12 Old Phrases We Still Use And What They Actually Mean

We rely on cliche frequently to express our ideas, opinions and feelings, but do we even know what we’re actually saying?

Many of the most common phrases in our everyday slang have been around for decades, and are many years removed from their original meanings. For instance, have you ever used the phrase “blow off steam” to signal a need to vent frustration? Did you have any idea that the phrase comes from steam engines that literally had to release steam in order to stabilize the train’s engine?

Phrases like these pop up constantly in our everyday interactions. Here are 12 old phrases you probably use without actually knowing what they mean. Next time you hear #3, you can impress everyone by telling them what it actually means!

#12. “On The Flip Side”

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If you’ve ever heard someone say “catch you on the flip side,” it means that they’ll see you later, right? The phrase actually originated back in the mid-20th century, and referred to the need to flip a record over on a turntable in order to hear the other half of its content. It’d probably be more applicable to use the phrase when you have to cut someone off abruptly, but want to continue the conversation later.

Another one of our everyday phrases is also related to old records. Jump to slide #8!

#11. “Close, But No Cigar”

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Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, right? While we can’t say we know the origin of that one, we can tell you the source of its cliche cousin, “close, but no cigar.” Cigars actually used to be given away as carnival prizes, so if you didn’t manage to outsmart the carnie’s likely-rigged game, they’d jeer “close, but no cigar” at you. Hopefully none of these cigars were given out to kids!

#10. “Left Without A Pot To You-Know-What In”

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Back before the modern miracle of convenience we call “indoor plumbing,” you had to do your business in an outhouse or a chamber pot in your bedroom. Since you couldn’t “flush” the bowl at the foot of your bed, it had to be dumped out and washed like any other dish. If you want to say that you have nothing to your name, you might claim that you’ve been left “without a pot to p*ss in.” If so, you’re referring to these nasty, pre-indoor plumbing bowls.

#9. “Time To Hit The Hay”

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When you go to sleep tonight, chances are good that you’re falling into some kind of upholstered memory foam mattress. Back in olden times, you’d be falling into a mattress that is literally stuffed with hay. What’s more, you’d have to beat the mattress every night to scare away any bugs that might be inside. Thus, “hitting the hay.”

#8. “Like A Broken Record”

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In the early and mid-20th century, records would sometimes “skip” and play the same soundbite over and over again until you got up to fix the turntable. This inspired the phrase “like a broken record” to describe someone who constantly repeats themselves.

#7. “Put Through The Wringer”

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First thing’s first — if you see someone spell it “ringer,” correct them immediately! Now, onto the origin of the phrase. Before modern washers and dryers, you had to “wring” clothes dry by feeding them into a machine that would slowly squeeze all of the excess water out of them. So, to be “put through the wringer” imagines that a person is being slowly pulled through an unpleasant life thing. How the phrase went from referring to clothes to existential despair is beyond us — we couldn’t find any stories of people literally being put through these things!

Slide #3 is also kind of torture-y. It’ll definitely send a chill down your spine.

#6. “Dial You Up”

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Yeah, this was kind of a pick-up line back when people used rotary phones. All kidding aside, instead of “I’ll call you later,” people in the mid-20th century might have said “I’ll dial you up,” which refers to the literal act of dialing every number individually on a rotary phone. Maybe a decade from now, we’ll say “I’ll Siri you up.” Then a few decades later that’ll sound funny, too.

Click through to slide #1 to see another everyday phrase we got from old, dinosaur phones.

#5. “Yank My Chain”

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You hear this one all the time, but we’re betting none of you know what it actually means. Miners used to cart resources back and forth by rail, and pranksters would sometimes pull the breaks on the cart while it was stationary. Miners would thus carry around a bit of chain to throw on the tracks to stop the cart from sliding away. “Yanking my chain” now appropriately refers to being pranked.

#4. “Stay Tuned”

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While these days “stay tuned” usually means “please stay on our TV channel during the commercial break and don’t switch over to Netflix,” it used to have a very literal meaning. Back in the days of radio, you had to tune your receiver to a specific frequency to hear programming, and often had to get up to re-adjust the radio dial to get back to that frequency. Used in a passive context these days, “staying tuned” used to require active participation by the listener.

#3. “Bite The Bullet”

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“You’re just going to have to bite the bullet on that one,” meaning, while whatever is about to happen is definitely going to suck, you’re just going to have to work through it. This one used to have a literal meaning as well. Before the days of anesthesia, surgeons would literally make patients bite down on a bullet to distract them from the pain. Did it work? Probably not, but we still have the phrase.

#2. “Clean Slate”

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To have a “clean slate” is to have a second chance. We use it metaphorically to refer to someone’s reputation. That’s because back when every classroom had a chalkboard, “wiping the slate clean” or “getting a clean slate” referred to the literal act of cleaning all of the chalk off the board so that a teacher could start fresh with a new lesson.

#1. “On The Other Line”

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Sometimes we use our cell phones to actually call people, albeit rarely. Rarer still is when another number calls your cell phone while you’re already talking to someone. You put that person on hold and click over, explaining to the new caller that you’re “on the other line.” Back before cell phones, all calls came through an operator — a person who literally plugged your phone into someone else’s. If someone else tried to call, the operator would interrupt and connect you to the new caller by plugging their line into your phone. These days, there’s no such thing as actual, literal lines anymore, but we still use the phrase to mean the same thing.

These sayings have become timeless hallmark cliches in the English language, and probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. It makes you wonder exactly what makes a particular slang phrase stick around long after it has lost its original meaning and which recent phrases will eventually become enshrined in our lexicon for the long haul in the coming years.

Did we miss anything in our list? Let us know in the comments if you’re curious about the origins of other popular phrases! Otherwise, click the share button if you want to look smart in front of your friends.

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