Another Nine Idioms Explained

peanut soup to nuts

I’ll cover idioms from soup to nuts in one fell swoop. Will you come away enlightened? The proof will be in the pudding.

As mentioned in the first two installments of this growing series on idioms, I’ve been jotting down idioms as I work because I’ve had a growing fascination with the origins of words and phrases and was curious how some of these common, enigmatic turns of phrase came to mean what they mean. Idioms are commonly understood, though their literal interpretation makes little sense, especially in context. So, how does that happen?

An idiom is…

According to Merriam-Webster, an idiom is “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as ‘up in the air’ for ‘undecided’) or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as ‘give way’).”

The Grammarist defines an idiom as “a word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition… English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language.”

As before, I’ve focused on nine idioms here, compiled in no particular order and presented for your entertainment and edification.

soup to nuts

“Soup to nuts” is referenced as an “American English” expression in multiple sources, which means “completely; from begining to end; everything.” The mealtime implications seem obvious enough, though the Grammarist’s (and others) description of “soups are the typical appetizer while a sweet treat with nuts is the dessert” leaves me a little flat. Were desserts predominantly nutty in the 1920s, which is when this phrase first came into use? Other variations connected to this idiom include “from pottage to cheese” and “from soda to hock.” “Pottage” is a thick soup or stew, so the mealtime reference is similar, and cheese as a final course rings truer to me. “Soda to hock” derives from Faro (also Pharaoh or Pharao), a 17th-century card game, in which “soda” is the first card out of the box and “hock” is the last card remaining. The use of “soda to hock” as a phrase meaning “beginning to end” predates “soup to nuts,” going back to 1902 (The Straight Dope).

“Everything you need to build the cabinet is in the box, from soup to nuts.”

one fell swoop

In the 13th century, “fell” meant “fierce, savage, cruel, ruthless, dreadful, or terrible” and is the common root of the word “felon.” (The Phrase Finder). But the phrase “one fell swoop” was coined by Shakespeare in Macbeth, when Macduff learns of his wife and children’s murder and likens it to a hawk swooping down on defenseless prey: All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop? In this context, the cruelty and savagery of the word “fell” is clearly intact. Today, that element of the phrase has diminished, and we use “one fell swoop” to mean “suddenly, all at once.”

“I lost my girl, my car, and my dog, all in one fell swoop.”

keep your eyes peeled

As with many of these turns of phrase, there’s more than one variation of this idiom, including “keep your eyes skinned,” which appears to be the original. They both mean to “pay close attention” or “be watchful,” and both appear to relate to “peeling” back one’s eyelids to open them up, just like you would peel a banana or an orange (Know Your Phrase). The older version comes from the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Robert Frederickson (1832), and the more common expression comes from The Kenosha Telegraph newspaper, published in 1852 (Lyrics Translate). But this passage from BookBrowse was pretty interesting:

Another possibility (or perhaps just a related pun) is that the expression comes from the early days of the British police. In 1829, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel, established the Metropolitan Police Force in London, the first professional police force. Before long the policemen had picked up the nicknames “Peelers” and “Bobbies” for the unpopular fact that they reported directly to Peel at the Home Office. “Bobbies” lives on to this day as a friendly nickname for the police in England. “Peelers” is not used but may have left its marks in the expression to keep your eyes peeled, as per their founder’s instructions.

“I don’t know when the bus will arrive. Just keep your eyes peeled and call me when it does.”

beyond the pale

I found various references to 14th century England and Ireland and the 16th century Russian empire that helped make sense of this phrase, which is used to describe something “unacceptable” or “outside the standards of decency.” The simpler explanation references the word “pale” to mean a “stake or pointed piece of wood,” which relates to a “paling fence” (and the word “impale”). The area closed in by a paling fence came to be called a “pale,” which then came to mean an area that was protected and safe. To go beyond the pale, then, meant to stray beyond this safe region.

There are also historical references, one that hearkens to 14th century Ireland in which “The Pale” was essentially an area controlled by England, and once you went outside the Pale, you were outside the authority of English law (Condé Nast Traveler). Another refers to Catherine the Great creating the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. The first printed reference is in John Harington’s lyric poem, 1657’s “The History of Polindor and Flostella,” which has the line, “Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-walk” (The Phrase Finder).

“Politics is politics, but these calls for violence are beyond the pale.”

proof is in the pudding

This idiom has something of a literal lineage, though it’s not an obvious one in today’s use of the words involved. The meaning of the idiom is that the veracity or value of something can only be ascertained once it is put into practice or can only be judged by the results. The phrase itself started as “the proof of the pudding is in the eating (or tasting)” and branched out to “the proof in the pudding,” “the proof of the pudding,” and “the proof is in the pudding.” Pudding, in the 14th century, was a sausage-like concoction made up of “mixtures of minced meat, cereal, spices, and blood, stuffed into intestines or stomachs and boiled or steamed. In the Middle Ages, they could be very good or very bad — or possibly fatal if the meat used was contaminated” (Merriam-Webster). The only way to find out was to eat it; carefully, I’d imagine. Therefore, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

“He says he studied for the test, but the proof is in the pudding.”

under the weather

While I found more than one explanation for this idiom, they all seem to relate to sailing — which is another commonality among many of the idioms I’ve researched in this series. The phrase means, “feeling sick,” or maybe “feeling sad,” and the most logical explanation I found refers to sailors or passengers who were feeling seasick going below deck, where the boat’s rocking was less noticeable (Wonderopolis). So, literally, someone would go below deck to get “under the weather” because they were feeling sick. But Know Your Phrase also includes this nautical reference: “The term is correctly ‘under the weather bow,’ which is a gloomy prospect; the weather bow is the side upon which all the rotten weather is blowing.” The first use of the phrase dates back to the mid 19th century.

