Opening a can of worms: what idioms mean

Idioms are a dime a dozen when it comes to the English language. But what do they even mean? Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

If you grew up speaking English, chances are you’ve heard people around you using idioms and sayings regularly. But many of these make no sense when you think about it. Where did these crazy sayings come from? We’ve taken a look at 10 idiomatic sayings and where they came from.


1. See a man about a horse/dog:

The first usage of this phrase can be seen in an 1866 play by Dion Boucicault called Flying Scud. And since its conception, the phrase has kept the same meaning but been used in different contexts. For example: during American prohibition, it was used to excuse oneself to get an alcoholic drink.

2. You can’t have your cake and eat it too:

Often heard recently in regards to Brexit, this idiom can be dated all the way back to the 16th century. It has often switched the order in which it is said. An early recording has it as the above, but later it was swapped to say “wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?” In modern times it has since been switched back to be the idiom we know today.

3. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree:

The origins of this saying are quite foggy and contested. There are some that say it originates from somewhere in Asia, while others say it comes from Germany or Russia. American author Ralph Waldo Emerson also used this phrase back in 1839.

4. Can of worms:

Can of worms is perhaps one of the youngest and most straightforward idioms on this list. It’s thought to have originated in the US, in the 1950s, when live bait for fishermen was often sold in aluminium cans. Of course, the meaning has since changed to be more metaphorical.

5. Bitter pill to swallow:

Initially, the phrase “pill to swallow” was used around the 1600s. But in the 1700s, Rapin Thoyras added the word “bitter” when writing about French and Italian history, saying: “this event, which happened the 7th of September, N.S. was immediately follow’d by the relieving of time after, with the total expulsion of the French out of all Italy; a bitter pill to swallow.”

6. A dime a dozen:

As the usage of the word “dime” might suggest, this idiom finds its roots in the US. In the 1800s, common household goods like apples and eggs were often advertised as ‘a dime a dozen.’ This has since evolved to its modern meaning of something being of little value because it is so common.

7. By the skin of my teeth:

Perhaps the oldest idiom on this list, “by the skin of one’s teeth” is first seen in the King James translation of the Bible. In the Book of Job, Job endures tests from Satan and the passage reads: “My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth” (19:20).

8. Blood is thicker than water:

Usually used to say family bonds are stronger than friendships, this famous saying is actually incomplete. The full saying is “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” meaning the exact opposite of the common definition.

9. There’s plenty of fish in the sea:

The first instance of this phrase is from 1573 in a letter from Gabriel Harvey to Edmund Spenser. It has, however, evolved in the 400 years since. It first read as “In the mayne sea theres good stoare of fishe.” Since then, it has taken on many forms before becoming the idiom we know today.

10. Jack of all trades:


Featured image: Pixabay

Words: Elise Fritts | Subbing: Taylor Paatalo

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