cliches and expressions origins

origins and meanings of cliches, expressions and words


Cliches and expressions give us many wonderful figures of speech and words in the English language, as they evolve via use and mis-use alike. Many cliches and expressions - and words - have fascinating and surprising origins, and many popular assumptions about meanings and derivations are mistaken. These cliches, words and expressions origins and derivations illustrate the ever-changing complexity of language and communications, and are ideal free materials for word puzzles or quizzes, and team-building games. Cliches and expressions are listed alphabetically according to their key word, for example, 'save your bacon' is listed under 'b' for bacon. Some expressions with two key words are listed under each word.

A commonly ignored reference source for many words and expressions origins - especially for common cliches that are not listed in slang and expressions dictionaries - is simply to use an ordinary decent English dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary or Websters, etc), which will provide origins for most words and many related phrases (see the 'strong relief' example below).

The money slang section contains money slang and word origins and meanings, and English money history.

The portmanteau words entry is a particularly interesting example of one of the very many different ways in which language evolves.

The close relationship between society and language - especially the influence of French words in English history - is also fascinating, and this connection features in many words and expressions origins. The lingua franca entry also helps explain this, and the organic nature of language change and development.

These derivations have been researched from a wide variety of sources, which are referenced at the end of this section. These reference sources contain thousands more cliches, expressions, origins and meanings.


If you have corrections or further details about the words, cliches, expressions origins and derivations on this page, please send them. If you are trying to find origins or derivations for words, expressions, phrases, clichés, etc., that are not listed here, then please use the research sources suggested below before you contact me. I'm not able to answer all such enquiries personally although selected ones will be published on this page.

The derivations quiz demonstrates that word and expressions origins can be used easily in quizzes, to teach about language, and also to emphasise the significance of cultural diversity in language and communications development.

If you like words/language quizzes see the diversity/words quizzes quizballs 182 and quizballs 184.

See also:

tips for using books for researching language origins

acronyms and abbreviations origins - for training, research, speaking, writing, quizzes and exercises

money slang and (English) money history

words and expressions origins



argh / aargh / aaargh / aaaargh / aaarrgh / aaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrgh (etc) - This is a remarkable word because it can be spelled in so many ways. Argh (the shortest version) is an exclamation, of various sorts, usually ironic or humorous (in this sense usually written and rarely verbal). More dramatically Aaaaaaaaaargh would be a written scream. Aaaarrrgh (there are hundreds of popular different spelling variants) typically expresses a scream or cry of ironic or humorous frustration. The word itself and variations of Aaargh are flourishing in various forms due to the immediacy and popularity of internet communications (blogs, emails, etc), although actually it has existed in the English language as an exclamation of strong emotion (surprise, horror, anguish, according to the OED) since the late 1700s. The OED prefers the spelling Aargh, but obviously the longer the version, then the longer the scream. In this respect it's a very peculiar and unusual word - since it offers such amazing versatility for the user. There are very few words which can be spelled in so many different ways, and it's oddly appropriate that any of the longer variants will inevitably be the very first entry in any dictionary. Spelling of Aaaaarrgghh (there's another one..) varies most commonly in the number of 'A's, and to a lesser extent in the number of 'R's. Repetition of 'G's and 'H's is far less prevalent. If you are wondering what Aaaaaarrrrgh and variants actually sound like, then consider the many types of outrageous screams which traditionally feature in fight/death/falling scenes in TV/cinema. Notable and fascinating among these is the stock sound effect - a huge Aaaaaarrrgghhh noise - known as the Wilhelm Scream. Incidentally (apparently) the term Wilhelm Scream was coined by Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt, so-called because it was used for the character Private Wilhelm in a 1953 film The Charge at Yellow River. The sound effect was (again apparently) originally titled 'man being eaten by an alligator'. Please note that this screen version did not directly imply or suggest the modern written usage of Aaaarrrgh as an expression of shock - it's merely a point of related interest. The frustration signified by Aaargh can be meant in pure fun or in some situations (in blogs for example) with a degree of real vexation. The powerful nature of the expression is such that it is now used widely as a heading for many articles and postings dealing with frustration, annoyance, etc. The main usage however seems to be as a quick response in fun, as an ironic death scream, which is similar to more obvious expressions like 'you're killing me,' or 'I could scream'. To some people Aaaaargh suggests the ironic idea of throwing oneself out of a towerblock window to escape whatever has prompted the irritation. AAAAAARRRRGH (capitals tends to increase the volume..) is therefore a very flexible and somewhat instinctual expression: many who write it in emails and blogs would not easily be able to articulate its exact meaning, and certainly it is difficult to interpret a precise meaning for an individual case without seeing the particular exchange and what prompted the Aaargh response. That said, broadly speaking, we can infer the degree of emotion from the length of the version used. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrgh clearly has a touch more desperation than Aaarrgh. The use of Aaaaargh is definitely increasing in the 21st century compared to the 20th, and in different ways. Often the meaning includes an inward element like Homer Simpson's 'doh', or an incredulous aspect like Victor Meldrew's 'I don't believe it', and perhaps in time different spellings will come to mean quite specifically different things. Interestingly the web makes it possible to measure the popularity of the the different spelling versions of Aargh, and at some stage the web will make it possible to correlate spelling and context and meaning. For now, googling the different spellings will show you their relative popularity, albeit it skewed according to the use of the term on the web. I suspect that given the speed of the phone text medium, usage in texting is even more concentrated towards the shorter versions. See Oliver Steele's fascinating Aargh webpage, (he gives also Hmmm the same treatment..) showing the spellings and their Google counts as at 2005. At the time of originally writing this entry (April 2008) Google's count for Argh has now trebled (from 3 million in 2005) to 9.3 million in 2008, and is no doubt still growing fast along with its many variations. At Dec 2012 Google's count for Argh had doubled (from the 2008 figure) to 18.2 million. Aaaaaaaarrrggggh....

recent figures of speech - origins sought

Can you help find the earliest origins or precise sources of some relatively recent expressions and figures of speech? Here are a few interesting sayings for which for which fully satisfying origins seem not to exist, or existing explanations invite expansion and more detail.

  • all over him like a cheap suit - see explanation of meaning and versions of the cheap suit expression - do you have early examples or recollections of use?
  • hair of the dog.. fur of the cur - do you know this adaptation and extension of the hair of the dog expression?
  • the whole box and die - do you use this expression? If so for what situations and purpose? Let me know. And see possible meanings and origins below, which need clarifying.
  • wrap my brain around it - recollections or usage pre-1970s?
  • liar liar pants on fire (your nose is a long as a telephone wire - and other variations) - recollections or usage pre-1950s? (The earliest recollection of 'liar liar pants on fire' that I have been informed of dates back to the 1930s, from a lady born in 1925, UK. See the liar liar entry for additional clues.)
  • black market - seems to have first appeared in English c.1930 (see black market entry below) - the expression has direct literal equivalents in German, French, Italian and Spanish - does anyone know which came first?
  • wally - pickled cucumber/gherkin and term for a twit - see wally entry below - anyone got anything to add to this? Is there a long-forgotten/lost rhyming slang connecting wally with gherkin (perkins?). Any other suggestions?
  • sod this for a game of soldiers - clues are sparse - see the game of soldiers entry below and the ST FAGOS acronym - if you know any more please share it.
  • break a leg - the John Wilkes Booth break a leg theory looks the strongest to me, but there are others, and particularly there's an international perspective which could do with exploring. Are you aware of similar ironic expressions meaning 'good luck' in other languages?
  • you go girl - much used on daytime debate and confrontation shows, what's the there earliest source of 'you go girl'? - the 1992-97 'Martin' TV Show starring Martin Lawrence? Shakespeare? A 1957 Katherine Hepburn movie? Confirmation/suggestions/examples of early usage wanted please.
  • doughnut/donut - we (probably) know the doughnut word origins, but doughnut meaning £75? - any details about this money meaning appreciated. Let me know.
  • no dice - not a chance - see the no dice entry below.

If you have early recollections of use (when and when) or suggestions of precise origins or authors of any of the above expressions please let me know, and I'll publish the findings on this page in the main listing. Let me know also if you want any mysterious expressions adding to the list for which no published origins seem to exist.

acid test - an absolute, demanding, or ultimate challenge or measure of quality or capability - deriving from very old times - several hundreds of years ago - when nitric acid was used to determine the purity or presence of gold, especially when gold was currency before coinage. Gold does not dissolve in nitric acid, whereas less costly silver and base metals do. The use of nitric acid also featured strongly in alchemy, the ancient 'science' of (attempting) converting base metals into gold.

above board - honest - Partridge's Dictionary of Slang says above board is from card-playing for money - specifically keeping hands visible above the table (board was the word for table, hence boardroom), not below, where they could be engaged in cheating. This would naturally have extended as a metaphor to the notion (favoured by 1870 Brewer) of a conjuror preparing a trick with hands above the 'board' (table), rather than below it, where the trickery could be concealed, 'under-hand' (see also underhand).

across the board - all or everything, or a total and complete achievement - this is apparently derived from American racetracks and relates to the boards on which odds of horses were shown (and still are to an extent, albeit in a more technically modern way). An 'across the board' bet was one which backed a horse to win or be placed in the first three, or as Wentworth and Flexnor's Dictionary of American Slang suggests, across the board meant a bet in which "...the same amount of money is wagered on the horse to win, place or show..." The same dictionary suggests the metaphor is specifically derived from the 'totalizer board' which shows the odds at horse racing tracks. Additionally it has been suggested to me that a similar racetrack expression, 'across the boards' refers to the tendency for odds available for any given horse to settle at the same price among all bookmakers (each having their own board), seemingly due to the laying off effect, whereby the odds would be the same 'across the boards'. I can neither agree nor disagree with this, nor find any certain source or logic for this to be a more reliable explanation of the metaphorical expression, and so I add it here for what it is worth if you happen to be considering this particular expression in special detail.

sweep the board - win everything - see entry under 'sweep'.

wouldn't/didn't/don't know him from adam/adam's brother/adam's off ox, etc - a man completely unknown (to whoever is using the term) - the expression of not knowing him/you from Adam, (or as used in the USA from 'Adam's off ox', together with other Adam associations) has according to etymology sources (notably M Quinion's Worldwidewords resource) been in print in its basic 'Adam' sense since the late 1800s in England, and in spoken use for many years prior to this in England and the USA; in fact the reference to one of the most famous characters of the Bible suggests that the origin of the expression could be hundreds of years earlier than when first used in print. The basis of the meaning is that Adam, being the first man ever, and therefore the farthest removed from anyone, symbolises a man that anyone is least likely to know. Out of interest, an 'off ox' would have been the beast pulling the cart on the side farthest from the driver, and therefore less known than the 'near ox'. This extension to the expression was American (Worldwidewords references the dictionary of American Regional English as the source of a number of such USA regional variations); the 'off ox' and other extensions such as Adam's brother or Adam's foot, are simply designed to exaggerate the distance of the acquaintance.

alligator - the reptile - the word has Spanish origins dating back at least 500 years, whose language first described the beast in the USA and particularly the Mid-Americas, such as to give the root of the modern English word. Alligators were apparently originally called El Lagarto de Indias (The Lizard of the Indies), 'el lagarto', logically meaning 'the lizard'. Initially the word entered English as lagarto in the mid-1500s, after which it developed into aligarto towards the late 1500s, and then was effectively revised to allegater by Shakespeare when he used the word in Romeo and Juliet, in 1623. It seems (ack S Burgos) that the modern Spanish word (and notably in Castellano) for lizard is lagartija, and lagarto now means alligator.

all-singing all-dancing - full of features/gimmicks - the term was first used in advertising for the 1929 musical film, the first with sound, Broadway Melody.

smart alec/smart aleck/smart alick - someone who is very or 'too' clever (esp. in a cocky manner) According to etymologist David Wilton the most likely origin was suggested by Gerald Cohen in a 1985 article which appeared in the publication Studies In Slang. Cohen suggests the origin dates back to 1840s New York City fraudster Aleck Hoag, who, with his wife posing as a prostitute, would rob the customers. Hoag bribed the police to escape prosecution, but ultimately paid the price for being too clever when he tried to cut the police out of the deal, leading to the pair's arrest. In describing Hoag at the time, the police were supposedly the first to use the 'smart aleck' expression.

amateur - non-professional or un-paid, or more recently an insulting term meaning unprofessional - the word originates from the same spelling in Old French 'amateur' meaning 'lover', originally meaning in English a lover of an activity. The Old French word is derived from Latin 'amare' meaning 'to love'.

ampersand - the '&' symbol, meaning 'and' - the word ampersand appeared in the English language in around 1835. It is a corrupted (confused) derivation of the term 'And per se', which was the original formal name of the & symbol in glossaries, alphabets, and official reference works. 'Per se' is Latin and meant 'by itself', as it still does today. Traditionally all letters were referenced formally in the same way. The letter A would have been 'A per se', B would have been called 'B per se', just as the '&' symbol was 'And per se'. The ampersand symbol itself is a combination - originally a ligature (literally a joining) - of the letters E and t, or E and T, being the Latin word 'et' meaning 'and'. The earliest representations of the ampersand symbol are found in Roman scriptures dating back nearly 2,000 years. If you inspect various ampersand symbols you'll see the interpretation of the root ET or Et letters. The symbol has provided font designers more scope for artistic impression than any other character, and ironically while it evolved from hand-written script, few people use it in modern hand-writing, which means that most of us have difficulty in reproducing a good-looking ampersand by hand without having practised first. (See the ampersand exercise ideas.)

alma mater - (my) university - from the Latin, meaning 'fostering mother'.

almanac - diary - either or both from the Arabic 'al manac' meaning 'the diary' and/or from Saxon term 'al-mon-aght' meaning 'all moon heed', which was the record of new and full moons.

apple of his eye/apple of your eye/apple of my eye - a person much adored or doted on, loved, held dearly, and central to the admirer's affections and sensitivities - the 'apple of his eye' expression first appeared in the Bible, Deuteronomy, chapter 32, verse 10, in which Moses speaks of God's caring for Jacob: "He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye". Brewer's 1870 dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes the 'apple of the eye' expression (or apple of your eye, apple of his/her eye, apple of my eye) as being a metaphor based on the pupil's significance within the eye. The theory goes that in ancient times the pupil of the eye (the black centre) was thought to be a small hard ball, for which an apple was a natural symbol. Logically the pupil or apple of a person's eye described someone whom was held in utmost regard - rather like saying the 'centre of attention'. Strangely Brewer references Deuteronomy chapter 32 verse 3, which seems to be an error since the verse is definitely 10.

apple-pie bed - practical joke, with bed-sheets folded preventing the person from getting in - generally assumed to be derived from the apple-turnover pastry, but more likely from the French 'nappe pliee', meaning 'folded sheet'.

arbour/arbor - shady place with sides and roof formed by trees or shrubs - the word was 'erber' in Middle English (according to Chambers a 1300s piece of writing called the Thrush And The Nightingale - whatever that was - apparently included the word). Erber came from 'herber' meaning a garden area of grasses, flowers, herbs, etc, from, logically Old French and in turn from from Latin, herba, meaning herb or grass. Interestingly the switch to 'arbor/arbour' from 'erber' was among many e/a spelling and pronunciation changes that took place in late middle ages English: farm used to be 'ferme'; 'carve' used to be 'kerven; starve used to be 'sterven', and which also caused some of the modern a/e phonetic quirks, when the pronunciation changed but the spelling remained, eg., the city Derby, pronounced (in England) as 'darby', and sergeant pronounced 'sargeant' (although it is also spelled as such in some surnames). Apparently the modern 'arbor/arbour' tree-related meaning developed c.1500s when it was linked with the Latin 'arbor', meaning tree - originally the beam tree, and which gave us the word 'aboretum' being the original Latin word for a place where trees are cultivated for special purposes, particularly scientific study.

assassin - killer - the original Assassins were Carmathian warriers based in Mount Lebanon around the eleventh century; they terrorised the middle eastern world for two hundred years, supposedly high on hashish most of the time, particularly prior to battle.

avatar - (modern meaning) iconic or alter-ego used instead of real identity, especially on websites - Avatar is an old Hindu concept referring to the descent or manifestation of a god or released soul to earthly existence, typically as a divine teacher. The word history is given by Cassells to be 18th century, taken from Sanskrit avatata meaning descent, from the parts ava meaning down or away, and tar meaning pass or cross over. In more recent times the word has simplified and shifted subtly to mean more specifically the spiritual body itself rather than the descent or manifestation of the body, and before its adoption by the internet, avatar had also come to mean an embodiment or personification of something, typically in a very grand manner, in other words, a "...presentation to the world as a ruling power or object of worship..." (OED, 1952). The virtual reality community website Secondlife was among the first to popularise the moden use of the word in website identities, and it's fascinating how the modern meaning has been adapted from the sense of the original word.



(don't) throw the baby out with the bath water - lose a good opportunity as part of a bigger clear-out, over-react in a way that appears to stem a particular problem, but in so doing results in the loss of something valuable or good - while the expression might well have been strengthened by a popular myth which suggested that centuries ago whole families bathed one after the other in a single bathtub, it is not likely that this practice, if ever it did prevail, actually spawned the expression . The idea of losing a baby when disposing of a bathtub's dirty water neatly fits the meaning, but the origins of the expression are likely to be no more than a simple metaphor. Wolfgang Mieder's article '(Don't) throw the baby out with the bathwater' (full title extending to: 'The Americanization of a German Proverb and Proverbial Expression', which appears in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995 - a journal of international proverb studies) seems to be the most popular reference document relating to the expression's origins, in which the German Thomas Murner's 1512 book 'Narrenbeschwörung' is cited as the first recorded use of the baby and bathwater expression. Murner, who was born in 1475 and died in 1537, apparently references the baby and bathwater expression several times in his book, indicating that he probably did not coin the metaphor and that it was already established in Germany at that time. (Thanks MS for assistance)

take a back seat - have little or only observational involvement in something - not a car metaphor, this was originally a parliamentary expression derived from the relative low influence of persons and issues from the back benches (the bench-seats where members sit in the House of Commons), as opposed to the front benches, where the leaders of the government and opposition sit.

backs to the wall/backs against the wall - defend fiercely against a powerful threat - achieved cliche status following inclusion (of the former version) in an order from General Haig in 1918 urging British troops to fight until the end against German forces.

bandbox/out of a bandbox/fresh out of a bandbox - smart (of appearance) - this is an old English expression whose origins date back to the mid-1600s, when a bandbox was a box in which neckbands were kept. Later the use of bandbox was extended to equate to a hatbox, so the meaning of the phrase alludes to someone's appearance, especially their clothing, being as smart as a new hat fresh out of a hatbox. In more recent times, as tends to be with the evolution of slang, the full expression has been shortened simply to 'bandbox'. In the US bandbox is old slang (late 1600s, through to the early 1930s) for a country workhouse or local prison, which, according to Cassells also referred later (1940s-50s) to a prison from which escape is easy. These US slang meanings are based on allusion to the small and not especially robust confines of a cardboard hatbox. I am additionally informed (thanks V Smith) that bandbox also refers to a small ballpark stadium with short boundaries enabling relatively easy home runs to be struck in baseball games. Ebbets Field in New York, one-time home of Brooklyn Dodgers, was an example. The bandbox expression in baseball seemingly gave rise to the notion of band's box in a small theatre, which could be either an additional or alternative root of the expression when it is used in the baseball stadium context. Quite separately I am informed (thanks I Sandon) that 'bandboxing' is a specific term in the air traffic control industry: "...The idea is that as workload permits, sectors can be combined and split again without having to change the frequencies that aircraft are on. You may have noticed that for a particular 'SID' ('standard instrument departure' - the basic take-off procedure) you are almost always given the same frequency after departure. By 'bandboxing' two adjacent sectors (working them from a single position rather than two) you can work aircraft in the larger airspace at one time (saving staff and also simplifying any co-ordination that may have taken place when they are 'split'). To facilitate this the two frequencies are 'cross-coupled'. This means that the controller transmits on both frequencies simultaniously and when an aircraft calls on one, the transmission is retransmitted on the second frequency. Therefore the pilots are much less likely to step on one another and it appears as if all aircraft are on the same frequency. Then when traffic loading requires the sectors to be split once more, a second controller simply takes one of the frequencies from the other, the frequencies are un-cross-coupled, and all being well there is a seamless transition from the pilots' perspective!..." Of course the 'band' here is a radio frequency band, not a neck band, and the 'boxing' refers to the combining or coupling of two frequencies, however the choice of the term is arguably influenced by the earlier traditional usage.

bring home the bacon - achieve a challenge, bring back the prize or earn a living - the history of the 'bring home the bacon' expression is strange: logical reasoning suggests that the origins date back hundreds of years, and yet evidence in print does not appear until the 1900s, and so most standard reference sources do not acknowledge usage of the 'bring home the bacon' expression earlier before the 20th century. I am therefore at odds with most commentators and dictionaries for suggesting the following: The 'bring home the bacon' expression essentially stems from the fact that bacon was the valuable and staple meat provision of common people hundreds of years ago, and so was an obvious metaphor for a living wage or the provision of basic sustenance. Peasants and poor town-dwelling folk in olden times regarded other meats as simply beyond their means, other than for special occasions if at all. Bacon was a staple food not just because of availability and cost but also because it could be stored for several weeks, or most likely hung up somewhere, out of the dog's reach. Other reasons for the significance of the word bacon as an image and metaphor in certain expressions, and for bacon being a natural association to make with the basic needs of common working people, are explained in the 'save your bacon' meanings and origins below. Additionally the 'bring home the bacon' expression, like many other sayings, would have been appealing because it is phonetically pleasing (to say and to hear) mainly due to the 'b' alliteration (repetition). Expressions which are poetic and pleasing naturally survive and grow - 'Bring home the vegetables' doesn't have quite the same ring. According to Allen's English Phrases there could possibly have been a contributory allusion to pig-catching contests at fairs, and although at first glance the logic for this seems not to be strong (given the difference between a live pig or a piglet and a side of cured bacon) the suggestion gains credibility when we realise that until the late middle ages bacon referred more loosely to the meat of a pig, being derived from German for back. Whatever, the idea of 'bringing home' implicity suggests household support, and the metaphor of bacon as staple sustenance is not only supported by historical fact, but also found in other expressions of olden times. For example (according to Grose, Brewer, and Partridge/Dictionary of the Canting Crew) in the 1600s having or being in 'a good voice to beg bacon' described an ill-sounding voice, and thereby an under-nourished or needy person. Given so much association between bacon and common people's basic dietary needs it is sensible to question any source which states that 'bring home the bacon' appeared no sooner than the 20th century, by which time ordinary people had better wider choice of other sorts of other meat, so that then the metaphor would have been far less meaningful. In other words, why would people have fixed onto the bacon metaphor when it was no longer a staple and essential presence in people's diets? Fascinatingly the establishment and popularity of the expression was perhaps also supported if not actually originally underpinned by the intriguing 13th century custom at Dunmow in Essex, apparently (according to Brewer) founded by a noblewoman called Juga in 1111 and restarted in 1244 by Robert de Fitzwalter, whereby any man from anywhere in England who, kneeling on two stones at the church door, could swear that for the past year he had not argued with his wife nor wished to be parted from her, would be awarded a 'gammon of bacon'. Seemingly this gave rise to the English expression, which according to Brewer was still in use at the end of the 1800s 'He may fetch a flitch of bacon from Dunmow' (a flitch is a 'side' of bacon; a very large slab), which referred to a man who was amiable and good-tempered to his wife. This meaning is very close to the modern sense of 'bringing home the bacon': providing a living wage and thus supporting the family. The precise source of the 'Dunmow Flitch' tale, and various other references in this item, is Ebeneezer Cobham Brewer's 1870 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, revised and enlarged in 1894 (much referenced on this page because it is wonderful; not to be confused with modern etymology dictionaries bearing the name Brewer, which are quite different to the original 1870/revised 1894 version). Regrettably Cobham Brewer does not refer specifically to the 'bring home the bacon expression' in his 1870/1894 work, but provides various information as would suggest the interpretations above.

save your bacon - to save from injury or loss (material, reputation, etc) - Brewer refers to this expression in his 1870 dictionary so it was certainly established by then, and other etymologists suggest it has been around at least since the 17th century. Brewer says one origin is the metaphor of keeping the household's winter store of bacon protected from huge numbers of stray scavenging dogs. In that sense the meaning was to save or prevent a loss. The establishment of the expression however relies on wider identification with the human form: Bacon and pig-related terms were metaphors for 'people' in several old expressions of from 11th to 19th century, largely due to the fact that In the mid-to-late middle ages, bacon was for common country people the only meat affordably available, which caused it and associated terms (hog, pig, swine) to be used to describe ordinary country folk by certain writers and members of the aristocracy. Norman lords called Saxon people 'hogs'. A 'chaw-bacon' was a derogatory term for a farm labourer or country bumpkin (chaw meant chew, so a 'chaw-bacon' was the old equivalent of the modern insult 'carrot-cruncher'). 'Baste your bacon', meant to strike or scourge someone, (bacon being from the the outside of a side of pork would naturally be imagined to be the outer-body part of a pig - or person - to receive a blow). See also 'bring home the bacon'.

my bad/it's my bad - "It's my fault/mistake" (an acknowledgement of blame) - this is from US college/university campus 1980s slang, (or perhaps 1970s from reactions below - let me know your earliest recollections please), in which 'bad' means mistake or fault (that caused a bad thing), hence 'it's my bad', or more succinctly, 'my bad'. It's simply a shortening of 'The bad thing that happened was my fault, sorry'. The word bad in this case has evolved to mean 'mistake which caused a problem'. It's another example of the tendency for language to become abbreviated for more efficient (and stylised) communications. In this case the abbreviation is also a sort of teenage code, which of course young people everywhere use because they generally do not wish to adopt lifestyle and behaviour advocated by parents, teachers, authority, etc., and so develop their own style and behaviour, including language. For new meanings of words to evolve there needs to be a user-base of people that understands the new meanings. Initially the 'my bad' expression was confined to a discrete grouping, ie., US students, and the meaning wasn't understood outside of that group. Now it seems the understanding and usage of the 'my bad' expression has grown, along with the students, and entered the mainstream corporate world, no doubt because US middle management and boardrooms now have a high presence of people who were teenagers at college or university 20 years ago. I am also informed (thanks K Korkodilos) that the 'my bad' expression was used in the TV series 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer', and that this seems to have increased its popular mainstream usage during the 1990s, moreover people using the expression admitted to watching the show when asked about the possible connection. Additionally (thanks M Woolley) apparently the 'my bad' expression is used by the Fred character in the new (2006) Scooby Doo TV series, which is leading to the adoption of the phrase among the under-5's in London, and logically, presumbly, older children all over England too. There is it seems no stopping this one.. Also, (thanks J Davis) "...There's a common Mexican phrase, 'Mi malo', which means, literally, 'My bad', and it may be where this comes from, since it's a common phrase here in Southern California, and was before Buffy was ever on the air.." If you know anything of the history of the Mexican phrase Mi Malo please tell me. Furthemore, (thanks J Susky, Sep 2008) " first recollection of the term is on the basketball court, perhaps in my high school days, pre-June 1977, or my college days in Indiana, Aug 77-Mar 82. I'm fairly sure I first heard it in the summer, outdoors, in Anchorage, Alaska - which would put it pre-Sept 1977..." Additionally, and probably not finally, (thanks P Milliken), might 'my bad' be 'engrish'? that is, quirky translation found especially in 1970s Chinese martial art films.. If you know more please tell me.

baker's dozen - thirteen - in times when bakers incurred a heavy fine for giving short weight they used to add an extra loaf to avoid the risk.

balderdash - nonsense - nowadays balderdash means nonsense, but it meant ribaldry or jargon at the time of Brewer's 1870 dictionary. A still earlier meaning of the word was more precisely 'a jumbled mixture of words', and before that from Scandinavia 'a mixture'. Skeat's 1882 dictionary provides the most useful clues as to origins: Scandinavian meanings were for 'poor stuff' or a 'poor weak drink', which was obviously a mixture of sorts. In Danish 'balder' was noise or clatter, and the word danske was slap or flap, which led to an older alternative meaning of a 'confused noise', or any mixture. Certain dictionaries suggest an initial origin of a frothy drink from the English 16thC, but this usage was derived from the earlier 'poor drink' and 'mixture' meanings and therefore was not the root, just a stage in the expression's development.

balti - curry dish prepared in a heavy wok-like iron pan - derivation is less than clear for the 'balti' word. Balti is generally now regarded as being the anglicised name of the pan in which the balti dish is cooked, a pan which is conventionally known as the 'karai' in traditional Urdu language. The mythological explanation is that the balti pan and dish are somehow connected with the (supposed) 'Baltistan' region of Pakistan, or a reference to that region by imaginative England-based curry house folk, who seem first to have come up with the balti menu option during the 1990s. Etymologyst John Morrish in his Daily Telegraph/Frantic Semantics writings points out that the word balti however more typically means 'bucket' in the Indian sub-continent and that the whole thing might more likely have begun as a joke among curry house waiters in the West Midlands at the expense of ignorant English patrons, who then proceeded to spread the word by asking for the balti dish in restaurants farther afield. Indeed Hobson Jobson, the excellent Anglo-Indian dictionary, 2nd edition 1902, lists the word 'balty', with the clear single meaning: 'a bucket'. Further confirmation is provided helpfully by Ahmed Syed who kindly sent me the following about the subject: "Being a literary writer in Urdu I can confirm that the word Balti comes from Hindi/Urdu and means 'bucket' as you highlighted. In larger families or when guests visit, the need for larger pots arose. Balti dishes originate from Pakistan, customarily cooked in a wok style pan outside hotels and people's homes. The process is based on boiling the meat (of chicken or goat) on low heat with garlic (and chilli powder in some cases) until it is tender and the water reduced to a sauce. Then fresh tomatoes, green chillies, ginger and spices are added, and the meat is fried until a sauce is produced. Renowned as an extra spicy dish, the Balti is revered by young and old."

barbarian - rough or wild person - an early Greek and Roman term for a foreigner, meaning that they 'babbled' in a strange language (by which root we also have the word 'babble' itself). See also the derivation of the racial term 'Gringo', which has similar origins. Another school of thought and possible contributory origin is that apparently in Latin there was such a word as 'barba' meaning beard. A Roman would visit the tonsor to have his beard shaved, and the non Romans, who frequently wore beards (barbas), were thereby labelled barbarians. (Ack AA for the beard theory). I am additionally informed (thanks S Walker) that perhaps the earliest derivation of babble meaning unintelligible speech is from the ancient Hebrew word for the city of Babel (meaning Babylon), which is referred to in the Bible, Genesis 11:9 - "Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth, and thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth."

bated breath/baited breath - anxious, expectant (expecting explanation, answer, etc) - the former spelling was the original version of the expression, but the term is now often mistakenly corrupted to the latter 'baited' in modern use, which wrongly suggests a different origin. Many people seem now to infer a meaning of the breath being metaphorically 'baited' (like a trap or a hook, waiting to catch something) instead of the original non-metaphorical original meaning, which simply described the breath being cut short, or stopped (as with a sharp intake of breath). The expression appears in Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice (as bated), which dates its origin as 16th century or earlier. The word bate is a shortened form of abate, both carrying the same meaning (to hold back, reduce, stop, etc), and first appeared in the 1300s, prior to which the past tense forms were baten and abaten. (Ack J Vaughan)

battle of the bulge - diet/lose weight - the original Battle of the Bulge occurred in 1944 when German forces broke through Allied lines into Belgium, forming a 'bulge' in the defending lines.

battle lines - forces or position organised prior to confrontation or negotiation - from centuries ago when troops were organised in three lines of battle. And if you like more detail (ack K Dahm): when soldiers marched to or from a battle or between encampments in a column, there was a van, a main body, and a rear. On the battlefield the forces would open up to a broad front, with scouts forward to locate the other side, the main lines, and one or several reserves to the rear. The cavalry, or mobile force, would be separate and often on the outer edges of the formation. Each side would line up in a similar fashion, allowing for terrain and personal preference between the width of the line and the depth. When the opposing lines clashed, there would be a zone between them where fighting took place. Since there would be differences in ability and local strength, the lines would often bend and separate. The front lines formed by each force could also be called battle lines. The soldiers behind the front lines wesre expected to step up into the place of the ones ahead when they fell, and to push forward otherwise, such that 15th centruy and earlier battles often became shoving matches, with the front lines trying to wield weapons in a crush of men. The classic British Army of the Colonial and Napoleanic eras used a line that was three men deep, with the ranks firing and reloading in sequence. Since it took between 40 and 60 seconds to reload, that meant a volley fired every 15-20 seconds, which proved devestating to the opposing line. This formation and similar ones were used until the American Civil War, and later by other European powers. What ended the practice was the invention of magazine-fed weapons and especially machine guns, which meant that an opposing line could be rapidly killed. After the Great War, dispersion became the main means of fighing, with much looser units linking side to side to protect each others flanks, which became the WWII paradigm.

beak - judge or magistrate, also nose, alluding to a bird's bill - beak meaning judge or magistrate typically appears in the phrase 'up before the beak', meaning appearing in court. There are various suggestions for the origins of beak meaning judge or magistrate, which has been recorded as a slang expression since the mid-18th century, but is reasonably reliably said to have been in use in the 16th century in slightly different form, explained below. Francis Grose's 1785 Vulgar Tongue dictionary of Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence includes the entry: Beak - a justice of the peace or magistrate. In the 19th century the term beak also referred to a sherif's officer (English) or a policeman, and later (1910) beak was adopted as slang also by schoolchildren for a schoolmaster. I am informed on this point (thanks K Madley) that the word beak is used for a schoolmaster in a public school in Three School Chums by John Finnemore, which was published in 1907. In the First World War (1914-18) being up before the beak meant appearing before an (elderly) officer. Brewer's 1870 slang dictionary suggests beak derives from an Anglo-Saxon word beag, which was "...a gold collar or chain worn by civic magistrates..." Cassells also cites Hotton (1859) and Ware for this same suggested origin, which given that at least one pre-dates Brewer arguably adds extra weight. Brewer also cites an alternative: "...WH Black says 'The term is derived from a Mr Beke, who was formerly a resident magistrate at the Tower Hamlets..." Most moden formal sources however opt for the meaning simply that beak refers to a prominent nose and to the allusion of a person of authority sticking his (as would have been, rather than her) nose into other people's affairs. In considering this idea, it is possible of course that this association was particularly natural given the strange tendency of men's noses to grow with age, so that old judges (and other elderly male figures of authority) would commonly have big noses. Other theories include suggestions of derivation from a Celtic word meaning judgement, which seems not to have been substantiated by any reputable source, although interestingly (and perhaps confusingly) the French for beak, bec, is from Gaulish beccus, which might logically be connected with Celtic language, and possibly the Celtic wordstem bacc-, which means hook. Partridge says that the earlier form was beck, from the 16-17th centuries, meaning a constable, which developed into beak meaning judge by about 1860, although Grose's entry would date this development perhaps 100 years prior. And finally to confuse matters more, Cassells Jonathan Green slang dictionary throws in the obscure (nevertheless favoured by Cassells) connection with harman-beck, also harman, which were slang terms for constable (combining harman meaning hard-man it is suggested, with beck or bec), from the mid 16th century. In summary we see that beak is a very old term with origins back to the 1500s, probably spelt bec and/or beck, and probably referring to a constable or sheriff's officer before it referred to a judge, during which transfer the term changed to beak, which reflected, albeit 200 years prior, the same development in the normal use of the word for a bird's bill, which had settled in English as beak by about 1380 from bec and bek. Whether these comparable developments suggest a stronger possibility for the beak/nose theory versus Brewer's gold collar idea you must decide for yourself. As with several other slang origins, the story is not of a single clear root, more like two or three contributory meanings which combine and support the end result.

get out of the wrong side of the bed - be in a bad mood - 1870 Brewer says the origin is from ancient superstition which held it to be unlucky to touch the floor first with the left foot when getting out of bed. Earlier versions of the expression with the same meaning were: 'You got out of bed the wrong way', and 'You got out of bed with the left leg foremost' (which perhaps explains why today's version, which trips off the tongue rather more easily, developed).

bedlam - chaos - this derives from the London mental institution founded originally as a religious house by Simon Fitzmary in 1247, and converted into the 'Bethlehem Hospital' for lunatics by Henry VIII. After several re-locations - its third site at St George's Fields, Southwark in South Central London is now occupied by the Imperial War Museum - the hospital still exists in name and purpose as 'Bethlem Royal Hospital' in Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, South London, (Kent technically). The original hospital site is underneath Liverpool Street Station, Bishopsgate, in the City of London. According to Chambers, Bedlam was first recorded as an alternative name for the hospital in 1418, and as a word meaning chaos or noisy confusion in 1667, evolving naturally from slightly earlier use in 1663 referring to a madhouse or lunatic asylum. Bedlam is an example of a contraction in language. (Thanks S Taylor for help clarifying this.)

bees knees/the bee's knees - something really good, especially an excellent example of its type - essentially the bees knees (strictly bee's knees) expression originated (first recorded in the US in 1923 according to etymolygist Nigel Rees) because like similar terms (for example 'the cats pyjamas' or the 'cream of the crop') its alliterative and poetic quality makes it pleasant to say and to hear. Bees have long been a metaphorical symbol because they are icons everyone can recognise, just as we have many sayings including similarly appealing icons like cats and dogs. Earlier references to the size of a 'bee's knee' - meaning something very small (for example 'as big as a bee's knee') - probably provided a the basis for adaptation into its modern form, which according to the OED happened in the USA, not in UK English. Neither 'the bees knees', nor 'big as a bees knee' appear in 1870 Brewer, which indicates that the expression grew or became popular after this time. Based on Nigel Rees' well researched and reliable dating of 1923 for first recorded use, it is likely that earliest actual usage was perhaps a few years before this.

bereave/bereavment - leave/left alone, typically after death of a close relative - a story is told that the words bereave and bereavement derive from an old Scottish clan of raiders - called the 'ravers' (technically reivers) - who plundered, pillaged and generally took what they wanted from the English folk south of the border. It's certainly true that the origin of the word bereave derives from the words rob and robbed. It's true also that the words reaver and reiver (in Middle English) described a raider, and the latter specifically a Scottish cross-border cattle raider. However the word bereave derives (says Chambers) from the Old English word bereafian, which meant robbed or dispossessed in a more general sense. It's a very old word: Reafian meaning rob appears in Beowulf 725. The 'be' prefix is Old English meaning in this context to make or to cause, hence bereafian. The 'be' prefix and word reafian are cognate (similar) with the Old Frisian (North Netherlands) word birava, and also with the Old High German word biroubon. These and other cognates (similar words from the same root) can be traced back to very ancient Indo-European roots, all originating from a seminal meaning of rob. Incidentally Cassells says the meaning of bereave in association with death first appeared in English only in the 1600s, so the robbed meaning persisted until relatively modern times given the very old origins of the word. (Thanks J R for raising the question.)

berserk - wild - from Berserker, a Norse warrior, who went into battle 'baer-serk', which according to 1870 Brewer meant 'bare of mail' (chain mail armour). In fact the expression 'baer-saerk' (with 'ae' pronounced as 'a' in the word 'anyhow'), means bear-shirt, which more likely stemmed from the belief that these fierce warriors could transform into animals, especially bears and wolves, or at least carry the spirit of the animal during extreme battle situations. (Thanks Cornelia for this more precise derivation.) This derivation is also supported by the Old Icelandic word 'Beserkr', meaning 'bear-shirt'. I am additionally informed (thanks F Tims) that: "...I was reading an obscure book (see reference below) concerning Norse history/legend and found a discussion of the shirt in question. By their account, the 'bar-sark' was worn only by members of the Norse chieftan's personal bodyguard, they being the most ferocious, and thus the most feared, of the Vikings plundering eastern Scotland and the hapless Dane-mark. So, according to the book, the term does not apply to all invading Vikings, just the more obnoxious. In the book, also, the Norse word 'bar' (or 'baer', as the case may be) means 'wolf', from the hide of which the shirt was made, so it would be a 'wolf-shirt'..." (Book reference: Anglo-Saxon Classics: Norroena - Embracing the History and Romance of Northern Europe, Rasmus B. Anderson, LLD, Editor-in-Chief, Privately printed for members of The Norroena Society, 1906, and salient extract: "...Champions - Professed fighting men were often kept by kings and earls about their court as useful in feud and fray. Harald Fairhair's champions are admirably described in the contemporary Raven Song by Hornclofe - "Wolf-coats they call them that in battle bellow into bloody shields. They wear wolves' hides when they come into the fight, and clash their weapons together..." and "...These baer-sarks, or wolf coats of Harald give rise to an Old Norse term, 'baer sark', to describe the frenzy of fight and fury which such champions indulged in, barking and howling, and biting their shield-rims...")

(in the) best of both worlds/best of all worlds - ideally (usually impossibly), satisfying or achieving two needs, aims, problems that are difficult or impossible to reconcile (and usually contradictory or mutually exclusive) - this expression represents an unlikely ideal outcome or compromise, and is likely to be based on the words of French philosopher and writer Voltaire, 1694-1778, (incidentally considered by many to have been a principal influence upon enlightened attitudes leading to the French Revolution). Voltaire wrote in 1759: '...If this is best of possible worlds.... all is for the best..' (from chapter 1 of the novel 'Candide', which takes a pessimistic view of human endeavour), followed later in the same novel by ' ...If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?..' ('Candide' chapter 6). Another famous writer (of his time, though less renowned today) American James Branch Cable, 1879-1958, might well have contributed to the popular use of the term when he used it in his novel 'The Silver Stallion' in 1926, when he created a frequently repeated ironically amusing expression in its own right: '...The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true..' It is likely that the more frequent modern usage 'best of both worlds' has developed in normal conversational language simply because the expression is commonly used to highlight a challenge of reconciling two situations or opportunities, rather than many or infinite ones. The fact that the quotes feature in the definitive quotations work, Bartletts Familiar Quotations (first published 1855 and still going) bears out the significance of the references.

in the biblical sense - humorous pointer towards sexual interpretation of a word or phrase, or simply to indicate the original biblical meaning is intended - the reason the term has become so popular in recent times is almost certainly because of its common and now humorous use alongside the expression 'to know' a person, as a euphemism for sexual intimacy, found in the bible (for example "Adam knew his wife, and she conceived a child") and in the Hebrew language (and still in the legal term 'carnal knowledge'). Related no doubt to this, the 1940s expression 'biblical neckline' was a euphemistic sexual slang term for a low neckline (a pun on the 'lo and behold' expression found in the bible). When used in a literal way the expression 'in the/a biblical sense' simply explains that a particular word or term is meant in the way it was used in the bible, instead of the modern meaning, eg; words like oath, swear, deliver, spirit, truth, way, divine, light, father, etc. (Thanks Ben for suggesting the specific biblical quote.)

of biblical proportions - of a vast, enormous, or epic scale - the expression carries a strong suggestion of disaster, although 'of biblical proportions' can be used to describe anything of a vast or epic scale, and as such is not necessarily a reference only to disasters. It is both a metaphor based on the size of the bible as a book, and more commonly a description by association to many of the (particularly disastrous) epic events described in the bible, for example: famines, droughts, plagues of locusts, wars, mass exodus, destruction of cities and races, chariots of fire, burning bushes, feeding of thousands, parting of seas, etc. The use of the word biblical to mean huge seems first to have been applied first to any book of huge proportions, which was according to Cassells etymology dictionary first recorded in 1387 in a work called Piers Ploughman. It is logical that over the centuries since then that the extension of 'biblical proportions' to describe huge events would have occurred in common speech quite naturally, because the association is so appropriate and obvious.

big cheese - important person, or boss - sadly not anything really to do with cheese, this popular slang term for a person of importance or authority probably originated in colonial India, where the Urdu word 'chiz', meaning 'thing', was initially adopted by the British to mean something that was good or significant. The slang 'big cheese' is a fine example of language from a far-away or entirely foreign culture finding its way into modern life and communications, in which the users have very awareness or appreciation of its different cultural origins.

big girl's blouse - timid man, man or boy who fails to take up a challenge - I started hearing the expression in the 1970s (when I lived in the south-east of England), and my perception at the time was that it had north-England origins - Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle maybe, where men are men, and men who behave like women are, well, big girls' blouses... 'Blouse' has for 300 years or more been English slang for a very unseemly woman, from 'blowze', which was slang for a slovenly woman, prostitute or 'beggars wench' as the OED quaintly puts it. This would suggest that some distortion or confusion led to the expression's development. It's easy to imagine that people confused the earlier meaning with that of the female garment and then given the feminine nature of the garment, attached the derogatory weak 'girly' or 'sissy' meaning. I received this helpful information (thanks N Swan, April 2008) about the expression: "...This was particularly popularised as an expression by the character Nellie Pledge, played by Hylda Baker, in the British TV comedy series 'Nearest and Dearest' in the late 1960s/early-1970s. Hence perhaps the northern associations and 1970s feel. A catchphrase can get into the public vernacular very rapidly - in a very similar vein, I've heard people referring to their friends as a 'Nancy Boy Potter', a name taken directly from the schoolmaster sketch in Rowan Atkinson's mid-80s one-man show...."

big stick - display of power - Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1900 that he liked the West African expression 'speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far'. Kipling reinforced the expression when he wrote in 1917 that the secret of power ' not the big stick. It's the liftable stick.'

bins - spectacles, or the eyes - a simple shortening of the word binoculars, first appeared in English c.1930, possibly from the armed forces or London, for which this sort of short-form slang would have been typical.

biscuit - sweet crisp bread-based snack, cookie - from the Latin and French 'bis' (twice) and 'cuit' (baked), because this is how biscuits were originally made, ie., by cooking twice. The term is found also in pottery and ceramic glazing for the same reason.

takes the biscuit/takes the bun/takes the huntley/takes the kettle/takes the cake - surpasses all expectations, wins, or ironically, achieves the worst outcome/result - see also 'cakewalk' and 'takes the cake'. Takes the biscuit seems (according to Patridge) to be the oldest of the variations of these expressions, which essentially link achievement metaphorically to being awarded a baked confectionery prize. 'Takes the bun' means the same, and may or may not allude to the (originally US) version 'takes the cake'. 'Takes the Huntley and Palmer(s)', or 'takes the Huntley' are more recent adaptations, (Huntley and Palmers is a famous British biscuit brand). 'Takes the kettle' is a weirdly obscure version supposedly favoured by 'working classes' in the early 1900s. Heaven knows why though, and not even Partridge can suggest any logic for that one. 'Takes the biscuit' is said to have been recorded in Latin as Ista Capit Biscottum, apparently (again according to Patridge), in a note written as early as 1610, by the secretary of the International Innkeepers' Congress, alongside the name of the (said to be) beautiful innkeeper's daughter of Bourgoin. Incidentally, the expression 'takes the biscuit' also appears (thanks C Freudenthal) more than once in the dialogue of a disreputable character in one of James Joyce's Dubliners stories, published in 1914.

bite the bullet - do or decide to do something very difficult - before the development of anesthetics, wounded soldiers would be given a bullet to bite while being operated on, so as not to scream with pain. I am informed additionally (thanks J Finnie, Verias Vincit History Group, Oct 2008) of a different interpretation, paraphrased thus: Rather than bullets, historic accounts tell of men bitting down on leather straps when undergoing primative medical practice. Biting on a round metal (brass) bullet would have been both a potential choking hazard, and extremely hard to do. However in the days of paper cartridges, a soldier in a firing line would have 'bitten off' the bullet, to allow him to pour the gunpowder down the barrel, before spitting the ball (bullet) down after the powder, then ramming the paper in as wadding. This would have left a salty nasty-tasting traces of gun powder in the soldier's mouth. So, 'bite the bullet' in this respect developed as a metaphor referring to doing something both unpleasent and dangerous. If you can offer any further authoritative information about the origins of this phrase please let me know. With hindsight, the traditional surgical metaphor does seem a little shaky.

to the bitter end - to do or experience something awful up to and at the last, experiencing hostility until and at the end - this is a fascinating expression and nothing to do with our normal association of the word 'bitter' with sourness or unpleasantness: 'the bitter end' is a maritime expression, from the metaphor of a rope being payed out until to the 'bitts', which were the posts on the deck of a ship to which ropes were secured. When the rope had been extended to the bitter end there was no more left. Captain Stuart Nicholls MNI contacted me to clarify further: "Bitter end is in fact where the last link of the anchor chain is secured to the vessel's chain locker, traditionally with a weak rope link. Nowadays it is attached through the bulkhead to a sturdy pin. The term 'bitter end' is as it seems to pay out the anchor until the bitter end. Incidentally, the expression 'He's swinging the lead' comes from days before sonar was used to detect under keel depth. A man was placed forward and swung a lead weight with a length of rope. A difficult and tiring task, so seamen would often be seen from aft 'swinging the lead' instead of actually letting go."

bird - woman or girlfriend - now unfortunately a rather unflattering term, but it wasn't always so; until recent times 'bird' was always an endearing term for a girl, derived from the Anglo-Saxon 'brid' which meant 'baby animal', in other words a cute little thing. The origin also gave us the word 'bride'.

for the birds (also strictly for the birds) - useless, unreliable facts, unacceptable or trivial, implying that something is only for weaker, unintelligent or lesser people - American origin according to Kirkpatrick and Schwarz Dictionary of Idioms. Decharne's Dictionary of Hipster Slang actually references a quote from the Hank Janson novel Chicago Chick 1962 - " 'It's crazy man,' I told him, 'Real crazy. Strictly for the birds.' " - but doesn't state whether this was the original usage. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870) certainly makes no mention of it which suggests it is no earlier than 20th century. The term alludes the small brains of birds, and expressions such as 'bird-brain', as a metaphor for people of limited intelligence.

blackball - to exclude or shun - The traditional club membership voting method (which Brewer says in 1870 is old-fashioned, so the practice was certainly mid-19thC or earlier) was for members to place either a black ball (against) or a red or white ball (for) in a box or bag. The balls were counted and if there were more blacks than reds or whites then the membership application was denied - the prospective new member was 'blackballed'.

