Thursday, May 23, 2013

Walking Idioms

Walking Idioms

English is rife with idioms involving walking. Most have pretty shakily documented origins, but here are a few verifiable ones:

In the 1570s the idiom walking stick was born.

In 1769 the first written usage of walk the plank occurred.

In 1846 the idiom walking sickness was coined. Oddly, the term walking pneumonia has unclear beginnings, though the particular strain (mycoplasmal pneumonia) was named “atypical pneumonia” in 1938.

In 1848 the idiom worship the ground s/he walks on entered the language.

A walk in the park was born in 1937, and sometime thereafter, the term no walk in the park was conceived.

And imagine my surprise. I expected the term walking bass to be associated with stride piano and musicians like the inimitable Fats Waller, however, the walking bass was created over two centuries earlier by Johann Sebastian Bach & his baroque pals. I apologize. My musical ignorance is showing.

In a similar vein, though most people of my generation might assume the idiom a walk on the wild side was conceived in 1972 by songwriter Lou Reed, the earliest usage of the phrase was actually Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side.

The idiom walk the green mile comes from the death row of a Louisiana prison, in which the condemned took their final walk down a hallway of green linoleum.

World War I gave us many idioms, among them (sadly) the walking wounded.

The walk a mile in someone’s shoes idiom comes from the Cherokee. It’s no surprise that the original walked-in shoes were moccasins. What do you bet nobody paid for the idiom?

Please add a comment, or a walking idiom I haven’t included.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik, The Word Detective, & Etymonline,


  1. And how about "cakewalk"? Can you cakewalk on the wild side? Or is that only if someone leaves the cake out in the rain? :-)

  2. I've had someone say to me that something was a "pie walk". I'm pretty sure they mixed up easy as pie with a cake walk, but I can't be sure.

  3. Hey Laura & Anne,
    I can't find much on piewalk, but cakewalk appears to have come to English in 1863, meaning what id does today. Interestingly, it's also got a literal meaning - in 1879, somewhere in the south a "walking competition among negroes" awarded the winning couple with a cake, & thus was referred to as a cakewalk.

  4. The difference between cakewalk and pie walk is that one is done in circles.
    Also, down in Georgia in the 1960s there was a song and a dance called "Walkin' the Dog," which I will not attempt to describe as this is a family publication.

    1. Greetings Steve,
      Ah yes. I chose not to include "walkin' the dog" in the dog idioms post a while ago. I made the same call regarding the idiom "salty dog."