We’ve all had the experience of listening to someone speak and thinking, “I don’t think that means what you think it does.” It happens to everyone, and can be quite embarrassing when you realise how you misspoke. However, there are many phrases that have morphed from their original intention, so that the modern, colloquial usage can be deemed just as correct. In the interest of giving you all the tools you need to use such phrases correctly, we’ve gathered up eight of the most commonly used sayings that really don’t mean what we think they do.

Begs the Question

Most people use this phrase to say something or someone raises a question. However, it’s even more straightforward than that. If something “begs the question” then it is assuming something which has not been proven – quite literally “begging” to be questioned.

I Could Care Less

If you think about it, if you could care less about something that means you must care about it at least a little. If you couldn’t care less, then you are at the bare minimum of caring – as in, not at all.

You’ve Got Another Thing Coming

This phrase has taken on a life of its own and could be argued that these days it’s used correctly on its own terms. However, it’s actually meant to be “got another think coming.” It makes more sense if you think of it as a full sentence: “If that’s what you think, then you’ve got another think coming!” You can see the “think” version of expression in turn of the 20th-century writing, including Wallace Irving’s The Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum, which says, “My finish then less clearly do I see, / For lo ! I have another think a-coming.”

Plead the Fifth

You don’t actually plead the Fifth Amendment (or any Amendment, for that matter). Pleas are reserved for the person being prosecuted, whereas the right to avoid self-incrimination is for a witness, and they are instructed to “take” the Fifth, instead.

Basket Case

Calling someone a “basket case” generally means they are overwhelmed, frazzled or more than a little bit nutty. Once you learn the origin of the term, however, you may think twice before using it again. “Basket case” used to refer a physical disability, rather than a mental or emotional one. When injured WWI soldiers had to have massive amputations (as in, arms and legs removed), the rumour was that they were carried around military hospitals in baskets. While the Surgeon General did put out an official repudiation, stating, “The Surgeon General of the Army… denies…that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated…of the existence of basket cases in our hospitals,” the dark origin of the phrase can’t be disputed.

Sweating Like a Pig

Anyone who thinks about this phrase will probably determine that it doesn’t make sense. After all, pigs don’t sweat – they roll around in mud to cool off! Well actually, the phrase is quite accurate, it just refers to a different type of pig. During the smelting process, pig iron is produced from ore. When the metal begins to form droplets of condensation it’s deemed cool enough to be handled, meaning when it “sweats” it’s safe to move. So, if you’re “sweating like a pig,” you’ve actually produced enough sweat to cool freshly produced iron!

Bust Your Chops

If someone is really nagging you, you may say “come on, why are you busting my chops?” But if they were really doing that, they’d be punching you in the side of your face – right where fashionable men sported mutton chops when the phrase originated.

Give the Cold Shoulder

Giving the cold shoulder generally means to ignore someone or brush them off. However, like many of the above examples, it’s more literal than that. Its meaning goes back centuries (appearing in Sir Walter Scott’s “The Antiquary” in 1816) and refers to what you give house guests you don’t really like. Valued visitors would receive a hot meal, while the less-welcome would receive nothing but a cold shoulder of mutton.

More: Confusing Words

If it’s not a saying that’s tripping you up but an individual word, check out our Writing Wednesday posts on the most commonly confused and misused words.

About Paperblanks: 25 years ago, we created Paperblanks to help keep book heritage alive and vital in our modern age, and to offer an inspiring space for people to express themselves. Thanks for joining us on this journey! For more about Paperblanks, go to our website at paperblanks.com.


  1. Здравствуйте! “I really think it’s important for people to realize that there are some basic emotions that we try to avoid when we’re engaging in any endeavor,” Ray says. “We don’t want to be embarrassed. We don’t want to be humiliated. We don’t want to be ashamed. We don’t want to be less than.”


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