If you get too excited, your mom might tell you to chill out. Pester your sister and she might yell at you to get a life. Drop the ball during a game and you might tell your friends “my bad.”
These expressions are all examples of what we call cliches (klee-SHAYS). A cliche is a phrase or idea that has been used so often it’s no longer fresh. Cliches are like that stuffed dog or bunny you’ve had since you were a baby. It’s tired and worn now, but you still hang on to it.
Some cliches have been around for hundreds of years — so long, in fact, that their earliest meaning has been lost, but people keep saying them anyway.
Below we list seven popular cliches, what they mean and how they began, with help from “Have a Nice Day — No Problem! A Dictionary of Cliches” by Christine Ammer. We bet you can stump mom or dad with a few.
Cry crocodile tears: Pretend to be sorry.
An ancient myth says a crocodile cries while eating its prey. This cliche dates back 1,700 years. A Roman writer said the evil emperor Caracalla shed crocodile tears when he got rid of his enemies. He wasn’t sorry at all!
A-Okay: Everything’s great.
On a 1961 space trip, American astronaut Alan Shepard was asked how things were going. He said “Okay,” but a space agency official misheard it as “A-Okay.”
Mad as a hatter: Crazy.
It’s from Alice’s tea party, right? Wrong! This cliche is even older than Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” It refers to the unhappy fact that chemicals used in making felt hats sometimes caused jerking and twitching among hatmakers (hatters).
To the bitter end: The end of a tough fight or other event.
To us, “bitter” means nasty tasting, but this is actually a seafaring term. Bitts are posts on a ship’s deck used to fasten ropes and cables. “The bitter end” is the part of a chain or cable farthest from the anchor; it’s usually inside the ship and is rarely used.
Read between the lines: Figure out hidden meanings.
This spy term dates to the 1860s. Secret messages are usually written in code. Sometimes, the “real” message is found in every other line. If every line is decoded, however, you get a very different message. So the agent must read between, or skip, some lines to get the actual message. Below is an example. Note how our message is very different if you read only lines 2 and 4:
there is no reason to
do your homework now. the teacher will
be gone next week and won’t
check it later.
Raining cats and dogs: A heavy downpour.
We don’t know for sure how this phrase, from the 1600s, began. Some think it came from a Norse myth in which dogs were symbols of wind and cats were signs of heavy rain. As far as we know, cats and dogs do not fall from the sky during bad storms. They are more likely to hide under your bed.
Sink or swim: Fail or succeed.
This cliche, from the 14th century, refers to the practice of throwing suspected witches, sometimes with weights tied to them, into deep water. If they drowned, it was a sign of their guilt. Often, swimming was seen as a sign of their guilt as well, so this was really a no-win deal.
Monkey see, monkey do: Act like another person.
This term may have come from a children’s game in the 1920s. It’s not a nice thing to say about someone, since it means he or she is copying someone else without knowing or caring why. It’s not even a nice thing to say about a monkey.
Love learning about language? Check out these books:
“Raining Cats and Dogs: A Collection of Irresistible Idioms” by Will Moses. 40 pages. Ages 6-12.
“Talking Turkey and Other Cliches We Say” by Nancy Loewen. 24 pages. Ages 7-10.
“It Figures! Fun Figures of Speech” by Marvin Terban. 64 pages. Ages 8-12.
“Idioms for Everyday Use” by Milada Broukal. 112 pages. Age 10 and older.