It costs an arm and a leg

It costs an arm and a leg

This week’s idiom is ‘It costs an arm and a leg’.

I know you’ve all been chomping at the bit, waiting for the second installment of An Idiom Abroad, well, your wait is finally over and this week the idiom is: ‘it costs an arm and a leg’. This is a very common phrase in English, but if you’ve never heard it before, it could sound like you would have to part with more than your hard-earned cash to acquire the object. However, the phrase ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ means very expensive.

So where does ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ come from?

Many seem to think that ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ comes from the pre-photographic era where painters would charge more depending on the size of the portrait. A head and shoulder portrait would be the cheapest option, followed by one that comes down to the waist, including the arms, with the most expensive option being a full-length portrait that also included the legs. This seems plausible as larger canvases would cost more, however, it is unlikely that the phrase originated from this practice because there were no recorded uses of the phrase before the twentieth century.

It costs an arm and a leg
George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart

One of the first uses of ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ was in the longbeach Independent in December 1949: ‘Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say “Merry Christmas” and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.’ This comes shortly after WWII where the reality of war where many servicemen lost limbs was fresh in people’s minds.

Another explanation is that the phrase ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ comes from two separate phrases that were combined, ‘give his right arm for’, and ‘takes a leg’. The earliest example was in the 1849 edition of Sharpe’s London Journal:

He felt as if he could gladly give his right arm to be cut off if it would make him, at once, old enough to go and earn money instead of Lizzy.

The second phrase was in 1875 in the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye:

A man who owes five years subscription to the Gazette is trying to stop his paper without paying up, and the editor is going to grab that back pay if it takes a leg.

So the phrase might be a mixture of the two phrases to make ‘it costs an arm and a leg’.

Some would say that ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ isn’t technically an idiom. It’s a metaphor. However, I don’t think this matters for the purposes of this blog which attempts to familiarise students whose first language is not English with the peculiarities of the language

In costs an arm and a leg in context:

Nigel needed a new suit. The old one was falling to pieces so he called his friend Gary and went to his local tailors on the high street. “I bet this is going to cost you an arm and a leg.” Gary remarked as they looked at all the suits available, Nigel wasn’t paying attention, “I don’t just want an arm and a leg, I want the whole suit.” Gary rolled his eyes and sighed.


Some interesting links:

Like this post? Don’t forget to subscribe. You can also follow us:

Twitter: @drjohnsupport




An Idiom Abroad

Idiom: Raining cats and dogs

An idiom is: ‘A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words’. OED.

English can be challenging at the best of times with pronunciation, unusual spellings and grammar rules that even a seasoned English user can sometimes make mistakes with. Then there are idioms. Unless you’ve heard an idiom before, you could easily think that the people using it are talking in some sort of code. ‘It costs an arm and a leg’ doesn’t involve any sort of surgery and ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ can easily be interpreted as a fluffy, heavenly onslaught of teeth and claws.

To help with this and to inject some humour into what can be a fairly boring subject, we will be bringing you an idiom a week. We will attempt to explain and put into context an idiom that is used in common English speech.

This week’s idiom is: It’s raining cats and dogs

Idiom: Raining cats and dogs
Raining Cats and dogs

This simply means that it’s raining heavily.

The phrase in context.

Toby was walking along the road minding his own business when the rain started pouring down. Fortunately he was just passing the house of Matha, a friendly, warm-hearted woman who he knew wouldn’t mind giving him shelter. He knocked on the door and Martha answered as the storm took hold, the rain lashing down as thunder rolled in. Martha ushered him into the house out of the rain. “It’s raining cats and dogs out there,” Toby said as the water dripped off his nose. Martha was surprised at this, not because it was raining cats and dogs, but because she didn’t know dogs could speak.

But where does this phrase come from?

It was first used in 1651 by Henry Vaughan in his Olor Iscanus, where he refers to a roof where ‘dogs and cats rained in shower,’ and a year later, the English playwright Richard Brome wrote in his comedy City Witt, ‘it shall rain dogs and polecats.’ However, the popularity of the phrase resulted from its use by Jonathan Swift.

In 1710, Swift published ‘A Description of a City Shower’ in Tatler magazine where he describes the filthy streets of 17th/18th century England, where heavy rain would wash debris through the streets, including dead cats and dogs. But the first proper use of the phrase as we have it now comes from the publication of Swift’s Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, in 1738, a satire on the conversations of the upper classes: ‘I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.’

It is not known for certain where the phrase comes from etymologically, however, some theories have been advanced:

  • Odin, the Norse god of storms, was often pictured with dogs and wolves, which were symbols of wind. Witches, who supposedly rode their brooms during storms, were often pictured with black cats, which became signs of heavy rain for sailors.  Therefore, ‘raining cats and dogs’ may refer to a storm with wind (dogs) and heavy rain (cats).
  • ‘Cats and dogs’ may come from the Greek expression cata doxa, which means ‘contrary to experience or belief.’ If it is raining cats and dogs, it is raining unusually or unbelievably hard.
  • ‘Cats and dogs’ may be a perversion of the now obsolete word catadupe.  In old English, catadupe meant a cataract or waterfall.  A version of catadupe existed in many old languages. In Latin, for example, catadupa. was borrowed from the classical Greek κατάδουποι, which referred to  the cataracts of the Nile River.  So, to say it’s raining ‘cats and dogs’ might be to say it’s raining waterfalls.
  • A false theory stated that cats and dogs used to cuddle into thatch roofs during storms and then be washed out during heavy rains. However, a properly maintained thatch roof is naturally water resistant and slanted to allow water to run off.  In order to slip off the roof, the animals would have to be lying on the outside—an unlikely place for an animal to seek shelter during a storm.

If  you have any more information on this phrase please feel free to leave a comment and don’t forget to follow this blog for your weekly idiomatic dose.

For more information on the idiom, ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’:

Liked this post? Subscribe and get loads more!