"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth"
This phrase appears printed in English as early as 1546.
As horses develop they grow more teeth and their existing teeth begin to change shape and project further forward. This incidentally is also the source of another teeth/age related phrase - long in the tooth. This phrase basically says when receiving a gift be grateful for what it is; don't imply you wished for more by assessing its value..or by checking how "long in the tooth" the gifted horse may be.
"Going to hell in a handbasket"
The question I have about this one isn't so much about the phrase but more about why "handbasket" as the preferred transport device to convey people to hell? One origin of the phrase is that it derives from the use of handbaskets in the guillotining method of capital punishment. In movies, the decapitated heads were caught in baskets.
Most believe the phrase is of US origin and, even now, 'hell in a handbasket' isn't often heard outside the United States. However, the English, always prim and proper, did have their own version. 'Going to heaven in a wheelbarrow' was the English way of saying of 'going to hell'. Apparently, there's a church in Gloucestershire which contains an image of a woman being carried off to purgatory in a wheelbarrow pushed by a blue devil.
"Close but no cigar"
People used to win cigars as prizes at fairs in the early part of the 20th century. Most of the games at these fairs involved thriving at feats of strength or accuracy. Picture the guy trying to get the bell to ring by swinging a sledgehammer in the high striker game and you can almost see the carnival barker shout, "Close, but no cigar".
This phrase comes from a law that stated that if you butchered an animal that didn't belong to you, you had to be caught with the animal's blood on your hands to be prosecuted.
"Doesn't know shit from Shinola"
Most people outside the USA don't know this term from Shinola; as Shinola was a shoe polish brand previously manufactured in the States that most the rest of the world has never heard of.
I enjoyed this summary of the origin by Phrase Finder: This phrase is typical of the barrack room vulgarity of WWII, which is where it originated. Other "doesn't know" phrases, also mostly from the military are, "doesn't know his arse from a hole in the ground", "doesn't know enough to pee downwind", "doesn't know whether to scratch his watch or wind his ass". The tone is lifted a little by the English conductor Sir Henry Wood who expressed a similar opinion with "he doesn't know his brass from his woodwind".
"Fifteen minutes of fame"
Andy Warhol was quite prophetic when he said, "In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes." That was in 1968 at his first international retrospective exhibition at the Moderna Museet gallery in Stockholm.
"Butter someone up"
This phrase comes from an ancient Indian custom that involved throwing butter at statues of the gods. This was supposed to be an act of humility and people did so in the hopes that the gods would look upon them favorably.
"Under the weather"
This phrase possibly has nautical or seafaring origins. The Phrase Finder mentions that in the old days, when a sailor was feeling seasick, "he was sent down below to help his reocvery, under the deck and away from the weather."
According to another source, a book called Salty Dog Talk: The Natuical Origins of Everyday Expressions, by Bill Beavis and Richard McCloskey, it says the following regarding this phrase: "To feel ill. Originally it meant to feel seasick or to be adversely affected by bad weather." It goes on to say: "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."
"Heard it through the grapevine"
Soon after the telegraph was invented in 1844, the term 'grapevine telegraph' was coined - first recorded in a US dictionary in 1852. The allusion was to interactions amongst people who could be expected to be found amongst grapevines, that is, the rural poor.
In 1876, The Reno Evening Gazette ran an article about a bumper corn and grape crop. They commented on the fact that the people who were then called Indians and Negroes were already aware of it:
"It would seem that the Indians have some mysterious means of conveying the news, like the famous grapevine telegraph of the negroes in the American Civil War. The Pioneer Press and Tribune says that, while the first telegraphic news of Custer's death reached them at midnight, the Indians loafing about town were inquiring about it at noon."
The term 'bush telegraph' originated in Australia, probably influenced by 'grapevine telegraph'. That referred to the informal network that passed information about police movements to convicts who were hiding in the bush. It was recorded in 1878 by an Australian author called Morris:
"The police are baffled by the number and activity of the bush telegraphs."
In the UK it was the 'jungle telegraph' - referring to communications in outposts of the British Empire around the same period.
"Drive me nuts"
According to the website Word-Detective, by the mid to late-1800s, the word "nut" was slang to mean a person's head. Not long after, it looks like it also acquired the meaning of someone who was not acting right in the head, e.g., a person acting strange might be described as "nuts" or being "off their nut." I have no doubt that it was a parent somewhere who first uttered this phrase.
"Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater"
During the 1500s, most people bathed once a year, and everyone used the same bathwater. First, the men would bathe, followed by the women, and finally, the children. By the time baby could get the bath, the water was usually thick and cloudy - mother's had to be careful not to lose or empty their baby out with the tub!
Sources say Lickety probably derives from the word lick, which can mean 'to move quickly.' However, the origins for this phrase are unclear, and there are several questions regarding it that don't have answers. Crucial questions like: Why did someone say lickety in the first place? and Why was split added to the end of lickety?
