“Close, but no cigar”
During carnivals in the 1800s, cigars were rewarded as prizes for winning carnival games.
In 18th century social clubs, membership was voted upon by a committee. Typically an anonymous vote was cast using different colored balls. A positive vote was cast for membership with a red ball, and a black ball meant a negative vote. Some clubs required only one black ball vote to reject an applicant’s membership. So literally, to be black balled meant to be voted against and denied membership.
“Jumping on the bandwagon”
In the mid-1800s, circuses would parade around town before setting up, with bandwagons leading the parade. They drew large crowds, and politicians started renting space on the bandwagons to get face time with an audience. Over time, politicians would make calls of action not to “jump on the opponent’s bandwagon,” and the phrase took on a negative connotation, meaning to mindlessly go along with whatever became flashy or popular.
“Bite the bullet”
When no painkiller was available (in makeshift battlefield tents, for example), soldiers literally had to bite down on a bullet during surgical operations. To bite the bullet now just means to endure something necessary but unpleasant.
“Get off your high horse”
Before the automobile, owning a horse was a sign of prominence, and since nobility and high-ranking military officials were primarily the ones who owned them, to “get off your high horse,” literally meant to dismount your horse and humble yourself. Today, it’s implied that the person is acting superior, often in a moral context.
“Dressed to the nines”
Dressed to the nines meant that you were rich enough to literally purchase the entire nine yards it took to make a tailor-fit outfit (including a vest, jacket, etc.). It’s still in use today to mean that someone is dressed in their best.
“Time to face the music”
In Great Britain and the early American colonial era, disgraced military officers were drummed out of their regiment when discharged. Nowadays, this implies that we have to face the fallout of our misdeeds.
“At the drop of a hat”
Instead of a gunshot to indicate that a race had started, in the 1800s it was customary to drop a hat to begin.
“Pulling out all the stops”
This idiom meaning “applying your best effort” originated from when organists would literally pull the stops from every pipe on an organ in order to play at maximum volume.
“Straight from the horse’s mouth”
Purchasing a horse was an expensive endeavor and unless you knew where to look, you could easily be swindled. A horse’s teeth, however, could tell you all you needed to know: the age, health, and general condition of the horse. So, literally, the horse’s mouth told you the truth.
“Put your best foot forward”
When bowing to nobility, a gentleman would literally put his best foot forward, extending his leg to take the bow.
“In the nick of time”
Through the 18th century, businessmen often kept track of debts owed (and interest that built on loans) by carving notches (or nicks) on a “tally stick.” When someone arrived to pay off their debt before the next nick was carved, they’d save that day’s worth of interest, thus arriving “in the nick of time.”