In addition (I am informed by one who seems to know...) the blackball expression owes something of its origins to the voting procedures used in the Masonic movement: in a Masonic lodge, apparently, potential new members are (or were) investigated and then their admission to the lodge is voted on by all members present at a meeting. A small wooden box is (or was) circulated and the vote is/was taken in the following manner: one part of the box contains white cubes and a few black balls. To vote for admitting the new person, the voting member transfers a white cube to another section of the box. To vote against, a black ball is inserted. One black ball is enough to exclude the potential member.

See also 'pipped at the post' (the black ball was called a pip - after the pip of a fruit, in turn from earlier similar words which meant the fruit itself, eg pippin, and the Greek, pepe for melon - so pipped became another way or saying blackballed or defeated).

black dog - depression or sullen mood - an expression extremely old origins; the cliché was made famous in recent times by Britain's WWII leader Sir Winston Churchill referring to his own depressions. The 1800s version of the expression was 'a black dog has walked over him/me' to describe being in a state of mental depression (Brewer 1870), which dates back to the myth described by Horace (Roman poet and satirist, aka Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 BC) in which the sight of a black dog with pups was an unlucky omen. Contributing also to the meaning of the cliché, black dogs have have for centuries been fiendish and threatening symbols in the superstitions and folklore of various cultures.

blackguard - slanderer or shabby person - derived according to Francis Grose's dictionary of 1785 from the street boys who attended the London Horse Guards: "A shabby dirty fellow; a term said to be derived from a number of dirty, tattered and roguish boys, who attended at the Horse Guards, and parade in St James's Park, to black the boots and shoes of the soldiers, or to do other dirty offices. These, from their constant attendance about the time of the guard mounting, were nick-named the blackguards." We might assume from this that the aspect of slander, or perhaps careless language, was a reference to the boys' lack of manners and discretion, although Grose did not specifically state this.

black Irish - racially descriptive and/or derogatory term for various groups of Irish people and descendents, or describing people exhibiting behaviour associated with these stereotypes - the expression 'black Irish' has confusing origins, because over centuries the term has assumed different meanings, used in the UK, the US, parts of the West Indies, and parts of Ireland itself, each variation having its own inferences. These various explanations, origins and influences of the 'black Irish' expression, from a range of sources including Cassells, Hobson-Jobson, Oxford, Chambers, historical writings on Irish history, specialist online discussion groups, are as follows:

  • 'Black Irish' is believed by many to refer to (and to have originated from) descendents of relationships between surviving shipwrecked and fleeing Spanish sailors, who, attempting to return to Spain after the Spanish Armada failed to invade England, ultimately landed on the north and west coasts of Ireland in the late in 1588, some probably early in 1589. According to legend, several hundred (some versions say between six and seven hundred) Spanish men settled in Ireland, thus enriching the Irish gene pool with certain Iberian characteristics including dark hair, dark eyes and Mediterranean skin type. Irish descendents bearing such an appearance (and presumably anyone else in Ireland with a swarthy complexion from whatever genetic source) would have looked quite different to the fairer Gallic norm, and so attracted the 'black Irish' description. While the legend seems to be a very logical basis for the origin of the 'black Irish' expression and its continuing use, the truth of this romantic version of historical events is not particularly clear. Firstly it is true that a few hundred years ago the word black was far more liberally applied to people with a dark skin than it is today. For example people of India were as far back as the 18th century referred to as black by the ruling British colonials. Even the Jews of Southern India were called Black Jews. It is certainly true also that the Spanish Armada and certain numbers of its sailors had some contact with the Irish, but there seems little reliable data concerning how many Spanish actually settled and fathered 'black Irish' children. The Spanish Armada incidentally was instigated by Phillip II of Spain in defence of the Catholic religion in England following the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and also in response to frustrations relating to piracy and obstruction by British ships against Spanish shipping using the English Channel en route to the trade ports of Holland. The fleet comprised 130 ships, including 22 fighting galleons, and about 40,000 men. The Armada was was led by Medina Sidonia, who had apparently never been to sea before and so spent much of his time being sick. The vast fleet sailed from Spain on July 19th 1588, and after initially avoiding trouble along the south coast of England then, mainly due to the daft and failed tactic of stopping at the French coast to pick up Spanish reinforcement troops and thus opening itself to attack from the English, was very soon forced to flee, up the east coat of England. Since its escape south through the English Channel was cut off by the English navy, the Armada was forced up around Scotland, around the west coast of Ireland, and thence to Spain. Only 67 ships survived the ordeal, and records suggest that 20,000 Spanish sailors failed to return. While reports also indicate that most of the Armada's lost ships were in storms off the Scottish coast in September 1588, other ships were certainly wrecked and damaged in the seas around Ireland. Low on water and food (which apparently it had been since leaving Spain, due to using barrels made from fresh wood, which contaminated their contents), and with disease and illness rife, the now desperate Armada reckoned on support from the Irish, given that both nations were staunchly Catholic. However writings indicate that the higher Irish authorities regarded the Spanish as invaders and took steps to repel or execute any attempting to land from Galway Bay (just below half way up the west coast), where the fleet had harboured. The strong inference also however is that local people were a lot more sympathetic, which begins to give some credence to the legend. Irish writer James Hardiman (1782-1855), in his 'History of the Town and County of Galway' (1820), mentions the Armada's visit in his chapter 'Spanish Armada vessel wrecked in the bay, 1588', in which the following extracts suggest that ordinary people and indeed local officials might well have been quite receptive and sympathetic to the visitors: "....One of the ships which composed this ill-fated fleet was wrecked in the bay of Galway, and upwards of seventy of the crew perished. Several other vessels were lost along the coast; and the Spaniards who escaped the waves were cruelly butchered by order of the lord deputy, Sir William Fitz-Williams, who finding fault with the alleged lenity (mercy) of Sir Richard Bingham, the president to the province, commissioned Robert Fowle, deputy marshal, who dislodged these unfortunate men from their hiding-places, and in a summary manner executed about two hundred of them, which so terrified the remainder, that, though sick and half-famished, they chose sooner to trust to their shattered barks (ships), and the mercy of the waves, than to their more merciless enemies, in consequence of which multitudes of them perished...." The report goes on to describe that local officials were clearly put under pressure to 'deliver' and punish any Spanish who had come ashore, and also suggests that local people were 'murmuring' and 'lamenting' the harsh view taken by their higher authorities: "....Sir Murrough O'Flaherty, William Burke, the blind Abbot, and several others of the principal inhabitants of Mayo and Iar Connaught, came in and submitted; but were put under conditions to give hostages, disperse their forces, deliver up all the Spaniards and Portuguese to whom they had given refuge ......... Fitz-Williams, while he remained in town, caused several of the Spaniards, delivered up on this occasion, to be beheaded near St. Augustin's monastery on the hill, amidst the murmurs and lamentations of the people; and, having thus wreaked his vengeance on these unfortunate men, he departed for Dublin....." At this stage the fleet could well have consisted of 70-80 ships, and given the apparent local support and protection it is entirely conceivable that a few hundred might have managed to come and remain ashore, settle, and produce the offspring which subsequently became known as 'black Irish'.
  • 'Black Irish' was according to Cassells also used to describe mixed blood people of the British West Indies Island of Monserrat, being the product of 17th century displaced, deported or emigrated Irish people and African slaves. Some historical versions suggest that the Irish were 'emigrants', although in truth it is more likely that many of these Irish people were Catholic slaves, since the English sent tens of thousands of Irish to be slaves on the Caribbean islands in the 17th century. (The Irish connection also led to Monserrat being called 'Emerald Isle of the Caribbean'. Ireland is of course the original 'Emerald Isle', so called because of its particularly lush and green countryside.)
  • The above usage of the 'black Irish' expression is perhaps supported (according to Cassells) because it was also a term given to a former slave who adopted the name of an Irish owner. Whether this was in Ireland, the West Indies, or elsewhere is not clear, and in any event is not likely to have been the main derivation of the expression given other more prevalent factors.
  • Cassells also suggests that the term 'black Irish' was used to describe a lower class unsophisticated, perhaps unkempt, Irish immigrant (to the US), but given that there seems to be no reason for this other than by association with an earlier derivation (most likely the Armada gene theory, which would have pre-dated the usage), I would not consider this to be a primary root.
  • Cassells is among several sources which give a meaning for 'black Irish' as a person with a terrible temper, and while this might be one of the more common modern usages, it is unlikely to be a derivation root, since there is no reason other than the word black as it relates to mood (as in the expression black dog, meaning depressive state), or as Brewer in 1870 stated, 'black in the face' specifically meant extremely angry. But there is not a logical or clear link to the Irish. This usage is more likely to be a misunderstanding and misuse of an earlier meaning of the 'black Irish' expression, based on black meaning angry.
  • The term 'black Irish' does seem to have been adopted by some sections of the Irish Catholic community as a derogatory description for the Irish Protestants, whom were regarded and reviled as invaders and supporters of English tyranny, beginning in the 16th century and coming into full effect mid-17th century. Black in this pejorative (insulting) sense refers to the Protestant religious and political beliefs, in just the same way as the word black has been use for centuries around the world (largely because of its association with darkness, night, death, evil, etc) to describe many things believed to be, or represented as, negative, bad, or threatening, for example: black death, black magic, black dog (a depression or bad mood), blackmail, blacklist, blackball, black market, black economy, etc. We still see evidence of this instinctive usage in today's language constructions such as black Friday, (or Tuesday, Wednesday..) to describe disasters and economic downturns, etc. In my view the expression was already in use by this time, and like the usage for an angry person, came to be used for this meaning mainly through misunderstanding rather than by direct derivation.

In summary, despite there being no evidence in print, there seems to me to be sufficient historical evidence as to the validity of the Armada theory as being the main derivation and that other usages are related to this primary root. I say this because: there is truth in the history; it is likely that many Spanish came ashore and settled after the Armada debacle, and people of swarthy appearance were certainly called black. Also the Armada theory seems to predate the other possible derivations. From this point the stories and legends about the Armada and the 'black Irish' descendents would have provided ample material for the expression to become established and grow. Following this, the many other usages, whether misunderstandings of the true origin and meaning (ie., corruptions), or based on their own real or supposed logic, would have further consolidated and contributed to the use of the expression. A simple example sent to me (thanks S Price) is the derogatory and dubious notion that the term refers to Irish peasants who burnt peat for fuel, which, according to the story, produces a fine soot causing people to take on a black appearance. The 'black Irish' expression will no doubt continue to be open to widely varying interpretations and folklore.

I am also informed (thanks C Parker) of perhaps another explanation for the 'Mediterranean' appearance (darker skin and hair colouring notably) of some Irish people and giving rise to the Black Irish term, namely the spread of refugee Spanish Moors across Europe, including into Ireland, in the 8th, 9th and 17th centuries. If anyone knows of any specific references which might support this notion and to link it with the Black Irish expression please tell me.

blackmail - demand money with threat - 'mail' from Saxon 'mal' meaning 'rent', also from 'maille', an old French coin; 'black' is from the Gaelic, to cherish or protect; the term 'blackmail' was first used to describe an early form of protection money, paid in the form of rent, to protect property against plunder by vagabonds.

black market - illegal trade in (usually) consumer goods, typically arising in times of shortages and also relating to the smuggling and informal cash-sales of goods to avoid tax - there seems no reliable support for the story which claims that the black market term can be traced to Charleston slaves of the 1700s. Nor sadly do official dictionaries give credence to the highly appealing suggestion that the black market expression derives from the illicit trade in stolen graphite in England and across the English channel to France and Flanders, during the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603). It is true that uniquely pure and plentiful graphite deposits were mined at Borrowdale, Cumbria, England. And there was seemingly a notable illegal trade in the substance. In the 16th century graphite was used for moulds in making cannon balls, and was also in strong demand for the first pencils. The Borrowdale mine was apparently the only large source of pure graphite in Europe, perhaps globally, and because of its military significance and value, it was taken over by the Crown in Elizabeth I's reign. The mine and its graphite became such a focus of theft and smuggling that, according to local history (thanks D Hood), this gave rise to the expression 'black market'. Frustratingly however, official reference books state that the black market term was first recorded very much later, around 1931. This is a pity because the Borrowdale graphite explanation is fascinating, appealing, and based on factual history. However, while a few years, perhaps a few decades, of unrecorded use may predate any first recorded use of an expression, several hundred years' of no recorded reference at all makes it impossible to reliably validate such an origin. We might conclude that given the research which goes into compiling official reference books and dictionaries, underpinned by the increasing opportunity for submitted evidence and corrections over decades, its is doubtful that the term black market originated from a very old story or particular event. If there were any such evidence it would likely have found its way into the reference books by now. The expression black market is probably simply the logical use of the word black to describe something illegal, probably popularised by newspapers or other commentators. The word black is a natural choice and readily understood for describing anything negative, theatening or illicit, and has been used, in some cases for centuries, to describe all sorts of unapproved, sinister or illegal things - e.g., black art (secret or unknown method), black humour/humor or black joke (tasteless joke), blacklist and blackball (reject or exclude), blackmail (demand with threats), blackleg (strike-breaker), black magic (witchcraft), black mark (a negative assessment), black spot (dangerous road section), black label (illicit licquor), black Irish (Mediterranean-Irish mixed-race, amongst other meanings), black dog (temper or depression), black economy (activities of the illegal unregulated untaxed economy), black house (prison or illegal workhouse), black hole (lost or hidden information, amongst other meanings), black hat (villain), blackguard (slanderer or shabby person). The first use and popularity of the black market term probably reflect the first time in Western history that consumer markets were tightly regulated and undermined on a very wide and common scale, in the often austere first half of the 1900s, during and between the world wars of 1914-18 and (more so in) 1939-45. Interestingly the black market expression has direct literal equivalents in German (scharz-markt), French (marché noir), Italian (mercato nero) and Spanish (mercado negra) - and probably other languages too - if you know or can suggest where the expression first appeared please let me know. Further to the above entry I am informed (thanks Dr A Summers, Mar 2014) of another fascinating suggestion of origin: "...The market town of Crieff in Perthshire was the main cattle market up till 1757, but at the start there was opposition from the Provost in Perth, so there was an illegal trade in cattle before it became the official Drover's Tryst or cattle market. The cattle were known as The Black (hence the origin of the regiment The Black Watch, a militia started to protect the drovers from rustlers) so the illegal market was known as the 'black market'..."

blarney - persuasive but empty words - from the verbal procrastination tactics of Cormack MacCarthy, 1602, in holding the castle of Blarney in Ireland, near Cork, despite agreeing to hand it to the English as part of the surrender terms.

to have kissed the Blarney Stone - possessing great persuasive ability - the Blarney Stone, situated in the north corner of Blarney Castle, in the townland of Blarney, near Cork, Ireland, bears the inscription 'Cormac Mac Carthy fortis me fieri fecit'. Legend has it that whoever kisses the blarney stone will enjoy the same ability as MacCarthy. When a person is said to 'have kissed the Blarney stone', it is a reference to their having the gift of persuasion.

bless you/God bless you - customary expression said to someone after sneezing - while there are variations around the theme, the main origin is that sneezing was believed in medieval times to be associated with vulnerability to evil, notably that sneezing expelled a person's soul, thus enabling an evil spirit - or specifically the devil - to steal the soul or to enter the body and take possession of it. Another interpretation (thanks R Styx), and conceivably a belief once held by some, is that sneezing expelled evil spirits from a person's body. A contributory factor was the association of sneezing with the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) which ravaged England and particularly London in the 14th and 17th centuries. In more recent times the expression has been related (ack D Slater) to the myth that sneezing causes the heart to stop beating, further reinforcing the Bless You custom as a protective superstition.

blighty - england (esp when viewed by an Englishman overseas) - from foreign service in colonial India, the Hindu word 'bilayati' meant 'foreign' or 'European'.

blimey - mild expletive - from '(God) blind me!' (See also 'life of Riley' below).

bloke - man, chap, fellow - various separate roots in Shelta or Romany gypsy, and also Hindustani, 'loke', and Dutch, 'blok'. Perhaps also influenced by African and African-American 'outjie', leading to okey (without the dokey), meaning little man.

blood is thicker than water - family loyalties are greater than those between friends - many believe the origins of this expression were actually based on the opposite of today's meaning of the phrase, and there there would seem to be some truth to the idea that blood friendship rituals and biblical/Arabic roots predated the modern development and interpretation of the phrase. Various references have been cited in Arabic and Biblical writings to suggest that it was originally based on Middle- and Far-Eastern customs, in which blood rituals symbolised bonds that were stronger than family ones. 'The blood of the covenant is stronger than the water of the womb' is an explanation quoted by some commentators. However the expression has certainly been in use for hundreds of years with its modern interpretation - ie., that blood is stronger than water (relatives being connected by blood, compared to the comparative weakness of water, symbolising non-family). In this sense, the metaphor is such an obvious one that it is likely to have evolved separately from the supposed 'blood brothers' meaning, with slightly different variations from different societies, over the many hundreds of years that the expression has been in use.

bloody - offensive expletive adjective, as in 'bloody hell', or 'bloody nuisance' - the origins of bloody in the oath sense are open to some interpretation. Bloody seems to have acquired the unacceptable 'swearing' sense later than when first used as a literal description (bloody battle, bloody body, bloody death, bloody assizes, etc) or as a general expression of extreme related to the older associations of the blood emotions or feelings in the four temperaments or humours, which were very significant centuries ago in understanding the human condition and mood, etc. The modern expression bloody-minded still carries this sense, which connects with the qualities of the blood temperament within the four humours concept. The mild oath ruddy is a very closely linked alternative to bloody, again alluding to the red-faced characteristics within the four humours. Oxford Word Histories confirms bloody became virtually unprintable around the mid-1700s, prior to which it was not an offensive term even when used in a non-literal sense (i.e., not describing blood), and that this offensive aspect was assumed by association to religion, perhaps including the (false) belief that the word itself was derived from the oath 'By our Lady', which is touched on below. In terms of a major source or influence on the expression's development, Oxford agrees largely with Brewer's 1870 dictionary of phrase and fable, which explains that the use of the word 'bloody' in the expletive sense ".....arose from associating folly or drunkenness, etc., with what are (were) called 'Bloods', or aristocratic rowdies...." Brewer explains also that this usage is in the same vein as the expression 'drunk as a lord', (a lord being a titled aristocrat in British society). Rowdy aristocrats were called 'Bloods' after the term for a thoroughbred horse, a 'blood-horse' (as in today's 'bloodstock' term, meaning thoroughbred horses). Clearly, the blood-horse metaphor captures both the aristocratic and unpredictable or wild elements of this meaning. The use of blood in this 'aristocratic' sense would have been reinforced by other similar metaphors: 'blood' was and still is a term used also to refer to family descent, and appears in many other lineage-related expressions, such as 'blood is thicker than water' (people are more loyal to their family members than to other people) and 'blue blood' (royalty or aristocratic people - an expression coming into England from France where 'sang blue' means of high aristocratic descent, the notion originating in Spain when it was believed that pre-Moorish old Spanish families had blue blood whereas the common people's blood was black. The blue blood imagery would have been strengthened throughout Western society by the idea of aristocratic people having paler skin, which therefore made their veins and blood appear more blue than normal people's.) The modern expression 'bloody' therefore derives partly from an old expression of unpredictable or drunken behaviour, dating back to the late 1600s (Oxford dates this not Brewer specifically), but also since those times people have inferred a religious/Christ/crucifixion connection, which would have stigmatised the expression and added the taboo and blasphemy factor. 'Bloody' was regarded as quite a serious oath up until the 1980s, but now it's rare to find anyone who'd be truly offended to hear it being used. It is commonly suggested (thanks B Bunker, J Davis) that 'bloody' is a corruption of a suggested oath, 'By our Lady', which could have contributed to the offensive perception of the expression, although I believe would not have been its origin as an expletive per se. Whatever, extending this point (thanks A Sobot), the expression 'By our Lord' might similarly have been retrospectively linked, or distorted to add to the 'bloody' mix.

blue peter - the children's TV show - the name of the flag hoisted on a ship before it was about to sail, primarily to give notice to the town that anyone owed money should claim it before the ship leaves, also to warn crew and passengers to get on board. The flag is a blue rectangle with a solid white rectangle in the middle; 'peter' is from the French, 'partir' meaning 'to leave'. Additionally, (ack G Jackson), the blue and white 'blue peter' flag is a standard nautical signal flag which stands for the letter 'P'. The letter 'P' is associated with the word 'peter' in many phonetic alphabets, including those of the English and American military, and it is possible that this phonetic language association was influenced by the French 'partir' root. Phonetic alphabet details.

board of directors - often reduced simply to 'the board' - board commonly meant table in the late middle-ages, ultimately from Saxon, 'bord' meaning table and also meant shield, which would have amounted to the same thing (as a table), since this was long before the choices offered by IKEA and MFI, etc. This table meaning of board is how we got the word boardroom too, and the popular early 1900s piece of furniture called a sideboard. See also the expression 'sweep the board', which also refers to the table meaning of board.

when the boat comes in/home - see when my ship comes in.

bob's your uncle - ironic expression of something easily done - like: there you have it, as if by magic - Cassells cites AJ Langguth's work Saki of 1981 in suggesting that the expression arose after Conservative Prime Minister Robert (Bob) Cecil appointed his nephew Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1900, which was apparently surprising and unpopular. In this sense the expression also carried a hint of sarcastic envy or resentment, rather like it's who you know not what you know that gets results, or 'easy when you know how'. Since then the meaning has become acknowledging, announcing or explaining a result or outcome that is achieved more easily than might be imagined.

bobby - policeman - after Sir Robert Peel, who introduced the first police force, into London c.1830; they were earlier known as 'peelers'.

bohemian - artistically unconventional (typically referring to lifestyle, people, atmostphere, etc) - Bohemia and Bohemian orignally referred to a historic region in the western Czech republic, named from c.190BC after the Romans conquered the northern Italian Boii people. Much later in history, Romany gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria were generally thought to enter western Europe via Bohemia, so the term Bohemian came to refer to the lifestyle/people of artistic, musical, unconventional, free-spirited nature - characteristics associated with Romany travelling people. Nowadays the term 'bohemian' does not imply gypsy associations necessarily or at all, instead the term has become an extremely broad and flexible term for people, behaviour, lifestyle, places, atmosphere, attitudes, etc., which exhibit or are characterized by some/all of the following features (and many related themes), for example: carefree, artistic, spiritual, musical, travelling, anti-capitalist, non-materialistc, peaceful, naturalistic, laid-back, inexpensively chic/fasionable, etc. Thus, a person could be described as bohemian; so could a coffee-shop, or a training course or festival. Bohemian is a fascinating word - once a geographical region, and now a description of style which can be applied and interpreted in many different ways.

bolt from the blue - sudden shock or surprise - see 'thunderbolt'.

throw me a bone/throw a bone/throw someone a bone/toss me a bone - give me/someone at least a tiny piece of encouragement, reaction, response, help, (especially when seeking a positive response from others in authority or command). The sense is in giving someone a small concession begrudgingly, as a token, or out of sympathy or pity. The giver (an individual or a group) is in a position of dominance or authority, and the recipient (of the bone) is seeking help, approval, agreement, or some other positive response. It is a simple metaphor based on the idea of throwing a hungry dog a bone to chew on (a small concession) instead of some meat (which the dog would prefer). The metaphor also alludes to the sense that a bone provides temporary satisfaction and distraction, and so is a tactical or stalling concession, and better than nothing. 'Throw me a bone' or 'throw a bone' seems (in English) to be mainly an American expression, although it might well appear in and originate from another language/culture in the US. It is not widely used in the UK and it is not in any of my reference dictionaries, which suggests that in the English language it is quite recent - probably from the end of the 20th century. According to various online discussions about this expression it is apparently featured in a film, as the line, "Throw me a bone down here...," as if the person is pleading for just a small concession. Apparently (ack Matthew Stone) the film was first Austin Powers movie ('Austin Powers:International Man of Mystery'), from a scene in which Dr Evil is trying to think of schemes, but because he has been frozen for years, his ideas have either already happened or are no longer relevant (and so attract little enthusiasm, which fits the expression's meaning very well). The expression could certainly have been in use before it appeared in the film, and my hunch (just a hunch) is that it originated in a language and culture other than English/American, not least because the expression's seemingly recent appearance in English seems at odds with the metaphor, which although recognisable is no longer a popular image in Western culture, whose dogs are generally well-fed and whose owners are more likely to throw biscuits than bones. I am further informed (ack P Nix) "...It most certainly appeared prior to the Austin Powers movies since the usage of it in the movie was intended to be a humorous use of the already commonly used expression. It is also commonly used in the United States as 'Toss me a bone.' " Subsequently I'm informed (thanks Jaimi McEntire) that many people mistakenly believe that dogs eat bones and prefer them to meat, for whom the expression would have a more general meaning of asking for something they want or need (without the allusion to a minor concession), and that the expression was in use in the 1970s in the USA. Additionally, on the point of non-English/US usage, (thanks MA Farina of Colombia) I was directed to a forum posting on in which a respondent (Nessuno, Mar 2006) states "... In Argentina we use that expression very often. "Tirame un hueso", literally meaning 'throw me a bone'. It is not pityful (pitying) at all... (here it is used where) someone who needs something asks for something - like a bone for a starving dog, something that might be useful. It may have a funny meaning too..." And some while after writing the above, I was grateful to receive the following (from J Knelsen, thanks, who wrote): "... I'm not sure of the origin of this phrase, but it was used in 1850 in French in 'The Law' by Frederic Bastiat. Here it is translated - 'The excluded classes will furiously demand their right to vote - and will overthrow society rather than not to obtain it. Even beggars and vagabonds will then prove to you that they also have an incontestable title to vote. They will say to you: "We cannot buy wine, tobacco, or salt without paying the tax. And a part of the tax that we pay is given by law - in privileges and subsidies - to men who are richer than we are. Others use the law to raise the prices of bread, meat, iron, or cloth. Thus, since everyone else uses the law for his own profit, we also would like to use the law for our own profit. We demand from the law the right to relief, which is the poor man's plunder. To obtain this right, we also should be voters and legislators in order that we may organize Beggary on a grand scale for our own class, as you have organized Protection on a grand scale for your class. Now don't tell us beggars that you will act for us, and then toss us, as Mr. Mimerel proposes, 600,000 francs to keep us quiet, like throwing us a bone to gnaw. We have other claims. And anyway, we wish to bargain for ourselves as other classes have bargained for themselves!'... " I show the full extract because the context is interesting. The extract does not prove that the expression was in wide use in France in the mid-1800s, but it does show a similar and perhaps guiding example for interpreting the modern usage.

If you know anything more about the origins of "throw me a bone" - especially the expression occurring in a language other than English, please tell me.

booby - fool or idiot, breast - according to Chambers/Cassells, booby has meant a stupid person, idiot, fool or a derogatory term for a peasant since 1600 (first recorded), probably derived from Spanish and Portuguese bobo of similar meaning, similar to French baube, a stammerer, all from Latin balbus meaning stammering or inarticulate, from which root we also have the word babble. The gannet-like seabird, the booby, is taken from Spanish word for the bird, bobo, which came into English around 1634. There seems no evidence for the booby bird originating the meaning of a foolish person, stupid though the booby bird is considered to be. The sense of booby meaning fool extended later to terms like booby-trap and booby-hatch (lunatic asylum), and also to the verb form of boob, meaning to make a mistake or blunder (i.e., act like a fool). I am informed (thanks Mr Morrison) that the wilderness expert Ray Mears suggested booby-trap derives from the old maritime practice of catching booby seabirds when they flew onto ships' decks. There could be some truth in this, although the OED prefers the booby/fool derivation. The US later (early 20th C) adapted the word boob to mean a fool. The ultimate origins can be seen in the early development of European and Asian languages, many of which had similar words meaning babble or stammer, based on the repetitive 'ba' sound naturally heard or used to represent the audible effect or impression of a stammerer or a fool. It is probable that this basic 'baba' sound-word association also produced the words babe and baby, and similar variations in other languages. The (mainly UK-English) reference to female breasts (boob, boobs, boob-tube, etc) is much more recent (1960s - boob-tube was 1970s) although these derive from the similar terms bubby and bubbies. (Separately, thanks B Puckett, since the 1960s, 'boob-tube' has been US slang for a television, referring to idiocy on-screen, and the TV cathode-ray 'tube' technology, now effectively replaced by LCD flatscreens. Incidentally a UK 'boob-tube' garment is in the US called a 'tube-top'.) Returning to boobs meaning breasts, Partridge amusingly notes that bubby is 'rare in the singular...'. Bubby and bubbies meaning breasts appeared in the late 1600s, probably derived from the word bub, both noun and verb for drink, in turn probably from Latin bibire, perhaps reinforced by allusion to the word bubble, and the aforementioned 'baba' sound associated with babies. The appeal of the word boob/boobs highlights some interesting aspects of how certain slang and language develop and become popular: notably the look and sound and 'feel' of the word is somehow appropriate for the meaning, and is also a pleasing and light-hearted euphemism for less socially comfortable words, particularly used when referring to body bits and functions. My thanks to John L for raising the question of the booby, initially seeking clarification of its meaning in the Gilbert and Sullivan line from Trial by Jury, when the judge sings "I'd a frock-tailed coat of a beautiful blue, and brief that I bought for a booby..." And as a follow-up to this (thanks S Batten) the probability apparently is that booby here actually refers to a 'bob' (money slang for a shilling was a bob), stretched by G&S because a second syllable was required to fit the music.

book - bound papers for reading - etymologists and dictionaries suggest this very old word probably derives from Germanic language referring to the beech tree, on whose wood ancient writings were carved, before books were developed.

boss - manager - while there are myths suggesting origins from a certain Mr Boss, the real derivation is from the Dutch 'baas', meaning master, which was adopted into the US language from Dutch settlers in the 17th century. The word also appeared early in South African English from Afrikaans - more proof of Dutch origins.

the bottom line - the most important aspect or point - in financial accounting the bottom line on the profit and loss sheet shows the profit or loss.

bottoms up - drinking expression, rather like cheers, good health, or skol - the 'bottoms up' expression origins are from the British historical press-ganging of unwary drinkers in dockside pubs into the armed services (mainly the navy) in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Men who 'took the King's shilling' were deemed to have contracted to serve in the armed forces, and this practice of offering the shilling inducement led to the use of the technique in rather less honest ways, notably by the navy press-gangs who would prey on drunks and unsuspecting drinkers close to port. Unscrupulous press-gangers would drop a shilling into a drinker's pint of ale, (which was then in a pewter or similar non-transparent vessel), and if the coin was undetected until the ale was consumed the press-gangers would claim that the payment had been accepted, whereupon the poor victim would be dragged away to spend years at sea. Pubs and drinkers became aware of this practice and the custom of drinking from glass-bottom tankards began. The 'bottoms up' expression then naturally referred to checking for the King's shilling at the bottom of the tankard. (Ack J Burbedge)

boxing day - the day after Christmas - from the custom in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of servants receiving gratuities from their masters, collected in boxes in Christmas day, sometimes in churches, and distributed the day after.

box and die/whole/hole box and die - see see 'whole box and die' possible meanings and origins below.

brass monkeys/brass monkeys weather/cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey - very cold weather - the singular 'monkey' is common also in these expressions. This expression is a wonderful example of how certain expressions origins inevitably evolve, without needing necessarily any particular origin. There might be one of course, but it's very well buried if there is, and personally I think the roots of the saying are entirely logical, despite there being no officially known source anywhere. Partridge for instance can offer only that brass monkey in this sense was first recorded in the 1920s with possible Australian origins. Cassells says late 1800s and possible US origins. The OED is no more helpful either in suggesting the ultimate source. Allen's English Phrases is more revealing in citing an 1835 source (unfortunately not named): "He was told to be silent, in a tone of voice which set me shaking like a monkey in frosty weather..." Allen also mentions other similar references: 'talk the tail off a brass monkey', 'have the gall of a brass monkey', and 'hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey'. In fact the expression most likely evolved from another early version 'Cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey', which apparently is first recorded in print in Charles A Abbey's book Before the Mast in the Clippers, around 1860, which featured the author's diaries from his time aboard American clippers (fast merchant sailing ships) from 1856-60. The switch from tail to balls at some stage probably around the turn of the 1900s proved irresistible to people, for completely understandable reasons: it's much funnier, much more illustrative of bitter cold, and the alliteration (repeating) of the B sound is poetically much more pleasing. The notion of a brass monkey would have appealed on many levels: monkeys have long been associated with powerful imagery (three wise monkeys - see no evil, etc) and the word is incorporated within various popular terminology (monkey wrench, monkey puzzle, monkey suit, etc). And aside from the allusion to brass monkey ornaments, brass would have been the metal of choice because it was traditionally associated with strength and resilience (more so than copper or tin for instance); also brass is also very much more phonetically enjoyable than iron, steel or bronze. It simply sounds good when spoken. Zinc and platinum are complete non-starters obviously. So it had to be brass. The choice of monkey - as opposed to any other creature - is also somehow inevitable given a bit of logical thought. Here goes... Certain iconic animals with good tails can be discounted immediately for reasons of lacking euphonic quality (meaning a pleasing sound when spoken); for example, brass horse, brass mouse, brass rat, brass scorpion, brass crocodile and brass ass just don't roll off the tongue well enough. No good either would have been any creatures not possessing a suitably impressive and symbolic tail, which interestingly would effectively have ruled out virtually all the major animal images like cow, elephant, pig, bear, dog, rabbit, lion, tiger, and most of the B-list like rhino, giraffe, deer, not to mention C-listers like hamster, badger, tortoise, all birds, all fish and all insects. We can also forget the well-endowed lemurs, platypii, and chameleons for reasons of obscurity: a metaphor must be reasonably universal to become popular. Which pretty well leaves just a cat and a monkey, and who on earth has ever seen a brass cat? It's just not a notion that conveys anything at all. So it kind of just had to be a monkey because nothing else would have worked. That's my theory, and I'm sticking to it unless anyone has a better idea. This is the way that a lot of expressions become established and hugely popular - they just are right in terms of sound and imagery, and often it's that simple. Incidentally a popular but entirely mythical theory for the 'freeze the balls off a brass monkey' version suggests a wonderfully convoluted derivation from the Napoleonic Wars and the British Navy's Continental Blockade of incoming French supplies. The story goes that where the British warships found themselves in northerly frozen waters the cannonballs contracted (shrank in size due to cold) more than their brass receptacle (supposedly called the 'monkey') and fell onto the deck. Or so legend has it. Unfortunately there was never a brass receptacle for cannonballs called a monkey. Ships did actually have a 'monkey rail' (just above the quarter rail, wherever that was) but this was not related to cannonballs at all, and while there was at one time a cannon called a monkey, according to Longridge's The Anatomy of Nelson's Ships, cannonballs were actually stored on the gun deck on wooden boards with holes cut in them, called short garlands, not monkeys. What we see here is an example of a mythical origin actually supporting the popularity of the expression it claims to have spawned, because it becomes part of folklore and urban story-telling, so in a way it helps promote the expression, but it certainly isn't the root of it. To understand the root, very commonly we need simply to understand how language works, and then it all makes sense. (I am grateful for A Zambonini's help in prompting and compiling this entry.)

brass neck/brass-neck/brass necked - boldness or impudence/audacious, rude, 'cheeky' - brass neck and brass necked are combinations of two metaphorically used words, brass and neck, each separately meaning impudence/impudent, audacity/audacious. Neck was a northern English 19th slang century expression (some sources suggest with origins in Australia) meaning audacity or boldness - logically referring to a whole range of courage and risk metaphors involving the word neck, and particularly with allusions to hanging, decapitation, wringing (of a chicken's neck) - 'getting it in the neck', 'sticking your neck out', and generally the idea of exposing or extending one's neck in a figurative display of intentional or foolhardy personal risk. As regards brass, Brewer 1870 lists 'brass' as meaning impudence. The modern OED meanings include effrontery (shameless insolence). Brassy means pretentious or impudent. Brass is also an old (19thC) word for a prostitute. Some of these meanings relate to brass being a cheap imitation of gold. Some of the meanings also relate to brass being a very hard and resilient material. Phonetically there is also a similarity with brash, which has similar meanings - rude, vulgarly self-assertive (probably derived from rash, which again has similar meanings, although with less suggestion of intent, more recklessness). At some stage during the 20th century brass and neck were combined to form brass neck and brass necked. Many sources identify the hyphenated brass-neck as a distinctly military expression (same impudence and boldness meanings), again 20th century, and from the same root words and meanings, although brass as a slang word in the military has other old meanings and associations, eg, top brass and brass hat, both referring to officers (because of their uniform adornments), which would have increased the appeal and usage of the brass-neck expression in military circles. (sources OED, Brewer, Cassells, Partridge)

brassic (mistaken pronunciation of 'boracic') - broke, having no money - from 'boracic lint' see 'brassic' in cockney rhyming slang.

break a leg - expression wishing good luck (particularly) to an actor about to take the stage - there are different theories of origins and probably collective influences contributing to the popularity of this expression. Most dramatically, the broken leg suffered by assassin John Wilkes Booth. Booth, an actor, assassinated President Lincoln's on 14 April 1865, at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC and broke his leg while making his escape, reportedly while jumping from Lincoln's box onto the stage. Later research apparently suggests the broken leg was suffered later in his escape, but the story became firmly embedded in public and thesbian memory, and its clear connections with the expression are almost irresistible, especially given that Booth was considered to have been daringly lucky in initially escaping from the theatre. His luck ran out though as he was shot and killed resisting capture twelve days later. Etymologist Michael Sheehan is among those who suggests the possible Booth source, although he cites and prefers Eric Partridge's suggestion that the saying derives from "...immigrating Yiddish actors right after World War I. The phrase in the German theatre was Hals und Beinbruch, neck and leg break..." Wentworth & Flexnor's American Slang Dictionary refers to a similar German expression 'Hals und Bein brechen', break your neck and leg, and in similar vein to the Italian expression 'in bocca al lupo', which is puzzling since this seems to be something to do with a wolf (explained below). The main point is that Wentworth & Flexnor echo Sheehan's and others' views that the ironic expression is found in similar forms in other languages. Interestingly according to Cassells, break a leg also means 'to be arrested' in US slang (first recorded from 1900), and 'to hurry' (from 1910), which again seems to fit with the JW Booth story. Bear in mind that actual usage can predate first recorded use by many years. Cassells reminds us that theatrical superstition discourages the use of the phrase 'good luck', which is why the coded alternative was so readily adopted in the theatre. Cassells inserts a hyphen and expands the meaning of the German phrase, 'Hals-und Beinbruch', to 'may you break your neck and leg', which amusingly (to me) and utterly irrelevantly, seems altogether more sinister. Such are the delights of translation. Incidentally my version of Partridge's dictionary also suggests break a leg, extending to 'break a leg above the knee', has been an English expression since 1670 (first recorded) meaning " give birth to a bastard..." (helpfully adding 'low colloquial'). "She hath broken her leg above the knee" is given as an example of usage. Broken-legged also referred to one who had been seduced. Such are the delights of early English vulgar slang.. As a footnote (pun intended) to the seemingly natural metaphor and relationship between luck and leg-breaking is the wonderful quote penned by George Santayana (Spanish-Amercian literary philosopher, 1863-1952) in his work Character and Opinion in the United States (1920): "All his life [the American] jumps into the train after it has started and jumps out before it has stopped; and he never once gets left behind, or breaks a leg." It's the pioneer genes I say. On a different track, I am informed, which I can neither confirm nor deny (thanks Steve Fletcher, Nov 2007): "...In older theatres the device used to raise the curtain was a winch with long arms called 'legs'. If the performance was very successful the legmen might have to raise the curtain so many times they might - 'break a leg'..." I also received this helpful information (thanks J Adams, Jan 2008): "...Anyone who has spent time on stage in the theater [US spelling] knows how jealous other players can be of someone whom the audience is rapt with. By way of the back-handed compliment intended to undermine the confidence of an upcoming star, an envious competitor might gush appreciation at just how great one is and with work how much greater one will be. The young star goes out flush with flattery and, preoccupied with his future fame, promptly falls on his proverbial face. So, one learns in time to be suspicious of disingenuous praise. On the other hand, someone genuinely wishing you well will say 'Break a leg'. This mocks the false flattery and acknowledges that that stage can be perilous to someone with their head in the clouds. (If not paying attention one could literally break a leg by falling into the pit.) The reverse psychology helps one to 'stay grounded' so to speak. The Italian saying appears to be translatable to 'Into the wolf's mouth,' which, to me is a reference to the insatiable appetite of the audience for diversion and novelty. And if you don't satisfy them, they will 'eat you alive'... " In the same vein (thanks A Zambonini): "...In Italian it is often actually considered bad luck to wish someone good luck ('Buona Fortuna'), especially before an exam, performance or something of the kind. Italians instead use the expression 'In bocca al lupo', which literally means 'Into the wolf's mouth'..." Incidentally the reply to this is apparently "Crepi il lupo," or just "Crepi," - effectively "May the wolf die," (thanks S Prosapio), which I add for interest rather than for strict relevance to the Break a Leg debate. And this (thanks J Yuenger, Jan 2008), which again I can neither confirm nor deny: "...I see you had a question on 'Break a leg,' and as a theatre person... I had always heard of break a leg as in 'bend a knee,' apparently a military term. The idea being that if you tell an actor to break a leg, it is the same as telling him to deliver a performance worthy of a bow. As a common theme I've seen running through stage superstitions, actors need to be constantly reminded that they need to do work in order to make their performances the best. Thus, if you wished an actor good luck, they would stop trying as hard at the show, because luck was on their side..." Additionally and related to the notion that 'break a leg' refers to bending the knee while bowing to authority I received this suggestion (thanks Ron, March 2010): "...Break a leg derives from wishing an actor to be lucky enough to be surprised by the presence of royalty in the theatre (US theater), as in a 'command performance'. These shows would start by acknowledging the presence of the royal guests with the entire cast on stage at bended knee. (The suggestion of) 'a broken leg' wishes for the actor the good fortune of performing for royalty and the success that would follow due to their visit to your theatre..." Further to the possible Germanic influence on the expression, it is suggested (thanks C Stahl, March 2008): "...I am German, and we indeed have the saying 'Hals-und Beinbruch' which roughly means 'break a neck and leg'. The origin of that saying is not proven but widely believed to originate from the Jewish 'hazloche un broche' which means 'luck and blessing', and itself derives from the Hebrew 'hazlacha we bracha', with the same meaning. For Germans failing to understand 'hazloch un broche', this sounds similar to 'hals und bruch' meaning 'neck and break'. Given that this has no real meaning, a natural interpretation would be 'hals und beinbruch', especially since 'bein' did not only mean 'leg', but also was used for 'bones' in general, giving the possible translation of 'break your neck and bones'. That it was considered back luck to wish for what you really want ('Don't jinx it!') helped the saying to spread. Such ironic wishes - 'anti-jinxes' - appear in most languages - trying to jinx the things we seek to avoid. In Germany 'Hals-und Beinbruch' is commonly used when people go skiing. Fishermen use a variation: 'Mast-und Schotbruch', which means (on a boat) 'break the the main poles' (which hold the sails). The German 'break' within 'Hals-und Beinbruch' it is not an active verb, like in the English 'break a leg', but instead a wish for the break to happen. The German 'Hals- und Beinbruch' most likely predates the English 'break a leg', and the English is probably a translation of the German..."

(Thanks to Neale for the initial question. If anyone can offer any more about Break a Leg please let me know.)

give me a break/give him a break - make allowance, tolerate, overlook a mistake - 'Give me/him a break' is an interesting expression, since it combines the sense of two specific figurative meanings of the word break - first the sense of respite and relaxation, and second the sense of luck or advantage. Partridge/OED suggests the luck aspect probably derives from billiards (and logically extending to snooker), in which the first shot breaks the initial formation of the balls and leaves either opportunity or difficulty for the opponent. This sense is supported by the break meaning respite or relaxation, as in tea-break. Both senses seem to have developed during the 19th century. Earliest usage of break meaning luck was predominantly USA, first recorded in 1827 according to Partridge.

brum/brummie/brummy - informal reference to Birmingham (UK) and its native inhabitants and dialect - the term Brum commonly refers to Birmingham, and a Brummie or Brummy is a common slang word for a person from Birmingham, especially one having a distinctive Birmingham accent. The term Brummie extends also to anything from Birmingham, and also more widely to the surrounding West Midlands region of the UK, especially when used by UK folk living quite a long way from Birmingham. Many English southerners, for example, do not have a very keen appreciation for the geographical and cultural differences between Birmingham and Coventry, or Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Interestingly, although considered very informal slang words, Brum and Brummie actually derive from the older mid-1600s English name for Birmingham: Brummagem, and similar variants, which date back to the Middle Ages. In past times Brummagem also referred informally to cheap jewellery and plated wares, fake coins, etc., since Birmingham was once a place noted for such production, and this slang term persists in Australian and New Zealand slang, where 'brummie' refers to cheap or counterfeit goods.

buckshee/buckshees - (anything) free, or a tip or gratuity - buckshee is not cockney rhyming slang; instead the English usage origins of buckshee (also buckshees, although this can still refer to a single free entity) are firmly rooted in Middle-Eastern and Anglo-Indian language, dating back to the mid-1700s, and more widely adopted and popularised by the British army operating in the Middle-Eastern and Indian territories in the first and second world wars, who developed various meanings around the main interpretation. The root word is bakh'sheesh in Arabic, notably from what was Persia (now Iran), with variations in Urdu and Turkish, meaning a gift or a present. The early British usage of the expression would have been bakshee, backshee, but by the 1900s this had evolved into the modern buckshee/buckshees/buckshish. The modern form is buckshee/buckshees, referring to anything free, with other associated old slang meanings, mostly relating to army use, including: a light wound; a paymaster (also 'buckshee king'), and a greedy soldier at mealtimes. I am grateful for the following note from Huw Thomas in the Middle East: "...The word 'buckshee' was brought back by the British Eighth Army lads from North Africa in the Second World War. It comes from the Arabic word bakh'sheesh, meaning 'free' or 'gift'. In Arabic today, it refers to the tip given to a restaurant waiter." (ack Huw Thomas)

pass the buck/passing the buck - delegate or avoid responsibility by passing a problem or blame to another person - this is commonly thought to derive from the practice and terminology of American poker players of the nineteenth century, who would supposedly pass a piece of buckshot or a buckhorn knife from player to player to signify whose responsibility it was to deal the cards or to be responsible for the pot or bank. The precise reference to buck (a male deer) in this sense - buckshot, buckknife, or some other buckhorn, buckskin or other buck-related item - is not proven and remains open to debate, and could be a false trail. While 'pass the buck' seems generally accepted (among the main dictionaries and references) as card-playing terminology for passing the deal or pot, and is generally accepted as the metaphorical origin of the modern expression meaning to pass the problem or responsibility, uncertainty remains as to what exactly the buck was. No-one knows for sure. To complicate matters further, buck and bucking are words used in card-playing quite aside from the 'pass the buck' expression referring to dealing. For example - an extract from the wonderful Pictorial History of the Wild West by Horan and Sann, published in 1954, includes the following reference to Wild Bill Hickock: "... He didn't wear down the two-inch heels of his sixty-dollar boots patrolling the streets to make law 'n order stick. He spent most of his time bucking the cards in the saloons..." In this extract the word buck does not relate to a physical item associated with the buck (male deer) creature. This reference is simply to the word buck meaning rear up or behave in a challenging way, resisting, going up against, challenging, taking on, etc., as in a bucking horse, and found in other expressions such as bucking the system and bucking the trend. So while we can be fairly sure that the card-playing terminology 'pass the buck' is the source of the modern saying, we cannot be certain of what exactly the buck was. (My thanks to S Karl for prompting the development of this explanation.)

the buck stops here - acceptance of ultimate responsibility - this extends the meaning of the above 'passing the buck' expression. I am grateful (ack K Eshpeter) for the following contributed explanation: "It wasn't until the 1940s when Harry Truman became president that the expression took on an expanded meeting. Truman was a man of the people and saw the office of president of the US as a foreboding responsibility for which he had ultimate accountability. He kept a sign on his desk in the Oval Office to remind him of this and it is where the expression 'The Buck Stops Here' originated."

bugger - insult or expletive - expletives and oaths like bugger are generally based on taboo subjects, typically sexual, and typically sensitive in religious and 'respectable' circles. Most people will know that bugger is an old word - it's actually as old as the 12th century in English - and that it refers to anal intercourse. A bugger is a person who does it. Bugger is the verb to do it. Buggery is the old word describing the act (or offence, as was, and remains, in certain circumstances and parts of the world). The commonly unmentionable aspect of the meaning (see Freud's psychosexual theory as to why bottoms and pooh are so emotionally sensitive for many people) caused the word to be developed, and for it to thrive as an oath. It's all about fear, denial and guilt. What's more surprising about the word bugger is where it comes from: Bugger is from Old French (end of the first millennium, around 1000AD), when the word was bougre, which then referred to a sodomite and a heretic, from the Medieval Latin word Bulgarus, which meant Bulgarian, based on the reputation of a sect of Bulgarian heretics, which was alleged and believed (no doubt by their critics and opponents) to indulge in homosexual practices. It is fascinating that a modern word like bugger, which has now become quite a mild and acceptable oath, contains so much richness of social and psychological history. In terms of fears and human hang-ups it's got the lot - religious, ethnic, sexual, social - all in one little word. See also sod, whose usage and origins are related.

bulls and bears, bull markets and bear markets (stock exchange and financial markets terminology) - generally: optimists and pessimists, or more specifically: bulls (stock traders) and bull markets refer to upward price trends and tactics; bears and bear markets refer to downward price trends and tactics - some say that the expressions relate to bull and bear fighting, a bloodsport in parts of Europe in past times, and the image of bulls goring with their horns in upward motion, whereas bears tend to swipe in a downward motion. This metaphor may certainly have helped to reinforce the expression, but is unlike to have been the origin. More probable is the derivation suggested by Brewer in 1870: that first, bears became synonymous with reducing prices, notably the practice of short selling, ie., selling shares yet not owned, in the expectation that the stock value would drop before settlement date, enabling the 'bear' speculator to profit from the difference. This terminology, Brewer suggests (referring to Dr Warton's view on the origin) came from the prior expression, 'selling the skin before you have caught the bear'. This proverb was applied to speculators in the South Sea Bubble scheme, c. 1720, (see 'gone south') and alludes to the risky 'forward selling' practice of bear trappers. Brewer quotes an extract written by Waller, from 'Battle Of The Summer Islands': "....So was the huntsman by the bear oppressed, whose hide he sold before he caught the beast..." At some stage after the bear term was established, the bull, already having various associations with the bear in folklore and imagery, became the natural term to be paired with the bear to denote the opposite trend or activity, ie buying stock in expectation of a price rise. The bull and bear expressions have been in use since at least as far back as 1785; according to financial writer Don Luskin, reference and explanation of bull and bear meanings appears in the book Every Man His Own Broker, or, A Guide to Exchange Alley, by Thomas Mortimer. (Luskin says his 10th edition copy of the book was printed in 1785. Other references: David W. Olson, Jon Orwant, Chris Lott, and 'The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money and Markets' by Wurman, Siegel, and Morris, 1990.)

get/give the bum's rush - to be ejected or eject someone from premises, typically by a bouncer or security staff, and can also apply to the firm rejection of ideas or suggestions or involvement or employment of a person in relation to a project or group or relationship - sources (Chambers, RL Chapman US Slang) place the first recorded origins around 1920s in the US, in which the bum would have been a tramp or a drunkard, and the rush referred to the action and effect of forcible ejection from a bar or salooon premises into the street, typically by a bar-tender. The bum refers both to bum meaning tramp, and also to the means of ejection, i.e., by the seat of the pants, with another hand grasping the neck of the jacket. Bum also alludes to a kick up the backside, being another method of propulsion and ejection in such circumstances. Less easy to understand is the use of the word rush, until we learn that the earlier meaning of the word rush was to drive back and repel, also to charge, as in Anglo-French russher, and Old French russer, the flavour of which could easily have been retained in the early American-English use of the word.

takes the bun - surpasses all expectations, wins - see 'cakewalk' and 'takes the cake'.

bury the hatchet - agree to stop arguing or feuding - although pre-dated by a British version now much less popular, 'bury the hatchet' is from the native American Indian custom, as required by their spirit gods, of burying all weapons out of sight while smoking the peace pipe. 'Bury the hatchet' came into use first in the US in the late 1700s and was soon adopted in Britain, where according to Partridge it was pre-dated (as early as the 1300s) by the earlier expression 'hang up the hatchet'. 'Bury the hatchet' perhaps not surpisingly became much more popular than the less dramatic Britsh version. Hatchet is a very old word, meaning axe, and probaby derived from Old German happa for scythe or sickle. The hatchet as an image would have been a natural representation of a commoner's weapon in the middle ages, and it's fascinating that the US and British expressions seem to have arisen quite independently of each other in two entirely different cultures. I am grateful Bryan Hopkins for informing me that in the Book of Mormon, a history of the ancient Native American Indians, an episode is described in which a large group '...buried their weapons of war, for peace...', which the author suggests was the practice over two thousand years ago. This is not to say of course that the expression dates back to that age, although it is interesting to note that the custom on which the saying is based in the US is probably very ancient indeed.

bus - passenger vehicle - an abbreviation from the original 18-19th century horse-drawn 'omnibus' which in Latin means 'for all' (which is also the derivation of the term 'omnibus' when used to describe a whole week's TV soap episodes put together in one torturous weekend compilation). Unrelated but interestingly, French slang for the horse-drawn omnibus was 'four banal' which translated then to 'parish oven' - what a wonderful expression.



by and large - generally/vaguely/one way or another - one of a number of maritime terms; 'by and large' literally meant 'to the wind and off it'. 'By' in this context meant to sail within six compass points of the wind, ie., almost into the wind. Bear in mind that a wind is described according to where it comes from not where it's going to. A South wind comes from the South. Sailing 'by' a South wind would mean sailing virtually in a South direction - 'to the wind' (almost into the wind). 'Large' was to sail at right-angles to the wind, which for many ships was very efficient - more so than having a fully 'following' wind (because a following wind transferred all of its energy to the ship via the rear sail(s), wasting the potential of all the other sails on the ship - a wind from the side made use of lots more of the ships sails. Different sails on a ship favoured winds from different directions, therefore to be able to sail 'by and large' meant that the ship sailed (well) 'one way or another' - 'to the wind and off it'. Also, the expression used when steering a course of 'by and large' meant being able to using both methods (of wind direction in relation to the ship) and so was very non-specific.

caddie or caddy - person who carries clubs and assists a golfer - caddie is a Scottish word (Scotland's golf origins date back to the 1500s) and is derived from the French word 'cadet', which described a young gentleman who joined the army without a commission, originally meaning in French a younger brother. Early Scottish use of the word cadet, later caddie, was for an errand boy. The golf usage of the caddie term began in the early 1600s.

cachet - mark of prestige or stylish, fashionable quality - from the French 1700s when 'lettres de cachet' (literally 'sealed letters') containing an open warrant, or carte-blanche, could be obtained from the king for a fee. Such warrants were used typically to enable a prisoner's freedom, or to imprison someone in the Bastille. The holder could fill in the beneficiary or victim's name. The practice was abolished on 15 January 1790.

(you can't) have your cake and eat it/want your cake and eat it too - (able or unable or want to) achieve or attain both of two seemingly different options - the 'have your cake and eat it' expression seems to date back at least to the English 1500s and was very possibly originated in its modern form by dramatist and epigram writer John Heywood (c.1497-c.1580) who first recorded it in his 1546 (according to Bartlett's) collection of proverbs and epigrams, 'Proverbs'. Heywood's collection is available today in revised edition as The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood. Other sources suggest 1562 or later publication dates, which refer to revised or re-printed editions of the original collection. Heywood was a favourite playwright of Henry VIII, and it is probably that his writings gained notoriety as a result. The English language was rather different in those days, so Heywood's version of the expression translates nowadays rather wordily as 'would ye both eat your cake and have your cake?'. This has been adapted over time to produce the more common modern versions: 'you can't have your cake and eat it (too)', and when referring to someone who is said to 'want their/your cake and eat it (too)'. Whether Heywood actually devised the expression or was the first to record it we shall never know. Etymologist Michael Quinion is one who implies that the main credit be given to Heywood, citing Heywood's work as the primary source. Quinion also mentions other subsequent uses of the expression by John Keats in 1816 and Franklin D Roosevelt in 1940, but by these times the expression could have been in popular use. The word cake was used readily in metaphors hundreds of years ago because it was a symbol of luxury and something to be valued; people had a simpler less extravagant existence back then.

cake walk, piece of cake/takes the cake/takes the biscuit/takes the bun - easy task/wins (the prize) - from the tradition of giving cakes as prizes in rural competitions, and probably of US origin. Brewer (1870) tells of the tradition in USA slavery states when slaves or free descendents would walk in a procession in pairs around a cake at a social gathering or party, the most graceful pair being awarded the cake as a prize. This also gave us the expression 'cake walk' and 'a piece of cake' both meaning a job or contest that's very easy to achieve or win, and probably (although some disagree) the variations 'take the biscuit' or 'take the bun', meaning to win (although nowadays in the case of 'takes the biscuit' is more just as likely to be an ironic expression of being the worst, or surpassing the lowest expectations). The variations of bun and biscuit probably reflect earlier meanings of these words when they described something closer to a cake. On which point, I am advised (ack P Nix) that the (typically) American version expression 'takes the cake' arguably precedes the (typically) British version of 'takes the biscuit'. Maybe, maybe not, since 'takes the biscuit' seems to have a British claim dating back to 1610 (see 'takes the biscuit'). This all raises further interesting questions about the different and changing meanings of words like biscuit and bun. Biscuit in America is a different thing to biscuit in Britain, the latter being equivalent to the American 'cookie'. Bun to many people in England is a simple bread roll or cob, but has many older associations to sweeter baked rolls and cakes (sticky bun, currant bun, iced bun, Chelsea bun, etc).

to call a spade a spade - to use simple language - the expression is not an ethnic slur, which instead is derived from 'black as the ace of spades', first appearing only in 1928. The expression 'to call a spade a spade' is much older, dating back to at least 423BC, when it appeared in Aristophanes' play The Clouds (he also wrote the play The Birds, in 414BC, which provided the source of the 'Cloud Cuckoo Land' expression). 'To call a spade a spade' can be traced back to the original Greek expression 'ta syka syka, ten skaphen de skaphen onomasein' - 'to call a fig a fig, a trough a trough' - which was a sexual allusion, in keeping with the original Greek meaning which was 'to use crude language'. At some stage between the 14th and 16th centuries the Greek word for trough 'skaphe:' was mis-translated within the expression into the Latin for spade - 'ligo' - (almost certainly because Greek for a 'digging tool' was 'skapheion' - the words 'skaphe:' and 'skapheion' have common roots, which is understandable since both are hollowed-out concave shapes). This crucial error was believed to have been committed by Desiderius Erasmus (Dutch humanist, 1466-1536), when translating work by Plutarch. The translation into the English 'spade' is believed to have happened in 1542 by Nicolas Udall when he translated Erasmus's Latin version of the expression. While the origin of the expression is not racial or 'non-politically-correct', the current usage, by association with the perceived meaning of 'spade', most certainly is potentially racially sensitive and potentially non-PC, just as other similarly non-politically correct expressions have come to be so, eg 'nitty-gritty', irrespective of their actual origins. (Developed from Mark Israel's notes on this subject.)

can of worms/open a can of worms - highly difficult situation presently unseen or kept under control or ignored/provoke debate about or expose a hitherto dormant potentially highly difficult situation - Partridge explains 'open a can of worms' as meaning 'to introduce an unsavoury subject into the conversation', and additionally 'to loose a perhaps insoluble complication of unwanted subjects' ('loose' in this sense is the verb meaning to unleash). Partridge suggests the origins of open a can of worms are Canadian, from c.1955, later adopted by the US c.1971, and used especially in political commentaries, as still applies today. The Canadian origins are said by Partridge to allude to a type of tin of worms typically purchased by week-end fishermen. The OED describes a can of worms as a 'complex and largely uninvestigated topic'. Can of worms is said by Partridge to have appeared in use after the fuller open a can of worms expression, and suggests Canadian use started c.1960, later adopted by the US by 1970. Interestingly Partridge refers to an expression 'open a tin' which apparently originated in the Royal Navy, meaning to start a quarrel, which clearly indicates that the metaphor in basic origins dates back earlier than the specific can of worms adaptation, which has since become perhaps the most widely used of all variations on this theme. Cassells suggests 1950s American origins for can of worms, and open a can of worms, and attributes a meanings respectively of 'an unpleasant, complex and unappetizing situation', and 'to unearth and display a situation that is bound to lead to trouble or to added and unwanted complexity'. Cassells also refers to a 1930s US expression 'open a keg of nails' meaning to get drunk on corn whisky, which although having only a tenuous association to the can of worms meanings, does serve to illustrate our natural use of this particular type of metaphor. Farther back in history the allusion to opening a container to unleash problems is best illustrated in by the 'Pandora's Box' expression from ancient Greek mythology, in which Pandora releases all the troubles of the world from a jar (or box, depending on the interpretation you read) which she was commanded by Zeus not to open. The North American origins of this particular expression might be due to the history and development of the tin canning industry: The origins of tin cans began in the early 1800s during the Anglo-French Napoleonic Wars, instigated by Napoleon Bonaparte (or more likely his advisors) when the French recognised the significant possibilities of being able to maintain fresh provisions for the French armies. The French solution was initially provided via glass jars. In response, the British then developed tin cans, which were tested and proven around 1814 in response to the French glass technology. Development and large scale production of tin cans then moved to America, along with many emigrating canning engineers and entrepreneurs, where the Gold Rush and the American Civil War fuelled demand for improved canning technology and production. The vast North American tin canning industry was built on these foundations, which has dominated the world in this sector ever since.

he's/she's a card - (reference to) an unusual or notable person - opinions are divided on this one - almost certainly 'card' in this sense is based on based on playing cards - meaning that a person is a tricky one ('card') to play (as if comparing the person to a good or difficult card in card games). According to Brewer (1867), who favours the above derivation, 'card' in a similar sense also appears in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which, according to Brewer, Osric tells Hamlet that Laertes is 'the card and calendar of gentry' and that this is a reference to the 'card of a compass' containing all the compass points, which one assumes would have been a removable dial within a compass instrument? Brewer explains that the full expression in common use at the time (mid-late 1900s) was 'card of the house', meaning a distinguished person. If the Shakespearian root is valid this meaning perhaps blended with and was subsequently further popularised by the playing card metaphor. Interestingly Brewer lists several other now obsolete expressions likening people and situations to cards. It's worth noting that playing cards were a very significant aspect of entertainment and amusement a few hundreds of years ago before TV and computers. Hence why so many expressions derive from their use. See below.

hold all the cards/play your cards right/hold your cards to your chest/card up your sleeve/put, lay your cards on the table - be in tactical control/make the right tactical moves/keep your tactics secret from your opponents/keep a good tactic in reserve/reveal your tactics or feelings - there are many very old variations and expressions based on the playing cards metaphors, and none can clearly be attributed to a particular source or origin. The origins of western style playing cards can be traced back to the 10th century, and it is logical to think that metaphors based on card playing games and tactics would have quite naturally evolved and developed into popular use along with the popularity of the playing cards games themselves, which have permeated most societies for the last thousand years, and certainly in a form that closely resembles modern playing cards for the past six hundred years. On which point, Brewer in 1870 cites a quote by Caesar Borgia XXIX "... The Vitello busied at Arezzo, the Orsini irritating the French; the war of Naples imminent, the cards are in my hands.." as an early usage of one particular example of the many 'cards' expressions, and while he does not state the work or the writer the quote seems to be attributed to Borgia. Caesar, or Cesare, Borgia, 1476-1507, was an infamous Italian - from Spanish roots - soldier, statesman, cardinal and murderer, brother of Lucrezia Borgia, and son of Pope Alexander VI.

Playing cards have fascinating and less than clear histories and meanings in themselves, for which Brewer's 1870 provides an interesting and (in my view) largely reliable explanation: In Spain's early (medieval) playing cards , spades were columbines (a plant whose flower resembles five clustered bird-like symbols, usually associated with doves or pigeons - the pointed spade shape resembles a single petal), later changing (by 1800s) to swords (espados in Spanish - meaning sword - not spade in case you are wondering); clubs were rabbits later changing to cudgels (bastos in Spanish, meaning a stick-like club); diamonds were pinks (relating to the flowers, so called because of their notched petal edges, as if cut with pinking shears - associated with the sharpness of the diamond shape - the same root that gave us punch and pungent and puncture) later changing to dineros (square money pieces); and hearts were roses later to be chalices (cups). In early (medieval) France, spades were piques (pikemen or foot soldiers); clubs were trèfle (clover or 'husbandmen'); diamonds were carreaux (building tiles or artisans); and hearts, which according to modern incorrect Brewer interpretation were coeur, ie., hearts, were actually, according to my 1870 Brewer reprint, 'choeur (choir-men or ecclesiastics)', which later changed to what we know now as hearts. Here's where it gets really interesting: Brewer says that the English spades (contrary to most people's assumption that the word simply relates to a spade or shovel tool) instead developed from the French form of a pike (ie., the shape is based on a pike), and the Spanish name for the Spanish card 'swords' (espados). Clubs is from the French trèfle shape (meaning trefoil, a three leafed plant) and the Spanish name bastos translated to mean clubs. Hearts, says Brewer is a corruption of choeur (choir-men) into couers, ie., hearts.

Brewer's view is that playing cards were developed from an Indian game called 'The Four Rajahs', which is consistent with the belief that the roots of playing cards were Asian. In The Four Rajahs game the playing pieces were the King; the General (referred to as 'fierche'); the Elephant ('phil'); the Horsemen; the Camel ('ruch'); and the Infantry (all of which has clear parallels with modern chess). Brewer asserts that the French corrupted, (or more likely misinterpreted) the word 'fierche' (for general, ie., second in command to the King) to mean 'vierge', and then converted 'virgin' into 'dame', which was the equivalent to Queen in Brewer's time. Similarly Brewer says that the Elephant, 'phil' (presumably the third most powerful piece), was converted into 'fol' or 'fou', meaning Knave, equivalent to the 'Jack'. Incidentally Brewer also suggests that the Camel, 'ruch', became what is now the Rook in chess. It seems (according to Brewer) that playing cards were originally called 'the Books of the Four Kings', while chess was known as 'the Game of the Four Kings'. Brewer also cites a reference to a certain Jacquemin Gringonneur having "painted and guilded three packs (of cards) for the King (Charles VI, father of Charles VII mentioned above) in 1392."

As for the 'court' cards, so called because of their heraldic devices, debate continues as to the real identity of the characters and the extent to which French characters are reflected in English cards. Prepare to be confused.....

Brewer, 1870, provides a useful analysis which is summarised and expanded here: In English playing cards, the King of Clubs originally represented the Arms of the Pope; King of Spades was the King of France; King of Diamonds was the King of Spain, and the King of Hearts was the King of England. In French playing cards (which certainly pre-dated English interpretations) the kings were: Spades - David (the biblical king); Clubs - Alexander (the Great); Diamonds - Caesar (Julius, Roman Emperor); and Hearts - Charles (sic - meaning Charles the Great, ie., Charlemagne, King of the Franks, 747-814, which Brewer clarifies elsewhere) - together representing the Jewish, Greek, Roman and Frankish empires. Brewer also suggests that French Queen cards were 'Argine' (probably a reference to mythology or an anagram of regina, meaning queen - no-one seems to know), anyway Brewer's suggested queens are: Hearts - Juno (sister and wife of Zeus); Clubs - Judith (Jewish heroine of the Bible Old Testament, or some say Judith of Bavaria, whoever she was...); Diamonds - Rachel (of the Bible), and Spades - Pallas (Athena/Athene, daughter of Zeus - Brewer refers elsewhere to Pallas being Minerva, the Roman equivalent). These four Queens according to Brewer represented royalty, fortitude, piety and wisdom. Brewer concludes his summary with suggestions as to the real French queens on whose likenesses the Queen cards were based: Hearts - Mary D'Anjou, Queen of Charles VII; Clubs - Isabeau the Queen-mother (Isabeau of Bavaria , c.1369-1435, queen to Charles VI and mother of Charles VII); Diamonds - Agnes Sorel (c.1422-1450, mistress of Charles VII, whom other commentators suggest used the name Rachel in court, which might be nonsense since the role of mistress was in those days effectively an official one and therefore unlikely to require use of a pseudonym); and Spades - Joan d'Arc (sic - Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d'Arc in French, c.1412-31). Not surprisingly all of these characters lived at the same time, the early 1400s, which logically indicates when playing cards were first popularly established in the form we would recognise today, although obviously the King characters, with the exception of possible confusion between Charlemagne and Charles VII of France, pre-date the period concerned. I did say this particular slice of history is less than clear. Nevertheless, by way of summary, here is Brewer's take on things:

Brewer's suggested French origins spades diamonds clubs hearts
kings King David (of the Jews - biblical) Julius Caesar Alexander the Great Charles (Charlemagne of the Franks)
queens/dames Pallas (Minerva, ie., Athena) Rachel (probably the biblical Rachel) Judith (probably the biblical Judith) Juno (Greek goddess wife and sister of Zeus)
queen images supposedly Joan of Arc (c.1412-31) Agnes Sorel (c.1422-1450) mistress of Charles VII of France Isabeau of Bavaria (c.1369-1435) queen to Charles VI and mother of Charles VII Mary D'Anjou (1404-1463) Queen of Charles VII

If you weren't confused enough already, more recent French cards actually show the names of the characters on the cards (which I suspect has kept this whole debate rolling), and these names reveal some inconsistencies with Brewer's otherwise mostly cohesive analysis, not least in the Queens department, namely: Queen of Hearts is Judith (Juno does not appear); and Queen of Clubs is 'Argine' instead of Judith (whoever Argine is; again, no-one seems to know, save suggestions that it's an anagram of regina, meaning queen, or could be something to do with Argos. Predictably there is much debate also as to the identities of the Jacks or Knaves, which appear now on the cards but of which Brewer made no comment. Anyway, La Hire was a French warrior and apparently companion to Joan of Arc. Lancelot - easy - fully paid-up knight of the round table. Hector - of Troy, or maybe brother of Lancelot. Hogier - possibly Ogier the Dane. If you have more information on this matter (it is a can of worms if ever I saw one) then I would be delighted to receive it.

French actual recent cards spades diamonds clubs hearts
kings David Cesar Alexandre Charles
queens/dames Pallas Rachel Argine Judith
jacks/knaves Hogier Hector Lancelot LaHire

Finally, a few other points of interest about playing cards origins:

The reason why the Ace of Spades in Anglo-American playing cards has a large and ornate design dates back to the 1500s, when the English monarchy first began to tax the increasingly popular playing cards to raise extra revenues. The practice of stamping the Ace of Spades, probably because it was the top card in the pack, with the official mark of the relevant tax office to show that duty had been paid became normal in the 1700s. During the early 1800s, when duty per pack was an incredible two shillings and sixpence (half-a-crown - equivalent to one eigth of a pound - see the money expressions and history page), the the card makers were not permitted to make the Ace of Spades cards - instead they were printed by the tax office stamp-makers.

carnival - festival of merrymaking - appeared in English first around 1549, originating from the Italian religious term 'carnevale', and earlier 'carnelevale' old Pisan and Milanese, meaning the last three days before Lent, when no meat would be eaten, derived literally from the meaning 'lifting up or off' (levare) and 'meat' or 'flesh' (carne), earlier from Latin 'carnem' and 'levare'. Chambers and OED are clear in showing the earlier Latin full form of 'carnem levare', from medieval Latin 'carnelevarium', and that the derivation of the 'val' element is 'putting away' or 'removing', and not 'saying farewell, as some suggest. OED in fact states that the connection with Latin 'vale', as if saying 'farewell to flesh' is due to 'popular' (misundertood) etymology.

carte-blanche - full discretionary power, freedom or permission to do anything - from the original French term adopted into English, meaning a signed blank cheque for which the recipient decided the amount to be given, the translation meaning literally blank paper.

cat-call - derisory or impatient call or cry or whistle, particularly directed by audience members or onlookers at a performer or speaker - 1870 Brewer explains that 'cat-call' originated from whistles or 'hideous noise' made by an audience at a theatre to express displeasure or impatience. 'Like the call or waul of a cat'.

cat and fiddle - common pub name - while appearing in the famous nursery rhyme, the phrase came originally from 'Caton le fidele' (Caton the faithful) governor of Calais, France.

cat got your tongue? - why are you not talking?/have you nothing to say? - there is no generally agreed origin among etymologists for this, although there does seem to be a broad view that the expression came into popular use in the 1800s, and first appeared in print in 1911. In my view the most logical explanation is that it relates to the 'cat-o-nine-tails' whip used in olden days maritime punishments, in which it is easy to imagine that the victim would be rendered incapable of speech or insolence. A less likely, but no less dramatic suggested origin, is that it comes from the supposed ancient traditional middle-eastern practice of removing the tongues of liars and feeding them to cats.

cat's paw - a person used by another for an unpleasant or distasteful task - from the fable of unknown origin in which a monkey uses the cat's paw to retrieve hot roasted chestnuts from the fire.

let the cat out of the bag - give away a secret - a country folk deception was to substitute cat for a suckling pig in a bag for sale at market; if the bag was opened the trick was revealed. See also 'pig in a poke'. Additionally this expression might have been reinforced (ack G Taylor) by the maritime use of the 'cat 'o' nine tails' (a type of whip) which was kept in a velvet bag on board ship and only brought out to punish someone.

a cat may look on a king/a cat may look at a king/a cat may laugh at a queen - humble people are entitled to have and to express opinions about supposedly 'superior' people. In other words; a person's status or arrogance cannot actually control the opinions held about them by other people of supposedly lower standing - the version 'a cat may look at a king' is used in this sense when said by Alice, in Lewis Carroll's 1865 book 'Alice's Adventures In Wonderland'. The different variations of this very old proverb are based on the first version, which is first referenced by John Heywood in his 1546 book, Proverbs. The origin is unknown, but it remains a superb example of how effective proverbs can be in conveying quite complex meanings using very few words. is usually that no-one is actually above criticism, or immune from having fun poked at them by 'lesser' people for behaving inappropriately, irrespective of their status. The more modern expression 'a cat may laugh at a queen' seems to be a more aggressive adaptation of the original medieval proverb 'a cat may look on a king', extending the original meaning, ie., not only have humble people the right to opinions about their superiors, they also have the right to poke fun at them.

catch-22 - an impossible problem in which the solution effectively cancels itself out - although often mis-used to mean any difficult problem, this originally came from Joseph Heller's book of the same title about a reluctant American wartime pilot for whom the only living alternative to continuing in service was to be certified mad; the 'catch-22' was that the act of applying for certification was deemed to be the act of a perfectly sane man.

caught red-handed - caught in the act of doing something wrong, or immediately afterwards with evidence showing, so that denial is pointless - the expression 'caught red-handed' has kept a consistent meaning for well over a hundred years (Brewer lists it in his 1870 dictionary). It's based simply on the metaphor of a murderer being caught with blood still on his/her hands, and therefore would date back to the days even before guns, when to kill another person would have involved the use of a direct-contact weapon like a dagger or club. The red-handed image is straightforward enough to have evolved from common speech, that is to say, there's unlikely to have been one single quote that originated the expression.

charisma - personal magnetism, charm, presence - The roots of charisma are religious, entering English in the mid-1600s via ecclesiastical (of the church) Latin from (according to the OED) the Greek kharisma, from kharis, meaning 'grace' or 'favour' (US favor) - a favour or grace or gift given by God. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology varies slightly with the OED in suggesting that charisma replaced the earlier English spelling charism (first recorded before 1641) around 1875. The preference of the 1953 Shorter OED for the words charism and charismata (plural) suggests that popular use of charisma came much later than 1875. Chambers says the Greek root words are charisma and charizesthai (to show favour), from charis (favour, grace) and related to chairein, meaning rejoice. According to Chambers again, the adjective charismatic appeared in English around 1882-83, from the Greek charismata, meaning favours given (by God). Charisma, which probably grew from charismatic, which grew from charismata, had largely shaken its religious associations by the mid 1900s, and evolved its non-religious meaning of personal magnetism by the 1960s. More detail about the origins and interpretations of charisma is on the charisma webpage.

charlie - foolish person, (usage typically 'he's a right charlie' or 'a proper charlie') - the use of charlie to mean a foolish person is from the cockney rhyming slang expression Charlie Smirke (= Berk, which in turn is earlier rhyming slang Berkley Hunt for the unmentionable - think about tht next time you call someone a charlie or a berk...). The original Charlie whose name provided the origin for this rhyming slang is Charlie Smirke, the English jockey. Charlie Smirke was a leading rider and racing celebrity from the 1930s-50s, notably winning the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park in 1935 on Windsor Lad, and again in 1952 on the Aga Khan's horse Tulyar (second place was the teenage Lester Piggott on Gay Time). See more cockney rhyming slang expressions, meanings and origins at the cockney rhyming slang section.

chav - vulgar anti-social person, male or female, usually young - this recently popular slang word (late 1990s and 2000s) has given rise to a mischievous and entirely retrospective 'bacronym' - Council Housed (or Housing) And Violent. While the reverse acronym interpretation reflects much of society's view of these people's defining characteristics, the actual origin of the modern chav slang word is likely to be the slang word chavy (with variations chavey, chavvie, chavvy, chavi, chavo, according to Cassells and Partridge) from the mid-1800s Parlyaree or Polari (mixed European 'street' or 'under-class' slang language) and/or Romany gypsy slang, meaning a child. Later in the 1800s the word chavi or chavo, etc., was extended to refer to a man, much like 'mate' or 'cock' is used, or 'buddy' in more sensitive circles, in referring to a casual acquaintance. This old usage was not then necessarily insulting, unlike the modern meaning of chav, which most certainly is. The suggestion that chav is a shortening of Chatham, based on the alleged demographic of the Medway town in Kent, is not supported by any reliable etymology, but as with other myths of slang origins, the story might easily have reinforced popular usage, especially among people having a dim view of the Medway towns. In the North-East of England (according to Cassells) the modern variants are charva and charver, which adds no credibility to the Chatham myth. Separately I am informed (thanks N Johansen) that among certain folk in the area of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, CHAV is said to be an abbreviation of 'Cheltenham Average', a term supposedly coined by girls of the up-market Cheltenham Ladies College when referring to young men of the lower-market Cheltenham council housing estates. Additionally (thanks N Waterman) some say chav derives from a supposed expression 'child of navvy' (navvy now slang for a road-mending/building labourer, originally a shortening of 'navigational engineer', a labourer working on canal construction), although qualified etymology has yet to surface which supports this notion. Please send me any other theories and local interpretations of the word chav.

(she was/they were) all over him like a cheap suit - the expression 'all over him like a cheap suit' normally (and probably originally) refers to a woman being publicly and clingy/seductive/physical/possessive towards a man, where the man does not necessarily desire the attention, and/or where such attention is inappropriate and considered overly physical/intimate/oppressive. The allusion is to the clingy and obvious nature of a cheap suit, likely of a tacky/loud/garish/ tasteless design. The expression is increasingly used more widely in referring to a situation where substantial (either unwanted or negatively viewed) attention or pressure is being experienced by a person, usually by a man, perhaps from interviewers, photographers, followers, or perhaps investigators. In the case of adulation there may also a suggestion of toadiness or sycophancy (creepy servitude). The expression is relatively recent - probably late 20th century - and is an extension of the older expression from the 1950s, simply being 'all over' someone, again referring to fawning/intimate and/or physical attention, usually in a tacky or unwanted way. This is an adaptation of the earlier (1920s) expression to be 'all over' something or someone meaning to be obsessed or absorbed by (something, someone, even oneself). A similar expression to the 'cheap suit' metaphor is 'all over him/her like a rash' which is flexible in terms of gender, and again likens personal attention to something obviously 'on' the victim, like a suit or a rash. I'm keen to discover the earliest use of the 'cheap suit' expression - please tell me if you recall its use prior to 1990, or better still can suggest a significant famous early quoted example which might have established it.

checkmate - the final winning move in a game of chess when the king is beaten, also meaning any winning move against an opponent - originally from the Persian (now Iran) 'shah mat' literally meaning 'the king is astonished', but mistranslated into Arabic 'shah mat', to give the meaning 'the king died', which later became Old French 'eschecmat' prior to the expression entering the English language in the early 14th century as 'chekmat', and then to 'checkmate'.

Chinese fire drill - chaotic situation, especially one involving a group's incompetence in carrying out instructions or a plan (more recently the term also describes a student prank where a car-full of students stops at red traffic lights, all occupants leap out, run around the car, return to their seats and drive off as the lights turn green) - Usage of this wonderful expression in either situation now seems confined to USA; although it is supposed to have UK origins, and various sources state it being in use on both sides of the Atlantic after World War 1. The expression 'Chinese fire drill' supposedly derives from a true naval incident in the early 1900s involving a British ship, with Chinese crew: instructions were given by the British officers to practice a fire drill where crew members on the starboard side had to draw up water, run with it to engine room, douse the 'fire', at which other crew members (to prevent flooding) would pump out the spent water, carry it away and throw it over the port side. After initially going to plan, fuelled by frantic enthusiasm as one side tried to keep pace with the other, the drill descended into chaos, ending with all crew members drawing up water from the starboard side, running with it across the ship, entirely by-passing the engine room, and throwing the un-used water straight over the port side. It's certainly an amusing metaphor, if these days an extremely politically incorrect one. It's akin to other images alluding to the confusion and inconsistency that Westerners historically associated with Chinese language and culture, much dating back to the 1st World War. Other expressions exploiting the word 'Chinese' to convey confusing or erratic qualities: Chinese whispers (confused messages), Chinese ace (inept pilot), and Chinese puzzle (a puzzle without a solution); 'Chinese fire drill' is very much part of this genre.

a chip off the old block - a small version of the original - was until recently 'of' rather than 'off', and dates back to 270 BC when Greek poet Theocrites used the expression 'a chip of the old flint' in the poem 'Idylls'.

christmas crackers/christmas crackered - knackers/knackered, i.e., testicles/worn out or broken or exhausted - rhyming slang from the 1970s - rhymes with knackers or knackered, from the old word knacker for a horse slaughterer, which actually was originally not a rude word at all but a very old and skilful trade. Alternative rhyming slang are cream crackers and cream crackered, which gave rise to the expression 'creamed', meaning exhausted or beaten. See knackers.

ciao - Italian greeting or farewell, and common English colloquialism meaning 'goodbye' - pronounced 'chow', is derived from Italian words 'schiavo vosotro' meaning 'I am your slave'.

clap-trap - nonsense - original description was for something introduced into a theatrical performance or speech simply to prompt applause.

close but no cigar - narrowly failing to get something right or win - from early USA slot machines which used to give a cigar as a prize.

cleave - split apart or stick/adhere - a fascinating word in that it occurs in two separate forms, with different origins, with virtually opposite meanings; cleave: split or break apart, and cleave: stick or adhere. The words are the same now but they have different origins. Cleave (split) derives from Old English, Saxon and Old German cleofan and klioban c.AD900. Cleave (stick) derives from Old English and Old German cleofian, clifian and kleben AD900 and earlier. In modern German the two words are very similar - klieben to split and kleben to stick, so the opposites-but-same thing almost works in the German language too, just like English, after over a thousand years of language evolution. Fascinating. (Thanks Paul Merison)

clean someone's clock/clean the clock/clean your clock - beat up, destroy, or wipe out financially, esp. via competitive gambling - Cassell's explains this to be 1940s first recorded in the US, with the later financial meaning appearing in the 1980s. A specific but perhaps not exclusive origin refers to US railroad slang 'clean the clock' meaning to apply the airbrakes and stop the train quickly, by which the air gauge (the clock) shows zero and is thus 'cleaned'. Extending this explanation, clock has long been slang meaning a person's face and to hit someone in the face, logically from the metaphor of a clock-face and especially the classical image of a grandfather clock. The word clean has other slang meanings in the sense of personal or material loss or defeat, for example, clean up, clean out, and simply the word clean. While these clock and clean meanings are not origins in themsleves of the 'clean the/his/your clock' expression they probably encouraged the term's natural adoption and use.

clerk - a office worker involved in basic administration - the word clerk, and the words cleric/clerical, evolved from the religious term clergy, which once referred to very senior figures of authority in the Christian church; the most educated and literate officials and leaders, rather than the more general official collective term of today. When the clergy/cleric/clerk terms first appeared in 13-14th century France (notably clergié and clergé, from medieval Latin clericatus, meaning learning) and later became adopted into English, probably the most significant and differentiating organizational/workplace capability was that of reading and writing. Not many people had such skills. Clergy and clerics and clerks were therefore among the most able and highly respected and valued of all 'workers'. It is fascinating, and highly relevant in today's fast-changing world, how the role of clerk/cleric has become 'demoted' nowadays into a far more 'ordinary' workplace title, positioned at the opposite 'lower end' within the typical organizational hierarchy. We can wonder what modern workplace/organizational roles will see similar shift over time, as today's specialisms become tomorrow's very ordinary capabilities possessed by everyone.

living in cloud cuckoo land - being unrealistic or in a fantasy state - from the Greek word 'nephelococcygia' meaning 'cloud' and 'cuckoo', used by Aristophanes in his play The Birds, 414 BC, in which he likened Athens to a city built in the clouds by birds.

cliche/cliché - technically the word is spelt with an accent acute above the e (denoting an 'a' sound as in pronunciation of the word 'hay'), but increasingly in English the accent is now omitted. Cliché came into English from French in or before 1832 when it was first recorded in work referring to manufacturing, specifically referring to French 'cliché' stereotype (technically stéréotype - a French printing term), which was a printing plate cast from a mold. In French the word cliché probably derived from the sound of the 'clicking'/striking of melted lead to produce the casting. Cliché was the French past tense of the verb clicher, derived in turn from Old French cliquer, to click. The modern sense of the word cliché in English meaning a widely used expression is therefore metaphorical - alluding to the printing plate and the related sense of replication. Interestingly the evolution of this meaning followed the adoption of the word stereotype, which by around 1850 in English had similar meaning to cliché, in the sense of referring to a fixed expression. See also stereotype. (Thanks to F Tims for raising this one.)

cloud nine/on cloud nine - extreme happiness or euphoria/being in a state of extreme happiness, not necessarily but potentially due drugs or alcohol - cloud seven is another variation, but cloud nine tends to be the most popular. London meteorologist Luke Howard set up the first widely accepted cloud name and classification system, which was published in 1803. The system is essentially still in use today, albeit increased from Howard's original seven-cloud structure. It is said that when the World Meteorological Organisation added the ninth cloud type (cumulonimbus - the towering thundercloud) to the structure in 1896 this gave rise to the expression 'on cloud nine', although etymology sources suggest the expression appeared much later, in the 1960s (Cassells). The allusions to floating on air and 'being high' of course fit the cloud metaphor and would have made the expression naturally very appealing, especially in the context of drugs and alcohol. Cumulonimbus is not the highest cloud as some explanations suggest; the metaphor more likely caught on because of superstitious and spiritual associations with the number nine (as with cloud seven), the dramatic appearance and apparent great height of cumulonimbus clouds, and that for a time cloud nine was the highest on the scale, if not in the sky. See for fun and more weather curiosities the weather quiz on this website.

clue - signal, hint, suggestion or possibility which helps reveal an answer or solution to a problem or puzzle - fascinatingly, the word clue derives from the ancient Greek legend of the hero Theseus using a ball of magic thread - a clew - to find his way out of the Cretan Labyrinth (maze) after killing the Minotaur. Clew/clue meaning a ball of thread is a very old word, appearing as clew around 1250, from Old English cliewen, about 750AD, earlier kleuwin, related to Old High German kliuwa meaning ball, from Sanskrit glaus and Indo-European gleu, glou and glu - all referring to ball or a round lump. The use of the word clue - as a metaphor based on the ball of thread/maze story - referring to solving a mystery is first recorded in 1628, and earlier as clew in 1386, in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. Up until the 1600s, when someone used the word clue to mean solving a puzzle, the meaning was literally 'ball of thread', and it is only in more recent times that this converted into its modern sense, in which the original metaphor and 'ball of thread' meaning no longer exist.

coach - tutor, mentor, teacher, trainer - originally university slang based on the metaphor that to get on quickly you would ride on a coach, (then a horse-drawn coach), and (Chambers suggests) would require the help of a coachman. The word was first recorded in the sense of a private tutor in 1848, and in the sense of an athletics coach in 1861. Brewer's 1870 dictionary contains the following interesting comments: "Coach - A private tutor - the term is a pun on getting on fast. To get on fast you take a coach - you cannot get on fast without a private tutor, ergo, a private tutor is the coach you take in order that you get on quickly (university slang)." Today we do not think of a coach as a particularly speedy vehicle, so the metaphor (Brewer says pun) seems strange, but in the 1800s a horse-drawn coach was the fastest means of transport available, other than falling from the top of a very high building or cliff.

cobblers - nonsense (from 'a load of balls', meaning testicles) - see cockney rhyming slang. See also knackers.

cock and bull story - a false account or tall tale - from old English 'a concocted and bully story'; 'concocted' was commonly shortened to 'cock', and 'bully' meant 'exaggerated' (leading to bull-rush and bull-frog; probably from 'bullen', Danish for exaggerated); also the old London Road at Stony Stratford near Northampton, England has two old inns next to each other, called The Cock and The Bull; travellers' stories were said to have been picked up on the way at the Cock and Bull. Another source is the mythological fables of Nergal and Osiris; 'Nergal' the ancient Persian idol means 'dung-hill cock; 'Osiris' was an Egyptian Bull.

knocked into a cocked hat - beaten or rendered useless or shapeless - a cocked hat was a three-pointed (front, crown and back) hat worn by a bishop or certain military ranks - cocked meant turned up. In the traditional English game of nine-pins (the pins were like skittles, of the sort that led to the development of tenpin bowling), when the pins were knocked over leaving a triangular formation of three standing pins, the set was described as having been knocked into a cocked hat. 19th C and probably earlier. (1870 Brewer)

codec - digital/analogue electronic conversion device - from source words COder-DECoder. (Ack DH)

codswallop/cod's wallop - nonsense - Partridge suggests cod's wallop (or more modernly codswallop) has since the 1930s related to 'cobblers' meaning balls (see cockney rhyming slang: cobblers awls = balls), in the same way that bollocks (and all other slang for testicles) means nonsense. The fact that cod means scrotum, cods is also slang for testicles, and wallop loosely rhymes with 'ballocks' (an earlier variation of bollocks) are references that strengthen this theory, according to Partridge. Cassell suggests instead that the expression first came into use in the 1960s, with help possibly from the fact that wallop had an earlier meaning 'to chatter'. There is no doubt that the euphony (the expression simply sounds good and rolls off the tongue nicely) would have increased the appeal and adoption of the term.

coin a phrase, or coin an expression - as with many very well used and old expressions, the views of etymologists and dictionaries vary about this, some even suggesting the 'coin a phrase' term didn't appear until the 1940s, which I simply can't believe. I'm inclined to go with Chambers, who say that the term is very old indeed, and (they say) first recorded in 1589 (no source unfortunately). If there was a single person to use it first, or coin it, this isn't known - in my view it's likely the expression simply developed naturally over time from the specific sense of minting or making a coin, via the general sense of fabricating anything. In terms of the word itself it's from the Old French word coin (ironically spelt just the same as the modern English version), from which initially the Middle English verb coinen, meaning to mint or make money came in around 1338. Some time between then and late 16th century the term in noun and verb forms (coinage and coinen) grew to apply to things other than money, so that the metaphorical development applying to originating words and phrases then followed. The metaphor is obviously very apt because of the sense of originating something which repeats or replicates exactly, just like coins. In common with very many other expressions, it's likely that this one too became strengthened because Shakespeare used it: 'coinage' in the metaphorical sense of something made, in Hamlet, 1602, Act III Scene III: HAMLET Why, look you there! look, how it steals away! My father, in his habit as he lived! Look, where he goes, even now, out at the portal! [Exit Ghost] QUEEN GERTRUDE This the very coinage of your brain: This bodiless creation ecstasy Is very cunning in. HAMLET Ecstasy!

cold turkey - see turkey/cold turkey/talk turkey.

condom - birth control sheath - a scientific approach to birth control is not a recent practice; Latin writer Pliny the Elder advocated the use of sticky cedar gum as early as the 1st century, and the Romans were using sheaths of various descriptions before then. The Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio (yes, he was first to describe the function of the fallopian tubes) designed the first medicated linen sheath in the mid 16th century. The condom however takes its name from the Earl of Condom, personal physician to Charles II, who recommended its use to the king as a precaution against syphilis in the second half of the 17th century.

cook the books - falsify business accounts - according to 18th century Brewer, 'cook the books' originally appeared as the past tense 'the books have been cooked' in a report (he didn't name the writer unfortunately) referring to the conduct George Hudson (1700-71), 'the railway king', under whose chairmanship the accounts of Eastern Counties Railways were falsified. Brewer says then (1870) that the term specifically describes the tampering of ledger and other trade books in order to show a balance in favour of the bankrupt. Brewer also says the allusion is to preparing meat for the table. These days the term has a wider meaning, extending to any kind of creative accounting. Historical records bear this out, and date the first recorded use quite accurately: Hudson made a fortune speculating in railway shares, and then in 1845, which began the period 1845-47 known as 'railway mania' in Britain, he was exposed as a fraudster and sent to jail. Other cliche references suggest earlier usage, even 17th century, but there appears to be no real evidence of this. There is an argument for Brewer being generally pretty reliable when it comes to first recorded/published use, because simply he lived far closer to the date of origin than reference writers of today. If you read Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable you'll see it does have an extremely credible and prudent style. The word 'book' incidentally comes from old German 'buche' for beech wood, the bark of which was used in Europe before paper became readily available. The verb 'cook' is from Latin 'coquere'.

cookie - biscuit, and various crude meanings - the slang meanings of cookie attracted particular interest in 2007 when production staff of BBC TV children's show Blue Peter distorted the results of a viewer's phone-in vote to decide the name of the show's new cat, apparently because Cookie, the top-polling name, was considered 'unsuitable'. The name 'Socks' was instead pronounced the winner, and the cat duly named. When the scandal was exposed during the 2007 phone-voting premium-line media frenzy, which resulted in several resignations among culpable and/or sacrificial managers in the guilty organizations, the Blue Peter show drafted in an additional cat to join Socks and take on the Cookie mantle. For the record, cookie can refer to female or male gentalia, a prostitute, the passive or effeminate role in a homosexual relationship, cocaine, a drug addict, a black person who espouses white values to the detriment of their own, a lump of expelled phlegm, and of course a cook and a computer file (neither of which were at the root of the Blue Peter concern). The terms 'cookie crashing' (related to breasts and intercourse - use your imagination), 'cookie duster' (moustache), and 'cookie crumbs' (Bill Clinton's undoing) extend the the sexual connotations into even more salacious territory. The irony is of course that no-one would have been any the wiser about these meanings had the Blue Peter management not sought to protect us all.

cop/copper - policeman - Some suggest this is an acronym from 'Constable On Patrol' but this is a retrospectively applied explanation. Cop (which came before Copper) mainly derives from the 1500s English word 'cap', meaning to seize, from Middle French 'caper' for the same word, and probably linked also to Scicilian and Latin 'capere' meaning to capture. The full form Copper is partly derived and usage reinforced via the metallic copper badges worn by early New York police sergeants. Incidentally the patrolmen had brass badges and the captains silver ones.

couth/uncouth - these words are very interesting because while the word uncouth (meaning crude) is in popular use, its positive and originating opposite 'couth' is not popularly used. Many people think it is no longer a 'proper' word, or don't know that the word 'couth' ever existed at all. In fact 'couth' is still a perfectly legitimate word, although it's not been in common English use since the 1700s, and was listed in the 1922 OED (Oxford English Dictionary) as a Scottish word. The modern OED lists 'couth' as a 'humorous' word, meaning cultured or refined, and a 'back formation from the word 'uncouth' meaning crude, which by the 1500s had become a more popularly used meaning of uncouth. This 'back formation' (according to OED and Chambers Etymology Dictionary) applies to the recent meanings, not the word's origins. Originally, about 1300 years ago 'couth' meant familiar or known. It was derived from the past participle of the old English word cunnan, to know. Uncouth meant the opposite (i.e., unknown or unfamiliar), derived from the word couth. An old version of uncouth, 'uncuth', meaning unfamiliar, is in Beowulf, the significant old English text of c.725AD. The original meanings of couth/uncouth ('known/unknown and 'familiar/unfamiliar') altered over the next 500 years so that by the 1500s couth/uncouth referred to courteous and well-mannered (couth) and crude and clumsy (uncouth). At some stage in this process the words became much rarer in English. Their usage was preserved in Scottish, which enabled the 'back formation' of uncouth into common English use of today. Sadly during the 1800s and 1900s couth lost its popularity, and its status as an 'official' word according to some dictionaries. Technically couth remains a proper word, meaning cultured/refined, but it is not used with great confidence or conviction for the reasons given above. Ironically much of this usage is as a substitute for the word uncouth, for example in referring to crudity/rudeness/impoliteness as "not very couth", and similar variations.

send to Coventry/sent to Coventry/send someone to Coventry - cease communications with, ignore or ostracize someone, or to be ignored or ostracized, especially by a work or social group - this is a British expression said to date back to the mid-1600s; it also occurred as 'put someone in Coventry' during the 1800s. Popular legend suggests that the 'sent to Coventry' expression's origins are from the English Civil War conflicts (1642-51), notably because the phrase appears in the Historical Narrative of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, written in 1647 by Lord Clarendon (probably Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, and royalist supporter, 1609-1674), which features the lines: "...At Bromigham (now Birmingham) a town so so generally wicked that it had risen upon small parties of the King's and killed them or taken them prisoners and sent them to Coventry..." Reference sources (e.g., Allen's English Phrases) interpret this to mean that the people of Coventry, (close to Birmingham in the English West Midlands) being loyal to the Parliamentarians and therefore anti-loyalist, would treat the loyalist followers of the King (who were literally sent to Coventry in exile or as captives) with disdain and have nothing to do with them. Brewer's 1870 dictionary takes a slightly different view. His interpretation of the English Civil War origin refers to Hutton's History of Birmingham as supporting the Civil War theory, however Brewer actually prefers a different theory, which he references to 'Messrs Chambers Cyclopedia', whereby Coventry people at one time (he is not specific) strongly resented the presence of soldiers garrisoned at their town, and especially disliked their women-folk associating with the soldiers (not an uncommon reaction among certain townsfolk - usually fathers and mothers of eager daughters - at garrison towns everywhere). According to the Brewer explanation, any Coventry woman who so much spoke to a soldier was 'tabooed'. Seemingly this had the effect of cutting off the garrison from the town, and ostracizing the soldiers. Thus when a soldier was sent to Coventry he was effectively denied access to any 'social intercourse' as Brewer put it. Incidentally Brewer's explanation of the meaning is just as delightful, as so often the terminology from many years ago can be: "Coventry. To send one to Coventry. To take no notice of him; to let him live and move and have his being with you, but pay no more heed to him than the idle winds which you regard not..." Isn't that beautiful - it's poetic, and yet it's from an old dictionary. (sources: Allen's English Phrases, and Brewer's 1870 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.)

creole - a person of mixed European and black descent, although substantial ethinic variations exist; creole also describes many cultural aspects of the people concerned - there are many forms of the word creole around the world, for example creolo, créole, criol, crioulo, criollo, kreol, kreyol, krio, kriolu, kriol, kriulo, and geographical/ethnic interpretations of meaning too. The orginal usage stems from the French créole, from Portuguese crioulo, related the Portuguese verb criar, to raise, from Latin creare, meaning produce. Creole seems initially to have come into use in the 15th century in the trade/military bases posts established by Portugal in West Africa and Cape Verde, where the word referred to descendants of the Portuguese settlers who were born and 'raised' locally. The word then spread to and through the use of other languages, notably Spanish, and via English, particularly through the expanding slave trade, where peoples and languages moved from Africa to the Americas, and people of black descent and locals raised mixed race families. Creole is a fascinating word because it illustrates a number of global effects way before 'globalization' as we know it today; notably societal and cultural change on a massive scale, greater than anything produced by more recent economic 'globalization'; also how language and meaning, here significantly characterizing people and culture, develops and alters on a vast scale, proving again that dictionaries merely reflect language and meaning, they do not dictate or govern it.

cried all the way to the bank - financially successful despite apparent problems - a frequent quote by the pianist entertainer Liberace from 1950s and 60s, in response to questions about hostility he experienced from critics.

cul-de-sac - dead-end street, a road closed at one end/blind alley (figurative and literal) - this widely used English street sign and term is from the French, meaning the same, from cul (bottom or base) and sac (sack or bag). It's literal translation is therefore bottom of sack. Cul-de-sac meaning a closed street or blind alley was first recorded in English c.1738 (Chambers), and first recorded around 1800 as meaning blind alley or dead-end in the metaphorical sense of an option or a course of action whose progress is halted or terminally frustrated. Incidentally, calling someone a 'cul' in French equates to the insulting English term 'arse', since cul also means the bottom or backside of a person. I am informed also (ack S Shipley) that cul de sac is regarded as a somewhat vulgar expression by the French when they see it on British street signs; the French use instead the term 'impasse' on their own dead-end street signs.

cut and dried - already prepared or completed (particularly irreversibly), or routine, hackneyed (which seem to be more common US meanings) - the expression seems to have been in use early in the 18th century (apparently it appeared in a letter to the Rev. Henry Sacheverell dated 1710 - if you know any more about him let me know...) but Brewer makes no mention of the term in his highly authoritative dictionary in 1870, so I'd guess the term is probably US in origin. The root is likely to be a combination of various cutting and drying analogies involving something being prepared for use, including herbs, flowers, tobacco, timber and meat. The fact that there were so many applications of the process would have certainly reinforced the establishment and use of the term. 'Cut and tried' is probably a later US variant (it isn't commonly used in the UK), and stems from the tailor's practice of cutting and then trying a suit on a customer, again with a meaning of completing something.

cut and run - get what you want then leave quickly - originally a sailing term, cut the ropes and run before the wind.

cut to the chase - get to the point, get to the important or exciting part (of a story, explanation, presentation, etc) - a metaphor based on a film editor cutting incidental sequences from a film, so as to show the chase scene sooner, in order to keep the audience's attention; 'the chase' traditionally being the most exciting part and often the climax of many films. The expression was first used in a literally sense in the film-making industry in the 1920s, and according to certain sources appeared in print in 1929 - a novel about Holywood, although no neither title nor author is referenced. The modern metaphor usage began in the 1980s at the latest, and probably a lot sooner. See the BLUF acronym perspective on this for communications and training.

cut the mustard - meet the challenge, do the job, pass the test - most sources cite a certain O Henry's work 'Cabbages and Kings' from between 1894 and 1904 as containing the first recorded use of the 'cut the mustard' expression. The expression has some varied and confused origins: a contributory root is probably the expression 'pass muster' meaning pass inspection (muster means an assembly of people - normally in uniform - gathered together for inspection, so typically this has a military context), and muster has over time become misinterpreted to be mustard. Separately, mustard has since the 17th century been a slang expression for remarkably good, as in the feel of the phrases 'hot stuff' and 'keen as mustard' (which apparently dates from 1659 according to some etymologists). A source of the 'cut' aspect is likely to be a metaphor based on the act of cutting (harvesting) the mustard plant; the sense of controlling something representing potency, and/or being able to do a difficult job given the nature of the task itself. Cut in this context may also have alluded to the process of mixing mustard powder - effectively diluting or controlling the potency of the mustard with water or vinegar. The use of cut is also likely to have borrowed from the expression 'a cut above', meaning better than or more than, which originally related to the fashionable style of hair or clothes. 'Cut the mustard' therefore is unlikely to have had one specific origin; instead the cliche has a series of similar converging metaphors and roots. The more recent expression 'cut it' (eg., 'can he cut it' = is he capable of doing the job) meaning the same as 'cut the mustard' seems to be a simple shortening of the phrase in question.

cut to the quick - offend a person sharply and deeply - 'quick' is an old word for tender flesh, either under the skin, or especially under the fingernails; Sir Thomas More's 1551 'Utopia' included the expression 'shave to the quick' describing the ruthless exploitation of tenants by landlords, and Browning used the expression when describing a fatally wounded soldier's pride as being 'touched to the quick' in his 1842 poem 'Incident at the French camp'.

Cutty Sark - based in Greenwich, London, the only surviving tea clipper and 'extreme' clipper (fast sailing ship used especially in the China tea trade) - the term 'cutty sark' means 'short shift' (a shift was a straight unwaisted dress or petticoat) and the ship was so named at its launch in 1869 by the shipmaster and owner John 'Jock' Willis. John Willis, a lover of poetry, was inspired by Robert Burns' poem Tam o' Shanter, about a Scottish farmer who was chased by a young witch - called Nannie - who wore only her 'cutty sark'. The witch in her cutty sark was an iconic and powrful image in the poem, and obviously made a memorable impression on Mr Willis, presumably for the suggestion of speed, although an erotic interpretation perhaps added to the appeal. The word clipper incidentally derives from the earlier English meaning of clip - to fly or move very fast, related to the sense of cutting with shears. (Thanks F Tims for pointing me to this one.)



dachshund - short-legged dog - the dog was originally a German breed used for hunting badgers. German for badger is dachs, plus hund, meaning hound. The word seems to have come to England in the last 19th century. (Ack Don)

dad gummit - expression of annoyance or surprise - dad gummit is a fine example of a euphemism replacing a blasphemous oath, in this case, dad gummit is a substitution (and loosely a spoonersism, in which the initial letters of two words are reversed) of 'God Dammit'. The interpretation has also been extended to produce 'dad blame it'. Usage seems most common in Southern US.

who's your daddy?/who's yer daddy?/who's ya daddy? - (effectively) I control you - the Who's Your Daddy? expression has many subtle variations. Opinions are divided, and usage varies, between two main meanings, whose roots can be traced back to mid-late 1800s, although the full expression seems to have evolved in the 1900s. The full 'Who's Your daddy? expression is likely to have originated in USA underworld and street cultures. The main variations are:

  • I've looked/I'm looking after you, or taken/taking care of you, possibly in a sexually suggestive or sexually ironic way. This alludes to the 'sugar-daddy' term from late 19th century USA, which is based on the image of an older man giving (candy) reward in return for intimacy, either to a younger woman/mistress or younger gay male lover.
  • I've beaten you/I'm beating you, at something, and you are defenceless. This alludes to parental dominance and authority, and at its extreme, to intimacy with the victim's/opponent's mother.

The use of the expression as a straight insult, where the meaning is to question a person's parentage, is found, but this would not have been the origin, and is a more recent retrospectively applied meaning.

The sexual undertow and sordid nature of the expression has made this an appealing expression in the underworld, prison etc.

In much of the expression's common usage the meanings seem to converge, in which the hybrid 'feel' is one of (sexual) domination/control/intimacy in return for payment/material reward/safety/protection.

Daddy has many other slang uses which would have contributed to the dominant/paternalistic/authoritative/sexual-contract feel of the expression, for example:

  • the best/biggest/strongest one of anything (the daddy of them all)
  • a prostitute's pimp or boyfriend
  • a leading prisoner (through intimidation) at a borstal

damp squib - failure or anti-climax - a squib is an old word for a firework, and a wet one would obviously fail to go off properly or at all.

dandelion - wild flower/garden weed - from the French 'dent de lyon', meaning 'lion's tooth', because of the jagged shape of the dandelion's leaves (thanks G Travis). According to Chambers the plant's name came into English in the late 1300s (first recorded in 1373) initially as French 'dent-de-lyon', evolving through dandelyon, also producing the surname Daundelyon, before arriving at its current English form. Names of flowers are among many other common English words which came into English from French in the late middle-ages, the reason for which is explained in the 'pardon my French' origin. See also pansy and forget-me-not.

get my/your/his dander up - get into a rage or temper - dander meant temper, from 19thC and probably earlier; the precise origin is origin uncertain, but could have originated in middle English from the Somerset county region where and when it was used with 'dandy', meaning distracted (Brewer and Helliwell).

days of wine and roses - past times of pleasure and plenty - see 'gone with the wind'.

dead pan - expressionless - from the 1844 poem ('The Dead Pan') by Elizabeth Browning which told that at the time of the crucifixion the cry 'Great Pan is dead' swept across the ocean, and 'the responses of the oracles ceased for ever' (Brewer).

dead wood - someone serving no use (especially when part of a working group) - from the ship-building technique of laying blocks of timber in the keel, not an essential part of the construction, simply to make the keel more rigid.

december - the twelfth month - originally Latin for 'tenth month' when the year began with March.

the devil to pay and no pitch hot - a dreaded task or punishment, or a vital task to do now with no resource available - the expression is connected to and probably gave rise to 'hell to pay', which more broadly alludes to unpleasant consequences or punishment. Neither expression - devil to pay/hell to pay - directly refer to hell, devil or paying in a monetary sense. Instead hell or devil refers to ship's planking, and pay refers to sealing the planking with pitch or tar. Specifically devil to pay and hell to pay are based on a maritime maintenance job which was dangerous and unwelcome - notably having to seal the ship's hull lower planking (the 'devil', so-called due to its inaccessibility) with tar. Interpretations seem to vary about where exactly the 'devil' planking was on the ship, if indeed the term was absolutely fixed in meaning back in the days of wooden sailing ships and galleons) although we can safely believe it was low down on the hull and accessible only at some risk to the poor sailor tasked with the job, which apparently was commonly given a punishment. The punishment aspect certainly fits with part of the expression's meaning which survives today. Sources refer to a ship being turned on its side for repairing, just out of the water with the keel exposed while the tide was out; the 'devil' in this case was the seem between the ship's keel and garboard-strake (the bottom-most planks connecting to the keel). I am advised additionally and alternatively (ack D Munday) that devil to pay: " a naval term which describes the caulking (paying) of the devil board (the longest plank in a ship's hull) which was halfway between the gunwales [the gunwale is towards the top edge of the ship's side - where the guns would have been] and the waterline. Due to its position it was a dangerous task whilst at sea and not having hot pitch to seal it made it all the more difficult to do. It was often used as a punishment..."

devil's advocate - a person who raises objections against a (typically) logical or reasonable proposition, usually to test a generally accepted argument, or simply to prompt debate - this expression derives from the now offically ceased process in the Catholic church of debating a suggested canonization (making someone a saint), established in 1587 and ending in 1983. The position, technically/usually given to the Vatican's Promoter of the Faith, was normally a canonization lawyer or equivalent, whose responsibility in the process was to challenge the claims made on behalf of the proposed new saint, especially relating to the all-important miracles performed after death (and therefore from heaven and a godly proxy) which for a long while, and still in modern times, remain crucial to qualification for Catholic sainthood. The role, performed at the Vatican, was originally informally called the 'advocatus diaboli' ('advocate of the devil'), and soon the metaphor 'devil's advocate' became widely adopted in referring to anyone who argues against a proposition (usually a reasonable and generally acceptable proposition, so perhaps a deviation from the original context) for the purposes of thoroughness, creative development, hypothesis, pure obstruction, mischief or fun. Incidentally when the Devil's Advocate role was removed from the Vatican canonization process in 1983 a deluge of new saints ensued - over 400 in the subsequent 20 years (equating impressively to more than 800 apparently confirmed evidenced proven real miracles performed by dead people), compared with less than a quarter of that number in the previous 80 years. Incidentally also, since 1983, some ad-hoc Devil's Advocates are occasionally co-opted by the Vatican to argue against certain Beatification/Sainthood candidates. It was reported that the passionately conservative-leaning journalist, TV pundit, columnist, author and converted Christian, Peter Hitchens, performed such a role in the consideration of the Beatification of Mother Theresa in 2003. (Beatification is a step towards sainthood only requiring one miracle performed by a dead person from heaven.) It is difficult to imagine a more bizarre event, and I would love to know if this is true, and especially if a transcript exists, or even better the miracle of a video..

no dice - not a chance - conventional etymology (e.g., Partridge) indicates that 'no dice' derives from the equivalent expression in the US gambling dice game, whereby if the dice accidentally fall from the table the call is 'no dice', meaning bets are off and the throw is not valid. I am intrigued however by the suggestion (thanks K Levin, Mar 2009) that: "...The phrase 'no dice' looks a lot like 'non dice' which is 'he does not say', or 'he dos not tell' in Italian. I seem to recall seeing that no dice began appearing in this country around the first part of the twentieth century. Since that was a time when Italian immigrants were numerous, could there be a linkage?..." Please let me know if you can add to this with any reliable evidence of this connection.

dickens - (what the dickens, in dickens' name, hurts like the dickens, etc) - Dickens is another word for devil, and came to be used as an oath in the same way as God, Hell, Holy Mary, etc. Brewer (dictionary of phrase and fable 1870) explains that the 'dickens' oath, is a perversion (variation) of, and derived from 'Nick' and 'Old Nick'. The dickens expression appeared first probably during the 1600s. The etymology of 'nick' can be traced back a lot further - 'nicor' was Anglo-Saxon for monster. The devil-association is derived from ancient Scandinavian folklore: a Nick was mythological water-wraith or kelpie, found in the sea, rivers, lakes, even waterfalls - half-child or man, half-horse - that took delight when travellers drowned. Beginning several hundred years ago both protestant and catholic clergy commonly referred to these creatures, presumably because the image offered another scary device to persuade simple people to be ever God-fearing (".....or Old Nick will surely get you when you next go to the river...") which no doubt reinforced the Nick imagery and its devil association. So too did the notoriety of Italian statesman and theorist, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) - (who also gave rise to the expression 'machiavellian', meaning deviously wicked). 'Nick' Machiavelli became an image of devilment in the Elizabethan theatre because his ideas were thought to be so heinous. Shakespeare has Mistress Page using the 'what the dickens' expression in the Merry Wives of Windsor, c.1600, so the expression certainly didn't originate as a reference to Charles Dickens as many believe, who wasn't born until 1812. Charles Dickens' fame however (he was extremely famous in England while alive and writing as well as ever since) would certainly have further reinforced the popularity of the 'dickens' expression.

dicker - barter, haggle, negotiate, (usually over small amounts; sometimes meaning to dither, also noun form, meaning a barter or a negotiation) - more commonly now a US word, but was originally from England's middle ages, probably from dicker meaning a trading unit of ten. Prior to c.13th century the word was dyker, from Latin 'decuria' which was a trading unit of ten, originally used for animal hides.

die hard - fierce or resilient - the die-hards were the British 57th Foot regiment, so called after their Colonel Inglis addressed them before the (victorious) battle of Albuera against Napoleon's French on 16 May in 1811, 'Die hard my lads, die hard'. Only one officer of 24 survived, and only 168 men of 584. The regiment later became the West Middlesex.

the die is cast - a crucial irreversible decision has been made - Julius Caesar in 49 BC is said to have used the metaphor (in Latin: 'jacta alea est', or 'iacta alea est', although according to language expert Nigel Rees, Ceasar would more likely have said it in Greek) to describe a military move into Italy across the river Rubicon, which he knew would give rise to a conflict that he must then win. The metaphor, which carries a strong sense that 'there is no turning back', refers to throwing a single die (dice technically being the plural), alluding to the risk/gamble of such an action. See also the expression 'cross the rubicon', which also derives from this historical incident. See lots more Latin phrases (even though this one was perhaps originally in Greek..)

diet - selection of food and drink consumed by a person or people/ formal legislative assembly of people - according to Chambers and Cassells both modern diet words are probably originally from the Greek word diaita meaning way of life or course of life, and from diaitan, also Greek meaning select. The words came into the English language by about 1200 (for food diet), and 1450 (for assembly diet), from the Greek, through Latin, then French. The diet meaning assembly was also influenced by Latin dies meaning days, relating to diary and timing (being an aspect of legislative assemblies). The Latin form diaeta also produced the German tag as it appears in the words for assembly, Reichstag, Bundestag, and Landtag. Chambers actually contains a lot more detail about the variations of the diet words relating to food especially, for example that the word dietician appeared as late as 1905. It is fascinating that the original Greek meaning and derivation of the diet (in a food sense) - course of life - relates so strongly to the modern idea that 'we are what we eat', and that diet is so closely linked to how we feel and behave as people. The modern diet word now resonates clearly with its true original meaning.

dildo - artificial penis - this is a fascinating word, quite aside from its sexual meaning, which (since the 1960s) also refers also to a stupid person, and more recently the amusing demographic DILDO acronym. Modern dictionaries commonly suggest the word dildo was first recorded in the 17th or 16th century, depending on the dictionary, and that the origin is unknown. There are however strong clues to the roots of the word dildo, including various interesting old meanings of the word which were not necessarily so rude as today. Cassells Slang dictionary offers the Italian word 'diletto' meaning 'a lady's delight' as the most likely direct source. This is based on the entry in Francis Groce's 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, which says: "Dildo - From the Italian diletto, q.d. [quasi dicat/dictum - as if to say] a woman's delight, or from our [English] word dally, q.d. a thing to play with..." Cassells also says dildo was (from the mid 1600s to the mid 1800s) a slang verb expression, meaning to caress a woman sexually. Dealing with the possible Italian origin first, which seems most plausible, the word dilettante (same in English and Italian) is closely related: the modern meaning of dilettante is a dabbler or amateur in art, science or sport, and earlier in English (according to the 1922 OED), and logically Italian too, dilettante referred more to a person who is delighted by or who loves the arts (music and paintings notably), and specifically to someone who derives gratuitous pleasure from such things, i.e., seeking pleasure for pleasure's sake, with no other purpose than personal enjoyment. Dilettante and the earlier Italian 'diletto' both derive from the Latin 'delectare', meaning delight, from which we also have the word delectable. The 1922 OED interestingly also gives an entry for dildo and dildoe as referring (in the 1600s) to a word which is used in the refrain in a ballad (effectively a lyrical device in a chorus or repeating line). Many ballads of course are love songs, which seems to fit the Italian sense of 'delight' in the etymology of the word. Intriguingly the 1922 OED refers also to a 'dildo-glass' - a cylindrical glass (not a glass dildo) which most obviously alludes to shape, which seems to underpin an additional entry for dildo meaning (1696) a tree or shrub in the genus Cereus (N.O. [Natural Order] Cactaceae). Nowadays, and presumably in 1922 and the late 1700s this type of plant is not a tree or shrub but a family of cactus, whose shapes - apart from the spines - are phallic to say the least. Now, turning to Groce's other notion of possible origin, the English word dally. Dally is a very old English word, first recorded in 1440, meaning to chat lightly or idly, and perhaps significantly evolving by 1548 to mean "To make sport; to toy, sport with, especially in the way of amorous caresses; to wanton ME [Middle English]; to play with (temptation, etc.)..." and additionally, also by 1548, the modern meaning, "...To spend time idly, to loiter..." Dally was probably (Chambers) before 1300 the English word daylen, meaning to talk, in turn probably from Old French dalier, meaning to converse. One can imagine from this how Groce saw possible connection between dildo and dally, but his (and also preferred by Cassells) Italian possibilities surrounding the word diletto seem to offer origins that make the most sense.

dipstick - idiot - from cockney rhyming slang, meaning prick. See cockney rhyming slang.

dog in a manger - someone who prevents others from using something even though he's not using it himself - from Aesop's Fables, a story about a dog who sits in the manger with no need of the hay in it, and angily prevents the cattle from coming near and eating it.

dollar - currency of the US, Australia and elsewhere, UK money slang, for cash and historically the half-crown - the origins of the word dollar date back to when European coinage was first minted on a local basis by regional rulers - before currency was controlled by the state. Dollar derives from thaler, which is an old German word for a coin, from earlier Low German 'dahler', whose essential root word 'dahl' means valley. Dahler, later becoming thaler, is a 500-year-old abbreviation of Joachimsthaler, an early Bohemian/German silver coin. The word Joachimsthaler literally referred to something from 'Joachim's Thal'. This was Joachim's Valley, which now equates to Jáchymov, a spa town in NW Bohemia in the Czech Republic, close to the border to Germany. In the late 1400s, silver ounce coins were minted from silver mined at Joachim's Valley, Bohemia, by a regionally commanding family, the Counts of Schlick. These early localized European coins, called 'Joachimsthaler', shortened to 'thaler', were standard coinage in that region, which would nowadays extend into Germany. The high quality and reputation of the 'Joachimsthaler' coins subsequently caused the 'thaler' term to spread and be used for more official generic versions of the coins in Germany, and elsewhere too. Later, from the 1580s, the term was also used in its adapted 'dollar' form as a name for the Spanish peso (also called 'piece of eight'). By the time of the American Revolutionary War, in the late 1700s, the peso 'dollar' was already widely used in the USA, and on the initiative of the third US President, William Jefferson in 1782, the dollar was then adopted into US currency and its terminology.

dominoes - table-top tile game - while ultimately this is from the Latin word dominus, meaning lord or master, from which we also have the word dominate, etc., the full derivation is slightly more complex (Chambers). In the late 1600s a domino was a hood, attached to a cape worn by a priest, also a veil worn by a woman in mourning, and later (by 1730) a domino referred to a cape with a mask, worn at masqueredes (masked balls and dances). This was from French, stemming initially from standard religious Domino (Lord) references in priestly language. The imagery of a black cloak and mask eye-holes subsequently provided the inspiration (in French first, later transferring to English around 1800) for the dominoes game to be so-called - in both languages the game was originally called domino, not dominoes. Interestingly, the name of the game arrived in Italy even later, around 1830, from France, full circle to its Latin origins. So, while the lord and master roots exist and no doubt helped the adoption of the name, the precise association is to a black cloak and mask, rather than lordly dominance or the winning purpose of the game.

doldrums - depressed lazy state - area of the ocean near the equator between the NE and SE trade winds, noted for calms, sudden squalls and unpredictable winds. See the weather quizballs for more fascinating weather terminology.

doolally - mad or crazy (describing a person) - originally a military term from India. Soldiers at the end of their term were sent to Deodali, a town near Bombay, to wait to be shipped home. The hot climate, frustration and boredom caused odd behaviour among the delayed troops, who were said to be suffering from 'doolally tap', which was the full expression. 'Tap' was the East Indian word for malarial fever.

dope - idiot/drug(noun and verb)/cannabis - interestingly both meanings of the word dope (idiot and a drug of some sort, extending to the verb to dope [drug] someone) are from the same origins: Dope in English (actually US English, first recorded 1807) originally referred to a sauce or gravy, from Dutch 'doop', a thick dipping sauce, from dopen, to dip, from the same roots as the very much older Indo-European 'dhoub'. The metaphorical extension of dope meaning a thick-headed person or idiot happened in English by 1851 (expanded later to dopey, popularized by the simpleton dwarf Dopey in Walt Disney's 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), prior to which (1800s) dope had come to refer more generally to any thick liquid mixture. The meaning of dope was later applied to a thick viscous opiate substance used for smoking (first recorded 1889), and soon after to any stupefying narcotic drug (1890s). The first use of the word dope/doping for athletic performance was actually first applied to racehorses (1900). Reference to human athlete doping followed during the 20th century. Ultimately though, and fascinatingly, all these dope meanings derive from dipping food into a sauce.

doss-house - rough sleeping accommodation - the term is from Elizabethan England when 'doss' was a straw bed, from 'dossel' meaning bundle of straw, in turn from the French 'dossier' meaning bundle.

dosh - a reasonable amount of spending money (enough, for instance enough for a 'night-out') - almost certainly and logically derived from the slang 'doss-house' (above), meaning a very cheap hostel or room, from Elizabethan England when 'doss' was a straw bed. Dosh appears to have originated in this form in the US in the 19th century, and then re-emerged in more popular use in the UK in the mid-20th century.

double cross - to behave duplicitously, to betray or cheat, particularly to renege on a deal - a folklore explanation is that the expression double cross is based on the record-keeping method of a London bounty hunter and blackmailer called Jonathan Wilde, who captured criminals for court reward in the 1700s. Wilde kept names of criminals in a book, and alongside those who earned his protection by providing him with useful information or paying sufficiently he marked a cross. When they ceased to be of use Wilde added a second cross to their names, and would turn them in to the authorities for the bounty. Supposedly Wilde was eventually betrayed and went to the gallows himself. Another explanation is that it relates to the name of a British intelligence group in World War II, engaged in tricking German spies to defect. Thirdly, and perhaps more feasibly, double cross originates from an old meaning of the word cross, to swindle or fix a horse race, from the 1800s (the term apparently appears in Thackeray's ‘Vanity Fair’, to describe a fixed horse race). Double cross specifically described the practice of pre-arranging for a horse to lose, but then reneging on the fix and allowing the horse to win. An early alternative meaning of the word 'double' itself is is to cheat, and an old expression 'double double' meant the same as double cross (Ack Colin Sheffield, who in turn references the Hendrickson's Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins).

double whammy - two problems in one - from the American cartoon strip character 'Li'l Abner' by Al Capp (1909-79). The zoot-suited character 'Evil Eye Fleegle' (not Li'l Abner - thanks FS) could cast a spell on someone by 'aiming' at them with his finger and one eye open; he called it 'shooting a whammy'. He could shoot a 'double whammy' by aiming with both eyes open.

doughnut/donut - fried cake ball or ring/fool or idiot/various other slang - doughnuts were balls before they were rings, in which case the use of the word nut would have been literal because nut means a knob or lump of food. The notable other less likely explanations for the use of the word nut in doughnut are: associations with nutmeg in an early recipe and the use or removal of a central nut (mechanical or edible) to avoid the problem of an uncooked centre. Incidentally a doughnut's soft centre of jam (US jelly), custard, fruit, etc., and the hole, were devised for this reason. Doughnuts seem to have been popularised among Dutch settlers in the USA, although earlier claims are made for doughnuts existing in Native American Indian traditions. In truth the notion of dropping a piece of dough into hot fat or oil is not the most complex concept, and doughnut-type cakes can be found in the traditional cuisine of virtually every part of the world. The word doughnut entered common use in the early 1800s (Chambers cites Washington Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York, 1809) but a single origin is elusive and probably does not exist. The mainstream popularity of the word, and its shortening to donut (recorded since 1929, and therefore in use prior), emanates from US marketing of the product in shops and stalls, etc. The use of the word doughnut (and donut) to refer to a fool or especially someone behaving momentarily like an idiot, which I recall from 1970s London, is one of many recent slang interpretations of the word (dough-head was an earlier version of this from the 1800s - nut is slang for head). These other slang uses are chiefly based on metaphors of shape and substance, which extend to meanings including: the circular handbrake-turn tricks by stunt drivers and and joy riders (first mainly US); a truck tyre (tire, US mainly from 1930s); the vagina; the anus; and more cleverly a rich fool (plenty of money, dough, but nothing inside). The word dough incidentally is very old indeed, evolving in English from dag (1000), doh (1150) and then dogh (1300), and much earlier from the Indo-European base words dheigh and dhoigh, which meant to knead dough or clay.

down in the dumps - miserable - from earlier English 'in the dumps'; 'dumps' derives from Dumops, the fabled Egyptian king who built a pyramid died of melancholy. Dumm also means 'stupid' or 'dull' in German.

draconian - harsh (law or punishment) - from seventh century BC when Athens appointed a man called Draco to oversee the transfer of responsibility for criminal punishment to the state; even minor crimes were said to carry the death penalty, and the laws were apparently written in blood.

main drag - high street/main street - likely USA origins; Cassell's slang dictionary suggests that drag, meaning street, is derived from the use of the word drag to describe the early stage coaches with four seats on top which used four horses to 'drag' them on the roads. From the late 1700s (a coach) and from mid 1800s (street).

at the drop of a hat - instantly - from a traditional way of starting a race in the 1800s.

drum - house or apartment - from a nineteenth century expression for a house party, derived originally from an abbreviation of 'drawing room'.

dum-dum bullet - a bullet with a soft or cut nose, so as to split on impact and cause maximum harm - from the town Dum Dum in India, where the bullets were first produced.

duck (also duckie) - term of endearment like 'my dear' or 'darling', from the east midlands of england - originated from Norwegian and Danish 'dukke' meaning 'doll' or 'baby'; this area also has many towns and villages ending in 'by' (Rugby, Derby, Corby, Ashby, Blaby, Cosby, Enderby, Groby, etc), which is Norse for a small settlement or farm.

lame duck - person or thing no longer for purpose - originally an old London stock exchange term for a member unable to meet their obligations on settlement day, since they 'waddled' out of Exchange Alley, which existed until 1773.

sitting duck - easy target or something that is vulnerable or defenceless to attack- a metaphor from shooting field sport, in which a sitting or hatching duck, (or pheasant or other game bird) would be an easier target than one flying in the air. Strangely there is very little etymological reference to the very common 'sitting duck' expression. The term doesn't appear in Brewer or Partridge. Cassells suggests it was first popularised by the military during the 1940s, although given the old-fashioned formation of the term its true origins could be a lot earlier, and logically could be as old as the use of guns and game shooting, which was late 16th century.

ducks in a row - prepared and organised - the origins of 'ducks in a row' are not known for certain. Usage appears to be recent, and perhaps as late as the 1970s according to reliable sources such as 'word-detective' Evan Morris. Brewer's 1870 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable fails to mention the expression - no guarantee that it did not exist then but certainly no indication that it did. Certainly the expression became popular in business from the 1980s onwards, especially referring to being prepared for any important business activity requiring a degree of planning, such as a presentation or a big meeting. Reliable sources avoid claiming any certain origins for 'ducks in a row', but the most common reliable opinion seems to be that it is simply a metaphor based on the natural tendency for ducks, and particularly ducklings to swim or walk following the mother duck, in an orderly row. The image is perhaps strengthened by fairground duck-shooting galleries and arcade games, featuring small metal or plastic ducks 'swimming' in a row or line of targets - imitating the natural tendency for ducks to swim in rows - from one side of the gallery to the other for shooters to aim at. Shooters would win prizes for hitting the ducks, which would fold down on impact from the air-rifle pellets. The ducks would then all be returned to upright position - in a row - ready for the next shooter. The sense of a mother duck organising her ducklings into a row and the re-setting of the duck targets certainly provide fitting metaphors for the modern meaning. Less reliable sources suggest a wide range of 'supposed' origins, including: A metaphor from American bowling alleys, in which apparently the pins were/are called 'duckpins', which needed to be set up before each player bowls. The obvious flaw in this theory is that bowling pins or skittles - whether called ducks or not - are not set up in a row, instead in a triangular formation. Some suggest ducks in a row is from translated text relating to 'Caesar's Gallic Wars' in which the Latin phrase 'forte dux in aro' meaning supposedly 'brave leader in battle' led to the expression 'forty ducks in a row', which I suspect is utter nonsense. Other highly unlikely suggestions include references to soldiers of the 'Bombay Presidency' (whatever that was); military tents; sailors trousers; and an old children's game called 'duckstones', which certainly existed in South Wales but whose rules had absolutely nothing to do with rows whatsoever.

dunderhead - muddle-headed person - 'dunder' was the dregs or over-flowed froth of fermenting wine, originally from Spanish 'redundar', to overflow or froth over. (The Oxford English dictionary says this origin is 'perhaps from 17th century English dunner, meaning a resounding noise; we doubt it somehow...)

dutch auction - where the price decreases, rather than increases, between bidders (sellers in this case) prior to the sale - 'dutch' was used in a variety of old English expressions to suggest something is not the real thing (dutch courage, dutch comfort, dutch concert, dutch gold) and in this case a dutch auction meant that it is not a real auction at all.

dutch courage - bravery boosted by alcohol - in 1870 Brewer says this is from the 17th century story of the sailors aboard the Hollander 'man-o-war' British warship being given a hogshead of brandy before engaging the enemy during the (Anglo-)Dutch Wars. Allen's English Phrases says Dutch courage is based on Dutch soldiers' reputation for drinking and fighting aggressively, and cites a 1666 reference by poet Edmund Walker to the naval battle of Sole Bay (Solebay) between the English and the Dutch (in 1665, although other sources say this was 1672, marking the start of the third Anglo-Dutch War): "...The Dutch their wine and all their brandy lose, Disarmed of that from which their courage grows...". I am additionally informed (thanks L Hyde) of the possibilitity that the expression derives from when English soldiers' tendencies towards "... drinking gin, or rather, Dutch Genever during the Thirty Years War, which ties in with the history of gin and its popularity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries..." We may never know the precise derivation of the Dutch courage expression although evidence seems to put the origins in the 1600s and related to the Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652-1654; 1665-1667; 1672-1674; 1781-1784) or the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), and either the Dutch and/or the English drinking of alcohol to optimise their warring nature.

dyed in the wool - deeply and resolutely (especially having a particular belief or behaviour) - from the process of colouring wool, which can be done at various stages; to dye 'in the wool', before spinning is the earliest stage it can be done, and it gives the most thorough effect.



eat crow - acknowledge a mistake (giving rise to personal discomfort), suffer humiliation - the expression's origins are American, from imagery and folklore from the late 19th century. Crow would have been regarded as a rather distasteful dish, much like the original English Umble Pie metaphor from the 1700s (see Eat Humble Pie below). According to etymologist James Rogers, eating crow became the subject of a story reported in the Atlanta Constitution in 1888, which told the tale of an American soldier in the War of 1812, who shot a crow during a ceasefire. A British officer complimented the soldier on his shooting and asked to see the gun, which when handed to him, he turned on the soldier, reprimanding him for trespassing, and forcing the soldier to eat a piece of the dead crow. However, on having the gun returned to him, the soldier promptly turned the weapon on the officer, and made him eat the rest of the crow.

eat humble pie - acknowledge a mistake/adopt subordinate position, be ashamed - see eat humble pie.

eeny meeney miney moe/eenie meenie miney mo - the beginning of the 'dipping' children's rhyme, and an expression meaning 'which one shall I choose?' - a common myth is that the rhyme derives from an ancient number system - usually Anglo-Saxon or Celtic numbers, and more specifically from the Welsh language translation of 'one, two, three, four' (= eeny meeney miney moe). This is not so: the Welsh 'one, two three,' etc., is: un, dau, tri, pedwar...). Sadly, the rhyme seems simply to be based on euphonic nonsense. The words 'eeny, meeney, miney, moe' have no intrinsic meaning. The rhyme was not recorded until 1855, in which version using the words 'eeny, meeny, moany, mite'. Another version, also published in 1855 but said to date to 1815 begins, 'hana, mana, mona, mike..'. Various versions appear in the mid-19th century in both Britain and America, as well as in many different European languages. (Thanks V Adams)

egg on your face - to look stupid - from the tradition of poor stage performers having eggs thrown at them.

eleventh hour - just in time - from the Bible, Matthew xx.1.

make ends meet - budget tightly - the metaphor was originally wearing a shorter (tighter) belt.

put some english on it - add side-spin, distort, deceive (when striking or throwing a ball in sport, or metaphorically when communicating something) - an expression with 19th century American origins (Mark Twain apparently used it c.1870), alluding to and based on the practice in English billiards of imparting spin to a ball. The expression is commonly used in American pool. A ball that drops into a pocket with the aid of spin - generally unintended - is said to 'get in english'. The use of the word English to mean spin may also have referred to the fact that the leather tip of a billiard cue which enables better control of the ball was supposedly an English invention. The expression additionally arguably refers to the less than straight-forward nature of certain English behaviour as perceived by some Americans. 'English' therefore means spin in both of its senses - literal and now metaphorical - since 'spin' has now become a term in its own right meaning deceptive communication, as used commonly by the media referring particularly to PR activities of politicians and corporates, etc. 'Body English' is a variation, and some suggest earlier interpretation (although logically the 'spin' meaning would seem to be the prior use), referring to a difficult physical contortion or movement. There are debates as to whether 'English' when used for these meanings should be capitalised or not: almost certainly the convention to capitalise (by virtue of English being derived from a proper noun) will continue to diminish (much like the use of capitals in very many other expressions too, eg., double-dutch).

an Englishman's home is his castle - a person's home is or should be sacrosanct - from old English law when bailiffs were not allowed to force entry into a dwelling to seize goods or make arrest.

etiquette - how to behave in polite society - originally from French and Spanish words ('etiquette' and 'etiqueta' meaning book of court ceremonies); a card was given to those attending Court (not necessarily law court, more the court of the ruling power) containing directions and rules; the practice of issuing a card with instructions dates back to the soldier's billet (a document), which was the order to board and lodge the soldier bearing it. See also 'that's the ticket'.

the exception proves the rule - the common meaning today is that the existence of an exception is in some way evidence that the rule exists (which is somewhat illogical) - this has to be one of the most confused figures of speech in the English language; the original expression actually derives from a Latin legal term from the 1600s, 'exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis' ('in the cases not excepted') which came into common use as 'exceptio probat regulam' ('the exception establishes the rule'), whose proper and logical meaning was that the exception provides the opportunity to test and refine more accurately the scope of the rule, (neither proving the existence or otherwise of the exception or the rule!). Isn't language wonderful!....

even stevens/even stephens - equal measures, fair shares, especially financial or value - earliest origins and associations are probably found in Jonathan Swift's 'Journal To Stella' written 20 Jan 1748: "Now we are even quoth Stephen, when he gave his wife six blows for one". A separate and possibly main contributory root is the fact that 'Steven' or 'Stephen' was English slang for money from early 1800s, probably from Dutch stiver/stuiver/stuyver, meaning something of little value, from the name for a low value coin which at one time was the smallest monetary unit in the Cape (presumably South Africa) under the Dutch East India Company, equal to about an old English penny. An expression seems to have appeared in the 1800s 'Steven's at home' meaning one has money. The alliterative (rhyming) sound of the expression would have made it a natural reference or paired words expression and ensured common usage. People like saying things that trip comfortably off the tongue. (ref Cassell)

expat/ex-pat - person living or working abroad - the modern-day 'expat' (and increasingly hyphenated 'ex-pat') expression is commonly believed to be a shortening of 'ex-patriot', but this is not true. The hyphenated form is a corruption of the word expatriate, which originally was a verb meaning to banish (and later to withdraw oneself, in the sense of rejecting one's nationality) from one's native land, from the French expatrier, meaning to banish, and which came into use in English in the 1700s (Chambers cites Sterne's 'Sentimental Journey' of 1768 as using the word in this 'banish' sense). The root Latin elements are logically ex (out, not was) and patria (native land, fatherland, in turn from pater and patris, meaning father). Around 1800 the expatriate word became used as a noun to mean an expatriated person, but still then in the sense of a banished person, rather than one who had voluntarily moved abroad (as in the modern meaning). The early use of the expatriate word described the loss of citizenship from one's homeland, not a temporary or reversible situation. The use of expatriate in its modern interpretation seems (ref Chambers) to have begun around 1900, and was popularised by Lilian Bell's novel 'The Expatriate', about wealthy Americans living in Paris, published in 1902. During the 1900s the word was shortened and commonly the hyphen erroneously added, resulting from common confusion and misinterpretation of the 'ex' prefix, which was taken to mean 'was', as in ex-wife, ex-president, etc., instead of 'ex' meaning 'out', as in expatriate, expel, exhaust, etc. Strictly speaking therefore, the correct form is expat, not ex-pat.



facilitate - enable somethig to happen - Facilitate is commonly used to describe the function of running a meeting of people who have different views and responsibilities, with the purpose of arriving a commonly agreed aims and plans and actions. Interestingly, the word facilitate is from the French faciliter, which means 'make easy', in turn from the Latin route 'facilitatum', havin the same basic meaning. From the same route we have the word facility, recorded as early as 1425 (Middle English 'facilite') to mean gentleness, which evolved during the 1500s to mean 'opportunity'; and 'favourable condition for doing something' (source: Chambers Etymology). This all of course helps to emphasise the facilitator's function as one of enabling and helping, rather than imposing, projecting (one's own views) or directing.

farce - frivolous or inane comedy, and a metaphor for a ridiculous situation - from the French verb farcir, and meaning 'to stuff', originally making an analogy between stuffing (for example in cooking) and the insertion of lightweight material into medieval dramatic performances, by way of adding variation and humour. The French farcir is in turn from Latin farcire of the same meaning. Farce in this sense first appeared in English around 1530, and the extension farcical appeared around 1710, according to Chambers.

fart - blow-off, emit air from anus, especially noisily - The word fart is derived from Old High German 'ferzan' (pronounced fertsan) from older Germanic roots 'fertan', both of which are clearly onomatopoeic (sounds like what it is), as is the modern-day word, unchanged in English since the 1200s. Words and language might change over time, but the sound of a fart is one of life's more enduring features. See the FART 'bacronym'. And also see raspberry.

play fast and loose - be unreliable, say one thing and do another - originally from a fairground trick, in which the player was invited to pin a folded belt 'fast' (firmly) to the table with a skewer, at which the stall-holder would pull both ends of the belt to 'loose' it free and show that it had not been pinned.

father time - the expression and image of Father Time, or Old Father Time, certainly pre-dates 16th c. Shakespeare, which according to the etymologists seems to be the first English recorded use of the expression, in Comedy Of Errors, Act II Scene II, a quote by Dromio of Syracuse: 'Marry Sir, by a rule as plain as the bald pate of father Time himself.' (Shakespeare's capitalisation of Time but not father is interesting, but I'd stop short of suggesting it indicates the expression was not widely in use by that stage.) There is a huge list of Father-prefixed terms, dating back hundreds and thousands of years. The imagery is basically centred around the originator or founder, also more specifically God the Holy Father, and similar roots in other religions: the Father image is associated with gods of various sorts, and pervades the terminology of religious systems - Fathers are monks, friars, priests, popes; there are the apostolic fathers, the primitive fathers - early Christian advocates, Greek and Latin church Fathers, there is Father Neptune (the ocean), Father Thames, Father Tiber (and Father just about every other river in the world), all giving the sense of association with founding source or originator. It's entirely logical therefore that Father Time came to be the ultimate expression of age or time for most of the world's cultures. Not surprisingly it's therefore impossible to identify a single originating source.

a feather in your cap - a recognised achievement - from the ancient custom seen in various cultures of warriers and hunters adding a feather to their headgear for each kill (eg., native American Indians, the Incas, Abyssinians, Lycians, and the Caufirs of Cabul); it was even customary in Scottish and Welsh field shooting for for the first to kill a woodcock to do the same; maybe still is....

fiasco - something gone badly wrong - appearing in English by 1855, originally referring to a musical or theatrical failure, from the Italian metaphor 'far fiasco', literally 'make a flask', meaning make a mistake or failure, an expression first devised and used by makers of high quality Venetian glassware: where the glassblower upon seeing the slightest flaw during the making of a fine blown glass vase or similar item, would turn the article into a 'fiasco' - a common flask.

make a fist of/make a good fist of/make a bad fist of - achieve a reasonable/poor result (often in the case of a good result despite lack of resources or ability) - the expression is used in various forms, sometimes without an adjective (good, bad, etc), when the context and tone can carry the sense of whether the result is good or bad. Fist is an extremely old word, deriving originally from the ancient Indo-European word pnkstis, spawning variations in Old Slavic pesti, Proto-Germanic fuhstiz and funhstiz, Dutch vuust and vuist, German and Saxon fust, faust, from which it made its way into Old English as fyst up until about 900AD, which changed into fust by 1200, and finally to fist by around 1300. So the word, meaning, and what it symbolises has existed for many centuries. It is therefore quite natural that the word and its very symbolic meaning - effort, determination, readiness, manual labour - gave rise to certain metaphors and slang relating to work and achievement of tasks. Fist as a verb was slang for hold a tool in the 1800-1900s - much like clasp or grab. Also in the 19th century fist was slang for a workman such as a tailor - a 'good fist' was a good tailor, which is clearly quite closely related to the general expression of making a good fist of something. The term was also used in a similar way in the printing industry, and logically perhaps in other manually dextrous trades too. Earlier, in the 1700s, a fist also referred to an able fellow or seaman on a ship. The word hand was and is still used in a similar metaphoric way - as in 'all hands on deck' - where hand referred directly to a working man, just like the transfer of the word fist to refer to a working man. Earlier still, 15th-17th centuries, fist was slang for handwriting - 'a good fist', or 'a good running fist' referred to a good handwriting style or ability - much like the more modern expression 'a good hand', which refers to the same thing. The word fist was also used from the 1500s (Partridge cites Shakespeare) to describe apprehending or seizing something or someone, which again transfers the noun meaning of the clenched hand to a verb meaning human action of some sort. An early recorded use of the actual phrase 'make a fist' was (according to Partridge) in 1834 (other sources suggest 1826), from Captain William Nugent Glascock's Naval Sketchbook: "Ned, d'ye know, I doesn't think you'd make a bad fist yourself at a speech.." Glascock was a British Royal Navy captain and author. Given the usage of the term by Glascock the expression would seem then to be already reasonably well established in naval parlance. This all indicates (which to an extent Partridge agrees) that while the expression 'make a fist' might as some say first have been popularised in the US, the origins are probably in the early English phrases and usage described above, and the expression itself must surely pre-date the 1834 (or 1826) recorded use by Captain Glascock, quite possibly back to the late 1700s or earlier still.

whatever floats your boat - if it makes you happy/it's your decision/it's your choice (although I don't necessarily agree and I don't care anyway) - a relatively modern expression from the late 20th century with strangely little known origins. Interestingly the phrase is used not only in the 2nd person (you/your) sense; "Whatever floats your boat" would also far more commonly be used in referring to the 3rd person (him/his/her/their) than "Whatever floats his boat" or Whatever floats her/their boat", which do not occur in common usage. Importantly the meaning also suggests bemusement or disagreement on the part of whoever makes the comment; rather like saying "it's not something I would do or choose myself, but if that's what you want then go ahead, just so long as you don't want my approval". Unofficial references and opinions about the 'whatever floats your boat' cliche seem to agree the origins are American, but other than that we are left to speculate how the expression might have developed. The 'whatever floats your boat' expression is a metaphor that alludes to the person being the boat, and the person's choice (of activity, option, particularly related to lifestyle) being what the boat sits on and supports it, or in a more mystical sense, whatever enables the boat to defy the downward pull of gravity. In this latter sense the word 'floats' is being applied to the boat rather than what it sits on. Whether the phrase started from a single (but as yet unidentified) quote, or just 'grew' through general adoption, the clues to the root origins of the expression probably lie more than anything else in the sense that the person's choice is considered irresponsible or is not approved of, because this sense connects to other negative meanings of 'float' words used in slang. The word 'float' in this expression possibly draws upon meanings within other earlier slang uses of the word 'float', notably 'float around' meaning to to occupy oneself circulating among others without any particular purpose ('loaf around aimlessly' as Cassell puts it, perhaps derived from the same expression used in the Royal Air Force from the 1930s to describe the act of flying irresponsibly and aimlessly). Also, significantly, 'floating' has since the 1950s been slang for being drunk or high on drugs. 'Floating one' refers to passing a dud cheque or entering into a debt with no means of repaying it (also originally from the armed forces, c.1930s according to Cassells). And a 'floater' has for some decades referred to someone who drifts aimlessly between jobs. While none of these usages provides precise origins for the 'floats your boat' expression, they do perhaps suggest why the word 'float' fits aptly with a central part of the expression's meaning, especially the references to drink and drugs, from which the word boat and the combination of float and boat would naturally have developed or been associated.

flash in the pan - brief, unexpected, unsustainable success - evolved from an earlier slightly different meaning, which appears in 1870 Brewer: an effort which fails to come to fruition, or in Brewer's words: 'all sound and fury, signifying nothing', which he says is based on an old firearms metaphor; ie., the accidental premature ignition of the priming gunpowder contained the the 'pan' (part of an old gun's lock) which would normally ignite the charge in the barrel. During the 20th century the meaning changed to the modern interpretation of a brief and unsustainable success. It has also been suggested (Ack Don) that the metaphor is based on the practice of panning for gold, ie., using a flat pan to wash away earth or sand scooped from a river bed, in the hope of revealing the heavier gold particles, or more rarely a small nugget, left behind in the pan. While this seems logical for the modern meaning it's difficult to reconcile it with the meaning that Brewer ascribes to the cliché back in 1870.

flogging a dead horse/beating a dead horse - trying to sell the unsaleable, or trying to save a lost cause, or persisting with an argument which has been lost - here 'flogging' means beating or whipping - Brewer's 1870 slang dictionary cites the British MP Bright describing Earl Russell's Reform Bill (1867) as a 'dead horse' and all attempts to make it law like 'flogging the dead horse'. The metaphor alludes to the idea of a dead horse being incapable of working, no matter how much it is whipped. An earlier similar use of the quote is attributed (Allen's Phrases) to the English religious theologian John Wesley (1703-91) in a letter dated 1770: "... we have no need to dispute about a dead horse..." This expression is in turn predated by a similar phrase in Don Quixote de la Mancha (Miguel de Cervantes, 1547-1616), part II, 1615, "...I thought it working for a dead horse, because I am paid beforehand..." which means somewhat cynically that there is no point in working if one has already been paid. The 'pointless' aspect of these older versions of the expression is very consistent with its later use. That said, reputable sources indicate that the expression in its modern form ('flogging a dead horse') is not found in English before the 1800s, which suggests that its popularity coincides mostly with the reported Reform Bill debate of 1867, rather than possible earlier influences.

flup - full up (having a full feeling in one's stomach - typically after a big meal, having eaten enough not to want to eat any more) - the expression 'flup' is used unconsciously and very naturally millions of times every day all around the English-speaking world, and has been for many years, and yet seems never (at 14 Sep 2013) to have been recorded in text form as a distinct word. It is presented here for interest in itself, and also as an example of a particular type of neologism (i.e., a new word), resulting from contraction. In this case the new word 'flup' has evolved by the common abbreviation of the longer form of words: 'full-up'. Many words have evolved like this - due to the constant human tendency of speech to become more efficient. We naturally seek to pronounce words as effortlessly as possible, and this the chief factor in the development of contractions in language. Many would argue that 'flup' is not a proper word - which by the same standards neither in the past were goodbye, pram, and innit (all contractions) - however it is undeniable that while 'flup' is not yet in official dictionaries, it is most certainly in common speech.

fly in the face of - go against accepted wisdom, knowledge or common practice - an expression in use in the 19th century and probably even earlier, from falconry, where the allusion is to a falcon or other bird of prey flying at the face of its master instead of settling on the falconers gauntlet.

fly in the ointment - a unwanted inclusion within something otherwise good, notably an obstruction or problem in a plan or structure - a fly in the ointment is a very old expression, which derives from the Bible's Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes 10:1, in which it appears: "Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour; so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour." The verse originally used a metaphor that dead flies spoil something that is otherwise good, to illustrate that a person's 'folly', which at the time of the Biblical translation meant foolish conduct, ruins one's reputation for being wise and honourable. The dead flies and ointment serve as a metaphor to reinforce the point that people seeking to be wise and honourable should not behave foolishly. Over time, the imagery has been simplified simply to mean that 'a fly in the ointment' represents a small inclusion spoiling something potentially good.

font - typeface - from the French 'fonte', in turn from 'fondre' (like 'foundry') meaning to melt or cast (printing originally used cast metal type, which was 'set' to make the printing plates).

foolscap - a certain size of paper - from the Italian 'foglio-capo' meaning folio-sized (folio was originally a book formed by folding a large sheet once to create two leaves, and nowadays means 'folder'). Water-marks on foolscap paper from 13-17th centuries showed a 'fool' (a jester with cap and bells).

footloose/footloose and fancy free - free of obligations or responsibilities/free and single, unattached - as regards footloose, while the simple literal origin from the combination of the words foot and loose will have been a major root of the expression, there is apparently an additional naval influence: the term may also refer to the mooring lines, called foot lines, on the bottom of the sails of 17th and 18th century ships. Loosing these 'foot lines' allowed the sails to flap freely, hence 'footloose'. Other sources confirm that the term first started appearing in print around 1700, when the meaning was 'free to move the feet, unshackled,'. The figurative modern sense of 'free to act as one pleases' developed later, apparently from 1873. (Ack RF). The expression 'footloose and fancy free' specifically applies to a person's unattached status. In this context 'fancy' retains an older meaning from the 16th century: ie, 'love' or 'amorous inclination', which still crops up today in the expression to 'fancy a person', meaning to be sexually attracted to them.

fore! - warning shout in golf when a wildly struck ball threatens person(s) ahead - misunderstood by many to be 'four', the word is certainly 'fore', which logically stems from the Middle English meaning of fore as 'ahead' or 'front', as in forearm, forerunner, foreman, foremost, etc., or more particularly 'too far forward' in the case of an overhit ball. Sources such as Chambers suggest the golf term was in use by the late 1870s. The use of the 'fore' prefix in the context of a warning or pre-emptive action was established long ago in similar senses: forewarn, foretell, foreshadow, forestall, and foresee, etc., (foresee actually dates back to the 1200s). Additionally it has been suggested to me (ack J Smith) that the 'fore!' warning was used by British infantry to warn a front line of riflemen that a line behind them is about to fire, however while the sense of the meaning can be related to a golf warning, it is unlikely to have been the principal derivation. The website, (ack Dennis Whyte) suggests that the 'Fore!' expression is most likely derived from the practice, started in the late 17th century in Scotland, of using 'fore-caddies' to stand ahead on the fairway to look for balls, such was the cost of golf balls in those days. (See the origins of Caddie above.) The shout 'Fore-caddie!' would be made by the golfer to warn his fore-caddie assistant of the imminent arrival/threat of a ball, and this was later shortened to 'Fore!'. The website goes on to suggest a fascinating if unlikely alternative derivation: In the late 1500s an artillery range attached to Ramsay's Fort was alongside the Leith golf links in Edinburgh. Apparently the warning used by gunners on the firing range was 'Ware Before', which was also adopted as a warning by the Leith links golfers, and this was subsequently shortened to 'Fore!'.

can't see the forest for the trees - see 'I can't see the wood for the trees'.

forget-me-not - the (most commonly) blue wild flower - most European countries seem to call the flower a translation of this name in their own language. The French 'ne m'oubliez pas' is believed to be the route by which the English interpretation developed, consistent with the adoption and translation of many French words into English in the period after the Norman invasion (1066) through to the end of the middle-ages (c.1500s), explained more in the pardon my French item. The delicate shade-loving woodland flower is associated with legend and custom of lovers wearing or giving forget-me-not flowers so as to be remembered. Stories include one of a knight stooping to pick some of the flowers for his lady by a riverbank, but then rather ungallantly falling due to the weight of his armour into the water and drowning, leaving just the little posy of forget-me-nots behind, named so legend has it after his final gurgling words.

hold the fort/holding the fort - take responsibility for managing a situation while under threat or in crisis, especially on a temporary or deputy basis, or while waiting for usual/additional help to arrive or return - 'hold the fort' or 'holding the fort' is a metaphor based on the idea of soldiers defending (holding) a castle or fort against attack by enemy forces. Fort and fortress are old English words that have been in use since the 1300s in their present form, deriving from French and ultimately Latin (fortis means strong, which gives us several other modern related words, fortitude and forté for example). The first recorded use of 'hold the fort' is particularly noteworthy and although earlier use might have existed, there seems little doubt that this story was responsible for establishing the expression so firmly and widely. The expression seems first to to have come to prominence in American Civil War newspapers and other reports (notably that of Daniel Webster Whittle, US Civil War army major, evangelist and writer) of semaphore (flag) messages exchanged on 5 October 1864 between General Sherman and John Corse, a commander of 4th Division, Fifteenth Corps, who defended a crucial position (because it contained a million and a half rations) with 1,500-2,000 men (reports vary) at the Battle of Altoona Pass, near Atlanta GA, when attacked and outnumbered by 3,000-6,000 men and heavy artillery of the Confederate army under the command of general Samuel French. Corse's men suffered casualties of between a third and a half, but against all odds, held their position, inflicting huge losses on the enemy, forcing them to withdraw. After the battle, newspapers reported that Sherman had sent a semaphore message from a distant hilltop to Corse, saying 'Hold the fort; I am coming. WT Sherman.' According to these reports, the message had a stirring effect on Corse's men, although Corse it seems maintained that he had successfully held the position without Sherman's assistance, and ironically Sherman seems later to have denied sending such a message at all. Whatever, the story of the battle and Sherman's message and its motivating effect on Corse's men established the episode and the expression in American folklore. Shortly afterwards in 1870 a rousing gospel song, 'Hold the Fort', inspired by the battle, was written by evangelist Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876). Bliss was apparently later presented with a conductor's baton, made from wood taken from the pine tree on which Sherman's semaphore flags were flown at the battle scene. The song became very popular and would no doubt have given wide publicity and reinforcement to the 'hold the fort' expression. The song was also brought to England and Ireland in the 1870s by evangelists, where it was apparently received rapturously by all who sang it and heard it. Incidentally reports after the battle also quoted Corse's message of defiance to Sherman after his troops' heroics, 'I am short a cheek-bone and an ear, but am able to whip all hell yet..' and for a time this became a famous saying as well.

Hold The Fort (Philip P Bliss, 1870)

Ho, my comrades! see the signal waving in the sky!
Reinforcements now appearing, victory is nigh. (Chorus:)
"Hold the fort, for I am coming," Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to Heaven, "By Thy grace we will."

See the mighty host advancing, Satan leading on;
Mighty ones around us falling, courage almost gone! (Chorus)
See the glorious banner waving! Hear the trumpet blow!
In our Leader’s Name we triumph over ev'ry foe. (Chorus)
Fierce and long the battle rages, but our help is near;
Onward comes our great Commander, cheer, my comrades, cheer! (Chorus)

(Sources include: Robert G. Huddleston, writing in the US Civil War Google newsgroup, Aug 24 1998; and

there ain't no such thing as a free lunch - you never get something for nothing - now a common business expression, often used in acronym form 'TANSTAAFL', the first recorded use of this version was by Robert Heinlein in his 1966 book 'The moon is a harsh mistress'. The general expression 'there's no such thing as a free lunch' dates back to the custom of America 19th century bars giving free snacks in expectation of customers buying drink. American economist Milton Friedman, who won the 1976 Nobel prize for economics, did much to popularise the expression in that form and even used it as a title for one of his books.

French words and expressions/French - French words and expressions have long been easily absorbed into English, from the late middle-ages after the Norman invasion of 1066 through to the 1400s when French was the language of the ruling classes, government and the royal court, causing both English and French languages to exist and develop alongside each other, and then later in the 16-19th centuries when French expressions and words were commonly used by aspiring, upper-class or snobbish people who sought to appear fashionable and cultured. This to a certain extent explains why so many English words with French origins occur in lifestyle and social language. Incidentally the word French, to describe people or things of France and the language itself, has existed in English in its modern form since about 1200, prior to which it was 'Frensch', and earlier in Old English 'frencisc'. This derived from Old High German frenkisc and frenqisc, from and directly related to the Franks, the early Germanic people who conquered the Romans in Gaul (equating to France, Belgium, Northern Italy and a part of Western Germany) around the 5th century. The name of the Frank people is also the root of the word France and the Franc currency. The most appealing theory for the ultimate origin of the word Frank is that it comes from a similar word (recorded later in Old English as franca) for a spear or lance, which was the favoured weapon of the Frankish tribes. Incidentally the name of the Frank people also gave rise to the modern word frank, meaning (since the 1500s) bluntly honest and free-speaking, earlier (from French franca) meaning sincere, liberal, generous, and in turn relating to and originating from the free and elevated status associated with the Franks and their reputation.

pardon my French/excuse my French - an apology for using crude language - The word 'French' has long been used in the English language to express crudeness, stemming from the rivalry, envy and xenophobia that has characterised England's relationship with France and the French for more than a thousand years. Examples include french letter, french kiss, french postcards, and other sexual references. The expression 'french leave', meaning to take or use something and depart without paying or giving thanks (based on the reputed behaviour of invading French soldiers) had been in use for several hundred years prior to Brewer's reference of the phrase in 1870. All of this no doubt reinforced and contributed to the 'pardon my french' expression. However, 'Pardon my french' may actually have even earlier origins: In the three to four hundred years that followed the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Norman-style French language became the preferred tongue of the governing, educated and upper classes, a custom which cascaded from the Kings and installed Norman and Breton landowners of of the times. The majority of the population however continued to speak English (in its developing form of the time), which would have provided very fertile circumstances for an expression based on language and cultural mockery. And, perhaps another contending origin: It is said that the Breton people (from Brittany in France) swear in French because they have no native swear words of their own. Might this have been the earliest beginning of the expression?

fuck - have sexual intercourse with someone, and various other slang meanings - various mythical explanations for the origins of the word fuck are based on a backronym interpretation 'Fornication Under Consent of the King', or separately 'For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge'. The stories around the first expression are typically based on the (entirely fictional) notion that in medieval England a knight or nobleman would receive, by blessing or arrangement of the King, a young maiden to de-flower, as reward or preparation for battle, or more dramatically, a final pleasure before execution. Accordingly, a sign would be placed outside the bed-chamber, or perhaps hung like a 'do not disturb' notice from the door handle, displaying the words 'Fornication Under Consent of the King'. Sadly however that this somewhat far-fetched origin has no support whatsoever in any reliable reference sources. The same applies to the expression 'For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge', which (thanks B Murray) has since the mid-1960s, if not earlier, been suggested as an origin of the word; the story being that the abbreviation signalled the crime of guilty people being punished in thre pillory or stocks, probably by implication during medieval times. While it is true apparently that the crimes of wrong-doers were indicated on signs where they were held in the stocks or pillory, there is no evidence that 'unlawful carnal knowledge' was punished or described in this way. In fact, the word fuck first appeared in English in the 1500s and is derived from old Germanic language, notably the word ficken, meaning strike, which also produced the equivalent rude versions in Swedish, focka, and Dutch, fokkelen, and probably can be traced back before this to Indo-European root words also meaning 'strike', shared by Latin pugnus, meaning fist (sources OED and Cassells). Fist relates here to the striking context, not the sexual interpretation, which is a whole different story. Interestingly the humorous and story-telling use of bacronyms is a common device for creating hoax word derivations. See for example shit.

funny bone - semi-exposed nerve in elbow - a pun based on 'humerus', the name of the upper arm bone.

the full monty - the full potential of anything, or recently, full frontal nudity (since the film of the same name) - the two much earlier origins are: 1. Field Marshall Montgomery's insistence on a full English breakfast every morning, and 2. a full sunday-best suit and tie outfit from the tailors Montague Burton.



gall - cheek, boldness, extreme lack of consideration for others - gall in this sense of impudence or boldness (for example - "He's got a lot of gall..." - referring to an inconsiderate and bold action) first appeared in US English in the mid-late 1800s (Chambers says first recorded in 1882) derived and adapted from the earlier UK English meaning of embittered spirit (conceivably interpreted as spite or meanness), dating back to about 1200, from the same original 'bitter' sense in Latin. Gall literally first meant bile, the greenish-yellow liquid made by the liver in the body, which aids digestion (hence gall bladder, where it is stored). Gall (and related terms bile and choler) naturally produced the notion of bitterness because of the acidic taste with which the substance is associated. Brewer's Dictionary (1870) includes interesting history of the word gall appearing in popular expressive language: a phrase of the time was The Gall of Bitterness, being an extreme affliction of the bitterest grief, relating to the Four Humours or Four Temperaments (specifically the heart, according to Brewer, such was the traditional understanding of human biology and behaviour), and in biblical teaching signifying 'the sinfulness of sin', leading to the bitterest grief. Brewer quotes from Acts viii:23, "I perceive though art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity". Gall came into Old Englsh as gealla from Germanic, and is also related to the ancient Greek word khole for bile, from which the word choler derives, which came later into English around 1400 meaning yellow bile, again significant in the Four Humours and human condition. (Thanks J Martin-Gall for raising this interesting origin.)

game of soldiers - see sod this for a game of soldiers

gamut - whole range - originally 'gammut' from 'gamma ut', which was the name of the lowest note of the medieval music scale during its development into today's 'doh re mi fa so la ti doh'; then it was 'ut re mi fa sol la', and the then diatonic scale was referred to as the gammut.

gander - to look at something enthusiastically - an old English expression from the image of a goose (gander is a male goose and was earlier the common word for a goose) craning its neck to look at something.

gaolbird - see jailbird.

last gasp - see entry under 'last'.

gerrymander - to divide an area into representative districts to the advantage of one political party - from when Eldridge Gerry used the method as Governor of Massachusetts; the map artist Gilbert Stuart interpreted the new shape as a salamander, receiving the comment that it was not a salamander, it was a 'gerry-mander'.

Gestapo - Nazi Germany's secret police - from the official name of Germany's Securty Department, GEheime STAats POlizei, meaning 'Secret State Police', which was founded by Hermann Goering in 1933, and later controlled by Heinrich Himmler. The Gestapo was declared a criminal organization by the Nuremburg Tribunal in 1946. The pattern for establishing the acronym probably originated from the former name for the ordinary civil police, 'Schupo, from 'SCHUtz POlizei'.

gibberish - nonsense - first came into European language in various forms hundreds of years ago; derives from 'Geber' the Arabian; he was an 11th century alchemist who wrote his theories on making gold and other substances in mystical jargon, because at that time in his country writing openly on alchemy was punishable by death.

gobbledygoo - alternatively gobbledegook - nonsense, gibberish, originally in a speech, now extending to all forms of spoken and written and digital language, notably where the communication is supposed to be helpfully informative or instructional - the term is said to be (Chambers/Cassells) an allusion to turkey noises, inspired by US lawyer/congressman Maury Maverick, chair of the US Smaller War Plants Committee during the 2nd World War, who in 1944 said (about someone, we know not whom), "...always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity..." Interestingly however the term 'gobbledygoo' existed in US slang rather earlier than Maverick's quote (actually since the 1930s, first recorded, says Cassells) referring offensively to a prostitute who performs fellatio, ('gobble-de-goo'), and this prior form usage perhaps explains how Maverick's 'gobbledy' otherwise inexplicably acquired its 'goo' extension. See also gobbledegook in the business dictionary for examples and applications.

you go girl/go girl - expression of support and encouragement, especially for (logically) a woman taking on a big challenge - 'you go girl', which has been made especially popular in modern use on certain daytime debate and confrontation shows, like many sayings probably developed quite naturally in everyday speech among a particular community or group, before being adopted by media personalities. The saying is not a metaphor or slang, it is literal use of language, given a particular stylised structure and emphasis, in this case which we tend to associate with a normally passive or repressed girl or woman committing and being encouraged by a supporter or interested observers to take on a challenge. 'You go girl' has been been popularised via TV by Oprah Winfrey and similar hosts/presenters, and also by US drama/comedy writers, but the roots are likely to be somewhere in the population, where it evolved as a shortening of 'you go for it' and similar variations. From its usage and style most people would associate the saying with urban black communities, given which, this is logically a main factor in its popularity. Suggestions are welcome as to any personality (real or fictional) who might first have used the saying prominently on TV or film so as to launch it into the mainstream. For instance, was it the US 1992-97 'Martin' TV Show (thanks L Pearson, Nov 2007) starring Martin Lawrence as a Martin Payne, a fictional radio DJ and then TV talkshow host? I'm additionally informed (thanks Jon 'thenostromo' of of the early appearance of the 'go girl' expression, albeit arguably in a slightly different cultural setting to the modern context of the saying, in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, in the final line of Act I, Scene iii, when the Nurse encourages Juliet to "Go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days." Beat that, as the saying goes. For a while I reported here the suggestion that Katharine Hepburn uses the phrase, "You go girl," in the 1957 movie Desk Set. It seems however (thanks P Hansen) that this is not the case. The search continues..

God bless you - see 'bless you'.

golf - game of clubs, balls, holes, lots of walking, and for most people usually lots of swearing - the origin of the word golf is not the commonly suggested 'Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden' abbreviation theory; this is a bacronym devised in quite recent times. Golf is a Scottish word from the 1400s, at which time the word gouf was also used. Golf is similar to many European words for stick, club, bat, etc., such as colf, colve, (Dutch), kolve, kolbo, kolben (German). Related to these, kolfr is an old Icelandic word for a rod or blunt arrow. All these derive ultimately from Proto-Germanic kulb, in turn from the ancient Indo-European word glebh. The main opinion (OED, Chambers, etc) suggests that the word golf perhaps came into Scottish language from Dutch, where similar words were used specifically referring to games involving hitting a ball with a club. Interestingly the ancient Indo-European root word for club is glembh, very similar to the root word for golf.

goodbye/good-bye - originally a contraction of 'God be with ye (you)'; 'God' developed into 'good', in the same style as good day, good evening, etc.; 'good be with ye' would have meant 'may you fare well'.

goody goody gumdrops/goodie goodie gumdrops - expression of joy or delight, or more commonly sarcastic expression acknowledging a small reward, or a small gain made by another person - this well used expression, in its different forms (goody gumdrops is a common short form) doesn't appear in the usual references, so I doubt anyone has identified a specific origin for it yet - if it's possible to do so. The expression could be from as far back as the mid-1800s, since 'goodie/goody' has been used to describe tasty food since then, which would have lent extra relevance to the meaning of the expression. Also, the word gumdrop as a name for the (wide and old) variety of chewy sugared gum sweets seems to have entered American English speech in around 1860, according to Chambers. However it's more likely that popular usage of goody gumdrops began in the mid-1900s, among children, when mass-marketing of the sweets would have increased. Early usage of the expression seems to be more common in Australia/NZ and USA than England. The earliest clear reference I've found is for 'Goody Goody Gumdrop Ice-cream' which was marketed by the Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlour stores in their early years, which was late 1940s/early 1950s in USA (Fortune Magazine). Elsewhere it is suggested that Goody Goody Gumdrop Ice Cream first appeared in the USA in 1965 (Time Magazine). There also seems to be a traditional use of the expression for ice-cream containing gumdrop sweets in New Zealand. The use of the goody gumdrop expression in common speech would almost certainly have pre-dated its use as a branding device for ice-cream. In 1968 the pop group 1910 Fruitgum Company had a small UK chart success with a song called Goody Goody Gumdrops, and there is no doubt that the expression was firmly established in the UK, USA and Aus/NZ by the 1960s. There is some association with, and conceivably some influence from the 'Goody Two Shoes' expression, in that the meaning is essentially mocking or belittling a gain of some sort (whether accruing to oneself or more usually to another person).

goody two shoes/goodie two shoes/little miss goody two shoes - a person who behaves and performs extremely well (and particularly beyond the normal expectation, perhaps smugly, as to prompt cynicism, criticism and more accurately a little jealousy from others) - the 'goody two shoes' expression seems certainly to derive from a children's tale attributed to and probably written by Irish-born writer Oliver Goldsmith, published in 1765, in which the central figure (Miss Goody) achieves wealth and happiness from poor and humble beginnings. Her transformation is characterised by her having just a single shoe when poor, and being given a pair of shoes, which marked the start of her new found and apparently enthusiastically self-proclaimed joy. The full book title and sub-title are apparently 'The History of Little Goody Two Shoes, otherwise called Mrs Margery Two Shoes, the means by which she acquired her learning and wisdom, and in consequence thereof her estate; set forth at large for the benefit of those who from a state of Rags and Care, and having shoes but half a pair; their Fortune and their Fame would fix, and gallop in a Coach and Six'. (This detail is according to Robin's Roost Treasures online collectibles, which at the time of writing this derivation explanation - December 2004 - actually has a 1900 edition of the book for sale at $85.) The writer's choice of the word Goody was logically because the word 'goody' had earlier been in use (as early as 1559 according to Chambers) to mean a woman of humble station, being a shortened form of 'goodwife' in turn from middle English 'gode wif' which dates back to around 1250, and meant mistress of the house.

Gordon Bennett - exclamation of shock or surprise, and a mild expletive - while reliable sources suggest the expression is 20th century the earliest possible usage of this expression could be in the USA some time after 1835, when James Gordon Bennett (1795-1872 - Partridge says 1892) founded and then edited the New York Herald until 1867. Known as Gordon Bennett, he was a famous newspaper innovator; the first to use European correspondents for example. Perhaps more significantly Bennett's son (1841-1918) of the same name took over the role (presumably 1867), and achieved great international fame particularly by association with Henry Stanley's expedition of 1874-77 to find the 'lost' explorer David Livingstone in central Africa, which Gordon Bennett (the younger) instigated and financed alongside the UK Daily Telegraph. Like many other polite expletives - and this is really the most interesting aspect of the saying's origins - the expression Gordon Bennett is actually a euphemism (polite substitute) for a blasphemous alternative, in this case offering an appealing replacement for Cor Blimey or Gawd Blimey (God blind me), but generally used as a euphemistic alternative to any similar oath, such as God in Heaven, God Above, etc. Cassells suggests that a different Mr Gordon Bennett, a '...promoter of motor and air races before 1914...', might also have contributed to the use of the expression, although I suspect this could be the same man as James Gordon Bennett (the younger newspaper mogul), who according to Chambers biographical was himself involved in promoting such things, listed by Chambers as polar exploration, storm warnings, motoring and yachting. Whatever, given the historical facts, the fame of the name Gordon Bennett is likely to have peaked first in the mid 1800s in the USA, and then more widely when Gordon Bennett (the younger) sponsored the search for Livingstone in the 1870s. Logically its origins as a slang expression could be dated at either of these times.

greenback - American dollar note - from when the backs of banknotes issued in 1862 during the American Civil were printed in green.

greyhound - racing dog - Prior to 1200 this word was probably 'greahunt' and derives from European languages 'grea' or similar, meaning 'bitch', plus hound of course. The earlier explanation shown here was a load of nonsense (originally 'grayhound' these dogs used to hunt badgers, which were called 'grays'), and should have related to the 'dachshund' word origin (see dachshund). (Ack Don)

gringo - slang term for a foreigner or a white person used by some Spanish-speaking people, most famously by Mexicans and Hispanic Americans, and especially by Mexican bandits characterised in cowboy films - the most widely accepted origin of the expression gringo is from the word's meaning in Spanish, which is gibberish or unintelligible foreign language, and which possibly (according to Chambers amonst others) derives in turn from the Spanish word griego meaning Greek, in the same sense as the British expression 'it's all Greek to me' (meaning that something is about as easy to understand as if it were said or written in Greek). For those wondering why Greek is used as a metaphor for inpenetrable language or communications, Greek is a very ancient 'primary' language and so is likely to be more 'strange' than most of the common modern European languages, which have tended to evolve in groups containing many with similar words and constructions, and which cause them to be rather poor examples of inpenetrability. The other aspect is, interestingly, that Greek is just one of a number of language references, for example, 'Chinese', 'Double-Dutch', and 'Hieroglyphics', used metaphorically to convey the same sense of unintelligible nonsense or babbling (on which point see also the derivations of the word barbarian). Folklore in several variations suggesting that gringo is derived from a distortion of English song words "Green grow the rushes, O.." or "Green grow the lilacs.." sung by English/Scottish/Irish/American sailors or soldiers, and heard, mis-translated and used by Mexican or Venezeulan soldiers or other locals in reference to the foreigners, is sadly just a myth. The word gringo meaning 'gibberish' and 'foreigner' existed in Spanish in the 1700s, which is some while before all of the conflicts (occurring in 18-19th centuries) on which the song theories are based. I received the following additional suggestion (ack Alejandro Nava, Oct 2007), in support of a different theory of Mexican origin, and helpfully explaining a little more about Mexican usage: "I'm Mexican, so let you know the meaning of 'Gringo' ... In 1845-1847, the US invaded Mexico and the common people started to say 'green', 'go', because the color of the [US] uniform was green. At this time in Mexico [people] call all North American as Gringo, and the real meaning depends on the tone and the intention [interestingly see Mehrabian's communications theory], as a friend gringo is cool, but could be used [instead] as a pejorative like as an aggression..."

grog - beer or other alcoholic drink (originally derogatory, but now generally affectionate) - after Admiral Edward Vernon, who because he wore a grogram cloak was called 'old grog' by his sailors; (grogram is a course fabric of silk, mohair and wool, stiffened by gum). In 1740 Admiral Vernon was the first to serve rum diluted with water and lime juice to seamen, instead of neat rum, and his sailors called the new drink 'grog'. The purpose was chiefly to increase resistance to the disease, scurvy, which resulted from vitamin C deficiency. The practise of ensuring a regular intake of vitamin C in this way also gave rise to the term 'limey', used by foreigners initally to mean a British seaman, and later extended to British men generally. Grog is especially popular as a slang term for beer in Australia. (With thanks to Katherine Hull)

guillotine - now a cutting device particularly for paper, or the verb 'to cut' (e.g., a parliamentary 'guillotine motion'), originally the guillotine was a contraption used as a means of performing the death penalty by beheading, it was thought, without unnecessary pain - introduced in France on 25 April in 1792, the guillotine beheading machine was named after Joseph Ignace Guillotin, 1738-1814, a French physician. Fascinatingly Brewer's 1870 derivation refers to its continuing use and adds that it was originally called 'Guillotin's daughter' and 'Mademoiselle Guillotine'. Joseph Guillotine is commonly believed to be the machine's inventor but this was not so. I am advised (ack Rev N Lanigan, Aug 2007) of the following, which helps to confirm that Monsieur Guillotine's association with the machine arose for different reasons: "...In my first career as a dealer in historical letters and manuscripts I had occasion to buy and sell several documents signed by Dr Joseph Guillotine, and my understanding always was that Guillotine merely advocated the use of a beheading device, a very similar form of which was apparently known in Germany a couple of centuries before the French Revolution, because it produced death quickly and supposedly pretty painlessly. It is possible that Guillotine conceived the idea that an angled blade would cut more cleanly and painlessly than the German machine whose blade was straight across, but other than that he not only had no hand in its inventing and deplored the naming of the machine after him..." In fact Brewer in 1870 credits Guillotine with having "...proposed its adoption to prevent unnecessary pain...", and not with its invention. Brewer goes on to reference passage by Dumas, from the Countess de Charney, chapter xvii, "...It was but this very day that the daughter of M de Guillotine was recognised by her father in the National Assembly, and it should properly be called Mademoiselle Guillotine..." (the precise meaning of which is open to interpretation, but it is interesting nevertheless and Brewer certainly thought it worthy of mention). Brewer also refers to a previous instrument invented by Dr Antione Louis, which was known as the 'Louisiette'. (Thanks Rev N Lanigan for his help in clarifying these origins.)

guinea-pig - a person subjected to testing or experiment - not a reference to animal testing, this term was originally used to describe a volunteer (for various ad hoc duties, including director of a company, a juryman, a military officer, a clergyman) for which they would receive a nominal fee of a guinea, or a guinea a day. Incidentally, guineapigs didn't come from Guinea (in West Africa), they came from Guyana (South America).

looking down the barrel of a gun - having little choice, being intimidated or subdued by a serious threat - Mao Tse Tung's quote 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.....' (from a 1936 speech), seems the closest recorded version with similar feel to this expression. I suspect that the precise cliche 'looking down the barrel of a gun' actually has no single origin - it's probably a naturally evolved figure of speech that people began using from arguably as far back as when hand-held guns were first invented, which was around 1830. The expression seems to have become well established during the 20th century, probably from the association with cowboys and gangsters, and the films that portrayed them. There may also be a link or association with the expression 'gunboat diplomacy' which has a similar meaning, and which apparently originated in the late 19th century, relating to Britain's methods of dealing with recalcitrant colonials. I suppose it's conceivable that the 'looking down the barrel of a gun' metaphor could have been used earlier if based on the threat posed from cannons, which at the earliest would have been mid 13th century (the siege of Seville in 1247 was apparently the first time when gunpowder-charged cannons were ever used). Prior to this the word 'gun' existed in various language forms but it applied then to huge catapult-type weapons, which would of course not have had 'barrels'.

son of a gun - see entry under 'son'

gung-ho/gung ho - very enthusiastic or belligerent, particularly in international politics - the expression originates from the 'Gung-Ho' motto of Carlson's Raiders, a highly potent and successful marines guerrilla unit operating in World War II's Pacific and Japanese arena from 1942. Evans F Carlson had spent several years in China before the war, and developed organizational and battle theory from observing Chinese team-working and cooperation. Carlson took the gung-ho expression from the Chinese term 'kung-ho' meaning 'to work together'. I am additionally informed (thanks J Cullinane) that the expression 'gung ho' was popularized by New Zealander, Rewi Alley, a founder of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, and a friend of Evans Carlson. Alley's 'gung ho' meant 'work together' or 'cooperate' and was a corruption of the Chinese name for the Cooperatives: gongyè hézuòshè.

guru - spiritual leader, teacher, expert - contrary to myth, the word guru does not derive from ancient Eastern words 'gu' meaning dark and 'ru' meaning light (alluding to a person who turns dark to light) - this is a poetic idea but not true. In fact guru derives from the same Sankrit word guru (technically gurú or gurús) meaning heavy or grave (serious) or dignified, from which we also get the word grave (meaning serious) itself. Guru actually first came into the English language over 200 years ago as gooroo, when it referred to a Hindu spiritual leader or guide, and was simply an English phonetic translation of the sound of the Hindu word. According to Chambers, Arthur Wellesley, (prior to becoming Duke of Wellington), was among those first to have used the word gooroo in this way in his overseas dispatches (reports) in 1800, during his time as an army officer serving in India from 1797-1805. The English word gooroo was still in use in the late 1800s since it appears in the wonderful Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian dictionary first published in 1886, giving the Sanskrit translation as guru, with the same earlier meaning 'a spirtual teacher, a (Hindu) priest...' Interestingly the Hobson-Jobson entry goes on to provide several examples of the word and variations of its spelling in use, including a French extract from 1700 featuring the word 'Gourou', which exists today in French alongside the gurû alternative. Chambers suggests 1876 to be the first recorded use of the word guru in English to mean a teacher, and cites H G Wells' 1940 Babes In Darkling Wood as the first recorded use of the word guru to mean mentor in a general sense. Guru, meaning expert or authority, close to its modern fashionable usage, seems first to have appeared in Canadian English in 1966, although no specific reference is quoted. If you know of any such reference (to guru meaning expert in its modern sense) from the 1960s or earlier, please tell me.

guy-rope - used to steady or or hold up something, especially a tent - from Spanish 'guiar', meaning 'to guide'.

gymnastics - athletic exercises - from the Greek word 'gymnasium', which was where athletic sports were performed for the public's entertainment; athletes performed naked, and here lies the origin: 'gumnos' is Greek for naked.



halo - symbolic ring of light above or around a person's head, or above some other object or graphic, indicating holiness or goodness or lordliness or some other heavenly wonderful quality - the word halo is from Greek, meaning the divine disc of the sun or moon, which in turn was apparently derived in more ancient Greek from the meaning of a large round shiny floor area used for threshing grain by slaves. Halo in art and sculpture was seen hundreds of years before Christian art and depictions of Christ and saints etc., as early as ancient Greece c.500BC. While uncommon in art for hundreds of years, the halo has become a common iconic word and symbol in language and graphics, for example the halo effect. in Incidentally this sort of halo is not the derivation of halogen (as might seem given the light meaning) - halogen is instead from Greek halos meaning salt.

ham - amateur or incompetent - ham in this context is used variously, for example, ham actor, radio ham (amateur radio enthusiast), ham it up (over-act), ham-fisted (clumsy). Views are divided about the origins of ham meaning amateur and amateurish, which indicates there is more than one simple answer or derivation. Theories that can probably be safely discounted include links with cockney slang 'hamateur' meaning amateur from the insertion and emphasis of the 'H' for comedic effect, which does occur in cockney speech sometimes (self-mocking the tendency of the cockney dialect to drop the H at word beginnings), but which doesn't seem to have any logical purpose in this case, nor theatrical application, unless the ham actor slang already existed. A similarly unlikely derivation is from the (supposedly) an old English word 'hamm' meaning to bend on one knee (allegedly), like actors do, which seems a particularly daft theory to me. Any very early derivation connected to the word amateur itself is also unlikely since amateur originally meant in English (late 1700s according to Chambers and Cassell) a lover of an activity, nothing to do with incompetent or acting, from the French and Italian similar words based on the Latin amator, meaning lover. More reliably some serious sources agree that from about the mid 1900s (Cassell) or from about 1880 (Chambers) the expression 'hamfatter' was used in American English to describe a mediocre or incompetent stage performer, and that this was connected with a on old minstrel song called 'The Ham-fat Man' (which ominously however seems not to exist in any form nowadays - if you have any information about the song 'The Hamfat Man' or 'The Ham-Fat Man' please send them). Cassell clearly suggests that this derives from the (presumably late 19th century) practice of impoverished stage performers using ham fat as a base for face make-up powder instead of more expensive grease products. Other sources suggest that ham fat was used as a make-up remover. Amazingly some sources seem undecided as to whether the song or the make-up practice came first - personally I can't imagine how any song could pre-date a practice that is the subject of the song. The issue is actually whether the practice ever actually existed, or whether it was a myth created by the song. Whatever, ham in the 'ham actor' context seems certainly to be a shortening of the 'hamfatter' theatrical insult from the late 1800s and early 1900s US theatrical fraternity. Separately, ham-fisted was a metaphorical insult for a clumsy or ineffective boxer (Cassell), making a comparison between the boxer's fist a ham, with the poor dexterity and control that would result from such a terrible handicap. Also according to Cassell the word ham was slang for an incompetent boxer from the late 1800s to the 1920s. Sources tend to agree that ham was adopted as slang for an amateur telegraphist (1919 according to Chambers) and amateur radio operator (1922 Chambers), but it is not clear whether the principal root of this was from the world of boxing or the stage. Perhaps both, because by then the word ham had taken on a more general meaning of amateur in its own right. Within the ham meaning there seems also to be a strong sense that the ham (boxer, radio-operator, actor or whatever) has an inflated opinion of his own ability or importance, which according to some sources (and me) that prefer the theatrical origins, resonates with the image of an under-achieving attention-seeking stage performer. Finally, and interestingly, Brewer (1870) does not list 'ham' but does list 'Hamlet' with the explanation: "A daft person (Icelandic amlod'), one who is irresolute and can do nothing fully. Shakespeare's play is based on the story of Amleth' recorded in Saxo Grammaticus". So perhaps the origins pre-date even the ham fat theory..

hand over fist - very rapidly (losing or accumulating, usually money) - from a naval expression 'hand over hand' which Brewer references in 1870. Hand over hand meant to travel or progress very quickly, usually up or down, from the analogy of a sailor climbing a rope, or hauling one in 'hand over hand'. The expression extended to grabbing fistfuls of money sometime after 1870 (otherwise Brewer would almost certainly have referenced it), probably late 19th century.

hard and fast - firmly, especially rules - another nautical term; 'hard' meant that the ship was immovable, 'hard and fast' meant in dry dock.

hair of the dog - a small drink of alcohol to cure a hangover - and very old expression; the full expression is 'a hair of the dog that bit you/me/us', and it originates from a poem credited to Aristophanes, Greek comic dramatist (448-387 BC): 'Take the hair, it's well written, of the dog by which you're bitten, work off one wine by his brother, and one labour with another...' the expression was also popularised by John Heywood in his collection of proverbs and self-penned epigrams of 1546, many of which, including the 16th century version of 'hair of the dog' (A hair of the dog that bit us), are listed in John Heywood 'Proverbs' section. I am additionally informed (thanks Mary Phillips, May 2010) of the wonderful adaptation of this expression: "Hair of the dog - Fur of the cur", used by Mary's late husband and language maven Dutch Phillips (1944-2000), of Fort Worth, Texas. Given that (at the time of publishing this item, 1 Jun 2010) there seem no other references relating to this adaptation it is quite possibile that Dutch Phillips originated it. If you know different please get in touch.

handicap - disadvantage - from an old English card game called 'hand I the cap', in which the cap (which held the stake money) was passed to the next dealer unless the present dealer raised his starting stake, by virtue of having won the previous hand, which required the dealer to raise his stake (hence the disadvantage) by the same factor as the number of hands he had beaten. The game was first reported by Samuel Pepys in his diary, 18 Sept 1680.

hang out - to frequent or be found at - sounds like a recent expression but it's 1830s or earlier, originally meant 'where one lives and works' from the custom of hanging a sign of occupation or trade outside a shop or business, as pubs still do.

bury the hatchet/hang up the hatchet - see 'bury the hatchet'.

hat-trick - three scores/wickets/wins - from the game of Cricket in 18-19th century, when it was customary to award a bowler who took three consecutive wickets a new hat at the expense of the club. The word 'trick' has meant a winning set of three, particularly in card games, for hundreds of years.

havoc - chaos, usually destructive - this word derives from war; it was an English, and earlier French, medieval military command, originally in French, 'crier havoc', referring to a commander giving the army the order to plunder, pillage, destroy, etc. The expression 'cry havoc' referring to an army let loose, was popularised by Shakespeare, who featured the term in his plays Julius Caesar, ("Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war..."), The Life and Death of King John, and Coriolanus. Havoc in French was earlier havot.

heads or tails - said on flipping a coin - Brewer gave the explanation in 1870; it's an old English expression, with even earlier roots: 'heads' because all coins had a head on one side; the other had various emblems: Britannia, George and the Dragon, a harp, a the royal crest of arms, or an inscription, which were all encompassed by the word 'tails', meaning the opposite to heads. Tails was the traditional and obvious opposite to heads (as in 'can't make head nor tail of it'). The pluralisation came about because coin flipping was a guessing game in itself - actually dating back to Roman times, who, due to their own coin designs called the game 'heads or ships'.

hear hear (alternatively and wrongly thought to be 'here here') - an expression of agreement at a meeting - the expression is 'hear hear' (not 'here here' as some believe), and is derived from 'hear him, hear him' first used by a members of the British Parliament in attempting to draw attention and provide support to a speaker. The use of 'hear him, hear him' dated from the late 1500s according to Random House and the OED; the shortened 'hear hear' parliamentary expression seems to have developed in the late 1700s, since when its use has been more widely adopted, notably in recent times in local government and council meetings, committee meetings, formal debates, etc. Today the 'hear hear' expression could arguably be used by anyone in a meeting wanting to show support for a speaker or viewpoint expressed, although it will be perceived by many these days as a strange or stuffy way of simply saying 'I agree'. Let's face it, the House of Commons, home of the expression, is not the greatest example of modern constructive civilised debate and communications.

hell hath no fury like a woman scorned - ignore a woman's wishes (especially feelings, loyalty, love, etc) and she is liable to be extremely angry - originally from William Congreve's 1697 play The Mourning Bride: 'Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury, like woman scorned.' More about the "Hell hath no fury..." expression.

(go to/off to) hell in a hand-basket - There seems not to be a definitive answer as to the origins of this expression, which from apparent English beginnings, is today more common in the USA than elsewhere. The expression, or certainly its origins, are old: at least 1700s and probably earlier. Sources and writers who have used similar expressions include the Dictionary of American Regional English, which includes a related expression from 1714: "...Governor said he would give his head in a handbasket....". Edgar Allan Poe refers to "...carrying oneself in a handbasket..." in Marginalia, 1848. And a similar expression appears in 17th century English playwrite John Crowne's Juliana, the Princess of Poland, "... I don't carry my eyes in a hand-basket..." In Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, III.v, Falstaff says, when describing his fears of suffering a terrible fate, "...Have I lived to be carried in a basket, like a barrow of butcher's offal, and to be thrown in the Thames?..." Falstaff refers several times later in the scene to being carried in a 'buck-basket' of stinking clothes. By implication a 'buck-basket' is larger than a 'hand-basket', but the expression further illustrates the imagery and association of the time that baskets were common receptacles, and therefore obvious references for metaphors. Baskets also would have been cheap, and therefore perhaps a poor person's casket, again relating to the idea of a miserable journey after death. All interesting clues but not a definitive root of the expression. Instinctively I feel - this is pure conjecture on my part, based on various writings on the subject - 'hell in a hand-basket' evolved from the metaphors of a person's decapitated head being in a (small) hand-basket, which fits the association with beheading and the guillotine, suggesting that the victim has been bad in some way and therefore loses their head and deserves to go to hell, and also the more loosely based metaphor surrounding the idea of being put into a (larger) basket after death, reflecting a miserable fate. The 'hand' element part of the 'hand-basket' construction is likely to have evolved within the expression more for alliterative and phonetically pleasing reasons, rather than being strictly accurately descriptive, which is consistent with many other odd expressions; it's more often a matter of how easily the expression trips off the tongue, rather than whether the metaphor is technically correct.

hell to pay - seriously bad consequences - a nautical expression; 'pay' meant to waterproof a ship's seems with tar. Probably derived from the expression 'the devil to pay and no pitch hot', in which the words hell and pay mean something other than what we might assume from this expression. See 'devil to pay', which explains the nautical technicalities of the expression in more detail.

hickory dickory dock - beginning the nursery rhyme (... the mouse ran up the clock, etc.) - these strange words origins are thought by some (including me having seen various sources and indications) to originate from Welsh or Celtic corruption and translation of the numbers 'eight, nine, ten'. I am grateful to A Shugaar for pointing out that the link with Welsh is not a clear one, since modern Welsh for 'eight nine ten' is 'wyth nau deg', which on the face of it bears little relation to hickory dickory dock. However, a Welsh variant of the word for the number eight is 'wythwyr' whose pronunciation, ('ooithooir' is the best I can explain it) is vaguely comparable to 'hickory'. Obviously 'nau' is far away from 'dickory', but 'deg' is very close to 'dock'. An Irish variation for eight is 'ochtar'; ten is 'deich'. French for eight is 'huit'; ten is 'dix'. Welsh, Irish, French have Celtic connections, and some similarity seems to exist between their words for eight and hickory, and ten and dock. Admittedly the connections are not at all strong between dickory and nine, although an interpretation of Celtic (and there are many) for eight nine ten, is 'hovera covera dik', which bears comparison with hickory dickory dock. Sure, none of this is scientific or cast-iron proof, but it feels like there's a connection between these Welsh and Celtic roots and 'hickory dickory dock', rather than it being simply made up nonsense, which personally I do not buy. Addendum: My recent research into the hickory dickory dock origins seems to indicate that the roots might be in very old Celtic language variations (notably the remnants of the Old English Cumbirc language) found in North England, which feature in numerical sequences used by shepherds for counting sheep, and which were adopted by children in counting games, and for counting stitches and money etc. Specifically for example the number sequence 'hovera dovera dik' meaning 'eight nine ten', was apparently a feature of the English Cumbrian Keswick sheep-counting numbers. These old sheep counting systems (and the Celtic languages) survived the influences of the invading Normans and development of French and English languages because the communities who used them (the Scottish and Welsh particularly) lived in territories that the new colonisers found it difficult to purge, partly due to the inhospitable terrain, and partly due to the ferocity of the Celtic people in defending their land and traditions. The sheep counting number systems of the old Cumbrian and Yorkshire languages resemble to varying degrees the Welsh numbers between four and nineteen. (See The hickory dickory dock origins might never be known for sure. Other suggestions include derivations from English plant life, and connections with Romany gypsy language. Until someone comes up with a more complete theory, I fancy the Welsh/Celtic/Cumbrian sheep-counting idea..

neither hide nor hair - entirety of something or someone (usually elusive, lost or missing) - also expressed less commonly as 'hide or hair' and in misspelled and misunderstood (corrupted) form as 'hide nor hare' and 'hide or hare'. In fact the hair refers to hair or fur of an animal, and hide refers to the animal's skin, and is a metaphor for the whole (visible) animal. The corruption into 'hare' is nothing to do with the hare creature; it is simply a misunderstanding and missspelling of hair, meaning animal hair or fur. Hide and hair, or hide and fur were common terms in the language of slaughterhouse and hunting, the latter relevant especially to hunting animals for their hides (skins or pelts), notably for the fur trade or as trophies. 'Hide and tallow' was an old variation of the phrase originating from from slaughterhouses dating back many hundreds of years; tallow being the fat, or more precisely the product from animal fat used for candles and grease, etc. The expression is less commonly used also in reverse order, and with the word 'and' instead of 'nor' and 'or', eg, 'hair and hide', although 'hide nor hair' endures as the most common modern interpretation. While the expression has old roots, perhaps as far back as the 12th century (Middle English according to Allen's English Phrases) in processing slaughtered animals, there are almost certainly roots in hunting too, from which it would have been natural for a metaphor based on looking for an elusive animal to to be transferred to the notion of an elusive or missing person. A popular version of the expression was and remains: "I've seen neither hide nor hair of him (her, it, etc)," meaning that the person or thing in question has not been seen, is missing or has disappeared, or is lost (to the speaker that is, the missing person probably knows exactly where he/she is..). This expression and its corrupted versions using 'hare' instead of 'hair' provide examples of how language and expressions develop and change over time. In the future if sufficient people use the corrupted form (hide nor hare) it will enter the language on a more popularly recognised basis - not because it is 'correct' but simply because enough people use it believing it to be correct. Like words, expressions change through usage, and often as a result of this sort of misunderstanding. Dictionaries (and eventually commentators and teachers) reflect language as much as they direct it. Incidentally an easy way to check and confirm popular usage (and spellings for that matter) for any ambiguous phrase is to search Google (or another reliable and extensive search engine) for the phrase in question, enclosing the phrase within speech marks, for example, "hide nor hair", which, at the time of writing (Aug 2006) shows 88,000 references to 'hide nor hair' on the worldwide web. By contrast "hide or hair" and "hide nor hare" return only about 200 references each, which is evidence of relative usage. The use of speech marks in the search restricts the listings to the precise phrase and not the constituent words. This useful function of the worldwide web and good search engines like Google is a much under-used and fortuitous by-product of the modern digital age. (Numerous sources, including Cassells and Allens)

highbrow/lowbrow - clever/unclever - brow is the forehead - highbrow meant high and large intellect from the image of a big brain causing a high and pronounced forehead. Lowbrow is a leter expression that is based on the former highbrow expression. From the 19thC at the latest.

hike - raise or force up sharply - according to Chambers, hyke and heik first appeared in colloquial English c.1809 meaning walk or march vigorously. The meaning extended to hitching up a pair of pants/trousers (logically in preparation to hike somewhere) during the mid-late-1800s and was first recorded in 1873. And extending from the above, around 1904, hike was first recorded being used in the sense of sharply raising wages or prices. The same use is first recorded in American English around 1930. Some time since then the 'hike' expression has extended to sharply lifting, throwing or moving any object, notably for example in American football when 'snapping' the football to the quarterback, although interestingly there is no UK equivalent use of the word hike as a sporting expression.

hip hip hooray - 'three cheers' - originally in common use as 'hip hip hurrah'; derived from the middle ages Crusades battle-cry 'Hieroslyma est perdita' (Jerusalem is fallen), and subsequently shortened by Germanic tribes when fighting Jews to 'hep hep', and used in conjunction with 'hu-raj' (a Slavic term meaning 'to paradise'), so that the whole phrase meant 'Jerusalem is fallen and we are on the way to paradise'.

hitchhike - travel free with a motorist while ostensibly journeying on foot - a recent Amercican English expression, hitchhike first appeared in popular use c.1927 (Chambers), the word derivation is from the combination of hitch, meaning attach a sled to a vehicle, and hike, meaning walk or march. Hitch used in the sense is American from the 1880s (Chambers) although the general hitch meaning of move by pulling or jerking is Old English from the 1400s hytchen, and prior, icchen meaning move from 1200. Hike is English from around 1800, whose origins strangely are unknown before this. The alliterative quality (repeated letter sounds) of the word hitchhike would certainly have encouraged popular usage.

hob-nob - to socialise, particularly drink with - was originally 'hob and nob together', when hob-nob had another entirely different meaning, now obsolete ('hit or miss' or 'give and take' from 'to have or not have', from the Anglo-Saxon 'habben' have, and 'nabben' not to have); today's modern 'drink with' meaning derives from the custom of pubs having a 'hob' in the fireplace on which to warm the beer, and a small table there at which to sit cosily called a 'nob', hence 'hob and nob'.

hobson's choice - no choice at all - from the story of Tobias Hobson, Cambridge innkeeper who had a great selection of horses available to travellers, but always on the basis that they took the horse which stood nearest to the stable door (so that, according to 'The Spectator' journal of the time, 'each customer and horse was served with the same justice').

hoi polloi - an ordinary mass of people - it literally means in Greek 'the many', (so the 'the' in common usage is actually redundant).

hold the fort/holding the fort - see entry under 'fort'.

not know someone/something from a hole in the wall/ground/a tree - ignorance or indifference towards the identity of someone/something - this expression is simple up to a point, but potentially more complex depending on context and precise usage. The cliche basically describes ignorance (held by someone about something or someone) but tends to imply more insultingly that a person's capability to appreciate the difference between something or someone of quality and a 'hole in the ground' is limited. The expression also tends to transfer the seedy/small-minded associations of 'hole in the wall/ground/tree' to the target (person). The modern expression has existed in numerous similar ways for 60 years or more but strangely is not well documented in its full form. The Dictionary of American Regional English (Harvard, Ed. Frederic Cassidy) lists the full version above being used since 1950, alongside variations: (not know someone from a) hole in the ground, and hole in a tree, and significantly 'wouldn't know one's ass from a hole in the ground/the wall'. The expression 'doesn't know his ass (or beans, or head) from a hole in the ground/wall' is a further variation. Popular etymology and expressions sources such as Cassells, N Rees, R Chapman American Slang, Allen's English Phrases, etc., provide far more detail about the second half of the expression (the hole and where it is and what it means), which can stand alone and pre-dates the full form referring to a person not knowing (the difference between the hole and someone or something). For example, the 'hole in a wall' part of the expression is the oldest usage, initially from the mid-1700s meaning a brothel, and later, in the 1800s a hole through which food and drink was passed to debtors in prison. In the 1800s America further interpretations grew, notably a 'hole in the wall' famously was a hatch or small bar selling illicit liquor, later extending to describe other types of shop or business located in makeshift or shady backstreet premises. By the late 1800s 'hole in the wall' was also being used to refer to a cramped apartment, and by the 1900s the expression had assumed sufficient flexibility to refer to any small, seedy or poor-class premises. The expression (since mid-1800s, US) 'hole in the road' refers to a tiny insignificant place (conceivably a small collection of 'hole in the wall' premises). Aside from premises meanings, the expressions 'hole in a tree' and 'hole in the ground' are often metaphors for a lower-body orifice and thereby a person, depending on usage. I leave it to your imagination to decide what precise purpose might be served by a hole in a tree. Whether the analogy is based on a hole in the ground, wall, tree or road, the common aspects of these expressions are smallness, low visibility or anonymity, and an allusion to low-class or seediness. In all of these this senses, using the metaphor to emphasise a person's ignorance (of something or someone) or instead a person's lack of visibility or profile (so as to be anonymous or unknown to another or others generally) potentially embodies quite a complex set of meanings, whether intended or not.

holy cow, holy cripes, holy hell, holy macaroni, etc - oath or exclamation of surprise - it's unlikely that a single origin exists for any of these 'holy this or that' expressions. Holy hell and others like it seem simply to be naturally evolved oaths from the last 200 years or so, being toned-down alternatives to more blasphemous oaths like holy Jesus, holy Mother of Jesus, holy God, holy Christ, used by folk who felt uncomfortable saying the more sensitive words. The principle extends further with the use of tamer versions which developed more in the 20th century, based on religious references and insults, such as holy cow (sacred beast), holy moly/holy moley (moses), holy smoke (incense), etc., which also reflect the increasing taste for ironic humour in such expressions. These sorts of euphemisms are polite ways of uttering an oath without apparently swearing or blaspheming, although of course the meaning and intent is commonly preceived just as offensively by those sensitive to such things. Other examples of religious/oath/swear-word euphemisms used with the Holy prefix include: cripes, (instead of Christ, as in crikey), crap (logical development/combination of previous), jeepers, jeez, (Jesus, as with jehosephat, jumping jehosephat), cod, mackerel (see holy mackerel entry above), mackinaw (Mary and/or mackerel), gosh, golly gosh (God), heck, (hell) gee, (jesus or ghost), fly, fiddlesticks (an alternative phonetically-pleasing F-word), schikes, shicker, (Aus/NZ), shoot, (instead of shit), and various obscure and daft-sounding others, loosely connected with biblical geography or imagery, or simply beginning with the same letters as the taboo word, which in themselves are not necessarily blasphemously based but which naturally assume a blasphemous value by attachment to the word holy, such as snakes, cats, Egypt, and bilge water (arguably partly or entirely from holy water). This list grows as we live and breathe..

Holy Grail - the biblical and mythical cup or dish, or a metaphor for something extremely sought-after and elusive (not typically an expletive or exclamation) - the Holy Grail is either a (nowadays thought to be) cup or (in earlier times) a dish, which supposedly Christ used at the last supper, and which was later used by Joseph of Arimathaea to catch some of the blood of Christ at the crucifixion. The Holy Grail then (so medieval legend has it), came to England where it was lost (somewhat conveniently some might say...), and ever since became a focus of search efforts and expeditions of King Arthur's Knights Of The Round Table, not to mention the Monty Python team. The cup/dish confusion seems to stem from the closeness of the roots of the words: Old English 'Greal' and Old French 'Graal' meant Cup, and Medieval Latin 'Gradalis' was a Dish or Platter, probably from Latin 'Crater', meaning Bowl.

holy mackerel - exclamation of surprise - A blasphemous oath from the same 'family' as goddam and darn it, etc. Holy Mackerel dates back at least 200 years and is one of very many blasphemous oaths with the Holy prefix. Holy Mackerel was almost certainly a reference to Catholics eating fish on Fridays (rather like Holy Cow is a reference to Hindus, and Holy Smoke is a jibe at incense burning and funeral pyres; also Holy Moses - shortened to the rhyming Holy Moley or Holy Moly - the way that the words trip of the tongue is very significant in how these expressions become widely used and adopted, and Holy Mackerel does have a certain ring to it, in a way that Holy Skate, or Holy Cod do not... ). As well as being a popularly eaten fish of the times (affordable by Catholics on limited budgets - the insulting term 'mackerel snatchers' was also used for Catholics in the 19th century), the word Mackerel has historically been a strong fish symbol and fish stereotype (the French word maquereau is slang for 'pimp', due to its habit supposedly of leading other fish to their mates). The term Holy Mackerel would also have served as a euphemistic substitute for Holy Mary or Holy Mother of God, which is why words beginning with M feature commonly in these expressions. See also the entry for 'holy cow', etc.

home sweet home - sentimental expression of home - from American John Howard Payne's words for the 1823 opera, The Maid of Milan, the song's word's are ''Be it never so humble, there's no place like home'.

honcho - boss - originally an American expression from the 2nd World War, derived from the Japanese 'hancho' meaning squad leader.

honeymoon - holiday after marriage - derived from the practice of the ancient Teutons, Germanic people of the 2nd century BC, who drank 'hydromel' (honey wine) for a 'moon' (thirty days) after marriage. Supposedly Attila the Hun drank so much hydromel at his wedding feast that he died.

hoodwink - deceive deliberately - the hoodwink word is first recorded in 1562 according to Chambers. It simply originates from the literal meaning and use to describe covering the eyes with a hood or blindfold. This was the original meaning. Today's metaphorical expression and meaning 'to deceive' developed in the early 17thC from the earlier use of the word to mean 'conceal' in the late 16thC.

by hook or by crook - any way possible - in early England the poor of the manor were able to to collect wood from the forest by using a metal spiked hook and a crook (a staff with hooked end used by shepherds), using the crook to pull down what they couldn't reach with the hook. The equivalent French expression means 'either with the thief's hook or the bishop's crook'. The expression has also been reinforced by a fabled Irish battle to take Waterford from the sea, when the invasion leader, Strongbow, learned that the Tower of Hook and the Church of Crook stood on either side of the harbour remarked that he would take the town 'by Hook or by Crook'. Alternatively (Ack KO) it is believed by some to be an expression originally coined by Oliver Cromwell. Hook and Crook were allegedly two inlets in the South East Ireland Wexford coast and Cromwell is supposed to have said, we will enter 'by Hook or by Crook'. Hook Head is these days home to the oldest lighthouse in all Great Britain and Ireland.

hookey walker/walker/with a hook - no way, nonsense, get away with you, not likely - an expression of dismissive disbelief, from the early 1800s, derived seemingly from one or a number of real or mythical hooked-nosed characters said to have engaged in spying and reporting on their colleagues for the masters or employers, which led to their reports being dismissed as nonsense by the accused. A supposed John Walker, an outdoor clerk of the firm Longman Clementi and Co, of Cheapside, London, is one such person referenced by Cassells slang dictionary. The imagery and association of the words hook, hooky, and hookey with dishonest activities of various sorts (stealing, pickpocketing, truanting, etc) perhaps reinforced the adption and use of hookey walker and related phrases, which extended to expressions such as 'that's a walker' and 'that's all hookey walker' used in the early 1900s. The word walker itself also naturally suggests dismissing someone or the notion of being waved away - an in the more modern expression 'get out of here' - which we see in the development of the expressions again from the early 1900s 'my name's walker' or 'his name's walker', referring to leaving, rather like saying 'I'm off' or 'he's off'.

hope springs eternal - wishful thinking in the face of almost certain disappointment - from Alexander Pope's 'An Essay on Man' (1733-4) - "Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always to be blest." Pope's original sentiment is perhaps more positive than the modern usage of this expression. The full passage seems to say that humankind is always hoping, optimistically, even if never rewarded; which is quite a positive sentiment about the human condition. Nowadays 'hope springs eternal' often tends to have a more cynical meaning, typically directed by an observer towards one thought to be more hopeless than hopeful.

put it in the hopper - save or make note of a suggestion or idea or proposal - the expression also carries the sense of sorting or filtering initial ideas that 'put in the hopper' to produce more refined plans or actions later. The metaphor alludes to machinery used particularly in agriculture and converting, where the raw material is first put into a large funnel-shaped box (the hopper), which shakes, filters and feeds the material to the next stage of the processing. The expression seems to have first been recorded in the 1950s in the US, where the hopper is also an informal term at Congress for the Clerk's box at the rostrum into which bills are lodged by the sponsoring Representatives. According to Chambers the word hopper first appeared in English as hoper in 1277, referring to the hopper of a mill (for cereal grain, wheat, etc). The use of the word hopper in that sense seems perfectly natural given the earlier meaning of the word hop (in Old English hoppian, c.1000) was to spring or dance. How many people using the expression 'put it in the hopper' at brainstorming meetings and similar discussions these days will realise that the roots of the metaphor are over a thousand years old?

horse-shoe - lucky symbol - the superstition dates from the story of the devil visiting St Dunstan, who was a skilled blacksmith, asking for a single hoof to be shod. Dunstan tied him to the wall and purposefully subjected the devil to so much pain that he agreed never to enter any place displaying a horse-shoe.

get on/off your high horse - behave/desist from behaving arrogantly - metaphor based on the ceremonial tradition from 1700s England and earlier, for very important people - military leaders, nobility etc - to lead parades on horseback, as a sign of their superiority and to increase their prominence.

hue and cry - noisy mob - an old English legal term dating from the 13th century, for a group pursuing a suspected villain; 'hue' is from 'the French 'huee', to shout after.

eat humble pie - acknowledge one's own mistake or adopt a subordinate or ashamed position, particularly giving rise to personal discomfort - originally unrelated to the word 'humble'; 'umbles' referred to the offal of animals hunted for their meat, notably deer/venison. While the lord of the manor and his guests dined on venison, his hunting staff ate pie made from the deer umbles. The word 'umbles' is from 16th century England and had been mistranslated into 'humble' by the late 19th century (Brewer references 'humble pie' in his dictionary of 1870 - and refers to umbles being the heart, liver and entrails). The OED says that umbles is from an earlier Old French word numbles, referring to back/loin of a deer, in turn from Latin lumbulus and lumbus, loin.

humbug - nonsense, particularly when purporting to be elevated language - probably from 'uomo bugiardo', Italian for 'lying man'. Reinforced by an early meaning of 'hum', to deceive (with false applause or flattery).

Hun - derogatory term for German forces/soldier during Word War Two - the Huns actually were originally a warlike Tartar people of Asia who ravaged Europe in the 4-5th centuries and established the vast Hunnic Empire notably under the leadership of Attila the Hun (died 453AD). The country Hungary is named after the Huns. The word meant/came to mean 'monster' in old Germanic languages, e.g., Hune/Hiune/Huni, and these are the derivation of the English surname Huhne. Attila the Hun is said to have an interesting connection with the word 'honeymoon', although not phonetic - instead that he died after drinking too much honey wine - like mead - at his wedding celebrations (honey liquor and a moon [30 days] of celebrations being the etymology of the word honeymoon).

hygiene - cleanliness - from the Greek godess of health, Hygeia.



iota - very small amount - 'iota' is the name of the letter 'i' in the Greek alphabet, its smallest letter.

i'm alright jack - humourous boast at the expense of a lumbered mate - this expression derives from the military acronym 'FUJIYAMA' and its full form meaning: Fuck You Jack I'm Alright; not a precise acronym abbreviation, partly a clever phonetic structure in which the 'IYAM' element equates to the words I am, or I'm. The expression is from the rank and file British/American soldiers of the 2nd World War, notably and almost certainly originating in the Pacific war zones. Fujiyama is in fact the highest mountain in Japan situated in central Honshu. A volcanic peak, 12,389 ft (3,776 m) high, Fujiyama is a sacred place and pilgrimage destination, and has been an inspiration for writers and painters for centuries. According to legend Fujiyama was formed in 286 BC. It last erupted in 1707. The mountain is alternatively known in western language as Mount Fuji (yama is Japanese for mountain). These days apparently (ack Gerbrant) it is known in Japan as 'Fujisan,'which means (in context) 'abundant samurai mountain', and which is written in Japanese: 富 士 山.

indian summer - summer-like weather during Autumnal months, notably September and October - most modern references and also Brewer (1870) suggest that the Indian Summer expression originated because this seasonal feature (hot sunny weather in Autumn or Fall) was first observed in North America at a time and in regions inhabited by native American 'Indians' (as these people were historically called). Brewer quotes a passage from Charlotte Bronte's book 'Shirley' (chapter 27), published in 1849: "The gilding of the Indian summer mellowed the pastures far and wide. The russet woods stood ripe to be stript, but were yet full of leaf..."

lots of/many irons in the fire/too many irons in the fire - Depending on the usage this expression can refer either to a positive situation of having several options or activities, or having too many options or activities that can be successfully managed. A broader overall translation potentially produces quite a sophisticated meaning, that is, when several options/activities exist, careful management is required. An early recorded use given by Allen's English Phrases indicates that the expression is from the late 1500s or sooner (from John Lily's work Mother Bombie, 1594): "...Then let's about it speedily, for so many irons in the fire together require a diligent Plummer..." This usage suggests the expression's allusion is to hot irons used for early plumbing (working with lead), although Allen's explanation is that the irons are those used in pressing clothes, which puzzlingly does not fit the example quoted. The suggestion that the irons are those used in cattle branding (thanks B Murray) is a possible US retrospective interpretation or contributory influence, but given the late 16th century example of usage is almost certainly not the origin.



jailbird/gaolbird - prison inmate or former inmate, especially habitual offender - Bird has been underworld slang for a prisoner since 1500s Britain, and long associated with being jailed because of the reference to caging and hunting wild birds; also escaping from captivity, for example the metaphor 'the bird has flown'. More recently, from mid 1800s Britain, bird is also slang for a prison sentence (based on the cockney rhyming slang, 'birdlime' = time); from which, 'doing bird' means serving a prison sentence. Bird was also slang for a black slave in early 1800s USA, in this case an abbreviation of blackbird, but again based on the same allusion to a hunted, captive or caged wild bird. The jailbird and gaolbird expressions developed initially in standard English simply as logical extensions of the component words from as early as the 1600s and both versions seem to have been in common use since then.

jam (jam session) - improvised musical performance by a group of musicians - seemingly first appeared in print 1929, USA, originally meaning a jazz passage within a musical piece or song, performed by all instruments in the band (as distinct from a 'break' which is a solo instrumental passage). According to Chambers Etymology dictionary the use of the expression began to extend to its present meaning, ie., an improvised performance, c.1933. The word 'jam' is most likely derived from the same root as 'jazz', ie., from the African word 'jasm' meaning energy (Cassell), which logically fits with the African slave origins of the music itself.

january - the month - 'Janus' the mythical Roman character had two faces, and so could look back over the past year and forward to the present one.

jeep - the vehicle and car company - the first 4x4 of them all, made by the Americans for the 2nd World War - it was called a General Purpose vehicle, shortened to 'GP' and then by US GI's to 'jeep', which then became the company name.

jimmy/jimmy riddle - urinate, take a pee, or the noun form, pee - cockney rhyming slang (jimmy riddle = piddle). The jimmy riddle expression was almost certainly based on James (or Jimmy) Riddle Hoffa, infamous Teamsters union leader and US organized crime figure, 1913-75, who would have featured in the British news as well as in the US from 1930s to his disappearance and probable murder by the Mafia in 1975. Cockney rhyming slang had, and still has, strong associations with the London crime culture and so the reference to a famous crime crime figure like Hoffa would have been an obvious origin of this particular slang term. James Riddle Hoffa was officially declared dead in 1983. His son James Philip Hoffa, born in Detroit 1941, is a labour lawyer and was elected to the Teamster's presidency in 1998 and re-elected in 2001. More cockney rhyming slang expressions, meanings and origins.

by jove - exclamation of surprise - Jove is a euphemism for God, being the Latin version of Zeus, Greek mythological King of the Gods. The expression seems first to have appeared in the 1500s (Cassells).

juggernaut - huge vehicle - derived from the Hindu god, and then a temple of the same name, originally 'Jagannatha', meaning 'lord of the world'. 'The Car of the Juggernaut' was the huge wooden machine with sixteen wheels containing a bride for the god; fifty men would drag the vehicle the temple, while devotees thew themselves under it ('as persons in England under a train' as Brewer remarked in 1870).



K/k - a thousand pounds or dollars, or multiples thereof - 'K' meaning £1,000 or $,1000 first appeared in the 1960s, becoming widely used in the 1970s. Singular form is retained for more than one thousand (K rather than K's). 'K' has now mainly replaced 'G' in common speech and especially among middle and professional classes. (See the various other money slang words and origins on the money slang and history page, and see also the origins of 'quid' on this page) While some etymology sources suggest that 'k' (obviously pronounced 'kay') is from business-speak and underworld language derived from the K abbreviation of kilograms, kilometres, I am inclined to prefer the derivation (suggested to me by Terry Davies, Apr 2006) that K instead originates from computer-speak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, from the abbreviation of kilobytes. Here is Terry's detailed and fascinating explanation of the history of the 'K' money slang word, which also contains a wonderful historical perspective of computers. Other contributions on the same subject follow afterwards:

(From Terry Davies, Apr 2006): "Although the metric system was legalised in the UK in 1897, it wasn't until 1969 that the Metrification Board was created to convert the UK from imperial to metric (I think it was closed down by Margaret Thatcher when she came to power). If I remember correctly it was the building industry that changed first [to metric] in the early 1970s. Kilograms did not start getting used [popularly and widely] until much later. In 1967, aged 21, I became a computer programmer. In those days there were a couple of hundred mainframe computers in the UK. They occupied large computer halls and most of them had 64,000 or 128,000 bytes of memory. Memory was expensive costing ten shillings per byte (a semi-detached house in the South East at this time would cost £4,000 to £5,000). We were paid £1,000 a year. Everybody was in awe of computers and their masters. A small computer installation cost more than an entire housing estate, and was something out of a science fiction film. People would come and stand outside to try and get a glimpse of it. Most computers used magnetic tape for data storage as disc drives were horribly expensive. The maximum capacity of the early discs was 5,000,000 bytes. Consequently we were very conscious both of the mainframe memory that our programs required and the storage memory that the data files required. Discussions would contain references to memory requirements in almost every sentence so we used the word 'kay' instead of the phrase 'kilobytes of memory'. Although it was normally written as either Kb or kb. We used a lot of our technical terms in normal speech and so 'kay' was used when talking about salaries, for example, 'he's getting one and a half kay at his new job'. My wife says that when she first met me and my friends she couldn't understand anything we said. Decimalisation in 1971 created a massive increase in what we now call IT. Most of the existing computer systems were financial applications and the work needed to rewrite them spawned the UK's software industry. Computers became more widespread and some of our jargon started to enter the workplace. I think that it was in 1972 when I first heard a non-computer person use 'kay' to mean one thousand pounds. So I reckon that its genesis was as follows:-

  1. In 1957 IBM invents the byte. At this time a big computer would have 32,000 words of memory.
  2. In 1964 IBM announces the 360 family of mainframe computers using an eight bit byte. The smaller machines have 64,000 bytes of memory.
  3. In the 1960s computer programmers and systems analysts use 'k' ('kay') as shorthand for kilobytes of memory.
  4. They then use it to mean thousands of pounds.
  5. In the late 1960s recruitment agencies pick it up from them (we used to change jobs a lot).
  6. In the early 1970s everybody else starts using it.
  7. Then it get transferred into other business use."
    (Ack Terry Davies)

(And this from Stephen Shipley, Sep 2006, in response to the above): "I think Terry Davies is quite right. I wasn't in computing quite as early as he was but was very quick to pick up 'k' as a piece if in-house slang as soon as I did. One minor point: 1 kilobyte is actually 1024 bytes. Because of the binary nature of computing, memory is built (and hence bought) in numbers which are powers of two: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024. A popular joke at the time was, if offered a job at say £30k - to be sure you got the extra £720, i.e., the difference between £30,000 and £30,720 (= 30 x £1,024)." (Ack Stephen Shipley)

(And this from Anthony Harrison, Sept 2007): "The use of 'kay' with reference to pounds sterling was already in use by engineers when I first became an electronics engineer around 1952. The term 'kay' for kilo had been in use for many years with reference to the value of components (e.g., a resistor of 47K was 47 Kilo-ohms). This was of course because many components were marked in this manner. As we engineers were used to this, we automatically talked about our project costs and estimates using this terminology, even when talking to clients and accountants. They also spoke in this manner, but whether they did to each other when engineers were not present, I do not know. As this was speech, I have no proof of this, but this transfer of terminology from engineering to money certainly goes back to the late 1940s." (Ack Anthony Harrison)

keep the pot boiling - see entry under pot.

open a keg of nails - have a (strong alcoholic) drink, especially with the purpose of getting drunk (and other similar variations around this central theme, which seems also now to extend to socialising over a drink for lively discussion) - the expression 'open a keg of nails' (according to Cassells) has been in use since the 1930s USA when it originally meant to get drunk on corn whiskey. The metaphor is based on opening a keg (vessel, bottle, barrel, flagon, etc) of drink whose contents are menacing (hence the allusion to nails). The allusion to nails, which obviously have hard sharp points, is similar to that used in the expression 'to spike' a drink, ie., to secretly add a strong spirit to another weaker drink, usually already in a glass or tumbler, with the aim of getting the victim drunk. As such the association between nails and the potent effects of strong and/or a lot of alcohol is a natural one for people to use and relate to.

khaki - brown or green colour, or clothing material of such colour, especially of military uniforms - the word khaki is from the Urdu language, meaning dusty, derived from the older Persian word khak meaning dust. Persian, now more commonly called Farsi, is the main language of Iran and Afghanistan, and is also spoken in Iraq. Urdu is partly-derived from old Persian and is a central language in Pakistan and India. Khaki, from Urdu, came into English first through the British cavalry force serving in India from 1846, and was subsequently adopted as the name for the colour of British army uniforms, and of the material itself. The khaki colour was adapted and adopted by other national armies, which incidentally has led to confusion over the precise colour of khaki; it is a matter of local interpretation depending on where you are in the world, and generally varies between olive green and beige-brown.

kick the bucket - die - in early English a bucket was a beam or pulley, by which slaughtered pigs or oxen were hung by their feet. After being slaughtered the feet of the strung-up carcass would hit or 'kick' the bucket (beam of the pulley). A similar analogy was also employed in the old expression 'kick the beam', which meant to be of very light weight, the beam being the cross-member of weighing scales; a light pan on one side would fly up and 'kick' the beam. The 'kick the bucket' expression inspired a 2007 comedy film called Bucket List, referring to a list of things to do before dying. Most people imagine that the bucket is a pail (perhaps suggesting a receptacle), but in fact bucket refers to the old pulley-beam and pig-slaughtering.

kill with kindness - from the story of how Draco (see 'draconian') met his death, supposedly by being smothered and suffocated by caps and cloaks thrown onto him at the theatre of Aegina, from spectators showing their appreciation of him, 590 BC.

kiss it better - the custom of kissing someone where injured - originates from the practice of sucking poison from a wound or venomous bite.

kite/kite-flying - cheque or dud cheque/passing a dud cheque - originated in the 1800s from London Stock Exchange metaphor-based slang, in which, according to 1870 Brewer, a kite is '...a worthless bill...' and kite-flying is '... to obtain money on bills.... as a kite flutters in the air, and is a mere toy, so these bills fly about, but are light and worthless.' A kite-dropper is a person who passes dud cheques. Cassell's more modern dictionary of slang explains that kite-flying is the practice of raising money through transfer of accounts between banks and creating a false balance, against which (dud) cheques are then cashed. The original Stock Exchange kite term likely fostered other meanings found in US/Canadian prison slang for smuggled notes, letters, etc., and which also probably relate to early English use of the word kite for a token payment (actually a guinea, which would have been an artificially low amount) given to a junior legal counsel for defending a prisoner in court who is without, or cannot afford, proper defence.

knackers/knacker/knackered - testicles/exhaust or wear out/worn out or broken beyond repair (see also christmas crackers) - people tend to think of the 'worn out' meaning ("It's knackered" or "I'm knackered" or "If you don't use it properly you'll knacker it..") coming after the meaning for testicles, as if to 'knacker' something is related to castration or some other catastrophic debilitation arising from testicular interference. The ideas are related, but the reverse development is more likely the case. The testicular meaning certainly came last. The first use of knacker was as a word for a buyer and slaughterer of old worn-out horses or cattle, and can be traced back in English to the 1500s. Origins of this most likely relate to the word knack, meaning a special skill or aptitude, which earlier as knakke (1300s) meant trick in a deceptive sense, appearing in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess (late 14th century). There are other possible influences from older German roots and English words meaning knock, a sharp blow, or a cracking sound. All and any of these could conceivably have contributed to knacker meaning a horse slaughterman, and thence for example to the term knacker's yard, where the knacker plied his trade. The term knacker seems next to have transferred to the act of castration, first appearing in Australian English in the mid 19th century, deriving by association from the sense of killing, ruining or spoiling something, which meaning seems to have developed alongside that of wearing something out or exhausting it, which occurred in the mid-late 19th century and was established by the early 20th century. The swift step from the castration verb sense to the noun slang for testicles would have been irresistible in any language, even without the suggestion (by some reference sources) of allusion to knocking/knacking/striking objects together, similar to castanets. As ever, the phonetic quality and feel of a word as it rolls off the tongue has a big influence on the appeal of the word and its usage, which would most certainly have helped the word knacker/knackers/knackered become firmly established as an alternative to synonymic slang (balls, ballocks, bollocks, rollocks, etc) and similarly used and adapted to express a wide variety of concepts from surprise, shock, pain, dismissal, refusal, etc., through to the more seminal notions of exhaustion and debilitation. Incidentally the slang term 'creamed' which used in the sense of being exhausted or beaten (popularly in physical sports and activities) is derived from the cockney rhyming slang 'cream crackered', meaning knackered.

knees-up - wild dancing or partying behaviour - The expression almost certainly came from the London music hall song 'Knees Up Mother Brown' written in 1938 by Bert Lee and E Harris Weston. The song is thought partly to refer to Queen Victoria and her relationship with her Scottish servant John Brown. The contributing culture and usage of the expression would have been specifically London/Cockney. 'Knees up' would have been an appropriate description for the writers to use for what was considered risque dancing and behaviour at the time of the music hall variety shows, notably the can-can, which reached its popular peak during Victoria's reign, contrasting with the excessive prudishness of Victorian times. Little seems to be known about the composers, but Bert Lee was certainly not a young man when he co-wrote Knees Up Mother Brown, and therefore old enough to have experienced Victorian times. He co-wrote other music hall songs a lot earlier, eg., Glow Worm in 1907, and the better-known Goodby-eee in 1918, with RP Weston, presumably related to E Harris Weston. It's therefore easy to imagine how Lee and perhaps his fellow writers might have drawn on the mood and myth of the Victorian years. Interestingly Lee and both Westons wrote about at least one other royal: in the music hall song With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm, written in 1934 - it was about Anne Boleyn.

Don't ask me what it all means exactly, but here are the words to Knees Up Mother Brown. The copyright still seems to be applicable and owned by EMI.

Knees up Mother Brown! Knees up Mother Brown!
Under the table you must go, Ee-i-ee-i-ee-i-oh!
If I catch you bending, I'll saw your legs right off,
Knees up! Knees Up! Don't get the breeze up,
Knees up Mother Brown!
Oh My! What a rotten song!
What a rotten song!
What a rotten song!
Oh My! What a rotten song!
What a rotten singer too!
Knees up Mother Brown! Knees up Mother Brown!
Under the table you must go, Ee-i-ee-i-ee-i-oh!
If I catch you bending, I'll saw your legs right off,
Knees up! Knees Up! Don't get the breeze up,
Knees - up - Mother - Brown!
Ow's yer farver? All right!

knuckle-duster - weapon worn over fist - the term 'dust' meant 'beat', from the practice of dusting (beating) carpets; an early expression for beating someone was to 'dust your jacket'.

kowtow - to show great deference to someone, or do their bidding - often mis-spelled 'Cow-Tow', the correct word is Kowtow, the origin is Chinese, where the word meaning the same as in English.



lame duck - person or thing no longer for purpose - originally an old London stock exchange term for a member unable to meet their obligations on settlement day, since they 'waddled' out of Exchange Alley, which existed until 1773.

last gasp - at the point of death, exhaustion or deadline - commonly used as an adjective, for example, 'last gasp effort'; the last gasp expression is actually as old as the bible ('...when he was at the last gasp..'), in fact from the Apocrypha, which were the 'hidden' books of the Old Testament included in the Septuagint (the Alexandrine Greek Scripture) and Vulgate versions, but not in the Masoretic Text (Orthadox Hebrew Scripture) nor in all modern versions.

left in the lurch - left stranded or perplexed - the word 'lurch' originates from 16th century French 'lourche', a game like backgammon; a 'lurch' in the card-game cribbage meant only scoring 31 against an opponent's score of 61, and this meaning of being left well behind was transferred to other games before coming into wider metaphoric use.

legend in his/her own lifetime - very famous - originally written by Lytton Strachey of Florence Nightingale in his book Eminent Victorians, 1918.

lego - the building blocks construction toy and company name - Lego® is a Danish company. The name comes from the Danish words 'leg' and 'godt', meaning 'play well'. Interestingly it was later realised that lego can also (apparently) be interpreted to mean 'I study' or 'I put together' in Latin (scholars of Latin please correct me if this is wrong). The Lego® business was started in 1932 by carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen in the village of Billund, Denmark, initially to make wooden step-ladders, stools, ironing boards and toys. Ole Kirk's son Godtfred, aged 12, worked in the business from the start, which we can imagine probably helped significantly with toy product development. Lego® history makes no reference to any connection between Godtfred's name and the company name but it's reasonable to think that the association must have crossed Ole Kirk's mind. The company's earliest motto was 'Only the best is good enough'. In the early 1940s the company began making plastic injection-moulded toys, enabling it to develop the 'Automatic Binding Bricks' concept in 1949. Happily this somewhat uninspiring product name was soon changed to the catchier 'Lego' that we know today, and which has been a hugely popular construction toy since the 1950s - mainly for children, but also for millions of grown-ups on training courses too. The Lego company, despite many obstacles and traumas along the way, has become a remarkable organisation. In 2000 the British Association of Toy Retailers named Lego's brick construction system the Toy of the Century. Lego® is of course a registered trademark belonging to the Lego® corporation.

let sleeping dogs lie - don't stir up a potentially difficult situation when it's best left alone - originated by Chaucer around 1380 in Troilus and Criseyde, 'It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake'.

level best - very best effort - probably from the metaphor of panning for gold in 19th century America, when for the best results, the pan was kept as level as possible in order to see any fragments of gold.

liar liar pants on fire - children's (or grown-up sarcastic) taunt or accusation of fibbing or falsehood - the full 'liar liar pants on fire' expression is typically appended with a rhyming second line to make a two-line verse, for example "liar liar pants on fire, your nose is a long as a telephone wire" or "liar liar pants on fire, sitting on a telephone wire".

There are other variations, which I'd be pleased to include here if you wish to send your own, ideally with details of when and where in the world you've heard it being used.

I particularly welcome recollections or usage before the 1950s.

The earliest recollection of 'liar liar pants on fire' that I have been informed of dates back to the 1930s, from a lady born in 1925, UK.

