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Five Body-Related Idioms and their History

Five Body-Related Idioms and their History

Following on from our Five Tech-Related Idioms and their Historyin our idiom series, let’s look at some commonly used idioms with a medical theme. Let’s see how long it can take you to remember some of the following expressions and their backgrounds.  

Here are five English idioms related to medicine and their origins to remember the next time you are in the doctor’s waiting room.  

To keep at arm’s length 

Definition: to keep something/someone away from you and stop them from getting too close. 

Similar expressions: Won’t go near someone with a barge pole  

Example: “I knew as soon as I entered the room, I had to keep him at arm’s length”. 

Possible Origin: During the 1600s, the idiom started as keep at arm’s end, but by the 1700s the phrase keep at arm’s length was used. In addition, Shakespeare had used an early version of the idiom in the play As You Like It, believed to have been written in 1599: “Thy conceit is nearer death than thy powers. For my sake, be comfortable: hold death awhile at arm’s end.”. In the past, people used body parts to measure different distances, and in general, the correct etiquette was to bow or curtsy at a slight distance. Therefore, to invade someone’s personal space would have been considered rude or disrespectful in most situations, especially amongst the upper classes during those times. 


On the tip of my tongue 

Definition:  A moment of forgetfulness/ something you know but have forgotten at that moment. 

Similar expressions: Lost my train of thought  

Example: “It was on the tip of my tongue all day, but I just could not remember her name” 

Possible Origin: This term is originally known as TOT (tip of tongue) or lethologica and is credited to psychologist Carl Jung in the early part of the 20th century. However, the earliest clear record is in the 1915 edition of Dorland’s American Illustrated Medical Dictionary, where lethologica is defined as the ‘inability to remember the proper word’. This expression may have increased in popularity as our understanding of the mind and medicine has increased. 


To get something off one’s chest 

Definition: to make an important statement or confession to feel better about oneself. 

Similar expressions: Own up to something  

Example: “I had to tell someone what had happened at the office to get it off my chest!” 

Possible Origin: From the 18th century there are plenty of novels and books where negative things are referred to as “weighing” upon people or causing inner turmoil. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase, “get something off one’s chest,” as meaning “to relieve one’s mind by making a statement or confession,” and cites as its earliest example “1902 Daily Chron. 27 Sept. 3/2 The desire is either to deliver a message to the world or to express the individual personality—to ‘get it off your chest’ is the horrid, vulgar phrase.” It was during this time that doctors carried out a lot of research on human bodies as they tried to understand anatomy. It could be one reason this phrase suddenly became popular. 


To give/lend someone a hand 

Definition: If you give/lend someone a hand. 

Similar Expressions: Lend a helping hand 

Example: “I helped Sean move house because he needed someone to lend him a hand”. 

Possible Origin:This expression appears in some literature in the 16th Century for example in 1598 J. Florio’s Worlde of Wordes “The retainer doth some service, that now and then…lendes a hande ouer a stile”. This expression probably came about because in the past most labour was manual labour, so when you ‘lent someone your hand’ you were also giving up your precious time to help someone else and not being paid for your work. The equivalent expression might be, “lend me your phone or laptop”. 


Joined at the hip 

Definition: This expression means you are inseparable from someone 

Similar expressions:  Stuck together like glue 

Example: “They are joined at the hip; they never seem to be apart” Possible Origin:  This expression dates back to the 1960s. The earliest printed record I can find is from the Californian newspaper the Pasadena Star-News, March 1963: “The two organizations [Caltech and the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce] were so closely knit … they were practically joined at the hip.” The Biddenden Maids could also be alluded to in this expression, with Biddenden cakes being handed out since the 1700s in the small town. They are biscuits that contain an image of twins joined at the hip and shoulder. In addition, this expression may have arisen during this time as city populations grew and people became more accustomed to differences and diversity.  


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