Penny for your thoughts

English speakers use a colourful array of idioms in conversation. An idiom is an expression with a figurative meaning that differs from the literal meaning. Idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning. For example, instead of saying “You’re correct” you could say ‘You hit the nail on the head.”

I wondered where some common idioms originated, and off I went on a “wild goose chase.”

The website Grammarist defines the idiom “a cock and bull story” as a tale that is unbelievable, one that is as ridiculous as it is far-fetched or implausible.

The expression “cock and bull story” dates to the early 1600s, and there are many opinions as to where it came from. One story credits two coaching inns that were located in Stony Stratford, one named The Cock and one named The Bull. Guests would supposedly banter back and forth between the two inns, telling ever more outrageous stories. There does not seem to be much truth in this theory but it makes a good story.

A more plausible origin is a French expression, coq-a-l’âne, which is defined as a garbled story that is passed from one party to another. Literally, coq-a-l’âne translates as rooster to jackass. For some reason, the latter animal changed from a jackass to a bull in English usage.

I’ve come to the end of my 2021 potato harvest and I wondered about the origin of the phrase “small potatoes.” According to “small potatoes” means something insignificant or unimportant. This phrase originated in mid 19th-century American use, especially in the form small potatoes and few in the hill .

Some of the more common idioms and their meanings are:

  • a piece of cake (It’s easy)
  • raining cats and dogs (It’s raining hard)
  • kill two birds with one stone (Get two things done with a single action)
  • bite the bullet (Decide to do something unpleasant that you have been avoiding.)
  • beating around the bush (to avoid giving a definite answer or position)
  • ballpark figure (a rough numerical estimate)
  • let the cat out of the bag, (reveal a secret carelessly or by mistake.)

If you have followed my mental ramble you might ask “a penny for your thoughts.” when you want to know what I was thinking about. According to Grammarist the phrase a penny for your thoughts goes back at least to 1522, when it was published in the work Four Last Things by Sir Thomas More: “As it often happeth that the very face sheweth the mind walking a pilgrimage, in such wise that, not without some note and reproach of such vagrant mind, other folk suddenly say to them, ‘A penny for your thought.’”

And that’s when a penny was worth something!