Origin of Idioms with People’s Names

Origin of Idioms with People’s Names

In “Idioms with People’s Names 1” and “2” we looked at quite a few expressions. We learned that a moaning Minnie is someone annoying because they complain a lot, and that a Typhoid Mary is someone who transmits undesirable ideas or attitudes. But how did such people get the nicknames? In this post, we’ll explain the origin of 10 idioms with people’s names.

  1. Typhoid Mary (1) a person who spreads a disease or is held to be responsible for spreading it; 2) a person who spreads something undesirable, especially bad news, and is avoided as a result). This expression alludes to (= hints at; suggests) a real person, Mary Manson, who died in 1938. An Irish-born servant, she transmitted typhoid fever to others and was referred to as “Typhoid Mary” from the early 1900s. The term was broadened to other carriers of calamity in the mid-1900s. (source)

2. Walter Mitty (a person who imagines that their life is full of excitement and adventures when it is in fact just ordinary). The original Walter Mitty was created by humorist James Thurber in his famous story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In Walter’s real life, he is a reticent (= reserved, secretive), henpecked (= intimidated by his own wife) proofreader befuddled (= confused, perplexed) by everyday life. But in his fantasies, Walter imagines himself as various daring and heroic characters. (source)


3. Jekyll And Hyde (someone having a two-sided personality one side of which is good and the other evil). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde represent the two-sided personality of the protagonist (= the main character) in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886) by R. L. Stevenson.


4. To keep up with the Joneses (to always want to own the same expensive objects and do the same things as your friends or neighbors, because you are worried about seeming less important socially than they are). The phrase originates with the comic strip “Keeping Up with the Joneses”, created by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand in 1913.  (source)


5. Curious George (a very curious person). Curious George is the main character of a series of popular children’s books and TV series of the same name, written by Margret and H. A. Rey. By extension, a curious George is someone who is too curious about things they are not involved in.


6. Nervous Nellie (a person characterized by worry, insecurity and timidity (= lack of courage/confidence). This term apparently originated int he late 1920s and referred to Secretary of State Frank B. Kellog, who served from 1925 to 1929. It soon was picked up and used for any individual, male or female, who shoed excessive worry and anxiety. This idiom doesn’t allude to a particular person named Nellie; rather, the name was probably chosen for the sake of alliteration. (source)


7. To open Pandora’s box (to do or start something that will cause a lot of other problems). Pandora’s box comes from the ancient Greek story about a character named Pandora, who was given a box as a wedding gift but was ordered not to open it. Eventually, curiosity overcame her and she opened the box, releasing death, evil, and misery into the world. The term Pandora’s box was first used in English to refer to something that could cause many problems sometime around 1570. (source)


8. A good Jack makes a good Jill (if a husband treats his wife well, she will treat him well in return). “Jack and Jill” is a traditional English nursery rhyme about a boy named Jack and a girl named Jill. They indicate a boy and a girl as a generic (= general) pair. In the idiom a good Jack makes a good Jill, Jack also indicates a generic man and Jill – a generic woman.


9. Uncle Sam (a personification of the federal government or citizens of the US). The origin of the term Uncle Sam, though disputed, is usually associated with a businessman from Troy, New York, Samuel Wilson, known affectionately as “Uncle Sam” Wilson. The barrels of beef that he supplied the army during the War of 1812 were stamped “U.S.” to indicate government property. (source)


10. John Bull (a personification of England or the typical Englishman). John Bull originated as a satirical character created by John Arbuthnot. Bull first appeared in 1712 in Arbuthnot’s pamphlet Law is a Bottomless Pit. The same year Arbuthnot published a four-part political narrative The History of John Bull. (source)

We hope you found the facts interesting. Subscribe to our blog for more content like this. 😉 Thank you for reading!

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