Origin of “Riding Shotgun” and Other Idioms

by | Jul 4, 2019


Idioms are words or phrases that are not intended to be taken literally. What are the sources of some of these interesting idioms?

Riding Shotgun: This phrase refers to riding in the front passenger seat of a car. To claim that spot, the first passenger to exclaim “shotgun!” usually gets the rights to that seat. This phrase refers to the important position of the person sitting next to the driver of a stagecoach when he would literally carry a shotgun in order to scare off bandits.

Paying Through the Nose: This phrase dates back to the vikings, who would slit a person’s face from nose tip to eyebrow if they refused to pay their taxes.

Getting Read the Riot Act: This phrase means that you’ve been scolded for acting inappropriately or anti-socially. It is based on a law from 1715 England called the “Riot Act” whereby an officer of the law could require a crowd of 12 or more people to disburse. The officer would do this by literally reading the Riot Act to the crowd. Read more about the Riot Act at Atlas Obscura.

Letting the Cat Out of the Bag: This idiom refers to revealing a secret. While origins of this phrase are not certain, most likely it refers to livestock fraud whereby a purchaser would buy a piglet at auction that would be placed in a bag for transport. However, some unscrupulous sellers would replace the piglet with a cat while the buyer wasn’t looking.

A Baker’s Dozen: This means to sell 13 items for the price of a dozen. It originated in medieval times when English bakers would give an extra loaf in order to avoid being penalized for selling short weight. More details here.

Win Hands Down: This means to win very easily. The origin is from horse racing and means that victory was so assured that the jockey could relax and drop the reins prior to crossing the finish line.

Close but No Cigar: As opposed to winning hands down, close but no cigar means that someone almost won, but failed to secure victory by a small margin. The origin of the phrase is from early 20th century carnivals and fairs where winners often would get a cigar as a prize for winning.

Barking up the Wrong Tree: This idiom means pursing a mistaken line of reasoning or course of action. As you might expect, this phrase comes from hunting with dogs. During a hunt dogs might “tree” their prey but the prey may jump trees or the dogs might just be mistaken about which tree the prey went up and bark at the wrong tree.

Keeping Up with the Joneses: This means using your neighbors as a benchmark for material possessions or social class. It appears to have multiple and possibly related origins. There was an actual Jones family who built a castle-like mansion as a vacation home in Rhinebeck, The house was quite grand. “It featured arches and towers, and an asymmetrical style that resulted in formidable angles. Notably, it was the grandest house along the river, sporting 24 rooms with ornate finishes like Tiffany skylights. It also had sweeping grounds with tennis courts, and boat and carriage houses. The mansion was so ostentatious that it is believed to have single-handedly prompted a building boom. Wealthy neighbors expanded and remodeled their homes to “keep up with the Joneses.” Source. Another origin of the phrase is a comic strip called “Keeping Up With The Joneses” which ran in a New York newspaper from 1913 to 1940.

The Cat’s Got Your Tongue: This phrase means being at a loss for words or struggling with what you want to say. It likely comes from the Egyptian practice of cutting out the tongues of blasphemers and feeding the tongues to cats. Eew. It also may come from the British Navy using a “Cat O’ 9 Tails” which is a nine tailed whip as a punishment. The flogging was often so brutal that the victim couldn’t speak.

Going the Whole Nine Yards: This means to try your best. To take your task to completion. Its origin is a mystery. Here’s a NY Times article about the great lengths that have been taken to determine its origin: article. It is commonly thought that this phrase comes from the fact that WWII fighter planes had 9 yard long ammunition belts or that concrete mixing trucks usually hold 9 yards of concrete. These theories have been disproven.

Like White on Rice: This means that a situation is covered or that you are on top of your tasks. It can also mean a person or situation that is really close to or all over something else. It makes sense – rice is very white – it has white all over it (unless its brown rice). The origin of this saying isn’t clear. It was used as a phrase in a book in 1951 and was mentioned in a newspaper article in 1976.

Give a Cold Shoulder: This means to be unsociable to someone. It comes from the practice in medieval times of serving a cold piece of meat, like mutton, when the host wanted to signal it was time for guests to leave.

A Fine Kettle of Fish: Means an awkward state of affairs or an annoying situation. It comes from the use of a net called a “kiddle” to catch fish in a stream and the phrase meant a full net of fish – when drawn up would be wriggling around and chaotic. More on this here.

Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater: This is good advice and more of a proverb than an idiom – don’t discard something of value along with things not valuable. Its origins are from Germany in the 1500s. Some speculate that it refers to medieval bathing practices of the man of the house bathing first, then the wife and children in order of age so that the baby would be bathed in very dirty water and was thus at risk of not being seen when the water was to be disposed of. While this is compelling, there is no evidence that this is source of the phrase.


  1. I’d always heard that the 9-yards idiom came from women asking for a full 9 yards of fabric on a dress, making it fuller (and more expensive) than a dress style that was less costly but less stylish.

  2. My mother loves that phrase “don’t throw the baby out with the bathe water” ha!

  3. One side of my family has German heritage….its true about the stories of bathwater being used one after another. I am pleased to report No One in my immediate family lays claim to this practice…. Alleluia!

  4. We have friends with a weekend home in Rhinebeck so will have to keep our jealousy in check.


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