Ten More Phrases that Originated in the Middle Ages

There are many phrases that we use in everyday life. Some of these were first spoken back in the Middle Ages.

Our most popular article last year was Ten Phrases that Originated in the Middle Ages. There are still more of them to talk about, so here are ten more phrases.


1. “Let the cat out of the bag”

In medieval markets, sneaky sellers would show a sample of their goods, then give customers a sealed bag ready to go. Sometimes, what they showed wasn’t what was inside. For example, they might show a pig but put a cat in the bag. Smart customers who checked their bags found out the truth and spilled the secret, letting everyone know. One of the earliest times we read the phrase “let the cat out of the bag” is in a letter that was written to Martin Luther in 1530.

2. “Cold Shoulder”

In the Middle Ages, a welcomed guest would be received with a grand meal. However, an unwelcome visitor or a guest who overstayed their welcome would likely be served leftovers, such as a cold shoulder of mutton from the previous night’s dinner.


3. “To get off scot-free”

In medieval England, one of the types of duties/payments that peasants had to make to their feudal lords was called ‘scotage’. However, the poorest peasants would be exempt from this payment, thus going “scot-free.” Another theory is that in taverns bills were also known as “scots,” and to go “scot-free” meant to receive one’s ale complimentary or to have the bill covered by a drinking companion.

4. “Dead as a doornail”

Medieval doors were adorned with sturdy nails, often with large heads. The doormaker would need a big hammer and anything continually pounded with such a tool would undoubtedly become lifeless.

This phrase dates back at least to the 14th century, when the words “ded as a dore-nayl” appear in Middle English poems like The Romance of William of Palerne and William Langland’s Piers Plowman.

5. “Dyed in the wool”

In medieval times, vegetable dye was applied to raw wool rather than to spun yarn or finished cloth. This method ensured that the dye seeped into all the fibres, resulting in a more consistent and durable colour in the final cloth. This technique gave rise to the expression “dyed in the wool,” referring to someone deeply ingrained with a particular characteristic or belief.


6. “Red herring”

A dried, salted, and smoked herring takes on a reddish hue. Due to their pungent odour, these cured fish were valuable in medieval times for training hounds in stag-hunting, as they served as effective bait.

P.9 recto of the Heege Manuscript. ‘Red herring’ appears 3-4 lines from the bottom of the page. Image courtesy National Library of Scotland

It was once believed that the phrase “red herring” was only used after the Middle Ages, but last year a scholar searching a 15th-century manuscript discovered that it was written as a comedic line in a mock sermon.

7. “Seal of approval”

Throughout the Middle Ages, seals have served to validate documents. They have taken various forms, including carved precious stones, impressions on clay, lead, wax seals, and signet rings. A document bearing a seal was considered approved, granting it legal status in contracts during medieval times or ensuring confidentiality in personal correspondence.


8. “Beyond the pale”

The word “pale” originates from the Latin word “palum,” meaning ‘stake.’ In English, it initially referred to a fence marking the boundaries of a territory under specific authority, such as a cathedral pale. Over time, this extended to denote the limits of political jurisdiction. For instance, there was an English pale around parts of Ireland under English rule in the fourteenth century and around the French port of Calais from 1347 to 1558. It came to be viewed as what was within the pale was considered civilized, while beyond it was seen as barbaric.

9. “To talk gibberish”

According to one theory, this phrase has a start with Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, a ninth-century scholar who wrote about sciences, magic, alchemy and philosophy. When his Arabic works made their way to Europe, his name was simplified to Geber. However, the complex writing would be very difficult to understand for most readers, thus leading some to see his works as ‘gibberish’.

10. “A Pinch of Salt”

This phrase – in Latin “addito salis grano” – was written by Pliny the Elder around AD 77. According to Pliny, King Mithridates VI of Pontus developed immunity to poisoning by ingesting small, regular doses of poison with a grain of salt to make them more tolerable. However, Pliny likely meant the phrase literally and that classical Latin doesn’t use “salt” figuratively for skepticism. The English expression seems to have emerged in the Middle Ages, leading to speculation that “cum grano salis” might be a piece of medieval Latin. Nonetheless, the idiom is clear: just as adding salt enhances flavour, taking a dubious story with a pinch of salt makes it more digestible.

“Peeping Tom”

We have a bonus phrase, which while not spoken in the Middle Ages comes from a medieval legend. The story of Lady Godiva, which dates back to the 13th century, recounts how a noblewoman rode naked through the streets of Coventry to protest against the oppressive taxation imposed by her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia. According to the tale, Leofric promised to reduce the taxes if she undertook this daring ride. Lady Godiva, motivated by compassion for the townsfolk, accepted the challenge and covered herself only with her flowing hair, shielding her modesty as she galloped through the streets.

Wooden statue of Peeping Tom exhibited a parade in Coventry. Sketch by W. Reader (from an 1826 article) – Wikimedia Commons

Centuries later, in the eighteenth century, this tale was embellished. As Lady Godiva rode through the streets, the townsfolk respected her wish for privacy by staying indoors with doors and shutters closed. However, one man, Tom the Tailor, succumbed to curiosity and peered at Lady Godiva through a window. This ‘Peeping Tom’ then was blinded, either through divine punishment or from angry neighbours.

You can learn more about these phrases and others in Dictionary of Idioms and their Origins, by Linda Flavell and Roger Flavell. See also our other list of 10 medieval phrases.

Top Image: British Library MS Stowe 17 fol.34