As regards origins there seems no certainty of where and how liar liar pants on fire first came into use.

Are there any foreign language equivalents of the 'liar liar pants on fire' rhyme? Please let me know.

The best suggestion I've seen (thanks J D H Roberts) is that the 'liar liar pants on fire' rhyme refers to or is based upon the poem, Matilda, (see right) by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), from Cautionary Tales for Children, published in 1907.

Belloc's Cautionary Tales, with its lovely illustrations, was an extremely popular book among young readers in the early and middle parts of the last century.

I understand that the poem is now be in the public domain (please correct me someone if I'm wrong, and please don't reproduce it believing such reproduction to be risk-free based on my views).

The poem interestingly also contains a clear reference to the telephone, which could explain the obscure reference to 'telephone wire' in the second line of the liar liar rhyme.

As I say, any connection between Matilda and 'liar liar pants on fire' is pure supposition and utterly inadmissable evidence in terms of proper etymology, but it's the best suggestion I've seen, and I'm grateful to J Roberts for bringing my attention to the possibility.

If you know or can suggest more about 'liar liar pants on fire' and its variations and history please contact me.

Is this the origin and inspiration of liar liar pants on fire? If you can contribute to the possible origins and history of the use of this expression in its different versions, please contact me.

Who told lies and was burned to death.

Matilda told such dreadful lies,
It made one gasp and stretch one's eyes;
Her aunt, who, from her earliest youth,
Had kept a strict regard for truth,
Attempted to believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,
And would have done so, had not she
Discovered this infirmity.
For once, towards the close of day,
Matilda, growing tired of play,
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the telephone
And summoned the immediate aid
Of London's noble fire-brigade.
Within an hour the gallant band
Were pouring in on every hand,
From Putney, Hackney Downs, and Bow.
With courage high and hearts a-glow,
They galloped, roaring through the town,
'Matilda's house is burning down!'
Inspired by British cheers and loud
Proceeding from the frenzied crowd,
They ran their ladders through a score
Of windows on the ball room floor;
And took peculiar pains to souse
The pictures up and down the house,
Until Matilda's aunt succeeded
In showing them they were not needed;
And even then she had to pay
To get the men to go away!
It happened that a few weeks later
Her aunt was off to the theatre
To see that interesting play
The Second Mrs Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her niece
To hear this entertaining piece:
A deprivation just and wise
To punish her for telling lies.
That night a fire did break out -
You should have heard Matilda shout!
You should have heard her scream and bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To people passing in the street -
(The rapidly increasing heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence) -- but all in vain!
For every time she shouted 'Fire!'
They only answered 'Little Liar!'
And therefore when her aunt returned,
Matilda, and the house, were burned.
(Hilaire Belloc, 1870-1953, from Cautionary Tales, 1907.)

library - collection of books - from the Latin, 'liber', which was the word for rind beneath the bark of certain trees which was used a material for writing on before paper was invented; (the French for 'book, 'livre' derives from the same source).

lick and a promise - the hasty performance of a task, or something not done properly, also (originally) a hasty wash, or a taste of more to come - according to my own research in my own family this expression was popular in London by the first half of the 20th century, when it referred to a quick or superficial wash (usually of a child's face by the child). It was certainly well in use by the 1930s for this meaning. The full expression at that time was along the lines of 'a lick and a promise of a better wash to come'. The word lick is satisfyingly metaphorical and arises in other similar expressions since 15th century, for example 'lick your wounds', and 'lick into shape', the latter made popular from Shakespeare's Richard III, from the common idea then of new-born animals being literally licked into shape by their mothers. An alternative interpretation (ack J Martin), apparently used in Ireland, has a different meaning: to give a child a whack or beating, with a promise of more to follow unless the child behaves. This alternative use of the expression could be a variation of the original meaning, or close to the original metaphor, given that: I am informed (thanks R M Darragh III) that the phrase actually predates 1812 - it occurs in The Critical Review of Annals of Literature, Third Series, Volume 24, page 391, 1812: "...The Prince Regent comes in for a blessing, too, but as one of Serico-Comico-Clerico's nurses, who are so fond of over-feeding little babies, would say, it is but a lick and a promise..." The context here suggests that early usage included the sense of 'a taste and then a promise of more later', which interestingly echoes the Irish interpretation.

life of Riley - very comfortable existence - based on the 1880s music-hall song performed by Pat Rooney about the good life of a character called O'Reilly; the audience would sing the chorus which ended '..are you the O'Reilly who keeps this hotel? Are you the O'Reilly they speak of so well? Are you the O'Reilly they speak of so highly, Gor Blime me O'Reilly, you're looking well'. The expression 'Blimey O'Riley' probably originated here also.

lifelonging/to lifelong - something meaningful wished for all of your life/or the verb sense (to lifelong) of wishing for something for your whole life - a recently evolved portmanteau word. It especially relates to individual passions and sense of fulfillment or destiny. The fulfillment of personal purpose - beyond educational and parental conditioning. A basis of assessing whether you've made the most of your life, when it's too late to have another go. I'm not the first to spot this new word. As at September 2008 Google lists (only) 97 uses of this word on the entire web (the extent listed by Google), but most/very many of those seem to be typing errors accidentally joining the words life and longing, which don't count. An early use is Jim Dawson's blog (started Dec 2007). I'm open to suggestions or claims of first usage and origination. The portmanteau word (a new abbreviated word carrying the combined meanings of two separate words) 'lifelonging' includes the sense of 'longing' (wishing) and 'life', and makes use of the pun of 'long' meaning 'wish', and 'long' meaning 'duration of time' (as in week long, hour long, lifelong, etc.) As such the word is more subtle than first might seem - it is not simply an extension of the word 'lifelong'. That's the pun. It's a combination of life and longing. Occasionally you can see the birth or early development of a new word, before virtually anyone else, and certainly before the dictionaries. If you are reading this in 2008 or perhaps early 2009, then this is perhaps one of those occasions.

limbo - state of uncertain balance or being between two situations - today's use is based on two separate meanings which may both have had the same origin: 'limbo' is the Caribbean dance requiring excellent balancing skills, in which the performer repeatedly passes beneath a horizontal bar reducing in height each time; the early English meaning of 'limbo' was for a a temporary holding place, eg between heaven and hell, or a waste basket; it also meant 'prison' in Victorian times; original derivation from Latin 'limbus' meaning 'the edge'.

line - nature of business - dates back to the scriptures, when a line would be drawn to denote the land or plot of tribe; 'line' came to mean position, which evolved into 'trade' or 'calling'.

end of the line - point at which further effort on a project or activity is not possible or futile - 'the end of the line' is simply a metaphor based on reaching the end of a railway line, beyond which no further travel is possible, which dates the expression at probably early-mid 1800s, when railway track construction was at its height in the UK and USA. Wooden railways had been used in the English coal mining industry from as early as the 1600s, so it's possible, although unlikely, that the expression could have begun even earlier.

line your pockets - make a lot of money for yourself, perhaps not legitimately - from the early 18th century, when the court tailor sought the patronage of the famous dandy, George 'Beau' Brummell, he supposedly sent him a dress coat with the pockets lined with bank-notes.

lingua franca - a vaguely defined mixed language or slang, typically containing blended words and expressions of the Mediterranean countries, particularly Italian, French, Greek, Arabic and Spanish - lingua franca refers to the slang and informal language that continuall develops among and between communities of different nationalities and languages. Lingua franca intitially described the informal mixture of the Mediterranean languages, but the expression now extends to refer to any mixed or hybrid words, slang or informal language which evolves organically to enable mutual understanding and communications between groups of people whose native tongue languages are different. It is a fascinating phenomenon, which illustrates a crucial part of how languages evolve - notably the influence of foreign words - and the close inter-dependence between language and society. The principles and causes of lingua franca language are similar to those of the pidgin English (also known as pigeon) which developed in many varieties in different foreign countries (originally China, from which the expression comes, as a corruption of the word 'business') where local people adapted and adopted hybrid or phonetic interpretations of English words in response to regular contact with English speaking visitors, or more traditionally in dealing with English or British traders and employers. The term lingua franca is itself an example of the lingua franca effect, since the expression lingua franca, now absorbed into English is originally Italian, from Latin, meaning literally 'language Frankish'. Frankish refers to the Frankish empire which dominated much of mainland South-West Europe from the 3rd to the 5th centuries. Big busy cities containing diverse communities, especially travel and trade hubs, provide a fertile environment for the use and development of lingua franca language. London was and remains a prime example, where people of different national origins continue to contribute and absorb foreign words into common speech, blending with slang and language influences from other circles (market traders, the underworld, teenager-speak, etc) all of which brings enrichment and variation to everyday language, almost always a few years before the new words and expressions appear in any dictionaries. The money slang page contains some wonderful examples of language and slang that has developed from lingua franca, including examples borne of other influences such as 'parlyaree' (also referred to as parlary, polari, and similar variations - basically these are other inter-related foms of lingua franca originally arising in underworld slang, notably since the 1700s - the word parlyaree and variants are from Italian pargliare meaning to speak); backslang (reversing word-sounds and other variations, typically used by children and groups who enjoy 'coded' communications among themselves) and of course rhyming slang, which first to have appeared in London and is more widely known as Cockney rhyming slang. Lingua franca, and the added influences of parlyaree variations, backslang and rhyming slang, combine not only to change language, but helpfully to illustrate how language develops organically - by the people and communities who use language - and not by the people who teach it or record it in dictionaries, and certainly not by those who try to control and manage its 'correct' grammatical usage.

lion's share - much the largest share - originally meant 'all of it', from Aesop's fables, the story of the lion who when hunting with a heifer, a goat and a sheep, had agreed to share the quarry equally four ways, but on killing a stag then justifies in turn why he should keep each quarter, first because he was 'the lion', then 'the strongest', then 'the most valiant', and finally 'touch it if you dare'.

a licence to print money - legitimate easy way of making money - expression credited to Lord Thomson in 1957 on his ownership of a commercial TV company.

lock, stock and barrel - everything - from the 1700s, based on the metaphor of all of the parts of a gun, namely the lock (the firing mechanism), the stock (the wooden section) and the barrel.

loony/looney/loonie/loon/crazy as a loon - lunatic or person behaving bizarrely - while commonly believed either that loon and loony derive from the loon (a grebe-like diving bird with a loud call and popularly referenced in the USA) or from the word lunatic (which incidentally is rooted in ancient Latin lunaticus, meaning moonstruck, since the moon, luna, was believed to be associated with madness and epilepsy) there are probably several converging origins of the modern sense of loon and its variations, which first appeared in the 1800s. Modern expressions connecting loon to mad or crazy behaviour most likely stem from lunatic, the loon bird, and also interestingly and old English (some suggest Scottish) word loon meaning a useless person or rogue, which actually came first, c.1450, perhaps connected with the Dutch language (loen means stupid person), first arising in English as the word lowen before simplifying into its modern form (and earlier meaning - useless person) by the mid 15th century. The loon bird's name came into English from a different root, Scandinavia, in the 1800s, and arguably had a bigger influence in the US on the expressions crazy as a loon, and also drunk as a loon. The highly derogatory slang loony bin (less commonly loony farm), referring to a mental home, first appeared around 1910. Baby boomers and 70s young teens will perhaps recall and admit to having worn the tight yet considerably flared coloured cotton trousers strangely called 'loon pants', which now seems a weirdly self-mocking name for such a fashionable success as was, and will no doubt be resurgent two or three generations on.

loose cannon - a reckless member of a team - from the days when sailing warships were armed with enormous cannons on wheels; if a tethered cannon broke loose it could do enormous damage.

luddite - one who rejects new technology - after the Luddite rioters of 1811-16, who in defence of labourers' jobs in early industrial Britain wrecked new manufacturing machinery. Their leader was thought by some to have been called General Lud, supposedly after Ned Lud, a mad man of Anstey, Leicestershire (coincidentally exactly where Businessballs is based) who had earlier gained notoriety after he chased a group of tormenting boys into a building and then attacked two textiles machines. Ned Lud certainly lived in Anstey, Leicestershire, and was a real person around the time of the original 'Luddite' machinery wreckers, but his precise connection to the Luddite rioters of the early 1800s that took his name is not clear. Incidentally a new 'cul-de-sac' (dead-end) street in Anstey was built in 2005 for a small housing development in the centre of the original village part of the town, and the street is named 'Ned Ludd Close', which suggests some uncertainty as to the spelling of Lud's (or Ludd's) original name.

there ain't no such thing as a free lunch - you never get something for nothing - now a common business expression, often used in acronym form 'TANSTAAFL', the first recorded use of this version was by Robert Heinlein in his 1966 book 'The moon is a harsh mistress'. The general expression 'there's no such thing as a free lunch' dates back to the custom of America 19th century bars giving free snacks in expectation of customers buying drink. American economist Milton Friedman, who won the 1976 Nobel prize for economics, did much to popularise the expression in that form and even used it as a title for one of his books.



mad as a hatter - crazy (person) - most popularly 'mad as a hatter' is considered to derive from the tendency among Victorian hat-makers to develop a neurological illness due to mercury poisoning, from exposure to mercury used in producing felt for hat making. Other theories include:

  • a distortion of an old verb, 'to hatter', meaning to wear out (a person) through harassment or fatigue
  • a reference to Roger Crab, a noted 17th century English eccentric hat-maker who gave away his possessions and converted to extreme vegetarianism, lived on three farthings a week, and ate grass and roots, etc
  • it evolved from a meaning 'angry as a viper (adder)', related to and a distortion of the old English word 'atter' for reptile venom

The expression pre-dates Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which did not actually feature the phrase 'mad as a hatter', but instead referred to the March Hare and Hatter as 'both mad'. Carroll may have been inspired by any of the interpretations above; it's not known for certain which, if any. The 'Mad Hatter' cartoon character we associate with Alice in Wonderland was a creation of the illustrator John Tenniel. Tenniel consulted closely with Carroll, so we can assume reasonably safely that whatever the inspiration, Carroll approved Tenniel's interpretation.

malaria - desease associated with tropical regions, carried and transferred by mosquitoes - recorded earliest in English in 1740, from the Italian word malaria for the desease, derived from the words mal and aria, meaning bad air, because the desease was initially believed to arise in stale-smelling (presumambly from methane) swamp-like atmospheres. Marlaira continues to shame the Western developed world since cures and treatments exist yet millions still perish from the desease in Africa for want of help.

man of straw - a man of no substance or capital - in early England certain poor men would loiter around the law courts offering to be a false witness for anyone if paid; they showed their availability by wearing a straw in their shoe.

mayday - the international radio distress call - used since about 1927 especially by mariners and aviators in peril, mayday is from the French equivalent 'M'aider', and more fully 'Venez m'aider' meaning 'Come help me'.

mealy-mouthed - hypocritical or smooth-tongued - from the Greek 'meli-muthos' meaning 'honey-speech'.

mentor - personal tutor or counsellor or an experienced and trusted advisor - after 'Mentor', friend of Ulysses; Ulysses was the mythical Greek king of Ithica who took Troy with the wooden horse, as told in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey epic poems of the 8th century BC. I'm additionally informed (ack P Allen) that when Odysseus went to war, as told in Homer's novel 'The Odyssey', he chose Mentor (who was actually the goddess Athena masquerading as Mentor) to protect and advise his son Telemachus while he (Odysseus) was away.

metronome - instrument for marking time - the word metronome first appeared in English c.1815, and was formed from Greek: metron = measure, and nomos = regulating, an adjective from the verb nemein, to regulate. Interestingly the same word nemein also meant to distribute or deal out, which was part of the root for the modern English word nimble, (which originally meant to grasp quickly, hence the derivation from deal out).

mews house - house converted from stables - a 'mews' house, is a small dwelling converted from stables, usually in a small cobbled courtyard or along a short narrow lane, off a main street, commonly situated in the west-central areas of London, such as Kensington. Before the motor car the wealthy residents of London kept their carriages and horses in these mews buildings. Mews houses are particularly sought-after because they are secluded, quiet, and have lots of period character, and yet are located in the middle of the city. The word mews is actually from Falconry, in which birds of prey such as goshawks were used to catch rabbits and other game. Falconry became immensely popular in medieval England, and was a favourite sport of royalty until the 1700s. Mew was originally a verb which described a hawk's moulting or shedding feathers, from Old French muer, and Latin mutare, meaning to change. Mew then became a name for the hawk cage, and also described the practice of keeping a hawk shut away while moulting. The royal stables, initially established in Charing Cross London in the mid-1200s, were on the site of hawks mews, which caused the word mews to transfer to stables. Incidentally the Royal Mews, which today remains the home of the royal carriages and horses, were moved from Charing Cross to their present location in Buckingham Palace by George III in 1760, by which time the shotgun had largely superseded the falcons.

take the micky/mickey/mick/mike/michael - ridicule, tease, mock someone, or take advantage of someone - the term is also used as a noun, as in 'a micky-take', referring to a tease or joke at someone's expense, or a situation in which someone is exploited unfairly. Cassells and other reputable slang sources say that 'take the mick' is cockney rhyming slang, c.1950s, from 'Micky Bliss', rhyming with 'take the piss'. See cockney rhyming slang. No-one seems to know who Micky Bliss was, which perhaps indicates a little weakness in the derivation. Alternatively, and maybe additionally towards the adoption of the expression, a less widely known possibility is that 'mick' in this sense is a shortening of the word 'micturation', which is a medical term for urination (thanks S Liscoe). Sadly this very appealing alternative/additional derivation of 'take the mick/micky' seems not to be supported by any official sources or references. If anyone can refer me to a reliable reference please let me know, until such time the Micky Bliss cockney rhyming theory remains the most popularly supported origin.

mickey finn/slip a mickey - a knock-out drug, as in to 'spike' the drink of an unwitting victim - The expression is from late 1800s USA, although the short form of mickey seems to have appeared later, c.1930s. Mickey is also used as slang for a depressant-type drug. Sources suggest the original mickey finn drug was probably chloral hydrate. The origin derives apparently from a real saloon-keeper called Mickey Finn, who ran the Lone Star and Palm Saloons in Chicago from around 1896-1906. It is believed that Finn acquired the recipe from voodoo folk in New Orleans. (Confusion over the years has led to occasional use of Mickey Flynn instead of Mickey Finn. It means the same and is just a distortion of the original.)

mimis/meemies - see screaming mimis.

go missing/gone missing/went missing - disappear/disappeared, not been where expected to be (of someone or something) - Interesting this. Most English folk would never dream of asking the question as to this expression's origins because the cliche is so well-used and accepted in the UK - it's just a part of normal language that everyone takes for granted on a purely logical and literal basis. This supports my view that the origins of 'go missing', gone missing', and 'went missing' are English (British English language), not American nor Canadian, as some have suggested. The common interpretation describes someone or something when they not shown up as expected, in which case it simply refers to the person having 'gone' (past tense of 'go'), ie., physically moved elsewhere by some method or another, and being 'missing' (= absent), ie., not being where they should be or expected to be (by other or others). Most sources seem to suggest 'disappeared' as the simplest single word alternative. The expression is very occasionally used also in a metaphorical sense to describe someone not paying attention or failing to attend to a task, which is an allusion to their mind or attention being on something other than the subject or issue at hand (in the same way that 'AWOL', 'gone walkabouts' might also be used). I've heard it suggested that the 'gone' part is superfluous, but in my opinion 'gone missing' more precisely describes the state of being simply just 'missing', the former conveying a sense of being more recently, and by implication, concerningly, 'missing'. 'Went missing' is another similar version of the same expression. While the word 'missing' in this sense (absent), and form, has been in use in English since the 14th century, 'go missing' and variants are not likely to be anything like this old, their age more aptly being measured in decades rather than centuries. Mark Israel, a modern and excellent etymologist expressed the following views about the subject via a Google groups exchange in 1996: He said he was unable to find 'to go missing' in any of his US dictionaries, but did find it in Collins English Dictionary (a British dictionary), in which the definition was 'to become lost or disappear'. The Collins Dictionary indicated several Canadian (and presumably USA) origins, but no foreign root (non-British English) was suggested for the 'go missing' term.

mistletoe - white-berried plant associated with Christmas and kissing - the roots (pun intended) of mistletoe are found in the early Germanic, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Indo-European words referring either to dung and urine (for example, mist, mehati, meiere, miegh) since the seeds of the mistletoe plant were known to be carried in the droppings of birds. The Old English word version of mistletoe first appeared about a thousand years ago when 'tan', meaning twig, from the Germanic origin tainaz, was added to produce 'mistiltan', which evolved by the 15th century into something close to the modern word. Tan became toe when misinterpreted from the plural of ta, between the 12th and 15th centuries. Incidentally there are hundreds of varieties of mistletoe around the world and many different traditions and superstitions surrounding this strange species. It's a parasitic plant, attaching itself and drawing sustenance from the branches of a host tree, becoming especially noticeable in the winter when the berries appear. The greenery and fruit of the mistletoe contrast markedly at winter with the bareness of the host tree, which along with formation of the leaves and the juice of the white berries helps explain how mistletoe became an enduring symbol of fertility, dating back to ancient Britain.

mob - unruly gathering or gang - first appeared in English late 17th C., as a shortened form of mobile, meaning rabble or group of common people, from the Latin 'mobile vulgus' meaning 'fickle crowd'. The term provided the origin for the word mobster, meaning gangster, which appeared in American English in the early 1900s.

modem - binary/analogue conversion device enabling computers to send and read signals via telephone lines. The origin is simply from the source words MOdulator/DEModulator. (Ack DH)

mojo - influence, confidence, personal charisma, magic spell - originally an American slang term popular in music/dance culture, but now increasingly entering English more widely, taking a more general meaning of personal confidence and charisma, especially relating to music, dance, sexual relationships, dating and mating, etc. Mojo probably derives (implied by the OED) from African-American language, referring to a talisman or witchcraft charm, and is close to the word 'moco', meaning withccraft, used by the Gullah (people and creole language of West African origins) of the US South Carolina coast and islands. The word and the meaning were popularised by the 1956 blues song Got My Mojo Working, first made famous by Muddy Waters' 1957 recording, and subsequently covered by just about all blues artists since then.

money slang - see the money slang words and expressions origins

moniker / monicker / monica / monniker / monnicker / moneker / monarcher - a person's name title or signature - the origin is not known for sure and is subject to wide speculation. Various spellings are referenced since the mid-1800s and include monica, manaker, monarch, monarcher, monekeer, monniker, monneker, and moniker, which is said by Partridge to be the most common of all. The OED seems to echo this, also primarily listing monicker and monniker. Cassell seems to favour monnicker when using the word in the expression 'tip someone's monniker'. Monicker means name or title, not just signature. It originally meant a tramp's name. To 'tip a monniker (or monnicker etc)' meant to tell someone's name (to another person), and it appears in military slang as 'lose your monnicker' meaning to be 'crimed' (presumably named or cited) for a minor offence. Suggested origins include derivations from:

  • the Latin word moniter (adviser)
  • Italian word monaco (Italian for monk and Italian slang for name apparently)
  • backslang of 'ekename' (in itself the origin of nickname - see the nickname entry in this section)
  • monarch (meaning king - a metaphor for the 'name' that rules or defines me, and related to coinage and perhaps in the sense of stamped seals, especially on personal rings used by kings to 'sign' their name)
  • monogram (signature - simply a loose phonetic equivalent)
  • a Shelta word meaning sign (Shelta is an ancient Irish/Welsh gypsy language)
  • a blend of monogram and signature (again simply a loose phonetic equivalent)

Clearly there's a travelling theme since moniker/monicker/monniker applied initially to tramps, which conceivably relates to the Shelta suggestion. The king/coin-related origins seem to be most favoured among commentators, but it's really anyone's guess and probably a combination of several derivations that merged together during the 1800s and thereby reinforced the moniker slang popularity and usage. Interestingly Brewer 1870 makes no mention of the word. (Sources: Partridge, Cassell, OED)

moon/moony/moonie - show bare buttocks, especially from a moving car - moon has been slang for the buttocks since the mid 18thC (Cassell), also extending to the anus, the rectum, and from late 19thC moon also meant anal intercourse (USA notably). It is entirely logical that the word be used in noun and verb form to describe the student prank, from 1950s according to Cassell. The derivation is certainly based on imagery, and logically might also have been reinforced by the resemblance of two O's in the word to a couple of round buttocks.

movers and shakers - powerful people who get things done - a combination of separate terms from respectively George Chapman's 1611 translation of Homer's Iliad, , '..thou mightie shaker of the earth..' and Shakespeare's Henry VI part II, when Henry at Cardinal Beaufort's deathbed beseeches God '..thou eternal mover of the heavens, look with a gentle eye upon this wretch'. The English poet Arthur O'Shaunessy's poem 'Ode' (about the power of poetry) written in 1874 is the first recorded use of the combined term 'We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.... yet we are the movers and shakers, of the world forever, it seems.'

mum's the word/keep mum - be discreet/say nothing/don't tell anyone - the 'mum's the word' expression is a variation - probably from wartime propaganda - on the use of the word mum to represent silence, which according to Partridge (who in turn references John Heywood) has been in use since the 1500s. Mum has nothing to do with mother - it's simply a phonetic spelling and figurative word to signify closing one's mouth, so as not to utter a sound. Mum has meant silence for at least 500 years. The same logical onomatopoeic (the word sound imitates what it means) derivation almost certainly produced the words mumble, murmur and mumps. It is highly likely that phrases such as 'keep mum' and 'mum's the word' came to particular prominence via the melodramatic 2nd World War Defence publicity campaigns urging people not to engage in idle gossip (supposedly) for fear of giving away useful information to enemy spies. Just as in modern times, war-time governments then wasted no opportunity to exaggerate risks and dangers, so as to instill respect among, and to maintain authority over, the masses. For example the ridiculous charade of collecting people's pots and pans and tearing up iron railings to (supposedly) melt down for munitions, and in more recent times the parading of tanks and erection of barricades at airports, just in case we ordinary folk dared to imagine that our egocentric leaders might not actually know what they are doing. So there you have it - mum's the word - in all probability a product of government spin.

here's mud in your eye - good luck to you, keep up with me if you can (a sort of light-hearted challenge or tease said to an adversary, or an expression of camaraderie between two people facing a challenge, or life in general) - this expression is supposed to have originted from horse racing and hunting, in which anyone following or chasing a horse or horses ahead would typically experience mud being thrown up into their face from the hooves of the horse(s) in front.

muppet - from the children's TV puppet-like characters created by Jim Henson's which first appeared on Sesame Street from 1969, and afterwards on the TV show The Muppets, which was produced between 1976 and 1980. Henson invented the name by combining the words marionette and puppet. Since then the word has taken on the derogatory slang meaning for a stupid or disadvantaged person, which provides the basis for a couple of amusing MUPPET-based acronyms.



nail your colours to the mast - take a firm position - warships surrendered by lowering their colours (flags), so nailing them to the mast would mean that there could be no surrender.

pay on the nail - originated from Bristol, Liverpool (England) and Limerick (Ireland) stock exchange and business deals practice, in which bargains which were traditionally settled by the customer placing his payment on a 'nail', which was in fact an iron post, many of which are still to be found in that city and elsewhere. 1870 Brewer confirms this to be the origin: he quotes a reference from O'Keefe's 'Recollections' which states: "..In the centre of Limerick Exchange is a pillar with a circular plate of copper about three feet diameter called 'The Nail' on which the earnest of all stock exchange bargains has to be paid..," Brewer continues, "A similar custom prevailed at Bristol, where there were four pillars, called 'nails' in front of the exchange, for a similar purpose. In Liverpool Exchange there is a plate of copper called 'the nail' on which bargains are settled. (Thanks R Baguley) Pretty incontrovertible I'd say..

the naked truth - the completely unobscured facts - the ancient fable (according to 1870 Brewer) says that Truth and Falsehood went bathing and Falsehood stole Truth's clothes. Truth refused to take Falsehood's and so went naked.

nap - big single gamble or tip in horse racing, also the name of the card game - from the earlier English expressions 'go to nap' and 'go nap', meaning to stake all of the winnings on one hand of cards, or attempt to win all five tricks in a hand, derived originally and abbreviated from the card-game 'Napolean' after Napolean III (N.B. Napolean III - according to Brewer - not Bonaparte, who was his uncle).

narcissism/narcissistic - (in the most common psychological context, narcissism means) very selfish, self-admiring and craving admiration of others - The Oxford English dictionary says of the psychological context: "Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type." In fact the term is applied far more widely than this, depending on context, from reference to severe mental disorder, ranging through many informal social interpretations typically referring to elitism and arrogance, and at the opposite end of the scale, to a healthy interest in one's own mind and wellbeing, related to feelings of high emotional security - the opposite of insecurity and inadequacy. More traditionally and technically narcissism means "excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one's physical appearance" (OED). The origins are from Latin and ultimately Greek mythology, mainly based on the recounting of an ancient story in Roman poet Ovid's 15-book series Metamorphoses (8AD) of Narcissus and Echo. Ovid's version of the story tells of a beautiful self-admiring selfish young man and hunter called Narcissus (originally Narkissos, thought to be originally from Greek narke, meaning sleep, numbness) who rejected the advances of a nymph called Echo and instead fell in love with his own reflection in a forest pool, where he stayed unable to move and eventually died. Echo by then had faded away to nothing except a voice, hence the word 'echo' today. The name Narcissus was adopted into psychology theory first by English sexologist Havelock Ellis in 1898, referring to 'narcissus-like' tendencies towards masturbation and sexualizing oneself as an object of desire. Psychologists/psychoanalysts including Otto Rank and Sigmund Freud extended and reinforced the terminology in the early 1900s and by the mid-late 1900s it had become commonly recognised and widely applied. The condition is increasing in social significance apparently - it has been reported (related to articles by European Psychiatry and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers) that narcissism (in the generally negative/selfish/self-admiring psychological sense of the word) has been increasing steadily since 2000 among US respondents of psychometric tests used to detect narcissistic tendencies. Also reported, is that Facebook and other social networking websites are a causal factor in the trend.

navvy - road workman - from 'navigator', which was the word used for a worker who excavated the canals - and other civil contruction projects - in England starting around 1755. (Canals were thought of as inland navigation lines, and inns alongside them were and are still commonly called 'the navigation'.)

navy cake - buggery, anal sex, between men - also referrred to as 'navy cut' (like the tobacco) and sailor's cake. All are navy/RAF slang in use since the First World War, 1914-18. Related to this, 'cake boy' is slang for a gay man, a reference to softness and good to eat. Also various baked dough items are slang for the buttocks and anus, e.g., cake, biscuits, buns, crumpet, doughnut - even 'bakery goods', giving rise (excuse the pun) to the delightful expression 'the baker's is closed' meaning that sex is not available.

needle in a haystack - impossible search for something relatively tiny, lost or hidden in something that is relatively enormous - the first use of this expression, and its likely origin, is by the writer Miguel de Cervantes, in his story Don Quixote de la Mancha written from 1605-1615. According to Bartlett's, the expression 'As well look for as needle in a bottle of hay' (translated from the original Spanish) appears in part III, chapter 10. 'Bottle' is an old word for a bundle of hay, taken from the French word botte, meaning bundle. Brewer (1870-94 dictionary and revisions) lists the full expression - 'looking for a needle in a bottle of hay' which tells us that the term was first used in this form, and was later adapted during the 1900s into the modern form.

niche - segment or small area, usually meaning suitable for business specialisation - the use of the word 'niche' was popularised by the 19th century expression 'a niche in the temple of fame' which referred to the Pantheon, originally a church in Paris (not the Pantheon in Rome). It was built 1754-80 and converted in 1791 to hold the remains of famous Frenchmen; a 'niche' was a small alcove containing a monument to a person's name and deeds. The French word 'nicher' means 'to make a nest'.

nick - arrest (verb or noun) or prison or police station, also steal or take without permission - according to Cassells nick has been used in the sense a prison or police station since the late 1800s, originally in Australia (although other indications suggest the usage could easily have been earlier by a century or two, and originally English, since the related meanings of arrest and steal are far earlier than 1800 and certainly English. It is entirely conceivable that early usage in England led to later more popular usage in Australia, given the emigration and deportation flow of the times. The notable other meanings: arrest (catch), and steal (cheat), can both be traced back to the 1500s, again according to Cassells, and this historical position is also logically indicated by the likely derivations. Most etymology sources avoid specific conclusions as to origins of the slang word 'nick' used in the sense of arrest, prison or steal, however with a little logical thought it is possible to see the likely roots of these expressions which together produced the nick slang terms as we know them today: Firstly, in terms of nick meaning a prison or a cell where a criminal would be detained after arrest, there is probably a connection with the word 'niche' (first recorded in a Dictionary, Cottells, in 1611, according to Chambers) in its sense of specifically describing a part of a building, meaning a shallow recess in a wall, and the verb form of niche, meaning to rest or ensconce oneself in a recess or corner of a building or room. This derives ultimately from the French word nicher and Old French nichier, meaning to make a nest, and from Roman nidicare and Latin nidus, meaning nest. Another very early meaning of nick: a groove or slot, (which can be traced back to the 1450 according to Chambers, prior to which it was nik, from the French niche) also fits well the image of being trapped in a cramped prison cell. There is also likely to have been be a strong link with the expression 'in the nick of time', which derives from the metaphor of nicking (marking) or pricking (again to mark) a tally or some other sort of register which, amongst other things, was used to record a person's attendance in a building, notably upon entering a church service. Indeed Brewer (in his 1870 dictionary) expands the 'nick of time' metaphor explanation specifically to include the idea of entering the church just in time before the doors are shut, which has a clear and significant association with the image of a cell door being shut behind the 'nicked' a prisoner. Nick also has for a long time meant count, as in cutting a notch in a stick, and again this meaning fits the sense of counting or checking the safe incarceration of a prisoner. The idea of marking the prisoner himself - in the middle ages criminals were branded and tattooed - could also have been a contributory factor to the use of the word in the capture-and-detain sense.

nickname - an alternative familiar name for someone or something - from 'an eke name' which became written 'a neke name'; 'eke' is an extremely old word (ie several centuries BC) meaning 'also'. It was also an old English word for an enlarging section added to the base of a beehive.

(give something or someone) the whole nine yards - to give absolute maximum effort when trying to win or achieve something - most likely from the 2nd World War, based on the nine yards length of certain aircraft munition belts; supposedly the American B-17 aircraft (ack Guy Avenell); the RAF Spitfire's machine gun bullet belts, also supposedly the length of American bomber bomb racks, and the length of ammunition belts in ground based anti-aircraft turrets. Other suggested origins will all have helped reinforce the expression: American concrete trucks were supposed to have nine cubic yards capacity; tailors were supposed to use nine yards of material for top quality suits (see 'dressed to the nines'). And there are a couple of naval references too (the latter one certainly a less likely origin because the expression is not recorded until the second half of the 20th century): nine naval shipyards, or alternatively nine yardarms: (large sailing ships had three masts, each with three yardarms) giving a full sailing strength based on the unfurled sails of nine yard arms.

dressed up to the nines/dressed to the nines - wearing very smart or elaborate clothes - the expression dates from 17th century England, originally meaning dressed to perfection from head to foot. Dressed up to the nines is one of many references to the number nine as a symbol of perfection, superlative, and completeness, originating from ancient Greek, Pythagorean theory: man is a full chord, ie, eight; and deity (godliness) comes next. Three represents the Trinity, twice three is the perfect dual, and thrice three, ie, nine, represents the 'perfect plural'. The representation of divine perfection was strengthened by various other images, including: Deucalion's Ark, made on the advice of Prometheus, was tossed for nine days before being stranded on the top of Mount Parnassus; the Nine Earths (Milton told of 'nine enfolded spheres'); the Nine Heavens; the Nine Muses; Southern Indians worshipped the Nine Serpents, a cat has nine lives, etc, etc. The Old English 'then eyen', meaning 'to the eyes' might also have contributed to the early establishment of the expression. The notion that tailors used nine yards of material to make a suit or a shirt, whether correct or not, also will have reinforced the usage.

nip and tuck - a closely fought contest or race, with the lead or ascendency frequently changing - explanations as to the origin of this expression are hard to find, perhaps because there are so many different possible meanings for each of the two words. A strong candidate for root meaning is that the nip and tuck expression equates to 'blow-for-blow', whereby nip and tuck are based on the old aggressive meanings of each word: nip means pinch or suddenly bite, (as it has done for centuries all over Europe, in various forms), and tuck meant stab (after the small narrow sword or dirk called a tuck, used by artillerymen). The aggressive connotation of tuck would also have been reinforced by older meanings from various Old English, Dutch and German roots; 'togian' (pull or tow), 'tucian' (mistreat, torment), and 'zucken' (jerk or tug). While individual meanings of nip (nip of whisky and nip in the bud) and tuck (a sword, a dagger, a good feed, and a fold in a dress) are listed separately by Brewer in 1870, the full nip and tuck expression isn't listed. Interestingly, Partridge says nip and tuck was originally American and was anglicised c.1890, from the US variants nip and tack (1836), nip and chuck (1846), and nip and tuck (1857). It's not possible to say precisely who first coined the phrase, just as no-one knows who first said 'blow-for-blow'.

there ain't no such thing as a free lunch - you never get something for nothing - now a common business expression, often used in acronym form 'TANSTAAFL', the first recorded use of this version was by Robert Heinlein in his 1966 book 'The moon is a harsh mistress'. The general expression 'there's no such thing as a free lunch' dates back to the custom of America 19th century bars giving free snacks in expectation of customers buying drink. American economist Milton Friedman, who won the 1976 Nobel prize for economics, did much to popularise the expression in that form and even used it as a title for one of his books.

nonce - slang term used in prison particularly for a sex offender - derived supposedly from (or alternatively leading to) the acronym term 'Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise', chalked above a culprit's cell door by prison officers, meaning that the prisoner should be kept apart from others for his own safety. Alternatively, the acronym came after the word, which was derived as a shortening of 'a little bit of nonsense' being a prison euphemism for the particular offence. (An unrelated meaning, nonce is also an old English word meaning 'particular purpose or occasion', as in 'for the nonce', in this sense derived via mistaken division of the older English expression 'for then anes', meaning 'for the particular occasion', rather like the modern expression 'a one-off'.)

to the nth degree - to the utmost extent required - 'n' is the mathematical symbol meaning 'any number'. The expression originated from University slang from the 19th century when 'nth plus 1', meant 'to the utmost', derived from mathematical formulae where 'n+1' was used to signify 'one more than any number'. An early variation on this cliche 'cut to the nth', meaning 'to be completely spurned by a friend' (similar to the current 'cut to the quick') has since faded from use.

nuke - destroy something/cook or over-cook food using microwave oven - nuke, derived from nuclear bomb, first came into use during the 1950s (USA) initially as a slang verb meaning to use a nuclear bomb. In the last 20-30 years of the 1900s the metaphoric use of nuke developed to refer ironically to microwave cooking, and more recently to the destruction or obliteration of anything. Microwave ovens began to be mainstream household items in the 1970s. Early scare-stories and confusion surrounding microwave radiation technology, and the risks of over-cooking food, naturally prompted humorous associations with the mysterious potency of nuclear missiles and nuclear power. The word nuclear incidentally derives from nucleus, meaning centre/center, in turn from Latin nux, meaning nut. A word which started with a metaphor (nut, meaning centre of an atom), like many other examples and the evolution of language as a whole, then spawned a new metaphor (nuke, meaning radiate, meaning cook with microwaves, or destroy). (Thanks to J Susky for raising this one.)

nutmeg - in soccer, to beat an opposing player by pushing the ball between his legs - nutmegs was English slang from 17-19thC for testicles. It's also slang for a deception or cheat, originating from early 19thC USA, referring to the wooden nutmegs supposedly manufactured for export in Connecticut (the Nutmeg State). I suspect both meanings contributed to the modern soccer usage.

in a nutshell - drastically reduced or summarised - from a series of idiotic debates (possibly prompted as early as 77 AD by Latin writer Pliny the Elder in his book Historia Naturalis), that seem to have occurred in the early 19th century as to the feasibility of engraving or writing great long literary works (for example Homer's Iliad and the Koran) in such tiny form and on such a small piece of parchment that each would fit into the shell of a common-sized nut. One chap, George Marsh, claimed to have seen the entire Koran on a parchment roll measuring four inches by half and inch.



can't odds it - can't understand or predict something - the expression's origins are from the gambling world (possibly cards, dice, or horse-racing or all of these) where the word 'odds' has been converted from a noun into a verb to represent the complete term implied in the use, ie, (I can't) calculate the odds (relating to reasons for or likelihood of a particular occurrence). Odds meaning the different chances of contenders, as used in gambling, was first recorded in English in 1574 according to Chambers (etymology dictionary), so the use of the 'can't odds it' expression could conceivably be very old indeed.

off-hand - surprisingly unpleasant (describing someone's attitude) - evolved from the older expression when 'off-hand' meant 'unprepared', which derived from its logical opposite, 'in-hand' used to describe something that was 'in preparation'.

okay/OK/O.K. - Okay is one of the most commonly questioned and debated expressions origins. 'OK' and 'okay' almost certainly had different origins, although the meanings were all similar and now have completely converged. There are various sources of both versions, which perhaps explains why the term is so widely established and used:

  • The first publicly acknowledged recorded use of 'OK' was by or associated with Andrew Jackson, 7th US President from 1829-37, to mean 'Orl Korrect', possibly attributed in misspelt form to him mocking his early lack of education.
  • On similar lines, the Dictionary of American Slang refers to an authority on the origins of OK, Allen Walker Read, whose view states that OK is derived from 'Oll Korrect', and that this "...began as a bumpkin-imitating game among New York and Boston writers in the early 1800s who used OK for 'Oll Korrect'..."
  • The first use of 'OK' in print was in the Boston Morning Post of 23 March 1839 by CG Green, as a reference to 'Old Kinderhook', the nickname for Martin Van Buren, (a favourite of and successor to Jackson), who was 8th US President from 1837-41, whose home town was Kinderhook, New York.
  • The African US slave languages 'Ewe' and 'Wolof' both contained the word 'okay' to mean 'good'. Slavery in the US effectively began in 1620 and lasted until 1865, so this was certainly an early American origin of the term.
  • Probably even pre-dating this was a derivation of the phonetic sound 'okay' meaning good, from a word in the native American Choctow language.
  • The American anecdotal explanation of railroad clerk Obidiah Kelly marking every parcel that he handled with his initials is probably not true, nevertheless the myth itself helped establish the term.
  • Perhaps just as tenuously, from the early 1800s the French term 'Aux Quais', meaning 'at or to the quays' was marked on bales of cotton in the Mississippi River ports, as a sign of the bale being handled or processed and therefore 'okayed'. (The modern-day French public notice 'acces aux quais', means to the trains.)
  • A similar French derivation perhaps the use of the expression 'Au Quai' by cotton inspectors in the French Caribbean when rating the quality of cotton suitable for export. (Ack GR)
  • In a similar vein, women-folk of French fishermen announced the safe return of their men with the expression 'au quai' (meaning 'back in port', or literally 'at the quayside'). (Ack DH)
  • The expression '0 Killed' was a standard report, and no doubt abbreviation to 'OK', relating to a nigh-time's fatalities during the First World War, 1914-18.
  • In Europe, The Latin term 'Omnes Korrectes' was traditionally marked on students test papers to mean 'all correct'.
  • The Greek 'ola kala' means 'all is well'. The Finnish 'oikea' means correct. Scottish 'och aye' means 'yes' or 'for sure' (from the Scottish pronunciation of 'oh, aye', aye being old English for yes).
  • The Scottish expression 'Och Aye' was mimicked by the English in a mocking fashion, and this became 'okay'. (Ack JM)
  • In the Victorian era, during the British occupation of India, the natives could not speak English very well, so "all correct" sounded like "orl krect". This was soon shortened to OK, hence our modern usage of the term. (Ack. Philip Holbourn)
  • If you know any other origin of OK or okay please contact us and we'll add it to the list.

okey-doke/okey-dokey/okey-pokey/okely-dokely/okle-dokle/artichokey/etc - modern meaning (since 1960s US and UK, or 1930s according to some sources) is effectively same as 'okay' meaning 'whatever you please' or 'that's alright by me', or simply, 'yes' - sources vary as to roots of this. Most interesting of the major sources, according to Cassells okey-dokey and several variants (artichokey is almost certainly rhyming slang based on okey-dokey meaning 'okay') have 1930s-1950s US black origins, in which the initial use was referring to white people's values and opinions, and also slang for a swindle. Interpreting this and other related Cassells derivations, okey-dokey might in turn perhaps be connected with African 'outjie', leading to African-American 'okey' (without the dokey), meaning little man, (which incidentally seems also to have contributed to the word 'bloke'). If the Cassells 'US black slang' was the first usage then it is highly conceivable that the popular usage of the expression 'okay' helped to distort (the Cassells original meaning for) okey-dokey into its modern meaning of 'okay' given the phonetic similarity. OED and Partridge however state simply that the extent and origin of okey-dokey is as a variation of okay, which would have been reinforced and popularised through its aliterative/rhyming/'reduplicative' quality (as found in similar constructions such as hocus pocus, helter skelter, etc). There has to be more to it than this one might think... and while further theories would be pure conjecture, the Cassells references do beg the question whether some association might have existed between the various themes here (white people's behaviour in the eyes of black people; 'little man' and 'okay'). Pure conjecture, as I say. (Basic origins reference Cassells, Partridge, OED.)

oil on troubled waters/pour oil on troubled waters/put oil on troubled waters - calm difficult matters - according to Brewer in 1870 this is from a story written by the Venerable Bede in 735, relating the 7th century exploits of St Aidan, who apparently provided a young priest with a pot of oil just in case the sea got rough on his return journey after escorting a young maiden to wed a certain King Oswin of Oswy. The sea did get rough, the priest did pour on the oil, and the sea did calm, and it must be true because Brewer says that the Venerable Bede said he heard the story from 'a most creditable man in holy orders'. (As an aside, in his work 'Perfect Storm', Sebastian Junger argues that pouring oil on water actually makes matters worse: he states that pollution is responsible for an increase in the size of waves in storms. Apparently, normal healthy algae create a smoothing, lubricating effect on the surface of sea water. Suppressing the algae with pollution reduces the lubricating action, resulting in a rougher surface, which enables the wind to grip and move the water into increasingly larger wave formations. Ack. Brian McNee)

omnishambles - severe chaos, usually affecting several areas of a situation, organization or person - the word is typically applied to an organization or corporation, or chaotic circumstances presided over and caused by an offical body such a government or business or state entity. The word omnishambles was announced to be 'word of the year' (2012) by the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), which indicates a high level of popular appeal, given that the customary OED announcements about new words are designed for publicity and to be popularly resonant. Omnishambles is a portmanteau of omni (a common prefix meaning all, from the Latin omnis) and shambles (chaos, derived from earlier meaning of a slaughterhouse/meat-market). The word was devised by comedy writer Tony Roche for the BBC political satire The Thick of It, series 3 - episode 1, broadcast in 2009, in which the (fictional) government's communications director Malcolm Tucker accuses the newly appointed minister for 'Social Affairs and Citizenship' Nicola Murray of being an omnishambles, after a series of politically embarrassing mistakes. The word was subsequently popularized in the UK media when goverment opposition leader Ed Miliband referred in the parliamentary Prime Minister's Questions, April 2012, to the government's budget being an omnishambles.

