Abstract Expressions: Idioms That Come From Art

“It is not humanly possible to gather immediately from it what the logic of language is. Language disguises thought.” - Ludwig Wittgenstein

The English language is a funny thing. Even as technology radically changes the way we go about our daily lives, we still find ourselves using many of the same old turns of phrase. For example, we might text friends the 16th century expression “it’s raining cats and dogs,” or say that 3D movie tickets cost “an arm and a leg.” Considering how confusing these old sayings might be to newcomers, why do we still bother with them at all? Why don’t we, instead, just say what we mean?

Perhaps that just isn’t poetic enough. Indeed, our human fondness for all things abstract might help explain why so many idioms come from the art world. From music and literature to paintings and dance, the arts have given birth to many famous phrases. Here are eight of the most popular examples of art’s lasting influence on the English language.

 

Idiom: At one fell swoop

Meaning: At the same time; in a powerful, decisive action

Origin: This idiom traces its roots all the way back to ye olde English. “Fell” (an old word, which came into use by the 13th century) is the common root of “felon”. But the full phrase, “at one fell swoop,” comes from the King of Timeless Expressions himself, William Shakespeare.

The idiom first appears in Shakespeare’s 1605 tragedy, Macbeth.  In his quest to become king of Scotland, Macbeth kills the family and servants of lord Macduff. Upon learning of this, Macduff replies:

“All my pretty ones?

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?

What, all my pretty chickens and their dam

At one fell swoop?”

What better way to portray Macbeth’s deadliness than by comparing him to a ruthless hunter?

 

Idiom: Warts and all

Meaning: The entire thing, without hiding the less attractive parts

Origin: A variation of this popular phrase was first uttered by Oliver Cromwell, circa 1656, after celebrated artist Samuel Cooper painted a miniature portrait of him (based on a full-sized portrait, painted by Peter Lely in 1653). Cromwell, who was then Lord Protector of England, felt that the artist’s first draft was a bit too reverential. Prior to Cooper’s second attempt, Cromwell told him:

“Use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me and not flatter me at all. Remark all these ruffness, pimples, warts and everything as you see me. Otherwise I’ll never pay a farthing for it.”

And with that, “warts and all” was born. On the surface, the phrase evokes ugliness. But there’s also something beautiful about the idea of a divisive, incredibly powerful historical figure insisting on humility.

Samuel Cooper's miniature portrait of Oliver Cromwell

Samuel Cooper's miniature portrait of Oliver Cromwell

Idiom: Always a bridesmaid, but never a bride

Meaning: Said of someone who is never the focus of the situation

Origin: Many people think that mouthwash brand Listerine coined this phrase. Beginning in 1925, the brand ran print advertisements featuring “Edna”, who was “often a bridesmaid but never a bride,” because she didn’t use Listerine to combat bad breath.

True, Listerine pushed this phrase into common parlance, but its first usage in popular culture is from the 1917 Victorian music hall tune, “Why Am I Always the Bridesmaid,” by composers Charles Collins and Fred Leigh.

“Why am I always the bridesmaid
Never the blushing bride
Ding, Dong, wedding bells
Only ring for other gals
But one fine day
Please let it be soon
I shall wake up in the morning
On my own honeymoon.”

Conspicuously absent in the lyrics: any mention of the protagonist’s oral hygiene.

A Listerine print ad that helped popularize the expression. Photo credit: AdAge

A Listerine print ad that helped popularize the expression. Photo credit: AdAge

Idiom: Pull out all the stops

Meaning: Make every effort to achieve something

Origin: In the 16th century, the musical term “stop” meant “note” or “key.” But before long, language evolved, and “stops” started referring to handles on pipe organs, which are used to control the airflow through the pipes. “Pulling them out” increases their volume.

English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold is often credited with the first figurative first use of the phrase. In his 1865 work, Essays in Criticism, Arnold writes:

“Knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that... somewhat narrow-toned organ, the modern Englishman.”

Today, we understand that “pulling out all the stops” means to make every last effort — no knowledge of the inner workings of organs, required.

A close-up look at the stops on an electronic organ.

A close-up look at the stops on an electronic organ.

Idiom: Break a leg

Meaning: “Good luck!”

Origin: This phrase originated in the early 1900s. And, according to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catchphrases, it’s a translation from German. The term “Hals und Beinbuch” (a broken neck and a broken leg) was commonly used by German actors before performances.  It wasn’t long before their British and American counterparts caught on.

But why would anyone wish injury upon a colleague? Throughout the ages, popular folklore has warned against wishing people good luck. It was thought that doing so tempted evil spirits to intervene, cursing those who were wished well. To prevent this from happening, people would attempt to trick the spirits, by wishing “bad luck” instead. Thus, “break a leg” has become a common expression of “good luck.”

 

Idiom: Piece of cake

Meaning: An easy situation

Origin: “Piece of cake” refers to the cakewalk, a couples’ dance invented by African Americans in the late 19th century. In its earliest form, the cakewalk was performed by black slaves, who danced competitively for of their masters.  

Couples formed a square, with the men on the inside, then strutted around inside the square. One by one, couples were eliminated by judges. In 1876, the dance was performed at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, where the winning pair was presented with a prize piece of cake — hence, the name.

Soon, the cakewalk began to spread across the U.S., where it was performed in minstrel shows and ballrooms alike. 1898 saw the premiere of Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk — the first Broadway musical to feature an entirely African American cast.

And even though the dance could be hard work, dancers made it look light-hearted and easy. Today, the terms “piece of cake” and “cakewalk” have both become synonymous with simplicity.

Idiom: Can’t do ___ to save my life

Meaning: You’re absolutely inept at something

Origin: Famed British writer Anthony Trollope invented this expression. In his 1848 novel, The Kellys and O’Kellys, he wrote, “if it was to save my life and theirs, I can’t get up small talk for the rector and his curate.”

The Kelly and the O’Kellys failed commercially (it sold only 140 copies), but the idiom it produced has been a lasting success.

But this wasn’t Trollope’s only contribution to our lexicon. The first printed citation of the idiom “blow your own trumpet” (i.e. to boast, or “toot one’s own horn”) was found in Trollope’s 1873 work, Australia and New Zealand.

He wrote, “In the colonies . . . when a gentleman sounds his own trumpet, he blows.” In this context, “blows” mirrors its current, somewhat crass use in American slang — a subtle reminder that boasting isn’t a good look.

Whether directly quoted by art or inspired by artistic processes, idioms have a natural link to creativity. And the connection makes sense. Art itself is a figurative expression, which, like idioms, transforms the mundane into something more colorful

So, if you’re wondering what the idioms of the future might be, look no further than the art of today.