17 Phrases That Are Disappearing From American Vocabulary

As the years go by, certain phrases that were once a part of everyday conversation are fading into obscurity. While new phrases emerge all the time, typically made popular by the younger generation, older phrases are becoming forgotten. Here are 17 expressions gradually disappearing from the American vocabulary.

“Close, but no cigar”

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The phrase “close, but no cigar” originated in the 1800s, when cigars were won as prizes for carnival games. The saying is used to indicate a near miss or a near success. Unfortunately, it’s now considered rather old-fashioned and is rarely used in conversation.

“Burning the midnight oil”

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This phrase is still used but is slowly becoming less known. “Burning the midnight oil” means working late into the night, indicating hard work or an extended effort. It came from a time when oil lamps were used for lighting, which has naturally been replaced with electricity.

“Jumping on the bandwagon”

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To “jump on the bandwagon” means to join a popular activity, cause, or trend. In other words, the phrase means to follow the crowd. According to Ginger, it dates back to the mid-1800s when politicians would use bandwagons in parades for exposure. Unfortunately, use of the phrase has declined as it has become a cliché.

“Roll up the window”

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There’s no hidden or double meaning to this phrase; it’s simply not often used anymore because people no longer need to manually crank open or close their car windows. Modern car windows are electrically powered and can be opened or shut with the push of a button.

“Get off your high horse”

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The phrase “get off your high horse” means to stop acting self-righteous, superior, or snobby. As told by Animal Friends, the origin of the phrase is debated but is largely believed to date back to when medieval soldiers, political figures, and other important characters rode “large and expensive horses to emphasize their power and superiority.” The phrase is beginning to be known as old-fashioned.

“As mad as a hatter”

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For those who aren’t aware, to call someone “as mad as a hatter” would be to call them crazy or irrational. You may be thinking of the eccentric “mad” Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but according to History, the expression comes from the mercury poisoning of hat-makers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“Take it with a grain of salt”

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This phrase has supposedly been used since 77 A.D. and implies skepticism. To tell someone to “take it with a grain of salt” would be to suggest that they not take something too seriously. While the saying is still used, it’s seen as somewhat outdated and isn’t popular among the younger generations.

“Dressed to the nines”

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As fashion continually changes, the phrase “dressed to the nines” is used less frequently. For those who aren’t aware, it means dressing very elegantly, dressed to perfection, or in one’s best attire. The Phrase Finder says, “Some popular theories suggest that it is derived from the number of yards of fabric used to make a suit.”

“Time to face the music”

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This means that it’s time to confront the consequences of your actions. One theory suggests that the saying “time to face the music” originated from the practice of military officers being drummed out. The phrase is still largely understood but is considered old-fashioned and is slowly being used less.

“Carbon copy”

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A “carbon copy” means an exact match or replica of something; it came from a time when people used carbon paper to make copies. People do still say “carbon copy,” but it is far less relevant in the digital age.


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To be “blackballed” means to be excluded, banned, or vetoed. According to Vocabulary.com, the phrase was originally used by 18th-century clubs, wherein members would use white or black-colored balls to vote on someone’s membership. Black balls were considered “no” votes. Usage of the phrase has waned in modern times.

“At the drop of a hat”

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The dropping of a hat was once a signal used to mark the start of a race or a fight in the 1800s, according to Grammarist. The phrase “at the drop of a hat” means something happening immediately or without hesitation. It’s seen as an older expression and is slowly disappearing from U.S. vocabulary.

“Pulling out all the stops”

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This phrase, while still quite well-known, isn’t commonly used today. It means to do something with maximum effort and originates from organ playing, where stops control the sound. Pulling out all the stops gives the organ maximum volume.

“Straight from the horse’s mouth”

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The phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth” means getting information from the most reliable source, or from the person who originally said it. It’s considered an antiquated phrase, and according to Wiktionary, “comes from British horse-racing circles, likely because the presumed ideal source for racing tips would be the horse rather than spectators or riders.”

“Put your best foot forward”

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People do still say “put your best foot forward,” though its usage is declining. The phrase originally referred to a gesture made when bowing to nobility, but people now take it to mean trying your hardest or doing what you can to make a good impression.

“In the nick of time”

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In other words, this phrase means “just in time.” It’s less commonly used in modern vernacular and will likely stop being used altogether at some point. The saying was first used in the 1580s, and, as written by World Wide Words, “the idea seems to have been that a nick was a narrow and precise marker, so that if something was in the nick it was precisely where it should be.”

“Bite the bullet”

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To “bite the bullet” means to endure or get on with a painful or difficult situation that you may have been putting off. The phrase is still widely understood but is used with increasingly less frequency. It originates from when soldiers would bite down on a bullet while enduring surgery without anesthesia.

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