The Macabre Origins of 10 Death-Related Idioms

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iStock.com/wwing

In 2016, Chapman University conducted a survey of 1511 Americans to gauge their concern over common fears, including crime, natural disasters, and clowns. Predictably, the notion of death was on the minds of many. Roughly 38 percent of respondents said that the idea of a loved one dying made them afraid or very afraid. Approximately 19 percent feared their own death.

That last statistic may speak less to fear of dying than our preference to simply not think about it. We often obscure or obfuscate our own mortality by ignoring it, joking about it, or cloaking it in a way that allows us to avoid confronting the reality that our bodies have expiration dates. For centuries, idioms have allowed us to dance around the topic, trading euphemisms for blunt language. Take a look at some of the more common expressions for death and their possible origins.

1. BUYING THE FARM

A scarecrow appears in a field
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A person who has ceased to be is sometimes said to have "bought the farm." This agricultural expression may have roots in the plight of military pilots in the 20th century. If a fighter jet crashed on a farm, the farm owner could theoretically sue the government for damages. In a roundabout way, the settlement might pay for the farmland, with the expired pilot having "bought" the property. Alternatively, the pilot's family might receive an insurance payment sufficient to pay off their farm mortgage. Another theory? The phrase stemmed from the idea of "the farm" as slang for a burial plot; "bought it" is also an older slang term for died.

2. DEAD AS A DOORNAIL

A door features a knocker and doornails
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Why would anyone associate someone's health—or lack thereof—with carpentry? The earliest usage of someone being "dead as a doornail" dates to a 1350 translation of the anonymous 12th-century French poem Guillaume de Palerne. William Shakespeare used it in Henry VI, Part 2, written around 1591, and Charles Dickens in 1843's A Christmas Carol, writing that "Old Marley was as dead as a door nail," then going on to explain (via the narrator) that he wasn't quite sure why it wouldn't be "coffin nail" thanks to its status as "the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade." One possible explanation is that wooden doors were often secured with nails that were hammered through and then bent on the protruding side for added strength. Once this process, called "clenching," was performed, the nail was basically useless for any other purpose. The idiom may also refer to the effort involved in driving the nail through the door. Struck with blunt force by a hammer, the nail was effectively "dead" from the trauma.

3. CROSSING THE RAINBOW BRIDGE

A rainbow appears over the ocean
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A forlorn announcement of a pet's passing sometimes includes mention of the beloved animal "crossing the rainbow bridge." While the phrase is common on social media, its origins date to the pre-Facebook 1980s. Three authors have all claimed to have written a poem using the language, which refers to a mythical connection between heaven and Earth. On the crossing, pet and owner are said to be reunited. The idea of a rainbow-colored crossing may have stemmed from Norse mythology and the Bifröst bridge, which connected Midgard and Asgard.

4. SIX FEET UNDER

A tombstone appears over a grave
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As idioms go, this one is rather pointed. To die is to often be buried six feet underground. But why six feet? Blame the plague. In 1665, when the illness swept England, London's Lord Mayor ordered that corpses be buried no less than six feet deep in an effort to help limit the spread of the pestilence that eventually took more than an estimated 100,000 lives. There is no such regulation today, and graves can be as shallow as four feet.

5. PUSHING UP THE DAISIES

A daisy is seen in a graveyard
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This gardening-related euphemism takes a pleasant visual (daisies) to soften the subject (the rotting corpse residing underneath). The earliest incarnation of the phrase may have been to "turn one's toes to the daisies." A version appears in the story "The Babes in the Wood," in Richard Harris Barham's Ingoldsby Legends folklore collection of the 1840s, which used the expression "be kind to those dear little folks/When our toes are turned up to the daisies." Another variation, "I shall very soon hide my name under some daisies," was used by Scottish author George MacDonald in 1866.

6. BITE THE DUST

A dusty surface is pictured
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As much as Queen may deserve credit for popularizing the phrase ("Another One Bites the Dust"), they didn't coin it. The idea of sudden death resulting in a body collapsing into dust has origins that date back far earlier. "Lick the dust" can be traced to Psalms 72 of the King James version of the Bible ("They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him and his enemies shall lick the dust"), which actually sounds quite a bit more menacing. Translator Tobias Smollett used the altered "bite" version in the French novel The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, originally published by Alain-René Lesage between 1715 and 1735. It also appears in a 19th-century English translation of Homer's Iliad, though it's hard to ascertain whether the phrase should be attributed to Homer or to translator Samuel Butler.

