Bats in the belfry! Having ‘bats in the belfry’ means a person is crazy or eccentric; a bit lacking in the old grey matter, but this idiomatic expression originated in the late 19th century. The disorganised flight of the bat is close to somewhat chaotic mental energy, and the belfry is a metaphor for a person's head.

Caught Red-Handed - meaning to be caught doing something wrong. The origin comes from an old English law, where if someone butchers an animal that wasn’t theirs, they were convicted if they had the animal’s blood on their hands.

Spill the beans - Nowadays this means to reveal secret information, but has a meaning dating back to Ancient Greece, where an anonymous voting system was used with black and white beans. The collector had to ‘spill the beans’ to reveal the vote’s result.

Cat got your tongue? This originates from the old British Navy using a whip called ‘Cat o’ Nine Tails’ as a punishment. Anyone entrusted with a secret by a higher officer would be threatened with ‘The Cat’ for telling, and the saying became slang for 'are you afraid to tell?' Nowadays the term means where you are unable (or unwilling) to answer back in an argument.

Take It With a Grain of Salt. This phrase is one of the oldest on the list. Originally seen in 77 A.D., this phrase wasn't made popular until the 17th century. It was thought that a grain of salt would help with digestion and could also be an effective antidote for poison. Nowadays, the phrase means to avoid taking things literally or approaching things with scepticism.

Dressed to the Nines - Today it would imply someone is all dressed up, maybe taken more of an effort in their appearance, like being dressed up for the Oscars maybe, but in the 18th century, if you wanted a suit then you had to have one made. ‘Dressed to the nines’ refers to the nine yards of fabric it took to make a whole suit, including the waistcoat and jacket.

In the Nick of Time. Nowadays, this just means putting something right before being too late, but in the 18th century, debtors would use sticks to keep track of how much money and interest was owed. They’d carve a new notch (or nick) on the stick every day for interest. If you paid your debt early you did it right before a new nick was added.

Hair of the Dog That Bit You – A term often used as a cure for a hangover, taking a drink of whatever made you drunk. The original is from medieval times and is really about rabid dogs – an idea that applying hair from the dog that bit you to the wound would make it heal quickly.

Turn a Blind Eye - Meaning to ignore situations, facts, or reality. The origin came from The British Naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had one blind eye. Once when the British forces signalled for him to stop attacking a fleet of Danish ships, the sneaky old devil held up a telescope to his blind eye and said, ‘I do not see the signal.’ He therefore attacked anyway (and was victorious).

Sent to Coventry – Meaning today is not to be spoken to, shunned. One theory is that it originates from the English Civil War when Parliamentarian supporters would take Royalist prisoners of war to Coventry, where they would be shunned by its inhabitants.

There are some Portuguese sayings too and I take no credit for these, nor confirm their meanings!

Mais vale um pássaro na mão do que dois voando - Literal meaning: ‘It is worth more to have one bird in hand than two flying’.

A mentira tem pernas curtas - Meaning: “The lie has short legs - Lies do not go far—they are easily discovered and exposed.

And lastly, Barata Tonta (dizzy cockroach) If someone calls you a ‘dizzy cockroach’ they are saying that you are being unfocused or clumsy, moving or acting like a crazy person. This can be used if a person is really busy doing something or they are in a real hurry.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan