6 interesting English idioms and the stories behind them. (Set 1)

This is the first in a series of videos about some interesting English idioms and the stories that lie behind them.
We’ll show you what they mean and also show you how to use them in action.

In this video you’ll learn about these common English idioms:

  • heard it through the grapevine
  • reading the riot act
  • mad as a hatter
  • cut to the chase
  • one for the road
  • dressed to nines

This is the first in a series of videos on the etymology of common English idioms – so their origins and history.

Do you know what it means if you cut to the chase?
Or if you’re dressed to the nines?
Or if someone’s as mad as a hatter?
They’re idioms we use all the time, and we have more.
But where do they come from?
We’ll show you the stories behind them and how we use them in action.

Heard it on the grapevine

Our first idiom is heard it on the grapevine.
A grapevine is a climbing plant that produces grapes.
But this idiom is about learning something new by talking to people informally.
It’s when one person tells another and they tell another and they tell another.
The message could be gossip, or it could just be news.
Hey, I heard you’ve got an interview for a new job?
Yes, but how did you know?
I heard it on the grapevine.
Well don’t tell anyone. It’s supposed to be secret.
It’s too late for that. Everybody knows.
Oh jay! Good luck with your interview!
So where do you think this idiom came from?
I heard it through the grapevine. Dah dah dah dah.
It had nothing to do with the Marvin Gaye song. It actually dates back to the time of the telegraph, an old method of sending messages using radio or electric signals.
One theory is people thought the telegraph wires looked like the wires they use to train grapevines, so when they got a new message they’d say they heard it through the grapevine, or on the grapevine.

Read someone the riot act

OK. The next idiom is ‘read someone the riot act’.
A riot is a situation where there’s large crowd of people in a public place and they’re behaving in a violent way.
Usually they’re protesting. For example there were riots after the death of George Floyd.
The riot act was an act of law that was passed by the British government in 1715. It was designed to stop violent protests.
If there was a crowd of more than 12 people and they looked dangerous, someone came and read part of the law. And then the crowd had one hour to disperse, to break up and go away.
Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons assembled to disperse themselves and peacefully depart. GOD SAVE THE KING!
It became the law in British colonies too, so we had it in America, and it was punishable by death.
Thankfully the law doesn’t exist any more but we still use the idiom.
Oh hi!
Hi! Are the kids asleep?
I think so. I put them to bed half an hour ago. I’ll go and read them the riot act.
So if you read someone the riot act, it means you give them a strong warning that they have to stop doing whatever they’re doing and behave themselves.
And these days, we generally say it when we’re joking.
I read the kids the riot act.
Do you think it will work?
No!

Mad as a hatter

OK, the next idiom: as mad as a hatter.
In the past, people who made hats were called hatters.
You may remember a hatter in the Lewis Carole story Alice in Wonderland. He was mad too.
Mad in the sense of crazy. That’s the British English sense of the word.
In American English ‘mad’ usually means angry these days.
I hate you! I hate you!
Who me?
No, my computer. Come on now, be nice. What do you mean you won’t?
Mad as a hatter.
So if someone is behaving in a crazy way, you can say they’re as mad as a hatter.
The story behind this is very sad but very interesting. Before 1940, they used mercury in the hat making process. But it’s a toxic chemical and over time it poisoned the hatters.
They became irritable and developed speech problems and tremors and shaking. It was because of the mercury and it became known as mad hatter disease.

Cut to the chase

The next idiom has a very interesting history too. It’s cut to the chase.
This means stop wasting time and start talking about the most important thing.
It’s what we say when we want someone to get to the point.
Oh hi.
HI.
I’ve found the perfect car for us.
Oh yeah? So how much does it cost?
It’s electric.
Yeah, well that’s good, but how much is it?
It goes from zero to sixty miles per hour in three and a half seconds.
Jay, cut to the chase. How much does it cost?
$150,000.
So you want to sell the house to buy the car?
This idiom dates back to Hollywood in the 1920s and the time of silent movies.
Back then, the most exciting part of the movie was… you guessed it, the chase.
Heroes like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton would have to run away from the bad guys or the police.
Cut to the chase was what filmmakers said when they wanted to hear about the most interesting parts of the movie.

One for the road

Now the next idiom is one for the road.
The meaning of this is quite literal. One means one more drink and for the road means for the journey ahead.
In the days before cars and trains, travelling was much harder and travelers had to carry any food or drink they needed with them.
The took it ‘for the road’, for the journey.
But now we use this idiom to talk about a final quick drink before we leave a place.
Well, I must get going.
Sure you don’t want one for the road?
Oh OK. Let’s have one more.
OK, I’ll go and get them

Dressed to the nines

OK, we have one more idiom. “Dressed to the nines”.
When someone’s wearing very formal and attractive clothes, we say they’re dressed to the nines.
Are you ready?
Yes. Oh look at you! You’re dressed to the nines.
Oh and so are you! You look great!
There are different theories about the origins of this idiom.
Some people say it’s about the material or fabric that clothes are made from. It was usually sold in lengths of nine yards.
That’s about eight and a quarter metres.
To make a really nice suit, a tailor would use all nine yards of fabric, so dressed to the nines meant the best quality clothes.
The problem is, it actually only takes 4 or 5 yards to make a suit. So that story might not be true.
It’s a good story though.
Yeah. We hope you’ve enjoyed all the stories you’ve heard.
We plan to make a series of videos like this, so if you liked it, please give us a thumbs up and let us know.
And perhaps you have a friend who might like it too. Why not share it with them?
Until next time everybody, bye-bye.
Bye now.

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