English idioms that use the word "pull," such as "pull the plug" and "pull out all the stops," have surprising origins.
An “idiom” is an expression whose meaning can’t be understood literally just by looking at the words that make it up.
For example, if you “take the cake,” you’re not stealing pastry. You’re good at something! If you’re “sharp as a tack,” you don’t have fingers like Edward Scissorhands. You’re really smart.
You can tell pretty easily how some idioms got started. “Moving the goalposts,” for example, is an expression borrowed from football. Giving a “one–two punch” came from boxing.
It’s a lot less clear where other idioms came from though. Let’s look at a few that start with the word “pull,” and you’ll see what I mean.
Pull the Plug
First, there’s “to pull the plug on something.” This means to end something, often abruptly. For example, you might “pull the plug” on your son’s sleepover if you learned he and his friends were TP-ing the neighbor’s yard.
This expression sounds like it refers to pulling an electrical plug from its socket. But that’s not the origin of the idiom. Instead, it refers to how you flush an old-fashioned toilet: by pulling out a stopper, which empties the bowl into the pipes below.
This used to be a pretty remarkable act! A 1932 book describes how a character “pulled the plug of the water-closet and turned to us with a triumphant smile as the house echoed with the demonstrably efficient deluge.”
If only we got that excited about flushing the toilet these days!