”I’d love to go with you, but I’m feeling a bit under the weather.”

watershed moment

A watershed is literally a divider between land and water, a “geographical term describing the area from which water sources drain into a single river or a ridge, like that formed by a chain of mountains, which sends water to two different rivers on either side” (Plansponsor). So, as a watershed is a dividing line sending water flowing down separate, disparate paths, a watershed came into figurative use to mean “an important or historic event” in the mid 1800s. The term “watershed moment” to mean “a turning point, the exact moment that changes the direction of an activity or situation; a dividing point, from which things will never be the same” (Grammarist) came into use around the turn of the 20th century, and watershed moments are often only recognized in hindsight.

”The moon landing was a watershed moment, not just in terms of space travel, but for humanity as a whole.”

can’t have your cake and eat it too

This phrase, which means you “can’t have it both ways” or “you can’t enjoy both of two desirable but mutually exclusive alternatives” was always a head-scratcher for me. How can you eat your cake if you don’t have it? Well, as Ben Zimmer wrote in The New York Times Magazine, it might make “more sense when you reverse the construction, so it goes like this: ‘You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.’” The idea being, once you’ve eaten your cake, you can’t still have, or possess, it.

”She stayed out all night partying and now she’s late for the conference. I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

skin of your teeth

Unlike most of the 27 idioms I’ve covered in this series to date, this one always made literal sense to me. In the sense that “by the skin of your teeth” means “just barely” or “by a very narrow margin,” I always imagined the fact that your teeth don’t have skin was a way of conveying how narrow the margin really was. But who came up with the phrase? Apparently, the first use is from the Bible, Job 19:20. One interpretation is that, in describing an illness that has decimated him, Job says, “My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth” (Wonderopolis). The Wikipedia entry also cites the Bible verse, but confuses the issue, in my opinion, suggesting “skin” translates to “flesh and bones” ultimately suggesting the correct reading is “My skin and flesh cling to my bones, and I am left with (only) my skull.” I like the first explanation better, and it certainly makes more sense in the context of the modern translation of the idiom.

“When the truck made that turn in front of me, I avoided hitting him by the skin of my teeth.”

The Straight Dope
The Phrase Finder
Know Your Phrase
Lyrics Translate
Condé Nast Traveler

Your path to self-publishing


  1. From soup to nuts. For the real history of that idiom, look up Ziryab (c. 789–c. 857). He was THE rock star and trendsetter of his time in Spain. Among many, many things, he introduced meal courses to the Andalusians–hence the idea of starting a meal with soup and progressing to the nut course. He is an amazing historical figure!

  2. Great article. Just a quick note, I had read about this years ago but the “skin of your teeth” is most likely in relation to the enamel on your teeth as it is technically a “skin”. Thought that fascinating since enamel as dentist refer to it was not “discovered” until thousands of years later. Job is considered the oldest book in the Bible.

  3. The email attached to this feature claimed ‘The proof will be in the pudding.’ Wrong! The proof is NOT in the pudding. The proof of the pudding is in the easting.

  4. One fell swoop
    I sent this message to the linguist James Harbeck in June 2014:
    << The Hebrew word for "sea gull" is shin-het-peh. But the ancient het had a W-sound, so it anciently sounded like ShWP, cognate with swoop as in one fell swoop. I have a friend who changed his last name from Dutch Shaap to Hebrew Shakhaf. <<
    The seagull swoops down to catch a fish. I think the het lost its W-sound due to the influence of Greek which had already lost the sound of its Ancient Greek 6th letter that we call digamma. When the Greeks & Romans controlled the Middle East, the het had a KS = X-sound. Today it has a kH sound.

    Skin of … teeth
    The Hebrew phrase at Job 19:20 is B'3or SHinai (using 3 for the letter aiyin whose ancient sound was a velar G, as in 3aZa = Gaza). That phrase was nearly a phono-semantic match for the Hebrew word B'QoSHi which means "barely, hardly, with difficulty". Of course I don't know if Job used this idiom or if what he said was mis-heard during oral transmission before the book of Job was written.

  5. You can’t just leave out commas, Andre. They help the reader to easily understand the sentence. Here, a comma is needed before an interjectory word, phrase or clause. A comma is also needed before a FANBOY, when the FANBOY is a coordinating conjunction.

    According to Merriam-Webster, an idiom is “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself COMMA, either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as ‘up in the air’ for ‘undecided’) COMMA, or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as ‘give way’).”

    • Hi Gary. That section is a direct quote from Merriam-Webster, as indicated by the quotation marks, though I see no issue with the construction.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.