7. KICK THE BUCKET

A bucket sits on top of a crate
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Of all the verbal contortions to get around saying "this person has died," few are more ambiguous than "kick the bucket." One common—and very morbid—explanation is that a person committing suicide may opt to hang themselves by standing on a platform before kicking it away, creating tension on the rope around their neck. To achieve death, they have to literally kick the bucket. This presumes "bucket" was ever slang for a stool, or that it was the only handy stand-in for one. It's more likely the phrase stems from another definition of bucket. In 16th-century England, bucket also meant a yoke or frame from which to hang something. If an animal was being hung up for slaughter, it might kick the frame, or bucket, in an effort to free itself, or in a spasm after death.

8. SHUFFLING OFF THIS MORTAL COIL

A coil is seen in close-up
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This romanticized phrase is another of Shakespeare's contributions to the lexicon of death. In 1602's Hamlet, he wrote, "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause." At the time, coile or coil meant fuss, making the phrase a reference to leaving behind mortal turmoil.

9. LAID OUT IN LAVENDER

Lavender is spread out on a blank surface
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Another seemingly pleasant descriptor, to be "laid out in lavender" is to prepare a body for viewing or burial, presumably by using a pleasant smell to mask the foul odor of decomposition. The idiom takes a cue from "laid up in lavender," or the practice of storing clothes in lavender to keep them from being damaged by insects. The phrase denoting death may have first appeared in a 1926 story in the Syracuse Herald newspaper, with a book reviewer noting that a detective story featured a family "laid out in lavender."

10. SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES

A woman sleeps next to a fish
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A staple of both mob stories and parodies of mob stories, to "sleep with the fishes" is to hint that a rival has been murdered and possibly tossed into a body of water. Luca Brasi famously met this fate in 1972's The Godfather. But the phrase can be dated back to 1836 and to German villagers who wanted to warn off a fly fisherman. As Edmund Spencer describes in Sketches of Germany and the Germans, the villagers threatened the man with violence, an act Spencer worded as a warning that "he would sleep with the fishes." And, yes, fish do sleep, though not in any conventional sense. Without eyelids to droop, they tend to relax their tails and enter a state of reduced arousal.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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15 Fascinating Facts About Alfred Hitchcock

Peter Dunne, Express/Getty Images
Peter Dunne, Express/Getty Images

The shower scene in Psycho. The biplane chase in North by Northwest. The gas station attack in The Birds. They’re some of the most memorable and terrifying scenes in cinema history—and they came from the mind of one man: Alfred Hitchcock. The Master of Suspense, who went by the nickname “Hitch,” is also one of the most recognizable Hollywood icons, and his life was as fascinating as his films. Here are 15 things you might not have known about the legendary filmmaker, who was born in London on August 13, 1899.

1. Alfred Hitchcock was afraid of law enforcement ... and breakfast.

Hitchcock’s mastery of thrillers may have earned him the nickname the “Master of Suspense,” but the plucky filmmaker had phobias of his own.

His lifelong fear of police stemmed from an incident in his childhood when his strict father, William, punished him by sending him to the local Leytonstone police station on the outskirts of his family's home in east London. “I was just sent along with a note, I must have been four or five years of age, and the head of the police read it and then put me into the cell and said, ‘That’s what we do to naughty boys,’” Hitchcock later recalled of the experience.

Also, omelettes were decidedly not his favorite breakfast food. "I'm frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me," he once said in an interview. "That white round thing without any holes … Have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I've never tasted it."

2. Alfred Hitchcock began his work in silent films.

Known for the complex title sequences in his own films, Hitchcock began his career in cinema in the early 1920s, designing the art title cards featured in silent films. The gig was at an American company based in London called the Famous Players-Lasky Company (it would later become Paramount Pictures, which produced five Hitchcock-directed films). As Hitchcock later told French filmmaker François Truffaut in their infamous Hitchcock/Truffaut conversations, “It was while I was in this department, you see, that I got acquainted with the writers and was able to study the scripts. And, out of that, I learned the writing of scripts.” The experience also led Hitch to try his hand at actual filmmaking. “If an extra scene was wanted, I used to be sent out to shoot it,” he told Truffaut.

3. Alfred Hitchcock learned from another cinema master.

In 1924, Hitchcock and his wife Alma were sent to Germany by Gainsborough Pictures—the British production company where he was under contract—to work on two Anglo-German films called The Prude’s Fall and The Blackguard. While working in Neubabelsberg, Hitchcock was taken under the wing of expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau, who created the chilling Dracula adaptation Nosferatu, and was shooting a silent film called The Last Laugh. “From Murnau,” Hitchcock later said, “I learned how to tell a story without words.”

4. Most of Alfred Hitchcock's early films are lost, but a 1923 silent melodrama was discovered in New Zealand.

Only nine of Hitchcock’s earliest silent films still exist. The earliest surviving film he worked on, a 1923 melodrama titled The White Shadow—about twin sisters, one good, one evil—was thought lost until three of the film’s six reels were found sitting unmarked in the New Zealand Film Archive in 2011. The film reels were originally donated to the Archive in 1989 by the grandson of a Kiwi projectionist and collector.

While the film was technically directed by leading 1920s filmmaker Graham Cutts, the 24-year-old Hitchcock served as the film’s screenwriter, assistant director, and art director.

5. Alfred Hitchcock brought sound to British movies.

The 1929 movie Blackmail, about a murder investigation headed up by the murderer’s fiance, was Hitchcock’s first hit film, and also the first “talkie” film released in Britain. (The first full-length talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released in the U.S. in 1927.)

While Blackmail was originally conceived and created as a silent film, the final cut was dubbed with synchronized sound added in post-production using then-state of the art audio equipment imported from the U.S.

6. Alfred Hitchcock popped up on screen all the time.

The most constant image in Hitchcock’s films seem to be Hitchcock himself. The filmmaker perfected the art of the cameo, making blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances in 39 of his own films.

His trickier appearances include the single-location film Lifeboat, where he appears in a weight-loss advertisement in a newspaper read by one of the film’s characters. The only film he actually speaks in is 1956’s The Wrong Man; his traditional cameo is replaced by a silhouetted narration in the introduction. That replaced a scrapped cameo of the director exiting a cab in the opening of the film.

7. Alfred Hitchcock was as successful in front of the camera on the small screen as he was behind the camera on the big screen.

By 1965, Hitchcock was a household name. That was the same year his long-running anthology TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents—which began in 1955 and was later renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour after episode lengths were stretched from 25- to 50-minute runtimes—came to an end.

The series was known for its title sequence featuring a caricature of Hitchcock's distinctive profile, which was replaced by Hitchcock himself in silhouette. But Hitchcock also appeared after the title sequence to introduce each new story. At least two versions of the opening were shot for every episode: An American opening specifically poked fun at the show’s network advertisers, while Hitchcock usually used the European opening to poke fun at American audiences in general.

7. Alfred Hitchcock literally wrote the encyclopedia entry on how to make movies.

The filmmaker would write (at least part of) the book on the medium that made him famous.

Hitchcock personally contributed to writing a portion of the “Motion Pictures, Film Production” entry in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, giving typically cheeky first-hand insight into the fundamentals and technical aspects of filmmaking.

On the practice of moving the camera during a shot, Hitchcock wrote, “it is wrong to suppose, as is all too commonly the case, that the screen of the motion picture lies in the fact that the camera can roam abroad, can go out of the room, for example, to show a taxi arriving. This is not necessarily an advantage and it can so easily be merely dull.”

8. Alfred Hitchcock popularized the MacGuffin.

Even if you don’t know it by name, you know what it is. The MacGuffin is the so-called motivating element that drives a movie’s plot forward. Think: the eponymous statue in The Maltese Falcon, or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or the airplane engine plans in Hitch’s own The 39 Steps.

The term was coined by Angus MacPhail (note the prefix in his surname), Hitchcock’s screenwriting collaborator on films like Spellbound and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Even though such plot details were supposed to be important, Hitchcock didn’t seem to think they truly mattered. “The main thing I've learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I'm convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others,” Hitchcock told Truffaut in 1962, highlighting how the audience never finds out why the government secrets (a.k.a. the MacGuffin) in North by Northwest truly matter. “Here, you see,” Hitchcock said, “the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!”

9. Alfred Hitchcock scrapped his own documentary about the Holocaust.

Hitch’s films flirted with mentioning the escalating tensions in Europe that would spark World War II, like in the shocking plane crash climax of 1940’s Foreign Correspondent. But the film Hitchcock collaborated on about the explicit horrors of the war would go unseen for decades.

