Butter him/her up

When you butter someone up, you’re trying to curry favor with them. But why “butter”?


In addition to idioms and phrases, the origins of individual words can be interesting. After all, knowing where a word comes from enriches our understanding and usage of vocabulary.

Such is the case with “horrible,” for instance. A word that we use daily, we often say it without giving it a second thought.

Ham (ham it up)

Theatrical lore has it that actors at the bottom of the barrel used lard to remove their makeup after a performance as opposed to the more appropriate cold-cream solution. Naturally, pork has its fair share of lard, but why use “ham” to describe an amateur?

The answer is most likely a combination of sources.

(The president’s) cabinet

There’s been much talk lately about the president’s cabinet—a group of advisors, each of whom is in charge of a specific department. On certain dates, these advisors, or “cabinet members,” gather with the president at a “cabinet meeting” to discuss various matters of national importance.

At loggerheads

When two parties find themselves “at loggerheads,” it means that a quarrel or disagreement has evidently led to an angry impasse wherein rational discussion does nothing.


It’s a delicious ingredient in more meals than you can count. Whether it’s under cheese, sauce, vegetables, or olive oil and vinegar, “macaroni” is a food that your palate can generally count on. But is its origin as Italian as it sounds?

According to etymologists, the answer is maybe.


While the word “goon” has a few uses, it originated as an alternative label for fools. “Goon” began as an abbreviated version of “gooney,” which came from the obsolete sixteenth-century term “gony,” meaning “simpleton.”

Kentucky windage

To be sure, it was brave soldiers with rifles who won this nation’s independence more than 200 years ago.

Throw up the sponge

To “throw up the sponge” is to give up, particularly in a contest of some kind. The phrase comes from the world of pugilism.

Hoi polloi

We peons who are members of the masses are otherwise known as “hoi polloi.” The term pulls directly from Greek and means, quite literally, “the many.”

While the Greeks commonly used the phrase as early as the mid-seventeenth century, its first recorded usage in English didn’t appear until the early 1800s.


To get “fresh” with someone is to talk back or get sassy. Still used today, the term first appeared in the U.S. as English slang in the late 1840s.

Etymologists believe it comes from the German word “frech,” which means insolent, rude, or disrespectful.

“Don’t get fresh with me, son!”

Cheek (cheeky)

Potter’s field

A “potter’s field” is a cemetery for the poor and unknown. Especially common in urban areas, these burial grounds can be found in just about every major city.

But why do we call them potter’s fields?

It comes from the New Testament’s Matthew 27:3-8, in which the Jewish priests accept 30 pieces of silver from a repentant Judas: