Our everyday language is full of idioms, some of which might seem downright bizarre. And as funny as expressions like “kit and caboodle” and “till the cows come home” are the stories behind where they come from might be even funnier! They’re certainly fun brain candy. And though English is indisputably wacky and confusing, plenty of other languages also have common expressions that sound downright ridiculous.
Getting the sack
In ancient Rome, those convicted of parricide or other heinous murders were tied in a sack and dumped into the Tiber River, instantly solving any potential recidivism problem. The practice spread throughout many other European countries, and, as late as the nineteenth century, murderers in Turkey were tossed into the Bosporus in a sack. To get the sack, then, probably was used figuratively as a threat of any sort of punishment, such as losing one’s job.
Another theory to explain how “get the sack” was recorded – as early as 1611 in France – is that it referred to craftsmen of the Middle Ages. Artisans carried their tools in sacks; while they worked, they handed the sacks to their employers. When a craftsman got the sack, it meant that his services no longer were required. He was left, literally, holding the bag.
Stealing someone's thunder
John Dennis, an English poet and playwright, wrote a tragedy called Appius and Virginia, which was produced in 1709 to less than rousing commercial success. Only one element of the production stirred the audience: thunder sound effects more realistic than any heard before on the stage, effects that Dennis himself created. The play failed, but the theatre’s next production didn’t. Dennis went to check out a successful production of Macbeth and was more than a little upset to discover that his sound effects were used in the storm scenes of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Different sources vary slightly in describing what Dennis exclaimed upon hearing his thunder help promote the new production, but they are all variations of Stuart Berg Flexner’s quote: “See how the rascals use me! They will not let my play run, and yet they steal my thunder!”