The Truth Behind Common Writing And Book Related Phrases

I love learning about the meaning behind words and phrases. So I thought hey, I’ll do a blog post about famous phrases the refer to writing and books because well, I want to and it’s my blog. But hopefully some of you out there are also intrigued by this kind of thing so – enjoy!

The writing is on the wall

Meaning – Something bad is soooo going to happen

The origins of this phrase are biblical and relate to the story of Belshazzer’s feast. King Belshazzer was having good old time drinking from vessels looted from temples until a disembodied hand writes ‘mene mene’ on the wall. Belshazzer hasn’t got a clue what’s going on and asks Daniel to work it out. Daniel comes back and says duh it’s obviously elaborate wordplay from God himself! Belshazzer should have seen his fate coming, but he didn’t and now he can’t change it; he’s killed that very night.

The pen is mightier than the sword

Meaning – my words are of greater influence than your pointy stick (although your pointy stick is still fairly sharp, ow)

The exact wording was coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 for his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy (no I’ve never heard of it either). But the idea behind it had been floating about well before the play, as far back as around 500 BCE.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Meaning – an image can be just as, if not more, meaningful than a shed load of words (cue all the writers reading this fainting in shock).

Like the phrase above, this idea had been used in various ways a few times before the current usage came about. This particular assemblage seemingly originated in 1921 in an advertising article by Frederick R. Barnard titled “One look is worth a thousand words“.

A turn up for the books

Meaning – Oo look, a good thing has happened unexpectedly – huzzah!

This phrase seems to come from two different places. Firstly, from Cribbage. At the start of the game, one team cuts the pack and then a member of the other team turns up the top card. If that card is a Jack, the second team gets extra points – an unforeseen bit of good fortune (but I still don’t understand Cribbage). The second usage is in horse-racing, dating back to when bets were stored in notebooks. If an un-backed horse won the race, that was a turn-up for book-maker as he got to keep all the money!

Actions speak louder than words

Meaning – what you do means more than what you say. Obvious innit?

Like a lot of phrases here, this general idea has been bandied about for a while, even popping up in one form in the Bible. In 1628, Parliamentarian John Pym stated “A word spoken in season is like an Apple of Gold set in Pictures of Silver, and actions are more precious than words.”

The wording we have today first crops up in 1736, in Colonial Currency by A.M. Davis.

Bad books

Meaning – Oh dear, you’re not someone’s favourite person right now are you?

In the Middle Ages ‘one’s books’ were like the esteem in which you were held by others. So if you were out of someone’s books, they basically didn’t give a toss about you anymore! The first record of this usage is in The Parlyament of Deuylles, in 1509 – “He is out of our bokes, and we out of his”.

But the specific phrase “bad books” is first found in 1861 in Perry’s History of the Church of England.

By the book

Meaning – Read the damn instructions before you build the wardrobe dammit!

Likely to have come from the bible. More specifically swearing on the bible to tell the truth in court.

Cook the books

Meaning – the original version of “creative accountancy”.

Why cooking though? Possibly it’s related to what happens when you change ingredients into meals – changing one thing into another. Its use may date back to Tudor times and was commonly in use by the 18th century.

Hot off the press

Meaning – it’s fresh! It’s new! It’s hot, hot, hot! 

Unsurprisingly this is related to printing, specifically newspaper printing. These used to be printed using a ‘hot metal printing’ process. It’s now applied to anything fresh and new.

Off the record

Meaning – I’m going to tell you something now “unofficially” that will come back to haunt me years later in a tell-all biography.

This is a very common term in journalism. The earliest reference is a news report about an event attended by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 that mentions he was going to talk “off the record”.

The truth is stranger than fiction

Meaning – if I wrote this in my book you’d tell me it was ridiculous but it actually happened because the world is ridiculous.

You can thank the eponymous Lord Byron for this one. It pops up for the first time in his poem Don Juan in 1823 – “Tis strange – but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told”.

That’s all she wrote

Meaning – A crime writer suspiciously always seems to be about when a murder hap- oh no, wait it means something came to a sudden end.

This is used mostly in America, but as with many Americanisms it’s now spread across the world.

The moving finger writes

Meaning – this is on you buddy.

This phrase refers to personal responsibility and that the actions you take are for you to deal with – they can’t be changed. It’s one of those terms I suspect many can quote but few will know where it’s from. It appears in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the poem The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam in 1859 – “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on.”

Word for word

Meaning – I’m just saying what they said – don’t blame me.

Let’s go back to 1385 for this one, and the famous Chaucer. The term used to mean a “close study” and pops up in The Legend of Dido, a poem from Legend of Good Women – “I could folwe word for word Virgile”.

Word in edgeways

Meaning – please put a sock in it.

This expression came from the UK in the 19th century. It’s meaning stems from shuffling through a crowd to find your way through.

Related reads

10 Inspiring Quotes From Writers About Writing

6 Books Every Writer Should Read

5 Ways You Can “Write” Without Writing


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