Curiosity Killed the Cat: Common Sayings and Where They Came From

Many idioms are commonplace in the English language, but where did they come from and how did they become so widespread?

Idioms like its raining cats and dogs and spill the beans have distant origins.

Library of Congress

Idioms like “it’s raining cats and dogs” and “spill the beans” have distant origins.

Rebecca Harris, Columnist

Many people know sayings like “it ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings” or “bite the bullet.” What a lot of people don’t know is how they originated. While many of these sayings have been around for centuries, some are more recent than others. Some of the time periods for the older phrases have not been identified, which makes it difficult to pinpoint an origin story. Read ahead at your own caution, because, as the saying goes, “curiosity killed the cat.”

Bite the bullet

“Bite the bullet” means to make yourself do something you view as hard or repulsive, or to be brave in hard times. The phrase is thought to date back to the 19th century. According to History Extra, “Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 novel, The Light that Failed, offers one of the earliest surviving written accounts of the phrase. A passage reads: “‘Steady, Dickie, steady!’ said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. ‘Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.’” Other theories claim that before the usage of anesthesia, when soldiers underwent procedures such as amputations, they were given a bullet or other object of like firmness to bite down on, which led to the usage of the phrase.

Break a leg

While there are a multitude of different theories about how “break a leg” originated, two main origins lie in the theatre. The first one is superstition about wishing someone good luck. Wishing good luck is thought to bring misfortune, so people should wish the opposite upon a performer. The second theory is that “breaking a leg” means to bow or curtsy. This is also supported by the fact that side curtains in theaters are known as “legs” and performers would walk through the curtain, or ‘break’ a leg, and bow.

Raining cats and dogs

Hypotheses about the origins of “raining cats and dogs” have led to the theory that cats and dogs used to sleep under thatched roofs, and would get washed out during storms. However, according to the Library of Congress, “a properly maintained thatch roof is naturally water resistant and slanted to allow water to run off. In order to slip off the roof, the animals would have to be lying on the outside—an unlikely place for an animal to seek shelter during a storm.” Instead, their theory suggests that “cats and dogs” is a mispronunciation of the Latin word, “catadupe,” or waterfall. This would mean that the actual saying is, “it’s raining waterfalls,” instead of “it’s raining cats and dogs.”

Blind as a bat

Before people knew that bats use echolocation to hunt, they thought that bats were blind due to their seemingly random flight patterns. This led to the usage of “blind as a bat,” which is said when someone can’t see well or they refuse to concede that there is a blindingly obvious problem. However, bats have fairly good eyesight, so this saying is actually inaccurate.

Spill the beans

The phrase “spill the beans” does not have a definitive time period of origin; however, many people attribute it to the ancient Greeks. Greek votes were anonymously cast by placing a black or white bean into a jar, which would then be counted later. If someone knocked over the jar, the votes could be seen, spreading the news to others nearby.

Barking up the wrong tree

“Barking up the wrong tree” was used during hunting, when dogs would chase after rodents, such as squirrels or raccoons. The dogs would bark at the trees when the animals climbed up them, even after the rodents had moved to different trees. The saying is used when someone is trying to attain something, but they are either doing it the wrong way or they won’t succeed.

Fit as a fiddle

According to the Macquarie Dictionary, “fit as a fiddle” refers to the 1600s. “The word fit had as its primary meaning ‘well-suited, apt for a particular purpose’. The violin was picked out as the exemplar because of the alliteration of fit and fiddle, and because the violin is a beautifully shaped instrument producing a very particular sound.” Over time, as the meaning of the word “fit” changed, the meaning of the saying changed with it. Nowadays, “fit as a fiddle” means someone is in good physical condition.

It ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings

The origins of this colloquialism are unclear, although it is often credited to broadcaster, Dan Cook. Cook used the phrase “the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” basing it off of Yogi Berra, who said, “the game isn’t over till it’s over,” according to the Chicago Tribune. “It ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings” means that nothing is definitive until the event is over. Another similar (but more self-explanatory) saying is, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

Many of the sayings are very literal once you take a look at their origin stories, and all of them are nothing out of the ordinary during day-to-day conversation. These colloquialisms can be baffling to some people, especially if they don’t know where they came from, but often make you wonder: what other sayings have weird backstories just waiting to be told? While it is true that “curiosity killed the cat,” never forget the end of the saying, “…but satisfaction brought it back.”