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Pull Idioms: Pull the Plug, Pull Your Weight, and More

English idioms that use the word "pull," such as "pull the plug" and "pull out all the stops," have surprising origins.

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #609

Pull Out All the Stops

Next, there’s “pulling out all the stops.” This means to do everything you possibly can to make something happen. For example, if you “pulled out all the stops” to get to your friend’s birthday party on time, you might have sprinted the last mile to her home after your car broke down.

This expression refers to an activity most of us have never done: playing a pipe organ. An organ is like an overgrown pan flute; it produces sound by pumping wind into pipes of different lengths. The bottom of each pipe is covered with a wooden “stop” or seal. The organist pushes the stop over the bottom of the pipe to silence it and pulls it away to bring the pipe into play. Thus, to create maximum volume, organists “pull out all the stops.” They let the full measure of wind flow into each of the organ’s pipes. 

Organs are complex instruments, but rudimentary versions were built way back in the third century BC. The first recorded use of this idiom, however, wasn’t until 1865, in a book of essays.  

Pulling Your Weight

Then there’s pulling one’s weight. This idiom also refers to something most of us have never done: crewing. That’s a sport in which several rowers work together to propel a boat across the water, using oars. There’s sweep-style crewing, where each rower pulls one oar with both hands. There’s also scull-style crewing, where each rower holds two oars, one in each hand. Either way, to win a race, all rowers must literally pull their own weight as they drag the oars against the water, pushing the boat forward. 

Thus, “pulling your own weight” came to mean doing your share of the work, rather than being a drag on your teammates. This expression was first seen in written use in 1921 in a British weekly.

Pulling the Wool Over Your Eyes

Finally, there’s “pulling the wool over one’s eyes.” This means to trick someone, as in, “I thought our company was doing well until I showed up for work and saw a ‘closed’ sign on the door. The manager really pulled the wool over our eyes.”

You might think this expression has to do with woolen caps. You’d be close. The “wool” in this phrase comes from woolen wigs—the kind worn by noblemen in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. 

In fact, wigs have been worn since the earliest recorded times. The ancient Egyptians shaved their heads and wore wigs as protection from the sun. The ancient Greeks and Romans did the same. And they used wool from cows, goats, yak, sheep—even horses—to make them.

Wigs really took off in the 17th century, when King Louis XIV of France started wearing one to cover his balding head. Aristocrats and courtiers took note and started wearing wigs themselves. Wigs soon became a symbol of social status, and styles eventually became so extreme that wigs often covered a man’s back and shoulders and twisted in wide rolls down his chest. Servants were required to boil, curl, and powder these wigs, sometimes daily. And wigs became so tall—and so expensive—that men who wore the biggest, puffiest ones were known as “bigwigs.” 

We still use that word today to mean “an important person.”

It’s easy to imagine one of these top-heavy wigs slipping over someone’s eyes, blinding them temporarily. In that case, they’d be easy to fool, easy to trick. 

You can see from these examples that many idioms come from unusual or unexpected sources. That’s what makes English so strange to learn—and so fascinating to study. 

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

"Pulling out the stops" and other English idioms with the word "pull"

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About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.