Here’s just a sampling:
Beat a Dead Horse: Is there some part of the country in which it’s legal to beat a live horse? Is the purpose of this saying to convey the sheer uselessness of beating a dead one because there’s a whole paddock full of naughty horses just waiting their turn to take a lickin’?
Can’t Cut the Mustard: Has there ever been a time in human history when someone has needed the help of someone else to slice through a dollop of mustard? If so, can a person REALLY fail to do that?
Dropping Like Flies: Now, I could certainly see a group adopting the saying “Buzzing Around Like Flies” or “Landing All Over my Potato Salad Like Flies”, but I have in all my time on the face of this planet never seen a fly just drop from out of the sky. Sure, if it hits a bug zapper, it’s taking a dive, but so would you if you decided to walk right into something that delivers a gajillion volts of electricity through your entire body. If you’re wont to do that, perhaps they should change the saying to “Dropping Like Phyllis (or whatever your name may be)”.
Cock and Bull Story: Think back to the last ten or twenty tall tales or outright lies you’ve heard someone tell and ask yourself one simple question: Did a single one of them involve either a rooster or a male cow, or both of them for that matter? Do either of these animals have a tendency to stretch the truth more than the rest of the animal kingdom? Perhaps that’s why Oprah doesn’t eat beef!
Going to Hell in a Handbasket: I can understand the first part of this idiom – things are going from bad to worse – but the phrase “in a handbasket” has me over a barrel (I couldn’t resist). Is there something less than dignified about being carried somewhere in a handbasket as opposed to a bucket from Home Depot? Are we to assume Little Red Riding Hood was an emissary from the Underworld because of her devilish choice of conveyance for her grandmother’s goodies?
No Room to Swing a Cat: This certainly has to have a similar origin to the whole horses-who-like-the-beatdown thing. Was it during the Industrial Revolution when there was a shortage of tape measures that some carpenter’s aide said, “Wait, I got this one. If I can swing old Fang in a circle without hitting his head on anything, we should have enough space to install an elevator right here.”
I can picture the beleaguered foreign student leaving his English class one evening and deciding to strike up a conversation with the first person he sees on the street: “I learned about a mustard cutter who failed to swing his cat in a small room. He was so upset by this that he went to beat on his horse but found it was already dead and covered by flies.” His conversational companion undoubtedly is going to give him a very strange look, which will elicit something else from the student: “If you think that’s a cocky bull story, you and your handbasket can take a trip to hell.”
As he sits in the local precinct adjacent to a diner to fill out an assault report, he’ll say to the officer, “Do I smell bacon?”