them entertained and many suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.

These days, not all hatters are mad. Photo: Getty

These days, not all hatters are mad. Photo: Getty

“Mad as a hatter”

Has its roots in the 18th and 19th century, according to the linguistics experts.

Poisonous mercury was used in felting and hat-making causing many to go “mad”, perhaps providing the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland character, The Mad Hatter.

“Bite the bullet”

It means to have to do something unpleasant.

Wounded First World War soldiers operated on without anaesthetic would bite on a bullet to deal with the pain.

“Skeleton in the cupboard”

It means something embarrassing to hide.

Until the 1830s it was illegal to dissect human bodies, so grave-robbers and murderers would supply medical schools and doctors with bodies. These had to be hidden in case of raids.

“Red herring”

It means something misleading.

To train young hunting dogs to follow a scent, a pinch of smoked and salted herring of a reddish colour would sometimes be dragged along the ground.

The experts suggested it would also have been used to see if dogs would be put off the scent they were meant to be following.

Jockeys and horses sprint to the finish at the St pat's Races.

Winning ‘hands down’ has its origins on the race track. Photo: ABC

“Win hands down”

It means to do something without a great effort.

In horse racing, a jockey winning comfortable does not need to use a whip and can ride to the finishing lines with his hands down.

“Eat humble pie”

It means to admit one is wrong.

“Umbles”, from Middle English, comes from Old French “nombles” meaning loin. It refers to offal, a meal for the poor.

“Bob’s your uncle”

It means to achieve something with great ease.

In 1886, Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil made Arthur Balfour Chief Secretary of Ireland. Mr Balfour was “Bob’s” nephew.

“Have a butcher’s”

It means to look at something.

Cockney rhyming slang. The original phrase would have been “butcher’s hook”, which rhymes with look.

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter.
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.