11 puzzling phrases and their meanings

From the ‘bee’s knees’ to ‘seeing a man about a horse,’ here are the definitions and origins behind some time-tested (and worn) phrases and words.


As an unabashed word nerd, I am fascinated with the ways in which language changes over time. In particular, I like to learn about expressions and phrases that were once commonly known, but that puzzle us today. Fifty years from now, will people know what “bad hair day,” “big brother,” and “Elvis has left the building” mean?

Here are some phrases that were once in common use, along with their definitions.

1. Bee’s knees — means the height of perfection. (Also, “the cat’s pajamas,” “the cat’s meow.”) The phrase originated in the late 1700s to describe something insignificant; however, in the 1920s, it came to mean the opposite, according to the Oxford Dictionaries. Example:

I love Matthew Inman’s latest comic; it’s the bee’s knees.

2. At sixes and sevens — means in a state of confusion or disarray. Phrase came from the numbers on dice and cards. To gamble on these numbers was considered reckless. Example:

These schedule changes have employees at sixes and sevens.

3. Dog days — refers to the beginning of July to mid-August to coincide with the rising of Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major. This is also the hottest period of summer. Example:

In sweltering Austin, it feels like the dog days last all summer.

4. Fair to middling — means average or so-so. The phrase came from the grades of commercial cotton. Cotton was rated from fine to inferior. Middling meant it was good, but not the best. Example:

There’s a fair to middling chance your press release won’t be read if you use that headline.

5. Hack — a metaphor for a person hired to do something or who does low-grade work. From the Old English term hackney, which is an ordinary horse suitable for general use. Example:

One look at his writing samples, and we knew Stan was a hack.

6. Hatchet man — a person employed to carry out an unpleasant assignment requiring ruthlessness. The term originally described a person serving in the military whose job was to march in front of the troops and clear the way for them. Example:

With layoffs looming, we wondered whether Tim was hired to be the hatchet man.

7. Rest on your laurels — to live off your reputation or refrain from further effort because you are satisfied with what you have already achieved. In the ancient Pythian games, winners were crowned with a wreath of laurels. Laurels came to symbolize victory and distinction. Example:

He will rest on his laurels, telling everyone who will listen about the award he won in 2005.

8. Make a beeline — means to go directly and quickly to. The phrase came from the belief that bees always flew in a straight line to the hive. Example:

After the last town hall meeting, we all made a beeline for the nearest bar.

9. Pig in a poke — something bought or received without prior examination or knowledge. A poke is a small sack. A dishonest farmer, claiming to be selling a young pig, might instead place a cat in the bag. Example:

When hiring freelance writers, always ask for writing samples. Otherwise you could end up with a pig in a poke.

10. See a man about a horse — this phrase is said when you are unwilling to state your true destination. The saying comes from the 1866 play, “Flying Scud,” in which a character extricates himself from an uncomfortable situation by saying, “Excuse me Mr. Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog.”

Oh, did I miss that meeting? I went to see a man about a horse.

11. Toe the line — means to conform to defined rules or standards. Original meaning was to position one’s toes next to a marked line to be ready to start a race or some other undertaking.

You need to toe the line and follow the style guide.

PR Daily readers, any other old phrases you’d like to share?

Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. She is also the author of the writing/editing/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.

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