beat around the bush

Have you ever heard something in plain English, and the meaning is entirely different from the meaning of the words that make up the sentence? I bet you hear them every day. There could be millions of old sayings used for conveying different messages today. 

Perhaps, you have tried on your own to figure out why such sayings are used the way they are used. Could their meanings be traced to their origins? In this post, we look at some popular old sayings and the history behind where they come from. Knowing the origins of these words may also help us in applying them properly. 


A Baker’s Dozen

This saying is striking because it has a meaning that is slightly different from the literal meaning of a dozen. A dozen of anything means there are 12 pieces of that item. However, in contrast, a baker’s dozen comprises 13 pieces of anything. 

The first time I came across the statement – a baker’s dozen, I was certain it would mean 12 pieces of something. But it turned out that I was wrong because it meant 13 pieces of something. As expected, that made me form several questions in my head, one of which was – could it be that bakers are not good with numbers. 

The meaning of A baker’s dozen could be traced back to the 13th century. Then, there was a lot of distrust between bakers and their customers. Due to the level of distrust, a law was established. The law was called Assize of Bread and Ale. The law stipulated that severe punishments should be meted out to bakers who cheated their customers (intentionally or mistakenly). As long as the customer suspected that there was foul play, the law requires that the baker be punished. 

In other to avoid this from happening, bakers sold 13 loaves of bread to their customers at the cost of 12. This became necessary to avoid the hammer of Assize of Bread and Ale falling on them. So, if there is any bad bread among them, there won’t be any need for the customer to complain because they still get 12 good perfect breads, which is what they paid for. That is how a baker’s dozen meant 13 pieces of an item. 


On Cloud Nine 

This phrase is usually used to describe extreme happiness or excitement. I am sure you are not hearing this for the first time. There are different versions as per the origin of this phrase. One version can be traced to the US Weather Bureau, another version says it comes from Buddhism, while the last version ties the phrase to Dante’s Paradise. 

According to the US Weather Bureau, this phrase was born out of the description of a cumulonimbus. That is because a level nine cumulonimbus can rise as high as between 30,000 and 40,000 ft. At such heights, they wear the semblance of a glorious mountain amidst the cloud. In other words, you could presume heaven to be similar to a level nine cumulonimbus. 

The Buddhist version describes cloud nine as the highest goal anyone can achieve in life when you mirror it against the Bodhisattva’s goal. At cloud nine, Buddhism believes an individual will attain a cloud of dharma. 

The last version comes from Dante’s Paradise. In the poem, the author describes the ninth level as the part of heaven that is closest to God. 


Give Somebody the Cold Shoulder

Interestingly, the meaning of this saying has nothing to do with a shoulder. This word combination is used to indicate that someone is not welcome. It is usually used to describe a snub. Back in the day, when a visitor was offered a cold shoulder of mutton and not the regular hot meat, it was a subtle way of telling the person that they should not visit again. 

With that, the visitor can quickly read between the lines and know that their presence is not welcome in such an environment. 


Turning A Blind Eye

This phrase is used to depict a deliberate attempt to undermine the truth. There seem to be multiple origins to this old saying. However, while the many origins are debated, there is a bit of similarity in all the stories. 

They all appear to point to the fact that it was a comment made by a British Admiral by the name of Horatio Nelson. Admiral Horatio Nelson was quite famous for leading an attack in the Battle of Copenhagen. Nelson can only see with one of his eyes because the other one is blind. 

Admiral Parker used flags to signal to Nelson at a certain point to retreat due to the heat of the battle. On the other hand, Nelson didn’t share Parker’s views. He thought that they could win the battle if they pushed further instead of disengaging and retreating. 

All Nelson had to do was pretend not to see the signal by viewing a telescope through his blind eye. Nelson made a critical remark to his fellow officer, indicating that he could use his blind eye from time to time. 


Beat Around the Bush

This phrase describes a situation where someone is not saying what is expected of them. People beat around the bush when they are evading the truth. This is a popular phrase that originated in response to game hunting in Britain. 

During the process of hunting birds, those participating in the game would beat bushes to disturb the birds and lure them out of their hiding places. 

So, from this short story, you can see that those playing the game were beating around the bush before getting on with the proper hunting. The main part of the hunt was the capturing of birds. 


Those are a couple of idioms people use every day. The origin of these sayings is just as intriguing as their meanings.