9 Common Phrases You Might Not Realize Come From Books
common phrases

9 Common Phrases You Might Not Realize Came From Books

common phrases

You don’t need to be a Shakespeare aficionado to fit a fancy literary quote into a conversation. You probably already used a common phrase that came from a book today without even knowing it. Authors have a gift of making up a word or a phrase and getting it to catch on. This happens so much so, that some of the most common phrases and words used today stem from books going back to ancient Greece.

Keep reading to see how many of these common phrases and words you never knew came from a book.

Extend the olive branch

Oh come on, make peace already! To extend the olive branch goes way back before your mother asked you and your siblings to forgive one another. The phrase comes up in Greek mythology when Athena gifts the olive tree to the Athenians. It also comes up in the Bible when a dove brings an olive branch to Noah to show that the flood receded and it was safe for the animals to go back to the land.

I can’t do [X] to save my life

Tried to learn a new skill and for whatever reason, you can’t get the hang of it? Happens to the best of us! When the irritation comes to it you say, “I can’t do this to save my life!” This common phrase comes from the book, The Kellys the O’Kellys by Anthony Trollope wrote in 1948. Needless to say, people have been using this phrase for years now.

Go down the rabbit hole

Oh no! A situation is spiraling out of control and you’re about to “go down the rabbit hole.” This phrase originates from one of the most beloved children’s classics, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carol coined this term as the title of the first chapter in his book where Alice enters Wonderland by following the rabbit.


It’s interesting to see how some words have changed from being an insulting one to one of pride. Take the word “nerd” for example. People who are considered nerds now are some of the most powerful and successful people in the business realm. Interestingly enough, Dr. Seuss was the author who made up the word. In his book, If I Ran the Zoo, Dr. Seuss uses it to describe a creature from the land of “Ka-Troo.”


To find yourself in a catch-22 usually means that no matter what choice you make, something terrible is going to happen. The phrase comes from the book, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The whole motivation behind the title was that when bureaucracy gets awful enough, problems start getting assigned numbers. This was the case Heller ran into when trying to pick the number to use in the title of his book. He had to go through several numbers before all involved agreed on using the number 22.


The internet was still in its early stages when “cyberspace” hit the English language. Cyberspace was a term used in the book, Neuromancer by William Gibson. It is the virtual reality dataspace in which the character finds himself in. Today that is how many describe the internet.


If you’re a writer and you want to leave readers on the edge of their seats, you end the story on a cliffhanger. Before it was used to describe the agonizing wait before the next season of Game of Thrones, it was from Thomas Hardy, a novelist in the late 1870s. In his book, A Pair of Blue Eyes, he literally leaves one of his characters on a cliff.

By the skin of my teeth

Whew! That was a close one! You’ve probably uttered the common phrase, “by the skin of my teeth” if you’ve gotten too close to comfort in a bad situation. This phrase comes from none other than the Book of Job in the Bible. It is here where the tormented hero Job describes the number of times he’s missed death by a tiny margin.

There is method in my madness

Ever look at someone with a raised eyebrow not entirely sure of their idea or plan? That’s what the case was in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Polonius wasn’t so sure about Hamlet’s antics. Polonius says, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

Literature has a way of sticking around and entering everyday language without many knowing it. It will be fun to see in 50 years what words and phrases from today’s authors will be in everyday practice.

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