Lickety-split dates as far back as 1847 where someone wrote in a newspaper, "On we went, lickity-split, the harrycame blowed harder, the timbers began to creak, the sails split to ribbons, some of the spars begun to snap and go by the board, and then all at once there was a terrible cry, 'breakers ahead!'"
I'm hoping 'harrycame' was a typo for hurricane.
"Spill the beans"
This expression is said to have origins in ancient Greece. "The story goes that white beans indicated positive votes and black beans negative. Votes had to be unanimous, so if the collector 'spilled the beans' before the vote was complete and a black bean was seen, the vote was halted." Seems reasonable.
"That's all she wrote"
US citizens may have to explain this very American expression to everyone from other countries.
The popular version of the origin of the phrase is about an American GI serving overseas in WWII. The sad serviceman receives a letter from his sweetheart. He reads it to his buddies: "Dear John". Well, go on, they say. "That's it; that's all she wrote". The story is plausible; 'Dear John' was the standard cipher amongst the US military for the kind of letter that has now been replaced by a 'you're so dumped' text message.
A more likely origin source is a country music song titled 'That's All She Wrote', recorded by Ernest Tubb:
The game of marbles involves aiming and precision. The goal is to strike your opponents marble with your own from a set distance. You can either roll your marble like a bowling bowl or you can flick your marble with your thumb. But when things got down to the nitty-gritty, serious marble players would literally place their knuckles against the ground in a fist which would help steady their aim and result in a more effective, direct shot. Thus, "knuckling down" when the game was on the line.
Origin: This phrase is actually a euphemism for Jesus, meant to be slightly crass.
"Keep your shirt on"
This phrase may originate from the fact that when people get angry and are looking to fight, they'll sometimes remove their shirt. Why? Because removing one's shirt increases maneuverability; it allows for further range of motion of the upper body that would otherwise be limited. This is especially true if a person starches their shirts, because doing so causes them to stiffen. This was actually a stylish thing to do in the 19th and early 20th century according to Wikipedia, which goes on to say:
"During the 19th century and early 20th century, it was stylish to stiffen the collars and sleeves of men's shirts and the ruffles of girls' petticoats by applying starch to them as the clean clothes were being ironed."
While a starched shirt can help give off a clean, groomed look, they are not exactly ideal for fighting in because the stiffness would restrict movement. Thus, perhaps men who were feeling enraged during the 19th century, a time where the phrase began being commonly used from what I've found, would remove their shirts to ready themselves for a fight. Therefore, those who were not interested in fighting would advise an angered person to literally keep their shirt on, showing they wanted to settle things through peaceful means rather than through violence.
"Drawing a blank"
This phrase has roots in the lottery held by Elizabeth I during the time of the Tudors. The crown held a national lottery to recoup money for the throne. Apparently, lotteries back then worked something like this: There were two containers; one container had lottery tickets placed inside of it, which may have had the names of the participants written on them. The other container held the tickets or notes that had the prizes written on them. When it came time for the lottery to start, a lottery ticket would be drawn from the first container, followed by a prize being drawn from the second container. Well, some lotteries had blank prize notes, meaning that if a blank was drawn, then the person would win nothing.
"Rule of thumb"
This phrase has a disturbing origin. In the 1700s, British men were allowed to beat their wives - but only with a stick that was no thicker than his thumb. We're glad the rules of thumb are totally different today.
"Ups-a-daisy, Oopsy-daisy & Whoopsie-daisy!"
Look up any of these phrases and it's like plopping Gizmo in a bowl water. Suddenly, on top of Ups-a-daisy, Oopsy-daisy and Whoopsi-daisy, you've got:
The form in which it is now most commonly spoken and spelled is 'oops-a-daisy'. The first known printed record of any form of the term is in Clough Robinson's The dialect of Leeds in 1862:
Upsa daesy! a common proclamation when a child, in play, is assisted in a spring-leap from the ground.
Jonathan Swift used this in his collection of letters, which was published in 1711 as The Journal to Stella:
Come stand away, let me rise... Is there a good fire? - So - up a-dazy.
The earlier dialect term 'upaday', which has the same meaning, appears to be the source. The 'daisy' part is a fanciful extension of 'day', perhaps alluding to the child being on the ground amongst the daisies. Of course, the name daisy itself derives from 'day' - the flower, which closes at night and exposes its yellow centre in sunlight, was thought of as the day's eye.
'Ups-a-daisy' is clearly also the direct source of 'whoops-a-daisy'. This has a different meaning and is an exclamation made after a stumble or other mistake. It's weird that it's usually exclaimed aloud by the perpetrator of the error as a public acknowledgement for all to hear. 'Whoops-a-daisy', and the shortened forms 'whoops' and 'oops', are all American in origin. The expression is first recorded, as 'Whoopsie Daisy!', in the New Yorker, in September 1925.