12 Expressions that we got from the Middle Ages

Want to sound like someone from the Middle Ages? Check out our list of 12 expressions to add to your conversations.

These expressions were collected by Madeleine Pelner Cosman as part of her book on words and phrases from the medieval period. Most of these will be very familiar to modern-day readers.


Crocodile tears

To display insincere sadness. A few ancient and medieval writers believed that crocodiles would cry while eating their victims. The story was spread in England by the 14th-century travel writer John Mandeville. He explains that “these serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping; and when they eat they move the over jaw, and not the nether jaw, and they have no tongue.”

Killing and gutting a pig – British Library MS Royal 2 B. VII, f.82v

Bring home the bacon

To earn a living or achieve success. This expression dates back to 1104 when a nobleman and his wife dressed themselves as peasants and asked the local Prior for a blessing for not arguing after a year of being married. In response, the Prior gave them a side of bacon. Afterwards, the nobleman gave land to the monastery on the condition they gave couples who accomplished the same deed with the same reward.


Knock on wood

If you have good luck and want to keep it. Cosman sees this expression deriving from pre-Christian times, when people performed rites “to inspire spirits dwelling in wood or trees, such as the maypole, or to awaken them after winter slumber, as with the divinities affecting agriculture and human life.”

Hocus pocus

Doing a trick, usually said by a magician. This actually derives from words spoken in Latin during a Mass: when a priest lifted up the eucharist to his parishioners, he would say “Hoc est corpus domini,” which means “This is the body of the Lord.”

A bear licking his cub in a 13th-century Bestiary – Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 764 fol. 22v

Lick into shape

To bring into satisfactory condition or appearance. In medieval bestiaries, you would find an unusual description of bears and how they give birth to their young. Here is how one 13th-century bestiary describes it:

The bear gets its Latin name ‘ursus’ because it shapes its cubs with its mouth, from the Latin word ‘orsus’. For they are said to give birth to shapeless lumps of flesh, which the mother licks into shape. The bear’s tongue forms the young which it brings forth.


On the carpet

It now means to call upon someone doing bad things. However, its origins in French (‘sur le tapis’) is that it was customary to put a carpet on a banquet table, which was often the centre of conversation.

British Library MS Royal 19 B. XVII, f.109

Buckled down to work

To focus on your job. It comes from medieval warriors having to make sure their armour was buckled and safely on before going out to battle.

Out-Herod Herod

To exceed in violence or extravagance, inspired by the Biblical character. Even before it was used by Shakespeare in Hamlet, the expression could be found in medieval mystery plays.


A long spoon

To keep a safe distance from danger. Cosman notes that in medieval lore, “the best kitchen or banquet implement for supping with the Devil was a very long-handled spoon.”

Goose is cooked

When someone is in trouble. This expression has two origin stories. In one of them, it is ascribed to the Christian reformer Jan Hus when he was burned at the stake in 1415. In the other version, the 16th-century King of Sweden, Eric XIV used the phrase when he burned down a town that he was besieging after they had mocked him by putting out a goose along the walls.

Crow’s feet

A reference to the fine lines that appear around your eyes as you age. The English writer Geoffrey Chaucer is credited with first using the expression. In his work Troilus and Criseyde we find the line “you may live long and proud till crow’s feet grow under your eyes.”

British Library MS Add. 37049 f.34

Food for worms

To be dead and buried. One can see this expression in the Ancrene Wisse, a thirteenth-century monastic text. In the Middle English, it states “Ne schalt tu beon wurmes fode?”


You can read more expressions in Madeleine Pelner Cosman’s book, Medieval wordbook: More than 4,000 terms and expressions from medieval culture, first published in 1996.

See also: 30 Medieval Sayings You Need to Know

Top Image: Yes, that is supposed to be a crocodile – Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 6838B fol. 9v