When someone says that they “ate humble pie,” they mean that they had to admit to a mistake or else to something humiliating or degrading. But what they literally mean is that they ate “numbles pie”—that is, a pie made from the umbles or numbles, or internal organs, of an animal. Because pies like this were once considered low-quality food fit only the poorest of people, an association with being humble was quick to follow.
But humble pie isn’t alone among the peculiar, weird-sounding expressions we use in the English language. Whether you’re sailing three sheets to the wind or flying by the seat of your pants, English allows you to drop what are (at face value at least) some pretty peculiar idioms and expressions into your everyday conversation.
1. “It’s too late to whet the sword when the trumpet blows.”
From taking time by the forelock to seizing the day, plenty of proverbs and expressions warn against procrastination or ill-preparedness—to which you can add this one. Whet here means “to sharpen,” and the trumpet that’s being blown is a military one signaling the start of a battle. Put another way, you should always be prepared: It’s too late to start sharpening your sword when the battle has already begun.
2. “‘The case is altered,’ quoth Plowden.”
Edmund Plowden was a renowned English lawyer of the Elizabethan period, while The Case Is Altered was the title of an early 17th-century play by Ben Jonson. It’s possible that no real-life event should have led to the two being connected in this expression, but plenty of anecdotes have arisen that purport to explain it. According to one, Plowden was involved in the case of some hogs that had escaped and ran amok on the plaintiff’s land, and was about to push the court to rule that the hog’s owner pay for the damage, when it was pointed out that they were his. “Nay then,” Plowden apparently replied, “then the case is altered.” Regardless of whether this anecdote (or any of the others that purport to explain this phrase) is true or not, the case is altered, quoth Plowden has been used proverbially in English since the mid-1600s at least to point out that new evidence or facts have come to light. It's also used in a less flattering way to mean when a lawyer switches sides for nefarious reasons, such as larger fees.
3. “A lazy sheep thinks its wool is heavy.”
An 18th-century expression alluding to someone who consistently finds fault in even good things. It would also come to mean someone who is so lazy that they can’t take care of the basics.
4. “To run before your horse to market.”
A warning from the 15th century that Shakespeare used in Richard III: If you run before your horse to market, then you anticipate success before it’s guaranteed. Essentially, it’s an alternative to not counting your chickens before they’re hatched.
5. “Little birds may peck a dead lion.”
Dating from the late 19th century and thought to have originated in Spanish, little birds may peck a dead lion implies that only once a strong opponent is weakened or out of the game do weaker players or participants start to act.
6. “A king’s cheese goes half away in parings.”
A paring is a thin sliver of waste material cut or scraped off something larger. The old adage that a king’s cheese goes half away in parings might allude to the fact that to ensure his majesty is only ever served the very best food, every time the king wanted to eat some cheese, his servants would have to trim away the dry outer edge of the block, leaving only the freshest cheese on his plate. Another possibility is that there are so many people wanting to take tiny slivers of the king’s cheese that these bits add up to half the block. Either way, a lot of the king’s cheese ends up wasted. This saying was first recorded in 1735 in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack as the longer “The King’s cheese is half wasted in parings: But no matter, ’tis made of the peoples milk.”
7. “To end in a whew, like Cawthorne wakes.”
A whew is a whimper or a soft blow, like that used to blow out a candle. Cawthorne is a village in South Yorkshire, England, while a wakes is a local village festival, traditionally one held on the feast day of the patron saint of the local parish church. If something ends in a whew, like Cawthorne wakes, then it ends in a disappointment or an anti-climax: Apparently, the festival at Cawthorne would typically end with the parish authorities unceremoniously blowing out the festival’s candles or lanterns.
8. “ ‘That’s Exter,’ said the old woman when she was Kerton.”
Exter is Exeter, a city in the southwest of England, and Kerton is Crediton, a small town lying to its northwest. This old dialect expression is attributed to a (probably apocryphal) “old woman” traveling on foot to Exeter for the first time. Suddenly seeing the impressive spire of the Church of the Holy Cross in Crediton emerge on the horizon, she presumed she was at long last approaching Exeter Cathedral and that her long, tiresome journey was nearing its end; in fact, she would still have roughly another eight miles to walk before she got to Exeter. Whether true or not, this anecdote inspired this bizarre expression referring to someone who thinks their work is finished, only to find there’s just that little bit more to get done.
9. “To leap over the hedge before you come to the stile.”
Anyone familiar with walking in the countryside will know that a stile is a wooden step or rung used for climbing over a fence or wall. To make things unnecessarily difficult for yourself by acting prematurely or too quickly, ultimately, is to leap the hedge before you come to the stile.
10. “‘Fire,’ quoth the fox, when he pissed on the ice.”
As proverbs and sayings go, you can’t get much stranger than a urinating fox. Apparently, the origin of this expression refers to the fact that the fox’s actions would make the ice steam, fooling the fox into thinking he could produce fire. As a result, this old adage—which dates back to the 1600s, at least—refers to someone who unrealistically expects too much from a plan or undertaking that is liable not to succeed.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2021.