Memory of the Camps, a 1945 documentary filmed by crews who accompanied the Allied armies that liberated those in the Nazi death camps at the end of the war, was stored in a vault in the Imperial War Museum in London until 1985. Originally commissioned by the British Ministry of Information and the American Office of War Information, Hitchcock served as a “treatment advisor” at the behest of his friend Sidney Bernstein, who is the credited director of the film. But the final film was scrapped because it was deemed counterproductive to German postwar reconstruction.

The film was put eventually together as an episode of PBS’s FRONTLINE, and aired on May 7, 1985 to mark the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.

10. Alfred Hitchcock didn't want you to see five of his famous films for decades.

Vertigo may have topped many best-of movie polls, but for over 20 years, between 1961 and 1983, it and four other Hitchcock classics were almost virtually impossible to see. It turns out it was Hitchcock’s fault that Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much were purposefully unavailable to the general public.

The filmmaker personally secured full ownership to the rights of the five films per a contingency clause in the multi-film deal he made with Paramount Pictures in 1953. Eight years after the release of each film, the rights reverted back to Hitchcock, which, in the years before Blu-ray and DVD, seemed like a financially savvy move on Paramount’s part. Three years after Hitch’s death in 1980, Universal Pictures acquired the film rights to all five classics, making them available once again.

11. Alfred Hitchcock didn't want to work with Jimmy Stewart after Vertigo.

Everyman actor Jimmy Stewart worked with Hitchcock a number of times, including as the nosy, wheelchair-bound photographer in Rear Window, and as the dastardly murderer in the “one-take” film Rope. After Stewart appeared in Vertigo in 1958, the actor prepared to appear in Hitchcock’s follow-up a year later, North by Northwest. But Hitch had other plans.

The director felt that one of the main reasons Vertigo wasn’t more of a smash hit was because of its aging star, and vowed to never use Stewart in any film ever again. Hitch wanted actor Cary Grant instead, and, according to author Marc Eliot’s book, Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, “Hitchcock, as was his nature, did not tell Jimmy there was no way he was going to get North by Northwest.” But when Stewart grew tired of waiting, and took a part in the movie Bell Book and Candle instead, “Hitchcock used that as his excuse, allowing him to diplomatically avoid confronting Jimmy and maintaining their personal friendship, which both valued.”

12. Alfred Hitchcock personally funded Pyscho.

When Hitchcock approached Paramount Pictures—where he was under contract—to put up the money to make Psycho, the studio balked at the salacious story. So Hitchcock financed the movie himself, foregoing his normal salary in exchange for 60 percent ownership of the rights to the film; Paramount agreed to distribute the film. To cut costs even more, the filmmaker enlisted his relatively cheaper Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew and shot the film on less pricey black and white film. Hitch’s gamble worked: He reportedly personally earned $6 million from Psycho—about $50 million in today's dollars.

13. Alfred Hitchcock wouldn't allow theaters to let anyone—not even the Queen of England—in to see Psycho once it had started.

Psycho (1960) has one of the best twists in movie history—and Hitchcock went to great lengths to not only make sure audiences didn’t spoil that twist, but to make sure they enjoyed the entire movie before the twist.

Hitchcock attempted to buy all copies of author Robert Bloch’s source novel to keep the twist under wraps in cities where the movie opened. The promotional rollout of the film was controlled by Hitchcock himself, and he barred stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins from doing interviews about the movie. He also demanded that theaters in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia adhere to strict theatrical showtimes and not allow admittance after the movie had started.

Marketing materials for Psycho included lobby cards meant to be prominently displayed with the message, “We won't allow you to cheat yourself. You must see PSYCHO from the very beginning. Therefore, do not expect to be admitted into the theatre after the start of each performance of the picture. We say no one—and we mean no one—not even the manager's brother, the President of the United States, or the Queen of England (God bless her)!”

14. Alfred Hitchcock loved movies that were not "Hitchcockian."

The filmmaker had a habit of screening films in his studio lot office every Wednesday, and his daughter Patricia revealed that one of his favorite films—and, in fact, the last movie he personally screened before his death—was the 1977 Burt Reynolds movie Smokey and the Bandit.

15. Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar.

Hitchcock is in the bittersweet class of venerable filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, and more who never received their industry’s highest honor as Best Director. Hitchcock did get Oscar nominations for directing Rebecca (which took home Best Picture), Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho. But he personally went home empty-handed every time.

When the Academy finally honored him with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1967, his long-time-coming speech was only five words long: “Thank you, very much indeed.”

This story has been updated for 2020.