7 Common Idioms and Their Backstories

The Haunted Housewife - 7 Common Idioms and Their Backstories

Through the ages, humans have picked up thousands of idioms and proverbs that we recite on autopilot. We hear them repeated in movies, books, plays and by our elders. Phrases picked up in normal conversation are more interesting than you’d think. Let’s take a look at the origin of some of the most common phrases and do some investigating.

Curiosity Killed The Cat

The original version of this is: “Care’ll Kill A Cat.”  English playwright Ben Johnson used the word care meaning worry in his 1598 play Every Man in His Humor. “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.”

Shakespeare’s 1599 version in Much Ado About Nothing is: “What, courage man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.”

Alternate, more modern version:Curiosity killed the cat…” Sometimes you’ll hear this gem of an add-on: “...but satisfaction brought it back.


“Curiosity killed the cat, you know.” – Dr. Finklestein, Nightmare Before Christmas

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

This one came about in 1612 at the hand of Geffray Minshull when he wrote, “Some broken Citizen, who hath plaid Jack of all trades.”

“Jack of all trades,” was turned into an insult when the last bit, “master of none,” was added in 1795 by Charles Lucas  in Pharmacomastix: “The very Druggist, who in all other nations in Europe is but Pharmacopola, a mere drug-merchant, is with us, not only a physician and chirurgeon, but also a Galenic and Chemic apothecary; a seller of drugs, medicines, vertices, oils, paints or colours, poisons, &c. a Jack of all trades, and in truth, master of none.”

Alternate, more modern phrase: “Jack of all trades, master of none. Oftentimes better than a master of one.” Again, the modern add-on completely changes the meaning of the phrase.


Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” is the English version of  the phrase, “Rome ne fu[t] pas faite toute en un jour,” that was published in French in 1190 in Li Proverbe au Vilain. The first English version was found in John Heywood’s A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue in 1538.

This phrase encourages patience as valuable projects take time. A modern variation of this one is, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it burned in one.” Ouch. Rude.


Great Minds Think Alike

The general idea of this saying was first found in Dabridgcourt Belchier’s 1618 Hans Beer-Pot: “Though he made that verse, Those words were made before. Good wits doe jumpe.”

Belchier uses “jump”, meaning “in agreement with.” The version we’re familiar with wasn’t found in print until 1816 in Carl Theodor von Unlanski’s biography titled The woful history of the unfortunate Eudoxia: “It may occur that an editor has already printed something on the identical subject – great minds think alike, you know.”

It means that intelligent people may come to the same conclusion. There are a couple of variations to this phrase you may hear from time to time: “Great minds think alike, fools seldom differ,” or “Great minds think alike, small minds rarely differ.”

These are labelled as misquotes around the internet but since the original quote doesn’t have a specific origin, that’s a mystery. However the add-on changes the entire meaning of the phrase, yet again.


The Early Bird Catches The Worm

Sometimes we hear “catches” the worm, sometimes it’s “gets” the worm. Either way, the first instance of this phrase was back in 1670. The quote in John Ray’s A collection of English proverbs 1670, 1678 is:“The early bird catcheth the worm.”

It means that those who show up early and prepare are the ones that are successful. There was a clever twist added to the phrase in the mid-1990’s: “The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese!”

This is true because the first mouse is caught in the trap, then the second mouse comes along to eat the cheese. Oh.

Source 1 | Source 2

Ignorance is Bliss

Thomas Gray’s phrase has been misquoted for centuries. “Ignorance is bliss,” gives the impression that ignorance is a good thing, what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

In Gray’s 1742 Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, the original phrase is “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

Gray was actually nostalgically reflecting on his childhood, when he was allowed to be ignorant. He was not suggesting that ignorance is actually bliss.


All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy

Horror fans recognize this one from The Shining. However, the earliest known appearance of this phrase was in 1659, in James Howell’s Proverbs in English, Italian, French and Spanish. It means that a person may become boring and/or bored if they work all of the time.

A second part was added to this in 1825 by novelist Maria Edgeworth in Harry and Lucy Concluded: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.”

If read together, we conclude that it’s better to have a balance between work and fun. Too much work, you’re bored or boring. Not enough work, you won’t be taken seriously.


It was fun and interesting researching these phrases on the interwebz. Since these have been around for centuries, it’s hard to pinpoint a solid origin or track all of their variations. It was a mind-blowing experience for some of these, for sure. It makes me want to trace the origin of everything.

If you’ve got a few that aren’t listed here, go on and serve me up some Knowledge Tea. This kind of stuff gets me all excited.

7 Common Idioms and Their Backstories