It isn’t always possible to discover the origin of a common expression. Language historians do their best but sometimes best isn’t good enough. Consequently, we have hundreds of words and sayings in English that cannot be traced back to their beginnings.
Face the music (take what’s coming to you) is a good example. We know this American expression first surfaced in 1851. But where did it come from?
Many sources attribute face the music to theatre. It’s suggested that since a performer tries not to turn his back to the audience, he, therefore, faces the orchestra pit. He’s supposed to face the music even while enduring a bad case of stage fright.
However, a couple of military explanations have also been offered. The first points to an army on the march led by a military band. “Eyes front!” means, “Look straight ahead!” Face the music is thought to carry the same meaning. A second idea concerns dishonourable discharge from the cavalry. Such a soldier was drummed out of the ranks.
Charles Earle Funk says: “He is required to face the regimental drum-squad while the reasons for his dismissal are read ... The (music) alters to a somber tattoo while his sword is broken and the buttons torn from his uniform” (2107 Curious Word Origins).
Funk also links face the music to the earlier British term, “drummed out.” Drummed out appeared in English in 1766, but face the music came into common usage only in the 1880s.
Another phrase of uncertain heritage is, to know the ropes. Today, this is a way of saying someone is experienced enough to handle every detail needed to accomplish a task.
Some experts think know the ropes comes from racing and refers to someone familiar enough with horses to know how to use the reins effectively. Still, most sources trace know the ropes to sailing. Old sailing ships were equipped with scores of ropes, so it was crucial to know which rope attached to which sail. This expression was first recorded in 1879.
We know to kick the bucket means, “to die.” We’re not so sure how this expression began. Many scholars believe it originally referred to the suicide of an ostler at an inn on the Great North Road which led from London to Edinburgh. Evidently, when this man hanged himself, he stood on an overturned bucket which he kicked aside at the last moment.
A second suggestion involves the pail of holy water placed at the feet of a corpse during a wake in ancient times. Mourners would use this water to sprinkle the feet of the dead person. The supposition is that buckets became associated with the feet of the dead. I found no mention of any corpse coming to life and actually kicking such a bucket.
However, most researchers think “bucket” in this saying means the yoke used to hang or carry things. This idea is extended to denote the way pigs are suspended to promote bleeding once they are slaughtered.
Whatever its origin, kick the bucket has been known in English since 1570.