The Cat in the Bag and Other Stories Your Teachers Never Told You

Language is interesting. Sure, Urdu classes were a menace and English made you want to rip your hair out but if you really think about it, none of the bonds we share or the things we hold dear could have existed had it not been for language.

When I found out that the theme for this month was centered on this, I went through a wide range of emotions all at once, going from excitement to literally just me questioning everything I knew. The reason for this being the broad nature of the topic at hand; there’s so much one can discuss, so many alternate ways to go about writing when it comes to language. I gave it a lot of thought and ultimately decided on sticking to the basics and from there grew the idea of idioms.

Yes, flashback to seventh grade grammar exams where you could never, ever guess them right. Makes the two of us, to be honest. 

Despite my initial annoyance, I’ve developed a strange affection of sorts for them and so, I bring to you today a list of my favorite idioms and the stories behind their origin in hopes that you find them as interesting as I did.

1. To Show Your True Colors

Pakistani drama serials are having a field day with this one as we speak but anyhow, the origin story for this one is very sneaky. It goes like this: in old times, when kingdoms sent their ships out to war, they would often hoist multiple different flags. The sole reason for doing this was to lure the enemy in, without them ever finding out what lay in store for them. As the opponent’s ships would draw nearer, the original ships would show their actual flag or their “true colors”, as one might say, and then kaboom! The rest is, quite literally, history.

2. Spill the Beans

For this one, we shall turn back the clock and venture into Ancient Greece where the procedure for voting was nothing like what we see in the present day. You see, back then, the voters would come bearing beans; the black ones would be placed into the jars of candidates they did not like and white beans would be placed for those they approved of. However, there were instances where the jars for the different aspirants were accidentally knocked over, “spilling the beans” and revealing voting statistics that the state would probably not want the people knowing. Tough luck, I guess.

3. Break a Leg

This one’s a bit confusing, if I’m being honest. The exact origins for this are up for debate but the most commonly believed version is this: a wide portion of the population at one point held the belief that wishing somebody else good luck would alert the evil spirits that constantly surround us. Therefore, they would actively attempt to sabotage our lives. In alignment with this, people began telling each other to break a leg when they did not honestly want them to, solely so that the curse of the evil spirits could be avoided. This eventually developed into the idiom we use to wish each other luck in the modern age. Damn, talk about reverse psychology.

4. Caught Red Handed

This idiom takes root in Scotland in the 1400s where any person caught butchering an animal that was not their own would be punishable by law. However, there was a catch: the only time a person could be put into prison was if they were found with the animal’s blood all over their hands. If you could keep your hands free of the blood, you would be declared innocent. Hmm, a bit questionable, if you ask me.

5. Bite the Bullet

This refers to enduring something arduous or extremely painful. With regards to its origin, it sprung up some time in the 1800s. At that stage in human history, anesthesia existed but was not as readily available so patients undergoing a surgical procedure of any sort would have to remain conscious throughout the whole thing. This, as one would rightfully assume, was an incredibly torturous experience and to distract them from the pain, they would often clutch a bullet between their teeth. How this helped the patients is a mystery I fail to solve.

6. Let Your Hair Down

In the past, women rarely let their hair down, in fear that they would be considered untidy. They would wrap their hair up in elaborate braids and buns and kept them tied back at all times. The only times this was not the case was when they washed or brushed their hair. This period, for them, was considered a time of relaxation hence why we have come to use it to refer to similar things too.

7. Let the Cat Out of the Bag

Similar to spilling the beans, this is used when something private is made known to a greater number of people. The story goes like this: in the sixteenth century, people would often sell pigs in the name of cats. They would wrap these up in bags and take them to the market. However, if someone were to actually check the bag and let the “cat” out, the fraud would be revealed. 

Conclusively, I put my pen down now in hopes that you found the stories engaging and these, to some degree, sparked your interest in the tool that is language and the various layers and depth it holds. It’s like they say:

“A special kind of beauty exists which is born in language, of language, and for language.”

TLC Writer

Eisha Gul

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