Where did those old-time phrases that we use today come from?

Apr 20, 2021, 11:46 AM
wild west barroom scene old-time phrases...
FILE: A man in a fringed leather jacket and cowboy hat holds a revolver at his waist as he argues with a seated fellow gambler in a staged photograph depicting a scene of drunken conflict during the Klondike Gold Rush, Alaska, early 1900s. (Photo by R.Y. Young/Hulton Archive/Getty IMages)
(Photo by R.Y. Young/Hulton Archive/Getty IMages)

Old-time phrases, relics of yesteryear and today, show up in our speech patterns all the time. But where did they originate?

Some of them clearly originated in the Old West, such as “die with your boots on,” apparently first used in the late 19th century to refer to the deaths of cowboys and others in the American West killed in gun battles or hanged.

But today, a person who “dies with their boots on” keeps working to the end.

The origins of more old-time phrases

Some of the following 11 old-time phrases in use today were born on the dusty trails of American West frontier towns in the mid-1800s. And some were already in circulation; they just became re-branded in an Old West way.

1. Ace in the Hole: This phrase means a hideout, safe house or a concealed gun, according to Top 100 Cowboy Expressions and Phrases. But today use of “Ace in the Hole” means:

  • An ace dealt and held face down, especially in stud poker.
  • An advantage or a resource kept back until the right opportunity presents itself: His ace in the hole is his political influence.

2. Bad Egg: A mean or untrustworthy person. Unpleasant and disappointing as a bad or spoiled egg would be when cracked open. Experts have found the earliest mentions of “bad egg” in American newspapers in the mid-1800s. There is also an English playground game called “bad egg.”

3. Baker’s Dozen: A reference to the number 13. (It’s widely believed that this phrase originated from the practice of medieval English bakers giving an extra loaf when selling a doze to avoid being penalized for selling short weight, according to The Phrase Finder.)

4. Chow: an informal name for a meal. It’s an American-English word that originated in California about 1856. It comes from the Chinese pidgin English chow-chow, “food,” which probably originated with the Chinese cha, “mixed.”

5. Calamity Jane: Martha Jane Cannary  was born May 1, 1852 and August 1, 1903. Today, we know her better as Calamity Jane, an American frontierswoman, sharpshooter and raconteur.

She was an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok, appearing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. She even received a memorialization in the game of poker that she loved so much. Players often refer to the Queen of Spades as a Calamity Jane.

6. Fair to Middlin’: To feel pretty good, to be in a good mood, according to Top 100 Cowboy Expressions and Phrases.

An American phrase, it entered common use as early as the 1820s. The term fair to middling originally referred to gradations of quality in cotton, sheep and other farm goods. Back in the day, sellers categorized goods as fine, good, fair, middling and poor. By the 1860s the phrase “fair to middling” evolved into common speech to mean average or slightly above average, according to Grammarist.

7. Fit to Be Tied: To be mad or angry. First appearing in the early 1800s, “fit to be tied” alludes to the practice of tying up uncontrollable mental patients. Tying up mental patients with rope or cloth gave way to the straitjacket, which was invented in France around 1790, according to the Grammarist.

8. In Apple Pie Order: To be in top shape, high quality or neatly arranged: Everything in the cupboard was in apple-pie order. It was first recorded in English in the late 1700s in seafarer Thomas Pasely’s journal. He wrote that the sailors were “clean and in apple-pie order on Sundays.”

Published in the memoirs of Sir Walter Scott by John Lockhart in 1839, Scott wrote in a letter, “The children’s garden is in apple-pie order.” 

9. Lick and a Promise: To do something haphazardly or half-assed. The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of “a lick and a promise” is from Walter White’s travel book “All Round the Wrekin” (1860): “We only gives the cheap ones a lick and a promise,” according to Grammarphobia. (The Wrekin is a hill in Shropshire, England.)

10. Mill, to go (or to be put) through:
To undergo hardship or rough treatment or grind down like grain in a mill. The figurative use of the term dates from the 19th century:

“We’ve all passed through that mill,” wrote Rolf Bolderwood in “A Colonial Reformer,” 1890. A newer phrase, meaning the same thing, dates from the mid-1900s: “To put someone through the wringer,” a device for wringing water from wet clothes, mops or other objects. Used figuratively in this example: “When they suspect child abuse, the police really put parents through the wringer.

11. That Dog Won’t Hunt: An argument or idea that won’t work or come to fruition. Common in the Ozarks and elsewhere for anything, especially a plan or idea, that won’t work or that isn’t practical.

“It looks good on paper, but that dog won’t hunt.”

A folksy expression originating in the American South where dogs commonly hunt raccoons and other wild animals. Alternatively, “that old dog won’t hunt,” originated in the late 1800s.

Weigh in! What old-time phrases do you find yourself using? Send us an email at and we’ll find out where it came from. 

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories

All News

SLCPD said the driver is fully cooperating with the investigation and the children received non-lif...
Chandler Holt

SLCPD makes arrest connected to fatal stabbing case

SLCPD announced the arrest of 26-year-old Ivy Chase Grant today. Grant was booked into Salt Lake County Metro Jail on a charge of obstruction of justice. 
10 hours ago
Troy Dunn, founder of the Location Foundation, appears on an episode of Dr. Phil. Photo credit: Des...
Mark Jones

Locator Foundation working to reunite loved ones with one another

The Locator Foundation is working to reunite family members who have become separated from one another and haven't been able to reconnect.
1 day ago
Martin Gold, a visiting scholar with the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, says the Filibuster is critical...
Mark Jones

Filibuster is critical if country is to maintain compromise, expert says

A visiting scholar to the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation told Inside Sources Friday how important the filibuster is to compromise.
1 day ago
Two hands holding a green plant by the soil above empty pots...
Michelle Lee

Transplanting houseplants? Here are some tips!

SALT LAKE CITY – If you’re growing houseplants, there’s something you need to be familiar with, and that is transplanting. Transplanting houseplants is something you have to do every so often, depending on the type of plant. “Some houseplants will go for several years without needing it, and others need to be transplanted at least […]
1 day ago
A new study finds that reports of bad weather and air actually decrease ridership on the UTA....
Devin Oldroyd

Relief from inversion and poor air quality may be in Utah’s near future

The Beehive State is in the middle of some thick inversion and poor air quality, but relief may be on the way according to the National Weather Service.
1 day ago
Salt Lake City Police say three sticks of dynamite were safely removed from a house this week by it...
Mark Jones

Three sticks of dynamite removed from Salt Lake City home

Three sticks of dynamite were removed from a Salt Lake City home on Wednesday, the SLCPD announced. The dynamite have been seized for investigation.
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer, the tests that can warn women about potential cancer, and the importance of vaccination.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy. This year the event will be held from January 27-29 at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina and Sunrise Resort and Event Center in Garden City, Utah. 
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...

15 Easy Christmas Dinner Ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy. Choose from the dishes we’ve highlighted to plan your meal or start brainstorming your own meal plan a couple of weeks before to make sure you have time to shop and prepare.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...

The Best Tools for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Workplace Success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
Where did those old-time phrases that we use today come from?