4 Common Expressions With Surprisingly Dirty Origins

Yes, the original meaning of ‘poppycock’ is filthy. But not for the reasons you might think
4 Common Expressions With Surprisingly Dirty Origins

If it was possible to use English to just say what we mean all the time, it wouldn’t, you know, come from England, so we have a variety of flowery phrases we use to express ourselves. You can’t get through the day without informing others that you’re a bit under the weather because Jack Frost nipped at your nose, which you would never cut off to spite your face. If you’re immature like us, you might particularly like the ones that sound unfit for polite company, like “beat around the bush” or “cut the mustard.” 

It turns out, however, that even the most innocuous idioms sometimes have filthy origins. Such as…

Calling a Spade a Spade

In fact, one such expression ironically means to just call something what it is. Some believe to “call a spade a spade” is offensive because “spade” has been used in the past as a racist slur, but the phrase goes back way further. Ancient Greek further. Not pre-racism by any means, but definitely pre-modern racism.

Back then, in Plutarch’s writings, what he actually called was “a fig a fig, and a trough a trough.” That doesn’t seem like a significant difference; you could call anything what it is — a bicycle a bicycle, a broom a broom, a chainsaw bear a chainsaw bear — and the idiom would mean the same thing.

However, “fig” and “trough” both happened to be euphemisms for the vulva at the time. It’s possible that Plutarch coincidentally chose them both totally at random, but in the translation from Greek to Latin, it was changed to “spade,” so his translator was pretty sure he was being gross.

The Wrong End of the Stick

The fact that “trough” — you know, a feed bucket full of waste fit only for animal consumption — was genital slang gives you some idea of the hygiene situation in ancient times. Toilet paper hadn’t been invented yet, for one thing, so over in Rome, the public latrines were stocked with sea sponges on sticks you could use to wash your ass before dunking it in saline or vinegar for the next sorry son of a bitch.

This sounds fake, but it’s completely true. To answer your question, yes, people absolutely died from this, but there were so many things that could kill you in Ancient Rome, it probably took a while to narrow it down to the shit sticks. It’s believed this is the root of the expression about getting “the wrong end of the stick,” because you know that happened sometimes. You’re all distracted, thinking about the horse your emperor just appointed to the senate or whatever, and you make the terrible mistake of grabbing without looking. And what could be worse than touching the shit sponge?


Given its association with the modern adorkable, it makes sense that the pratfall would be related to the British slang term “prat,” which means an idiot, a jabroni, a schlemiel, a schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated. Fun fact: That is why Christ Pratt is called that. But it actually has more to do with the body parts the pratfaller tends to land on. Beginning in the 16th century, “prat,” which originated from several languages’ words for “prank,” meant “ass cheeks,” as seen in the line from a 1707 comedy song that seems to have been the “My Humps” of its day, “No gentry mort hath prats like thine.”

Starting in the next century, however, it also meant “vagina,” which must have caused some relationship-ending misunderstandings. It even became a verb, “to prat over,” meaning to bend over for reception in at least one of the aforementioned areas. It was only in the 20th century, with the success of vaudeville, that performers who fell on their butts and/or babymakers referred to such acts as “pratfalls,” which is how it ended up referring to foolish people, but make no mistake, it was always about the undercarriage. Hey, maybe that’s why Chris Pratt is called that.


You might think you have a pretty good idea where and what the filthy part of “poppycock” is, but you’re wrong. Let’s get this out of the way: It has nothing to do with external genitals that are red or delicious in muffins or otherwise resembling of poppies. It comes to English via Dutch immigrants in the form of the word pappekak, which literally means “soft shit.” You’d think the opposite would be less desirable, but with all those simple carbs, maybe the Dutch were proud of their constipation. No judgment.

If you’re wondering what great Dutch migration to the U.K. imported their slang, buckle up. The English word “poppycock” actually originated in the United States in the 1800s, alongside cheeseburgers and basketball and all the other great 19th-century immigrant inventions. Headline writers loved it, and so did the English readers of those American headlines who may not have been aware of the word’s vulgarity. It’s one of the greatest practical jokes we ever played on them, right up there with iced tea and Nicole Scherzinger.

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?