I found this question on a rather fascinating (if unapologetically prescriptivist) website:

Is there any idiom -- not a single word, but a full phrase -- whose meaning has changed over the years, simply by virtue of its being misunderstood by the linguistically inept or the historically ignorant?

Can anyone give an example of such an idiom? I'm certain one exists, given the mutilation which typical English words and phrases go through over time.

  • 2
    "[The first thing we do,] let's kill all the lawyers."
    – deadrat
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 1:52
  • Sometimes we say, "I could care less." Of course we mean, "I couldn't care less." I know of idioms that some of us mangle, like saying, "Don't kick a gift horse in the mouth." I had no idea what it meant until after we learned that it was "look." Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 3:22
  • I have on more than one occasion heard people talking about "analyzing cost benefits."
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 8:03
  • One I keep hearing has actually become a single word and hence doesn't qualify: "showstopper". It came from the theater and it meant something really good: a part of the show so well received they would have to wait for the applause to die down before they could continue the performance. Now (especially in information technology) it means an impassable obstacle. Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 11:49
  • "begging the question"
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 18:58

6 Answers 6


The exception that proves the rule is a good example. According to Wikipedia, based on Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the phrase has its origin in Roman legal doctrine, and at full length reads:

Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis or

The exception proves the rule in cases not excepted.

For instance, though not matter for a major legal case, suppose you see a sign at a stately home saying “sorry, we’re closed to the public today for a special event.” You would take this as an exception proving the rule that the stately home is generally open to the public.

Fowler’s example quoted in Wikipedia has more legal flavour:

Special leave is given for men to be out of barracks tonight till 11.00 p.m.; "The exception proves the rule" means that this special leave implies a rule requiring men, except when an exception is made, to be in earlier.

Current usage is more along the lines: “I always keep my New Year resolutions.” “Well, last year you said you would quit smoking, and you didn’t.” “Oh, that’s the exception that proves the rule.” This is obvious nonsense: this "exception" disproves the rule. Even if the claim had only been "I generally keep my New Year resolutions," an "exception" would at best not refute the rule, but never prove it.

So, in the original meaning, you realise something is an exception, and from the exception you infer there is a rule. The exception is therefore a case to which the rule does not apply. In current usage the exception is a violation of a rule previously stated. And then people nonsensically use the phrase to dismiss the contradictory evidence. In the worst cases people may even believe that a rule is proved true when found violated.

The exception that proves the rule is the topic of this question.

  • I thought originally it was more simple than that. Like a street sign that says "no parking 8am-5pm" means you can park there any other time except those. The exception proves the rule. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 15:12
  • Great example! @DanShaffer Originally it was even simpler than you imagine. Prove simply meant "to test" etymonline.com/index.php?term=prove In the 1600's proven appears (with the assumption of "proofed and found true") etymonline.com/index.php?term=proven but the use of "proved" to represent "proven true" is very modern by comparison. I want to say that it's a usage that emerges from newpaper coverage of either law or science... but can't find the citation. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 19:37

I'm sure there are quite a few, but since we're familiar with their present meaning, it's kind of hard to know what they meant before... but here are two (I think).

Birthday suit - while I'm not sure when it began as an idiom (it was literally fancy clothes one wore on one's birthday (or the king's birthday, or some such) now refers to the clothes one was born with, i.e. the condition of being stark naked.

A close shave used to refer to miserliness (because a close shave by a barber meant you could go longer without another shave), whereas now it refers to a thin margin, a small margin of error where injury/damage could just as well have been done.


A rolling stone gathers no moss

Rolling stones used to be uncool earlier but they are cool now.

...the original intent of the proverb saw the growth of moss as desirable, and that the intent was to condemn mobility as unprofitable.


  • Excellent example. James Kelly, Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs (1721) gives the old interpretation with wonderful succinctness: "A tumbling Stone never gathers Fog [Moss]. From the Latin, Saxum volutum non obducitur musco. A Man that often removes seldom grows rich."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 2:34
  • I've just found an example of the original usage, and it's not even that old. "I always was one for sticking to a job. I always say when you get a good place, then stick there. A rolling stone gathers no moss, and it's true." Richard Wright, Native Son, Harper & Brothers, 1940, p. 48. The story takes place in the 1930s: it says the movie Trader Horn, released 1931, is showing again. It's in Chicago, but it's an Irishwoman speaking; she had come from Ireland to the States some twenty years before,
    – Jacinto
    Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 16:07
  • @Sven, "saxum!" Now I know where the Portuguese seixo ’pebble’ comes from :)
    – Jacinto
    Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 16:21

It seems like there's quite a few that are likely to turn up (and I'm going to bet a lot of them will be related to agricultural origins).

Here's one of my favorites: "burying your talents" and "wasting your talents" The whole concept of talent in a modern English sense comes from a transliterated unit of money in The King James version. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=talent&allowed_in_frame=0

A fascinating cross pollination occurs that develops "talent" as concept of inner gifts (often artistic), and idioms that use the wording of the original parable in a self actualization sense rather than in reference to its original context.

(I also suspect that there is a majority who would correctly understand the implications of "no holds barred" idioms, but wouldn't be able to change it to past or future tense because they have a vague concept of it relating to "holding bars" rather than "barring holds". But that is a hunch that's hard to test.)

  • "Beg the question" is a pet peeve for logicians, it's actually a technical term for a circular argument (from the Latin petitio principii), not to be used as a synonym for "raise the question."

  • "More honored in the breach" is from Shakespeare. We typically use it to mean a rule more often broken than followed, but he meant it as a rule so bad it was better to break it than keep it.


Idiom: in my neck of the woods. "neck" today is understood as the connection between head and body or something similar in shape. But "neck" originally was something else.

Originally it was the Middle English word egge meaning corner."in mine egge" was gradually transformed to "my neck" with the n of mine melting with egge to neck.

Old English ecg means corner, edge, point.


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