4 Common Idioms of The Human Body


Have you ever noticed that some of the common idioms we use pertain to parts of the human body? What are the most common idioms that pertain to the human body? Where did they originate from, and what do they mean?

An idiom is a word, phrase or expression that is not meant to be taken literally. When used in everyday language an idiom has a different meaning to a dictionary definition.

For instance, the ‘break a leg’ idiom, commonly used by stage actors, is one that is used to wish someone ‘luck’, or ‘do your best’, as opposed to the literal meaning suggesting you break your leg. 

Every language has its own idioms, although in modern times many are globally recognised. Below are 4 common idioms that to pertain to the human body?

This idiom originated in the 18th century, when Spanish minstrels performed for various Dukes. The Dukes would silently respond to the silliness of the minstrel's performances by placing their tongue firmly to the inside of their cheek.

In modern times, when a statement is said with ‘tongue in cheek’, it is considered to have humourous undertones.  It usually has a double meaning; it can be a somewhat serious statement, but delivered in a ‘witty’ style, and intended to be funny. The facial expression of the speaker usually indicates a ‘tongue in cheek’ statement, such as a facial wink.

This idiom first appeared in English in the Geneva Bible in 1560 (Job 19:20), which was translated from the original Hebrew: ‘I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe’. As teeth do not have skin, and skin consists of many layers, it’s assumed this figure of speech was referring to the smallest of measures.

An example in modern times would be a close encounter from being hit by a speeding vehicle:  ‘He survived that, by the skin of his teeth’. However, its usage isn’t limited to ‘physical’ narrow misses, e.g. ‘I passed that exam by the skin of my teeth’ (only just). It is also often attributed to someone’s good luck.

This idiom originated with the nineteenth century U.S. practice of literally carrying a chip of wood on the shoulder and daring someone to knock it off. It was a way to instigate a physical ‘fight’. The first evidence of it being used in England was in the 1930s in Somerset Maugham's, ‘Gentleman in the Parlour’:  ‘He was a man with a chip on his shoulder. Everyone seemed in a conspiracy to slight or injure him.’

This idiom is a phrase that is often used today to describe someone who seems to be overly-sensitive to anything, or everything in general. The person may not be seeking a physical altercation, but often reacts to situations as if they are a personal affront; often creating quarrels with others.

Considered to have been used in the 12th century, the phrase: don’t-cut-off-you-nose-to-spite-your-face, was a warning about seeking revenge on someone by inflicting harm upon yourself. It is believed this idiom was associated with the numerous legends of pious women disfiguring themselves in order to protect their virginity.

The actual idiom; ‘cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face’ didn’t appear in print until the 18th century. In modern times it is a phrase used to describe often unwise destructive actions which may be motivated by anger or desire for revenge. The revenge may be carried out, but also at the expense of the person seeking the revenge, e.g. ‘He drove into her car to get revenge, but ended up damaging his own vehicle as well. He, cut-off -his-nose-to-spite-his-face.

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