Before They Were Cliché: Five Common Expressions and Their Origins

By | January 25, 2019

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Actors Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Rameses II of Egypt in the biblical epic 'The Ten Commandments', 1956. Here Moses turns the waters of the River Nile to blood. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

There’s a vast number of expressions used in conversations these days that have been so commonly used as to become cliché. These expressions roll off the tongue like water off a duck’s back and more often than not the person saying them has no idea when or how they originated or, in some cases, what they really mean.

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

The phrase, “blood is thicker than water,” is commonly used today to express the sentiment that family members come before anyone else. However, its origins are disputed and some theories suggest that the original phrase was “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” Proponents of this theory posit that the actual meaning of the phrase is the exact opposite of how we use it today, referring instead to the bond between soldiers on the battlefield or between two individuals who have entered into a blood covenant. This theory is often linked to the blood covenants of the Bible; however, the phrase itself does not appear in the Bible.

Another theory credits a 12th-century German narrative poem, Reinhart Fuchs, with the coining of the phrase we use today. However, that text is not an exact match either, with the English translation being “kin-blood is not spoiled by water.” While this phrase is similar, it certainly suggests a different meaning than the proverb as we know it. The earliest documentation of the phrase as it is used today appears as “blude’s thicker than water” in Allan Ramsay’s Collected Scot Proverbs (1737).

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Black Cat. Source: (


Another phrase with disputed origins is the question, “cat got your tongue?” It is commonly used to taunt someone who fails to produce a comeback during a verbal dispute, though it may also be used to question someone who is just being suspiciously silent. One theory attributes the phrase to ancient Egyptian times, claiming that the tongues of liars and blasphemers would be cut out and fed to cats. A similarly gruesome theory suggests that it refers to the use of the whip called the cat o’ nine tails. Yet another theory maintains that the phrase originated in the Middle Ages from the belief that witches concealed their identities by having their black cats steal the tongue of anyone unlucky enough to encounter them. However, none of these theories can be substantiated. The phrase can only be traced back as far as 1881 when the line, “Has the cat got your tongue, as the children say?”, appeared in Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 53.