Ten Wicked Idioms That I Love

Without letting the cat out of the bag: Carl Pettit loves idioms suggesting the torture of house cats.

When a man or woman wants to communicate something important, idioms are often the linguistic tool employed in the task, which allows the speaker to accurately express a certain idea without having to use a ton of adverbs and adjectives.

Imagine a businessman who says, “I’ve been on pins and needles all day waiting for the other shoe to drop, because I know my boss has an axe to grind with me about the chip I’ve been carrying around on my shoulder all week, and of course I let the cat out of the bag early regarding my plan to fly the coop and get out of Dodge.”

Any native speaker of English, or someone well versed in the language, would understand the message this man is trying to convey. He’s nervous because his boss is mad at him because he has a bad attitude and it’s evident that he wants to leave his job. For those poor souls still working on English as a second language, the meaning would probably be lost, thanks to a hefty dose of idiomatic expressions.

I love idioms, and the mental pictures they can invoke. My favorite expressions tend to be somewhat macabre in nature, or ridiculous as far as imagery and origins are concerned, or they simply have something to do with torturing cats. Here are ten of my favorites.

1. Kill Two Birds with One Stone

When you kill two birds with one stone, you get two things done with the effort it takes to do one. This idiom is for lazy people who, when they were children, probably liked to murder small animals. I envision songbirds here, not chickens or turkeys … you’d need a fairly substantial stone to take out a full-grown hen.

You know what other creature likes to kill beautiful songbirds for no good reason? The smallest of domestic assassins living among us—house cats. Die, stupid birds, die, your cat probably thinks every time it wakes up from a nap and looks out the window.

2. Let The Cat Out of the Bag

While this expression might have originated with the cat o’ nine tails whip, I prefer another explanation. Once upon a time folks used to substitute a cat for a piglet in their bags at market, in order to avoid giving up their best pig. The cat is the secret ingredient in this fraud, and the bag the attempt to keep the secret hidden. I kind of like the idea of a cat freaking out (don’t try this at home, kids) inside of a bag, trying to claw its way out, while the owner of the bag sits quietly, pretending that nothing unusual is going on at all.

3. Going to Hell in a Handbasket

I realize this idiom signifies that a situation is deteriorating at light speed, yet I can’t help but picture some unfortunate fellow, crammed into a handbasket, being lowered by a slowly descending rope into the fiery pits of Hell. The man’s rump is stuffed into the basket, while his arms and legs are dangling over the sides. Eternal damnation is bad enough, but this is just adding insult to injury.

4. Curiosity Killed the Cat

While some expressions, such as the cat’s got your tongue or like a cat on a hot tin roof work out all right for the cat in the end (even if its little paws get burned), our feline friends aren’t going to make it out of this idiom alive. Apparently it was originally ‘caring’ or ‘worry’ that dispatched the cat, but somehow curiosity got thrown in there instead. I was always taught that inquisitiveness was a good thing, but it seems that in some situations it can mean your death, or at least a houseful of dead cats.

5. At the Drop of a Hat

If you’re ready to do something at the drop of a hat, you’re ready to do it instantly. Dropping a hat used to signal a fistfight back in the day, or a gun duel. So basically, the origins of this idiom come from the indication of giving permission to beat someone half to death, or kill them. Methods of conflict resolution have come a long way since the time of the Old West… or have they? It’s not like people beat up or shoot each other anymore.

6. Kick the Bucket

This saying is a less-than-delicate way of informing people that someone has died. The ‘bucket’ was the beam an animal would be hung from when slaughtered, and hence kick in its final death struggles. At this point, I feel I should apologize to any vegetarian or vegan readers out there for all of the idioms centered on death and animal cruelty: there’s more to come. In my defense, I didn’t come up with these expressions. Maybe instead of kick the bucket, we could start a new trend with phrases like yank the carrot or stomp the tulip, although I doubt they’ll carry the same emotional weight as bucket kicking.

7. Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water

The first time I heard this unusual expression, when I was a child, I laughed my head off. I pictured an absent-minded father living on a farm, tossing the baby into the yard with the bath water, the small child flying through the air and landing on the grass outside. When the father comes back inside, his wife questions him:

“You took our precious son out of the water first, right?” she asks.

“Uh … was I supposed to do that?” he sheepishly replies.

8. Pardon My French

French is a beautiful language, often associated with culture, love and good wine. Paradoxically, ‘French’ is a substitute for the word ‘profanity.’ I’ve had the pleasure in life of having a French woman curse at me in both English and her native tongue, and I have to say, thanks to her musical accent, I wasn’t offended in the slightest—although I probably should have been.

9. Beat a Dead Horse

Of course you shouldn’t beat a dead horse. Isn’t it torture enough that we ride and work these poor animals to death? This idiom, which is employed when you want someone to stop talking about a topic that has been debated past the point of usefulness, once again makes use of imagery that’s cruel to animals. Yes, the horse is already dead, but how did it die in the first place? Too many beatings, most likely. It would be better to beat your dead cat instead, which can no longer suffer, having already died from curiosity, or from suffocation after you stuffed it inside of a bag and left it on top of a sizzling tin roof.

10. The Kiss of Death

The kiss of death takes two of the most poetic and powerful words in the English language and combines them into one grim saying. The phrase probably comes from Judas’ kiss of betrayal (Kiss of Judas) of Jesus Christ, or else a Mafia don’s kiss, which marks the recipient for murder. Either way, a ‘kiss of death’ has got to be a real letdown. Here someone is nice enough to plant a kiss on your cheek, making you think that Hey, I’m a likable person after all, which can do wonders for your self-esteem, but then you find out that the kisser actually wants you dead, and is actively working toward that goal. Talk about sending mixed signals. Avoid kisses of death at all costs, especially during the flu season, which seems to be getting worse with every passing year.


Read more of Carl Pettit’s weekly column, Root Down, on The Good Life.

Image credit: emily.laurel504/Flickr

About Carl Pettit

Carl Pettit is a writer, illustrator and musician whose education and travels have taken him all over the world. When not out exploring, or pondering the universe, he finds time to produce fiction for both adults and children. You can catch up with him on his blog, or twitter.


  1. @Paul interesting, in my lexicon it is “Not enough room to swing a cat” referring to cramped quarters and the whip.
    And as long as we’re discussing pussy- “as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rockers”

    @Carl- I have always understood the kiss of death to mean the kiss goodbye one gives a loved one at the wake, properly on the lips… Now some say it is an act of goodbye and others claim it is the last chance to check if that SOB’s lips are warm and is he still breathing..

  2. paul kidwell says:

    My wife is native Chinese and speaks English as her second language. She learned English very literally and without the appropriate introduction to slang and idioms. I remember when we were dating and I was trying to make a point of the multitude of people working in Boston who were graduates from my alma mater, Boston University. And when I told her that “you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a BU grad in this town” the obvious questions of why, where, and how ensued.

  3. Thanks a lot for the post! English is not my native language so it was a double pleasure for me to read this/


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