Saved by the bell, Dead ringer, Graveyard shift — Since England is so old and small they started running out of places to bury people. So they started digging up some coffins and would take their bones to a house and re-use the grave. They started opening these coffins and found some had scratch marks on the inside. One out of 25 coffins were that way and they realized they had still been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on their wrist and lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. That is how the saying “graveyard shift” was made. If the bell would ring they would know that someone was “saved by the bell” or he was a “dead ringer”.
Limelight [in the] — Limelight has nothing to do with citrus fruit, and it’s not even green. Being in the limelight means the same thing as being in the spotlight. Limelight is what theaters used to light the stage with before modern lights were invented. It was called limelight because the source of the brightness was calcium oxide, the corrosive substance also known as lime. When burned, lime gave off an intense white light that fully exposed actors to the public gaze. So if you’re in the limelight the spotlight is yours and all eyes are upon you.
Mad as a hatter— If someone says you are mad as a hatter, they are accusing you of being quite irrational. The sense of madness here is “suffering from a disorder of the mind; insane.” This phrase usually refers not to someone who is actually insane, but rather to a more normal person who is behaving in an irrational way. The phrase emerged in England in the 19th century. Hat-makers in those days used a lot of felt that was treated with chemicals including lead, arsenic, and mercury. Unfortunately, those chemicals are highly toxic. The symptoms of such poisoning include palsy, confused speech, and distorted thinking. Today, making hats is a much safer profession, but the phrase survives. An interesting alternate explanation of the phrase derives hatter from Anglo-Saxon atter (poison), which is related to adder (a poisonous snake whose bite was thought to cause insanity).
Mind your p’s and q’s – In English pubs, ale is ordered by pints and quarts. So in old England, when customers got unruly, the bartender would yell at them to mind their own pints and quarts and settle down. It’s where we get the phrase “mind your P’s and Q’s.”
Wet your whistle – Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. Hence, “Wet your whistle.”
Sleep tight – In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. that’s where the phrase, “goodnight, sleep tight” came from.
Saving face or losing face – The noble ladies and gentlemen of the late 1700s wore much makeup to impress each other. Since they rarely bathed, the makeup would get thicker and thicker. If they sat too close to the heat of the fireplace, the makeup would start to melt. If that happened, a servant would move the screen in front of the fireplace to block the heat, so they wouldn’t “lose face.”
Rule of thumb –The phrase “rule of thumb” is derived from an old English law which stated that you couldn’t beat your wife with anything wider than your thumb.