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Where'd that phrase come from #66

Created date

June 11th, 2014

On the house

In the old days, pubs were often on the first floors of inns, which were essentially just houses. Typically, the owner of such an establishment would refer to his business as “the house” for this very reason. Whenever a patron had spent a good bit of money on ale or spirits—and the proprietor could, therefore, afford to give him a free one—the pub would purchase the next drink for him. This one was “on the house.”

“When the bartender learned that I had just gotten engaged, he said the drinks were on the house.”

A shot in the arm

“A shot in the arm” is a distinctly twentieth-century phrase—a figurative reference to the jolt or “pick-me-up” that one experiences when injecting drugs. In time, people began to use this image to describe most anything that has a stimulating or invigorating effect.

“Leaders in the Federal Reserve hoped that lowering interest rates would give the economy a shot in the arm.”

Zero tolerance

Government officials at all levels use this phrase ad infinitum to describe policies that allow for no exceptions whatsoever. There are, for instance, zero-tolerance drug laws, gun laws, etc. Though common today, “zero tolerance” as a label didn’t appear until the 1970s, when The New York Times quoted a federal government policy based on “zero tolerance.”

Since then, the phrase has been used so often that it has come to symbolize not just policies but methods of law enforcement as well.

“Our school has a zero-tolerance policy on cheating. Those caught are expelled, no ifs, ands, or buts.”


Go postal


This phrase, made popular in the 1990s, has rather morbid roots. Starting in the late 1980s, a rash of shootings occurred at U.S. postal facilities across the country, carried out by disgruntled employees. In a ten-year-period, there were nearly two dozen such incidents, which ultimately gave rise to the phrase “go postal,” a reference to the postal workers who clearly went violently insane.


“I’ve been told to look out for signs of stress and overwork in my employees. The last thing we need is for one of them to crack and go postal.”