When actors have to take on a role in the theatre at the last minute, and try to learn their lines while waiting in the wings, or at the side of the stage, they are said to be ‘winging it‘.
At least that is thought to be the origin of this phrase, according to The Phrase Finder.
Apparently it was first used in writing in 1885 in the Stage magazine in the form of the verb ‘to wing’:
“‘To wing’… indicates the capacity to play a rôle without knowing the text, and the word itself came into use from the fact that the artiste frequently received the assistance of a special prompter, who… stood… screened by a piece of the scenery or a wing.
Winging it came to mean to do make things up as you go along, or to improvise with little preparation.
This is how I tend to make my podcasts and give presentations – I know more or less what I’m going to talk about, I make some notes, and I might rehearse it in my head a few times. Then I just wing it.
When speaking in foreign, I also wing it some of the time, paraphrasing when I don’t know particular words, and guess the grammar when I’m not sure of it. This is a very useful skill to develop.
Related expressions include to do something off the top of your head, to do something on the fly, to ad lib, and to make it up as you go along.
Are there similar phrases in other languages?