(to be) over a barrel/have someone over a barrel - powerless to resist, at a big disadvantage/have an opponent at a big disadvantage - there are uncertain and perhaps dual origins for this expression, which is first recorded in the late 1800s. According to some sources (e.g., Allen's English Phrases) the metaphor refers to when people rescued from drowning were draped head-down over a barrel in the hope of forcing water from the lungs. Other sources, (e.g., Cassells Slang - and thanks B Murray) suggest it more likely derives from a practice of lashing wrong-doers while strapped to a barrel.

over the top (OTT) - excessive behaviour or response, beyond the bounds of taste - the expression and acronym version seem to have become a popular expression during the 1980s, probably first originating in London. Further popularised by a 1980s late-night London ITV show called OTT, spawned from the earlier anarchic children's Saturday morning show 'Tiswas'. Both shows featured and encouraged various outrageous activities among audience and guests. The earliest use of the 'over the top' expression - and likely contributing to the use and meaning of the cliche - was however rather more serious, referring to infantry charges from 1914-18 1st World War front-line battle trenches, particularly in France and Belgium, when appalling fatality rates were a feature of the tactic. The order for troops to move up and out of the trenches to attack the enemy lines has long been expressed as going 'over the top'.



mind your p's and q's/watch your p's and q's (or Ps and Qs) - behave cautiously or properly, mind what you say (normally in the presence of one's betters) - 1870 Brewer suggests that this expression's most likely origin is from French etiquette in the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715), when bowing was used as a formal acknowledgement, involving a step with the feet ('pieds' in French) and a low bow of the body when care had to be taken to avoid wigs ('queues' in French) from falling off, hence the cautionary warning to 'mind your steps and wigs', ie 'pieds et queues', which became p's and q's. This origin includes the aspect of etiquette and so is probably the primary source of the expression. Alternatively, and perhaps additionally, from the time when ale was ordered in pints or quarts (abbreviated to p's and q's) and care was needed to order properly - presumably getting them mixed up could cause someone to over-indulge and therefore behave badly. Another possible contributing origin is likely to have been the need for typesetters to take care when setting lower case 'p's and 'q's because of the ease of mistaking one for another. The obvious interpretation of this possible root of the expression would naturally relate to errors involving p and q substitution leading to rude words appearing in print, but it is hard to think of any examples, given that the letters p and q do not seem to be pivotally interchangeable in any rude words. However, there is a less obvious and more likely interpretation of this origin (Ack S Thurlow): on the grounds that typesetters checked the printing plate itself, which was of course the reverse of the final printed item. When looking at letters in reverse they were either symmetrical (eg., A, T, O) which are also reversible and so not critical, or they appeared as meaningless symbols (eg., reversed G, F, etc.) and so were easily spotted. The exceptions would have been lower case p and q, which appeared as each other when reversed, and so could have been most easily overlooked. A further possible derivation (Ack S Fuentes) and likely contributory root: the expression is an obvious phonetic abbreviation of the age-old instruction from parents and superiors to children and servants ' mind you say please and thank-you....'

beyond the pale - behaviour outside normal accepted limits - In the 14th century the word 'pale' referred to an area owned by an authority, such as a cathedral, and specifically the 'English Pale' described Irish land ruled by England, beyond which was considered uncivilised, and populated by barbarians. The Pale also described a part of Russia to which Jews were confined. This territorial meaning of pale derives from its earlier meaning for a pointed wooden stake used for fencing, or the boundary itself, from the French 'pal' and Latin 'palus', stake.

pall mall - the famous London street (and also a brand of cigarettes) - Pall Mall was game similar to croquet, featuring an iron ball, a mallet, and a ring or hoop, which was positioned at the end of an alley as a target. Pall Mall and The Mall in London both owe their names to the game, whose name was adopted into English from the French Paillemaille, in turn from the original Italian Pallamaglio, derived from the root Italian words palla, meaning ball, and maglio, meaning mallet. The game was a favourite of Charles II (1630-1685) and was played in an alley which stood on St James's Park on the site the present Mall, which now connects Trafalgar Square with Buckingham Palace. Pall Mall runs parallel to The Mall, and connects St James's Street to Trafalgar Square. Brewer's dictionary of 1870 (revised 1894) lists Pall Mall as 'A game in which a palle or iron ball is struck through an iron ring with a mall or mallet' which indicates that the game and the name were still in use at the end of the 19th century. According to Chambers, the word mall was first used to describe a promenade (from which we get today's shopping mall term) in 1737, derived from from The Mall (the London street name), which seems to have been named in 1674, happily (as far as this explanation is concerned) coinciding with the later years of Charles II's reign.

pamphlet - paper leaflet or light booklet - most likely from a Greek lady called Pamphila, whose main work was a book of notes and anecdotes (says 1870 Brewer). Alternatively, or maybe also and converging from the French 'par un filet' meaning 'held by a thread' (says Dr Samuel Johnson circa 1755).

panacea - cure or solution for wide-ranging problem - evolved from the more literal meaning 'universal cure', after Panacea the daughter of Esculapios, the god of medicine, and derived originally from the Greek words 'pan akomai', which meant 'all I cure'.

pansy - the flower of the violet family/effeminate man - originally from the French pensee (technically pensée) meaning a thought, from the verb penser, to think, based on association with the flower's use for rememberance or souvenir. The flower forget-me-not is so called for similar reasons. Pansy first came into English in the 1400s as pancy before evolving into its modern pansy form in the late 1500s, which was first recorded in English in 1597 according to Chambers. The French word ultimately derives from the Latin pensare, meaning to weigh, from which the modern English word pensive derives. The pejorative (insulting) use of the word pansy referring to an effeminate man or a male behaving in a weak or 'girly' way is a 20th century adaptation.

paparazzi/paparazzo - press photographer (usually freelance and intrusive - paparazzi is the plural) - from Federico Fellini's 1959 film La Dolce Vita, in which Paparazzo (played by Walter Santesso) is a press photographer. Paparazzo is an Italian word for a mosquito.

paraphernalia - personal belongings, or accessories, equipment associated with a trade or hobby - original meaning from Roman times described the possessions (furniture, clothes, jewellery, etc) that a widow could claim from her husband's estate beyond her share of land, property and financial assets. Derived from the Greek, 'parapherne' meaning 'beyond dower' (dower meaning a widow's share of her husband's estate).

stand pat - stick with one's position or decision - this is a more common expression in the USA; it's not commonly used in the UK, although (being able to do something) 'off pat' (like a well rehearsed demonstration or performance) meaning thoroughly, naturally, expertly, just right, etc., is common in the UK, and has similar roots. To 'stand pat' in poker or other card game is to stick with one's dealt cards, which would have reinforced the metaphor of sticking with a decision or position. Dictionary definitions of 'pat' say that it also means: opportune(ly), apposite(ly), which partly derives from a late-middle English use of pat meaning to hit or strike accurately (rather like the modern meaning of patting butter into shape, and the same 'feel' as giving a pat on the back of confirmation or approval). More pertinently, Skeat's English Etymology dictionary published c.1880 helpfully explains that at that time (ie., late 19th century) pat meant 'quite to the purpose', and that there was then an expression 'it will fall pat', meaning that 'it will happen as intended/as appropriate' (an older version of 'everything will be okay' perhaps..). Significantly Skeat then goes on to explain that 'The sense is due to a curious confusion with Dutch 'pas' and German 'pass' meaning 'fit', and that these words were from French 'se passer', meaning to be contented. So there you have it. All down to European confusion. The expression led to considerable ironic amusement when used on numerous occasions in comments about (and by) President Richard Nixon because the first lady's name was Pat (Nixon); notably his sticking to his story in the midst of the Watergate tapes scandal when a newspaper headline during the crisis: 'Nixon To Stand Pat On Tapes'....

pay through the nose - reluctantly have to pay too much - from the 9th century house tax imposed on the Irish by the Danes, called the Nose Tax because anyone who avoided paying their ounce of gold had his nose slit.

pearls before swine - do not waste time, effort, or ideas on people who won't or can't appreciate what you are offering - the expression also extends to situations where, in response to your approach, people would abuse and denigrate you or your proposition because of their own ignorance or self-importance (certain TV shows such as The Apprentice and Dragons' Den come to mind as illustrations of the principle). The saying originally appears in the Holy Bible (Matthew VII:vi). It is a metaphor based on the notion of presenting or giving pearls to pigs, who are plainly not able to recognise or appreciate such things. The full verse from the Bible is, "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before the swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you," which offers a fuller lesson, ie., that offering good things to irresponsible uncivilised people is not only a waste of effort, but also can also provoke them to attack you. While likening people to pigs is arguably a little harsh, the expression is a wonderful maxim for maintaining one's self-belief and determination in the face of dismissal or rejection, especially in sales and selling, or when battling for approval of new ideas or change within an organisation, or when seeking help with your own personal development. The important lesson from the Pearls Before Swine analogy is to forget about those who can't or won't take the time to appreciate you and what you are saying or trying to offer; instead move on to people and situations that will appreciate you and your ideas, which often means aiming higher - not lower - in terms of the humanity and integrity of those you approach. In life it is all too easy to assume a value for ourselves or our work based on the reactions, opinions, feedback (including absence of response altogether) from people who lack the time, interest, ability and integrity to make a proper assessment, or who are unable to explain their rejection sensitively and constructively. Whenever people try to judge you or dismiss you remember who is the pearl and who is the pig. And remember that all pearls start out as a little bit of grit, which if rejected by the oyster would never become a pearl. So direct your efforts where they will be most appreciated, which is somewhat higher up the human order than the pig pen, and real life equivalents of the Dragons' Den and The Apprentice boardroom. By the same token, when someone next asks you for help turning a bit of grit into a pearl, try to be like the oyster.

N.B. TV shows such as Dragons' Den and The Apprentice arguably provide learning and opportunity for people who aspire to that type of aggressive profit-centred business 'success', but the over-hyped and exaggerated behaviours often exhibited by the 'stars' of the shows set a rather unhelpful example for anyone seeking to become an effective manager, leader and entrepreneur in the modern world. Using these shows for teaching and training is fine for wannabe dinosaurs and followers of the Lex Luthor school of leadership development, but otherwise learners should be encouraged to question the validity and ethics of the on-screen antics and posturing, and to look beyond the play-acting for more useful lessons about making cohesive and professional plans, propositions, and presentations, and to whom to make them, which is back to the central point...

peeping tom - someone who secretly looks at others in a private state of undress or intimacy - from the story of Lady Godiva, who according to legend in 1040 rode naked through the streets of Coventry in response to her husband, Leofric, imposing a new harsh tax on the townsfolk (he'd said that he would withdraw the tax if she rode naked from one end of town to the other). The townsfolk agreed not to look and moreover that anyone who did should be executed. A tailor, presumably called Tom, was said to have peeped, and had his eyes put out as a result. Leofric withdrew the tax. The story teaches us two things: first don't look at what someone has every right to keep private, and second, that there are ways to bring about a change without resorting to violence.

keep you pecker up - be happy in the face of adversity - 'pecker' simply meant 'mouth' ('peck' describes various actions of the mouth - eat, kiss, etc, and peckish means hungry); the expression is more colourful than simply saying 'keep your head up'.

pen - writing instrument - from Latin 'penna' meaning 'feather'; old quill pens, before fountain pens and ballpens, were made of a single feather.

pernickety/persnickety/pernickerty/persnickerty - fussy, picky, fastidious - pernickety seems now to be the most common modern form of this strange word. The variations occur probably because no clear derivation exists, giving no obvious reference points to anchor a spelling or pronunciation. The word seems (Chambers) first to have been recorded between 1808-18 in Jamieson's Dictionary of the Scottish Language, in the form of pernickitie, as an extension of a Scottish word pernicky, which is perhaps a better clue to its origins. Traditional etymology opinion suggests that childlike adaptation of the word 'particular' is a possible root, with association also to the slang knickknack (or knick-knack), being another phonetically pleasing 'made-up' word, in this case meaning any unspecific thing, and earlier (1600s) a pleasing trifle - in other words an indulgence, and originally (early 1600s), a petty trick, derived from knack, meaning a trick or special technique (of a person), all of which have a vague connection to the arbitrary sense of the pernickety meaning. This is all speculation in the absence of reliable recorded origins. On which point a combination of the words particular and picky (or at least an association with the word picky) might have been a factor, especially when you consider the earlier pernicky form. Purists would no doubt point out that although pick meaning choose or select dates back to the 1200s, picky was first recorded with its 'choosy' meaning some time after (1867) the Jamieson dictionary's listings (1808-18) of pernickitie and the even older pernicky. Nevertheless the custom of adding the letter Y to turn any verb or noun into an adjective dates back to the 11th century, and we must remember that the first recorded use of any word can be a very long time after the word has actually been in use in conversation, especially common slang, which by its nature was even less likely to be recorded in the days before modern printing and media. The earliest recorded use of the word particular meaning fastidious is found in the Duke of Wellington's dispatches dated 1814, however, and maybe significantly, particular, earlier particuler, entered English around the 14th century from French and Latin, originally meaning distinct, partial, later private and personal, which would arguably more likely have prompted the need for the pernickety hybrid, whether combined with picky and/or knickknack, or something else entirely.

pick holes - determinedly find lots of faults - from an earlier English expression 'to pick a hole in someone's coat' which meant to concentrate on a small fault in a person who was largely good.

pidgin English/pigeon English - slang or hybrid language based on the local pronunciation and interpretation of English words, originally identified and described in China in the 1800s, but progressively through the 1900s applicable to anywhere in the world where the same effect occurs. Pidgin English particularly arose where British or English-speaking pioneers and traders, etc., had contact and dealings with native peoples of developing nations, notably when British overseas interests and the British Empire were dominant around the world. The term pidgin, or pigeon, is an example in itself of pidgin English, because pidgin is a Chinese corruption or distortion of the word 'business'. Brewer in his 1876 dictionary of slang explains: "Pigeon-English or Pigeon-talk - a corruption of business-talk. Thus: business, bidginess, bidgin, pidgin. A mixture of English, Portuguese and Chinese, used in business transactions in 'The Flowery Empire'..." The Flowery Empire is an old reference to China. Brewer goes on to quote an un-dated extract from The Times newspaper, which we can assume was from the mid-late 1800s: "The traders care nothing for the Chinese language, and are content to carry on their business transactions in a hideous jargon called 'pigeon English'..." Since Brewer's time, the term pigeon or pidgin English has grown to encompass a wide range of fascinating hybrid slang languages, many of which are extremely amusing, although never intended to be so. Pidgin English is a very fertile and entertaining area of (and for) language study. A popular example of pidgin English which has entered the English language is Softly softly, catchee monkey.

pie/easy as pie/nice as pie - easy or very appealing - according to Cassell's Slang Dictonary the origins of modern usage of the 'easy as pie' or 'nice as pie' expressions are late 1800s American, but logic suggests earlier derivations are from the New Zealand Maori people, in whose language 'pai' means good. Variations still found in NZ and Australia from the early 1900s include 'half-pie' (mediocre or second rate), and 'pie' meaning good or expert at something.

pig in a poke - something sub-standard that is bought without proper examination - from the country trick of a putting a cat in a bag to pass it off as a suckling pig; 'poke' is an old English word for bag, from the French 'poche' for bag or pocket. See also 'let the cat out of the bag'.

pig and whistle - a traditional pub name - normally represented as a pig and a whistle it is actually a reference to the serving of beer and wine, or more generally the receptacles that contained drinks, specifically derived from the idea of a small cup or bowl and a milk pail, explained by Brewer in 1876 thus: "Pig and Whistle - The bowl and wassail. A piggen is a pail especially a milk pail; and a pig is a small bowl, cup or mug, making 'milk [pail] and bowl'; similar to the modern sign of Jug and Glass, i.e., beer and wine..." See piggy bank below for more detail about the connection between pig and drinking vessels.

pigeon English - see pidgin English above

piggy bank - pig-shaped pot traditionally used to save coins - it is suggested very widely and anecdotally that piggy bank derives from the word pygg, supposedly being an old English word for a type of clay (described variously in more detail, often as orange and dense), from which early (middle-age) storage jars were made. The supposed 'pygg' jar or pot was then interpreted in meaning and pot design into a pig animal, leading to the pig shape and 'pig bank', later evolving to 'piggy bank', presumably because the concept appealed strongly to children. Some explanations also state that pygg was an old English word for mud, from which the pig animal word also evolved, (allegedly). Conventional etymology sources point to various vessels being called pigs (and variations) but do not support the pygg clay or mud theory. There seems no clear recorded evidence that pygg was once a word for mud or clay, nor of it being the root of the animal's name. The pig animal name according to reliable sources (OED, Chambers, Cassells) has uncertain origins, either from Low german bigge, cognate with (similarly developing) pige in Danish and Swedish, or different source which appears in the 12-14th century English word picbred, meaning acorn(s), literally swine bread. Websters and the OED say that pig (the animal) was pigge in Middle English (1150-1500). The OED and Chambers say pig was picga and pigga in Old English (pre-1150). No reliable sources refer to pygg as a root word of pig, nor to pygg clay (incidentally Wikipedia is not always reliable, especially where no references are cited). The word clay on the other hand does have reliable etymology dating back to ancient Greek, Latin, German, Indo-European, whose roots are anything between 4,000 and 10,000 years old (Cavalli-Sforza) and came into Old English before 1000 as claeg, related to clam, meaning mud. There is no such etymology for pygg. If you know of any please tell me. There is however clear recorded 19th century evidence that clay and earthernware pots and jars, and buckets and pitchers, were called various words based on the pig word-form. Many of these are found in languages of the Celtic peoples and therefore are very old, but no obvious connection with mud or clay exists here either. For example Irish for clay is cre, and mud is lathach. Welsh for clay is chlai (or clai, glai, nghlai); mud is fwd (or laid, llaid, mwd). If you know of any Celtic/Gaelic connection between clay or mud and pygg/pig please tell me. Brewer's 1876 slang dictionary significantly does not refer to piggy bank or pig bank (probably because the expression was not then in use), but does explain that a pig is a bowl or cup, and a pig-wife is a slang term for a crockery dealer. Skeat's Etymology Dictionary of 1882-84 explains that a piggin is a small wooden vessel (note wooden not clay), related to the Gaelic words pigaen, pige and pighaedh meaning for a pitcher or jar, Irish pigin (a small pail - which would have been wooden, not clay) and pighead (an earthern jar), and Welsh picyn, equating to piggin. All this more logically suggests a connection between pig and vessels or receptacles of any material, rather than exclusively or literally clay or mud. Significantly also, the term piggy bank was not actually recorded in English until 1941 (Chambers, etc). A connection with various words recorded in the 19th century for bowls, buckets, pots, jars, and pitchers (for example pig, piggin, pigaen, pige, pighaedh, pigin, pighead, picyn) is reasonable, but a leap of over a thousand years to an unrecorded word 'pygg' for clay is not, unless some decent recorded evidence is found. In summary there is clear recorded evidence that the word pig and similar older words were used for various pots and receptacles of various materials, and that this could easily have evolved into the piggy bank term and object, but there is only recent anectdodal evidence of the word pig being derived from a word 'pygg' meaning clay, which should therefore be treated with caution.

in a pig's eye - never, 'in your dreams', impossible - 'in a pig's eye' meaning 'never' seems to be an American development, since it is not used in the UK, and the English equivalent meaning never is 'pigs might fly', or 'pigs will fly' (see below), which has existed since the late 19th century and possibly a long time prior. 'Pigs' Eye' was in fact 19th century English slang for the Ace of Diamonds, being a high ranking card, which then developed into an expression meaning something really good, excellent or outstanding (Cassells suggests this was particularly a Canadian interpretation from the 1930-40s). I suspect this might have been mixed through simple confusion over time with the expression 'when pigs fly', influenced perhaps by the fact that 'in a pig's eye' carries a sense of make believe or unlikely scenario, ie., that only a pig (being an example of a supposedly stupid creature) could see (imagine) such a thing happening.

pigs might fly - never, a sardonic reference to the highly unlikely - whilst there's no generally acknowledged origin, this expression probably owes its popular acceptance to Lewis Carroll's 1872 'Through The Looking Glass', when the ridiculous notion of a flying pig was established in the literary mainstream: 'The time has come' the walrus said, To talk of many things: Of shoes - and ships - and sealing wax, Of cabbages - and kings - And why the sea is boiling hot - And whether pigs have wings..' Significantly, Brewer's 1870s dictionary doesn't mention the 'pigs might fly' expression although other pig-related expressions are mentioned, suggesting that the expression had not developed into a well-known one by 1870, ie., before Carroll's 'Alice'. Aside from this, etymologist Michael Quinion suggests the possibility of earlier Scottish or even Latin origins when he references an English-Latin dictionary for children written by John Withal in 1586, which included the saying: 'pigs fly in the air with their tails forward', which could be regarded as a more sarcastic version of the present expression, meaning that something is as likely as a pig flying backwards.

pin money - very little or unimportant earnings usually from a small job - the expression originated from when pins were not commonly available (pins were invented in the 14th century); the custom was for pin-makers to offer them for general sale only on 1st and 2nd January. Upper-class women would be given an allowance by their husbands to buy the pins. Amazing but true. (Brewer says so.)

from pillar to post - having to go to lots of places, probably unwillingly or unnecessarily - from the metaphor of a riding school, when horses were ridden in and around a ring which contained a central pillar, and surrounding posts in pairs.

pipe dream - unrealistic hope or scheme - the 'pipe dream' metaphor originally alluded to the fanciful notions of an opium drug user. The pipe dream expression can be traced back to the late 19th century in print, although it was likely to have been in use in speech for some years prior. It was most certainly a reference opium pipe smoking, which was fashionable among hedonists and the well-to-do classes of the 18th and 19th century. Much of Samuel Coleridge's poetry was opium fuelled, notably Kubla Kahn, 1816. Someone who was under the influence or addicted to opium was said to be 'on the pipe'.

give the pip/get the pip - make unwell or uncomfortable or annoyed - Pip is a disease affecting birds characterised by mucus in the mouth and throat. The expression seems first to have appeared in the 1800s, but given its much older origins could easily have been in use before then. Interestingly while the pip expression refers to the bird disease, the roots of the meaning actually take us full-circle back to human health. The 'stone pip' (used by some people as an extended term) would seem to be a distortion/confusion of simply giving or getting the pip, probably due to misunderstanding the meaning of pip in this context. The word pip in this expression has nothing to do with stones or fruit. Pip is derived from the middle English words pipe and pipehed used to refer to the bird disease; these words in turn deriving from the Latin pippita and pipita, from pitwita and pituita, meaning phlegm, and whose root word also gave us pituitary, pertaining to human biology and specifically the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is located in the brain and is responsible for certain bodily functions, but in the late middle ages, around 1500s, it was believed to control the flow of mucus or phlegm to the nose. Phlegm had long been thought to be one of the vital four 'humours' determining life balance and personality (see the four temperaments explanation on the personality section for more detail about this). So while the current expression was based initially on a bird disease, the origins ironically relate to seminal ideas of human health.

pipped at the post - defeated at the last moment - while the full expression is not surprisingly from horse-racing (defeated at the winning post), the origin of the 'pip' element is the most interesting part. Pip is an old slang expression for defeat, and here's how: it's derived from the term 'blackball', meaning to deny access - originally to a club - or to shun (ie defeat). The traditional club membership voting method (which Brewer says in 1870 is old-fashioned, so the practice was certainly mid-19th C or earlier) was for members to place either a black ball (against) or a red or white ball (for) in a box or bag. The balls were counted and if there were more blacks than reds or whites then the membership application was denied - the prospective new member was 'blackballed'. The black ball was called a pip (after the pip of a fruit, in turn from earlier similar words which meant the fruit itself, eg pippin, and the Greek, pepe for melon), so pipped became another way or saying blackballed or defeated.

placebo - treatment with no actual therapeutic content (used as a control in tests or as an apparent drug to satisfy a patient) - from the Latin word placebo meaning 'I shall please'. Placebo was first used from about 1200, in a non-medical sense to mean an act of flattery or servility. The modern medical meaning of an inactive substance - usually a pill - used as a control in drug tests began in the 1950s. The use of placebo to describe a phantom treatment began in the mid-1800s (as a means of satisfying a demanding patient), and since then amazingly the use of a placebos for this purpose has been proven to actually benefit the patient in between 30-60% of cases (for illnesses ranging from arthritis to depression), demonstrating the healing power of a person's own mind, and the power of positive thinking. This 'real' effect of placebos ironically is at odds with the 'phantom' inference now commonly inferred from the word, but not with its original 'I shall please' meaning. A placebo may be empty of active ingredients, but it is certainly not empty of effect. This contrasts with the recently identified and proven 'nocebo' effect (nocebo is Latin for 'I shall harm'): the 'nocebo' term has been used by psychological researchers since the 1960s to help explain the power of negative thinking on health and life expectancy. Placebos help people to feel better and so they get better, whereas the nocebo effect, in which patients continually tell themselves and others how ill they are, actually makes people more ill. The motto (and fact) is: Think well, be well; think sick, be sick.

plain sailing - easy - from 17-18th century, originally 'plane sailing', the term for a quick method of navigating short distances, when positions and distances could be plotted as if on a flat plane rather than a curved surface.

pleased as punch/proud as punch - openly or boastfully very pleased/proud or delighted (with oneself, or with an outcome that one finds pleasing) - the 'pleased as punch' and 'proud as punch' expressions are English in origin, from the early 1800s according to general etymological thinking (Chambers states 1813 as the first recorded use of 'please as punch'), and each expression is based on the pleasure which the puppet 'Punch' derives from murdering all the other characters in the traditional 'Punch and Judy Show'. Punch and Judy puppet shows - they were actually string puppets prior to the later 'glove' puppet versions - began to develop in England in the early or mid-1600s, using elements - notably the Punch character - imported from traditional Italian medieval street theatre 'Commedia dell'arte' ('Comedy of art' or 'Comedy of the profession'), which began in 1300s Italy and flourished in the 1500-1600s. Among the many exaggerated Commedia dell'arte characters that the plays featured was a hunchback clown character called Pulcinella (Pollecinella in Neapolitan). This Italian name was probably derived from the Italian word pollecena, a turkey pullet (young hen), the logic being that the clown character's facial profile, and notably his hooked nose, resembled a turkey's. Conceivably the stupid behaviour associated with the bird would have provided a further metaphor for the clown image. When the 'Puncinalla' clown character manifested in England the spelling was anglicised into 'Punchinello', which was the basis for the modern day badly behaved Punch puppet clown character. Samuel Pepys Diaries 1660-69 are a commonly cited early reference to the English Punchinello clown in his October 1662 writings. Interestingly according to Chambers the Judy character name is not recorded until early the 1800s. The Punchinello character's name seems to have shortened to Punch around 1709 (Chambers). The firm establishment and wide recognition of the character name Punch is likely to have been reinforced by the aggressive connotation of the punch word, which incidentally in the 'hit' sense (first recorded c.1530) derived from first meaning poke or prod (1300s), later stab or pierce (1400s), via various French words associated with piercing or pricking (eg., 'ponchon', pointed tool for piercing) in turn originally from Latin 'punctio', which also gave us the word pungent, meaning sharp.

pleb - an ordinary person or commoner - an insulting derogatory term (typically used by superior arrogant folk in authority) suggesting a common or ordinary and insignificant person of low status and intelligence, pleb is a shortening/alternative for the earlier slang 'plebe' (pronounced 'pleeb'), which in turn is a shortening of plebeian, originally a technical historical term. Plebeian (usually pronouned 'plibeean', with emphasis on the long 'ee') came into English from Latin in the 1500s, referring originally to a commoner of ancient Rome, ironically the root Latin word is also 'pleb' or 'plebs', meaning 'the common people'. Related to this, from the same Latin root word, and contributing to the slang development, is the term plebescite, appearing in English from Latin via French in the 1500s, referring originally and technically in Roman history to the vote of an electorate - rather like a referendum. Plebescite later acquired wider meaning in English referring to the vote or collective view of the masses, for example recorded in commentary of the (French people's) popular approval of the 1851 French coup d'état. These modern dictionary definitions are probably taken from Brewer, 1877, whose dictionary lists plebians and plebescite as technical historical references, respectively to Roman free citizens and a people's decree in Rome, and later in France relating to elect Napoleon III. The slang word plebe, (according to Chambers Slang Dictionary) was first used in naval/military slang, referring to a new recruit, and was first recorded in American English in 1833. Pleb was first recorded in US English in 1852. Partridge Slang additionally cites mid-1800s English origins for pleb, meaning (originally, or first recorded), a tradesman's son at Westminster College, alongside 'plebe', a newcomer at West Point military academy in New York state.

plummet/plumber/plumb (..worn out or gone) - (these are three closely related words and meanings) - to fall sharply/water and drainage pipeworker/downright - originally from Latin 'plumbum' meaning lead, from which origin also derives 'plumb' meaning lead weight (used for depth soundings and plumbing a straight vertical line with a plumb-bob, a lead weight on a line), and the chemical symbol for the lead element, Pb.

pom/pohm/pommie - Australian slang for an English person - popular understanding is that this is an acronym based on the fact that many early English settlers were deported English criminals (Prisoner Of Her/His Majesty, or Prisoner Of Mother England), although this interpretation of the Pohm and Pommie slang words are likely to be retrospective acronyms (called 'bacronyms' or 'backronyms', which are 'portmanteau' words). A common view among etymologysts is that pom and pommie probably derived from the English word pome meaning a fruit, like apple or pear, and pomegranate. Pomme of course is French for apple.

pop goes the weasel - final line from each of the verses of the old Victorian London song and earlier a dance based on the phrase 'Pop goes the weasel' - several different versions and words exist for the song, although certain elements are constant, notably 'Up and down the City Road, In an out the Eagle' (City Road is still a main road in the City of London; The Eagle was an East London pub) and the most famous lines 'Half a pound of tuppeny rice, Half a pound of treacle, That's the way the money goes, Pop goes the weasel.' The metaphor supported the image of having no money left, chiefly due to drinking, and tells a story of Victorian London working class poverty: Pop meant pawn (trade something for cash at a pawnbrokers); the 'weasel' could be any of the following: the iron (used to iron clothes, and commonly pawned - 'popped' - by factory workers to raise cash); other etymologists say that weasel is a corruption of cockney rhyming slang 'whistle' (meaning suit, as in 'whistle and flute'), and others favour it being cockney rhyming slang for coat (as in weasel and stoat). Whatever, it's a fascinating expression with fascinating origins.

portmanteau/portmanteau word/portmanteau words/portmanteaux - a portmanteau word is one derived from the combination of meaning and spelling or sound of two other words, or more usually parts of two words. The original and usual meaning of portmanteau (which entered English around 1584 according to Chambers) is a travelling bag, typically with two compartments, which derives from Middle French portemanteau meaning travelling bag or clothes rack, from the separate French words porter (to carry) and manteau (cloak). More interestingly the word portmanteau has now popularly been applied to the grammatical effect of combining two words to form a new word, such as smog (smoke and fog); brunch (breakfast and lunch); bionic (biology and electronic); moped (motor and pedal); motel (motor and hotel); muppet (marionette and puppet); fanzine (fan and magazine); sitcom (situation and comedy - thanks Noor); cyborg (cybernetic and organism), blog (web and log), bacronym or backronym (back and acronym - meaning the acronym was created in reverse). These better-known portmanteau words (or simply called portmanteaux or portmanteaus - either of the plural forms is acceptable) are among a fast-growing list of similarly-contrived constructions, some of which are amusingly daft, for example, 'analrapist' (from analyst and therapist); 'bacne' (from back and acne); 'glamping' (glamorous and camping); 'craptacular' (crap and spectacular); 'procrasturbate' (procratinate and masturbate); and 'mangina' (use your imagination..). Julia Donaldson's children's book character the Gruffalo is a portmanteau of gruff and buffalo. More recently the portmanteau principle has been extended to the renaming of celebrity couples (ack L Dreher), with amusingly silly results, for example Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie); Bennifer (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez), and Vaughniston (Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston). The word Karaoke is a Japanese portmanteau made from kara and okesutora, meaning empty orchestra. The term portmanteau as a description of word combinations was devised by English writer and mathematician Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832-98). Carroll introduced the portmanteau word-combination term in the book 'Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There' (the sequel to 'Alice's Adventures In Wonderland'), which first appeared in 1871 but was dated 1872, hence a little confusion about the precise origin date. In the book, the character Humpty Dumpty uses the word portmanteau (as a descriptive noun) to describe to Alice how the new word 'slithy' is formed from two separate words and meanings, lithe and slimy: "...You see it's like a portmanteau - there are two meanings packed up into one word..." Humpty Dumpty is specifically referring to the word slithy as is appears in the nonsensical poem Jabberwocky, featured in the 1871/72 book, in which Carroll invents and employs many made-up words. In this inaugural use of the portmanteau, 'slithy' actually referred to creatures called 'toves', which were represented as lizards with badger-heads and corkscrew noses. I blame the drugs...

posh - upper-class - popularly and romantically thought to be an acronym from 'Port Out, Starboard Home', relating to the more expensive cooler shade-side cabin positions on passenger ships sailing from England to India, 19th/early 20th century, although sadly this origin is not fully endorsed by etymologists due to lack of evidence, and is notably rejected by historian and etymologist George Chowdharay-Best in his article, 'POSH', in Mariner's Mirror, issue 57 pp 91-2, January 1971. Others have suggested the POSH cabins derived from transatlantic voyages (UK to USA) whose wealthy passengers preferred the sun both ways. Some even suggest the acronym was printed on P&O's tickets, who operated the sailings to India. More likely is that the 'port out starboard home' tale effectively reinforced and aided the establishment of the word, which was probably initially derived from 1830s British usage of posh for money, in turn from an earlier meaning of posh as a half-penny, possibly from Romany posh meaning half. In any event the word posh seems to have been in use meaning a dandy or smartly dressed fellow by 1890. (Thanks I Girvan for contributions to this).

keep the pot boiling/potboiler - maintain a productive activity or routine/poor quality novel - these are two old related metaphoric expressions. 'Keep the pot boiling' alludes to the need to refuel the fire to keep a food pot boiling, which translates to mean maintain effort/input so as to continue producing/achieving something or other. From and related to this, the separate term 'potboiler' has developed, referring to (any one of the many) poor quality novels produced quickly and very frequently by writers and publishers, chiefly to maintain a basic level of income, rather than to produce a work of quality. Brewer says (1870) that potboiler alludes to the need to supply food for the pot, rather than fuel to heat the pot, and that the reference was to articles and small pictures for periodicals, rather than to novels, and this is likely to be the original 'potboiler' derivation and metaphor, which has since altered in interpretation, not least as a response to the increasing abundance from the mid-late 1900s onwards of countless very low quality novels remarkable only for their packaging and merchandising instead of any literary merit.

pram - a baby carriage - derived in the late 1800s from the original word perambulator (perambulate is an old word meaning 'walk about a place').

promiscuous/promiscuity - indiscriminately mingling or mixing, normally referring to sexual relations/(promiscuity being the noun form for the behaviour) - these words are here because they are a fine example of how strict dictionary meanings are not always in step with current usage and perceived meanings, which is what matters most in communications. Also, fascinatingly the word promiscuous was the most requested definition for the Google search engine as at May 2007, which perhaps says something of the modern world (source Google Zeitgeist). The origins of the words are from the Latin, promiscuus, and the root miscere, to mix. The sexual meaning seems first to have entered English around 1865 in the noun form promiscuity, from the French equivalent promiscuite, or promiscuité, more precisely. The word promiscuous had earlier been introduced into English around 1600 but referred then simply to any confused or mixed situation or grouping. The adoption of the sexual meaning of promiscuity then crossed over to the adjective form promiscuous, which assumed its modern sexual meaning by about 1900. Nowadays, despite still being technically correct according to English dictionaries, addressing a mixed group of people as 'promiscuous' would not be a very appropriate use of the word. Language changes with the times, is one of the lessons here.

the proof of the pudding is in the eating - proof will be in the practical experience or demonstration (rather than what is claimed before or in theory) - in other words, you only know how good the pudding is when you actually eat it. The origin of the expression 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating' is four hundred years old: it is the work of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) from his book Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605-1615). Modern usage commonly shortens and slightly alters the expression to 'the proof is in the pudding'. This is a wonderful example of the power and efficiency of metaphors - so few words used and yet so much meaning conveyed.

the proof of the pudding is in the eating - you can only tell how good something is by actually experiencing it or putting it to its intended use; alternatively: proof will be in the practical experience or demonstration (rather than what is claimed before or in theory) - the expression is a metaphor, based on the notion that you only know how good a pudding is when you actually eat it - the basic theme of this expression is thought to date back to the 13th or 14th century (etymologists Cevza Zerkel says 13th, and James Rogers says 14th). It's generally accepted that the expression close to modern usage 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating' is at least four hundred years old, and the most usual reference is the work of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) from his book Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605-1615), although given likely earlier usage, Cervantes probably helped to popularise the expression rather than devise it. One of the common modern corruptions, 'the proof is in the pudding' carries the same meaning as the usual form, although this shortened interpretation is quite an illogical distortion. The other common derivation, '(something will be) the proof of the pudding' (to describe the use or experience of something claimed to be effective) makes more sense. The expression in its various forms is today one of the most widely used proverbs and this reflects its universal meaning and appeal, which has enabled it to survive despite the changing meanings of certain constituent words. Notably, in late-middle-age England a 'pudding' was more likely a type of sausage, and proof singularly meant 'test of ', rather than today's normal alternative interpretation, 'evidence of'. The expression almost certainly developed in England, where the word 'pudding' was used more commonly than elsewhere, notably than in the US, where the saying didn't appear until 18th C. The expression is likely to have had various national roots that converged over time to give us today's term, for instance, a form of the full expression apparently featured in the satirical epic poem 'Le Lutrin', written (says Rogers) in 1682 or 1683 by Nicolas Boileau-Despereaux, French poet and critic (1636-1711), translated then from French thus: 'The proof of th' pudding's seen i' th' eating'. In summary, 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating' has different origins and versions from different parts of Europe, dating back to the 13th or 14th century, and Cervantes' Don Quixote of 1605-15 is the most usually referenced earliest work to have popularised the saying.

pull out all the stops - apply best effort - from the metaphor of pulling out all the stops on an organ, which would increase the volume.

pull your socks up - see entry under socks.

pun - a humorous use of a word with two different meanings - according to modern dictionaries the origin of the word pun is not known for certain. It's a short form of two longer words meaning the same as the modern pun, punnet and pundigrion, the latter probably from Italian pundiglio, meaning small or trivial point. Pun in its modern form came into use in the 17th century. 1870 Brewer says it's from Welsh, meaning equivalent. The expression 'no pun intended' is generally used as a sort of apology after one makes a serious statement which accidentally includes a pun.

pleased as punch/proud as punch (see 'pleased...')

puss - cat - earlier in England puss meant cat, or hare or rabbit. It derives from the Irish 'pus', for cat. In the old poem about the race between the hare and the tortoise, the hare is referred to by his adversary as 'puss'.

pyrrhic victory - a win with such heavy cost as to amount to a defeat - after Pyrrhus, Greek king of Epirus who in defeating the Romans at Asculum in 279 BC suffered such losses that he commented 'one more such victory and Pyrrhus is undone'.



Q.E.D. - quod erat demonstrandum (which/what was to be proved) - the literal translation from the Latin origin 'quod erat demonstrandum' is 'which (or what) was to be proved', and in this strict sense the expression has been used in physics and mathematics for centuries. However the QED expression has become more widely adopted in recent times generally meaning 'thus we have proved the proposition stated above as we were required to do', or perhaps put more simply, 'point proven'. Originally QED was used by Greek mathematician Euclid, c.300 BC, when he appended the letters to his geometric theorems. He also used Q.E.F. ('quod erat faciendum') which meant 'thus we have drawn the figure required by the proposition', which for some reason failed to come into similar popular use...

quack - incompetent or fake doctor - from 'quack salver' which in the 19th century and earlier meant 'puffer of salves' (puff being old English for extravagant advertising, and salve being a healing ointment). Probably directly derived from German (quacksalber). Similar old phrases existed in Dutch (quacken salf - modern Dutch equivalent would be kwakzalver, basically meaning a fake doctor or professional, thanks M Muller), Norweigian (qvak salver), and Swedish (qvak salfeare). Quacken was also old English for 'prattle'. 'Salve' originated from the Latin 'salvia' (meaning the herb 'sage'), which was a popular remedy in medieval times (5-15th century).

give no quarter/no quarter given/ask for no quarter - stubbornly refuse to negotiate or compromise, or attack without holding back, behave ruthlessly, give/ask for no advantage or concession or special treatment - Brewer's 1870-94 dictionary has the root I think: "Quarter - To grant quarter. To spare the life of an enemy in your power. Dr Tusler says, 'It originated from an agreement anciently made between the Dutch and the Spaniards, that the ransom of a soldier should be the quarter of his pay.' (French donner and demander quartier)." Dr Tusler was an occasional reference source used by Brewer in compiling his dictionary. The reference to Dutch and Spaniards almost certainly relates to the Dutch wars against Spanish rule during the 1500s culminating with Dutch independence from Spain in 1648. The French expression, to give quarter and/or to demand quarter, which logically arose from the Dutch-Spanish use of the word, is very close to the current English version and so could have found its way into the English language from the French language, as happened to very many of our words and expressions. See the French language influence explanation. Alternatively, and maybe additionally: English forces assisted the Dutch in the later years of their wars of independence against the Spanish, so it is highly conceivable that the use of the expression 'asking or giving no quarter' came directly into English from the English involvement in the Dutch-Spanish conflicts of the late 1500s. The expression has shifted emphasis in recent times to refer mainly to robustness in negotiating, rather than attacking mercilessly, which was based on its original military meaning.

quid - one pound (£1) or a number of pounds sterling - plural uses singular form, eg., 'Fifteen quid is all I want for it..', or 'I won five hundred quid on the horses yesterday..'. The historical money slang expression 'quid' seems first to have appeared in late 1600s England, when it originally meant a guinea (and according to Brewer's 1870 dictionary, a sovereign) and later transferred to mean a pound in the 1700s. In older times the plural form of quids was also used, although nowadays only very young children would mistakenly use the word 'quids'. Usage is now generally confined to 'quid' regardless of quantity, although the plural survives in the expression 'quids in', meaning 'in profit', used particularly when expressing surprise at having benefited from an unexpectedly good financial outcome, for example enjoying night out at the local pub and winning more than the cost of the evening in a raffle. Traditional reference sources of word and slang origins (Partridge, OED, Brewer, Shadwell, Cassells, etc) suggest that the slang 'quid' for pound is probably derived from the Latin 'quid', meaning 'what', particularly in the expression 'quid pro quo', meaning to exchange something for something else (loosely 'what for which'), and rather like the use of the word 'wherewithal', to mean money. However a more interesting origin (thanks for prompt, KG) is that the 'quid' might well derive, additionally or even alternately, from the now closed-down Quidhampton paper mill, at Quidhampton near Salisbury in Wiltshire, South-West England, which apparently many years ago manufactured the special paper for the production of banknotes. Indeed the use of the 'quid' slang word for money seems to have begun (many sources suggest the late 1600s) around the time that banknotes first appeared in England (The Bank of England issued its first banknotes in 1694). The secrecy and security surrounding banknote paper production might explain on one hand why such an obvious possible derivation has been overlooked by all the main etymological reference sources, but on the other hand it rather begs the question as to how such a little-known secret fact could have prompted the widespread adoption of the slang in the first place. I am infomed also (ack A Godfrey, April 2007) that a Quidhampton Mill apparently exists under the name of Overton Mill near Basingstoke in Hampshire. Quidhampton is a hamlet just outside Overton in Hampshire. I am unclear whether there is any connection between the Quidhamption hamlet and mill near Basingstoke, and the Quidhamption village and old paper mill Salisbury, Wiltshire. If you know please tell me. It has been suggested to me separately (ack D Murray) that quid might instead, or additionally, be derived from a centuries-old meaning of quid, referring to a quantity of tobacco for chewing in the mouth at any one time, and also the verb meaning to chew tobacco. According to the website the Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue (Francis Groce, 1811) includes the quid definition as follows: "quid - The quantity of tobacco put into the mouth at one time. To quid tobacco; to chew tobacco. Quid est hoc? hoc est quid; a guinea. Half a quid; half a guinea. The swell tipped me fifty quid for the prad; [meaning] the gentleman gave fifty pounds for the horse." The earlier 1785 Groce Dictionary refers also to quid meaning a shilling, and also to quids meaning cash or money in a more general sense, and shows an example of quids used in plural form: "Can you tip me any quids? Can you lend me some money.." (which also illustrates the earlier origins of word 'tip' in the money context, which meant lend, as well as give).



rabbit - talk a lot - see cockney rhyming slang.

rag, tag and bob-tail - riff-raff, or disreputable people, also the name of the 1960s children's animated TV show about a hedgehog mouse, and rabbit (see this great link - thanks Vic Hill) - the derivation explains partly why the expression was used for a TV show about three cute animals: in early English, a 'rag' meant a herd of deer at rutting time; a 'tag' was a doe between one and two years old; and a 'bobtail' was a fawn just weaned (not a rabbit). The expression when originally used to mean a group of disreputable people was actually 'tag, rag and bobtail'; the order changed during the 20th century, and effectively disappeared from use after the TV show.

railroad - force a decision or action using unfair means or pressure - this is a 19th century metaphor, although interestingly the word railroad dates back to the late 1700s (1757, Chambers), prior to the metaphor and the public railways and the steam age, when it literally referred to steel rails laid to aid the movement of heavy wagons. Earliest recorded usage of railroad in the slang sense of unfairly forcing a result is 1884 (Dictionary of American Slang), attributed to E Lavine, "The prisoner is railroaded to jail..", but would I think it would have been in actual common use some time before this. The meaning of 'railroading' someone or something equates to forcing an action or decision to occur quickly and usually unfairly, especially and apparently initially referring to convicting and imprisoning someone through pressure, often fraudulently or illegally or avoiding proper process. The expression was also used in referring to bills being forced quickly - 'railroaded' - through Congress. While I have no particular evidence for its early use in newspapers and by other commentators it is easy to imagine that the phrase would have been popularised by writers seeking to dramatise reports of unjust or dubious decisions. The metaphor is based on the imagery of the railroad (early US railways) where the allusion is to the direct shortest possible route to the required destination, and particularly in terms of railroad construction, representing enforced or illegal or ruthless implementation, which is likely to be the essence of the meaning and original sense of the expression. The history of the US railroads includes much ruthless implementation, and it would have been natural for the metaphor to be applied to certain early expedient methods of US judicial activity, which like the railroads characterize the pioneering and nation-building of the early independent America. Railroad (1757) was the earlier word for railway (1776) applied to rails and wagons, and also as applied to conventional long-distance public/goods rail transport which usage appeared later in the 1800s (railroad 1825, railway 1832). Railway is arguably more of an English than American term. That said, the railroad expression meaning force a decision remains popular in UK English, logically adopted from the original use in America. I am separately informed (thanks M Cripps) that the expression 'railroad', meaning to push something through to completion without proper consideration, was used in the UK printing industry in the days of 'hot-metal' typesetting (i.e., before digitisation, c. 1970s and earlier) when it referred to the practice of progressing the production to the printing press stage, under pressure to avoid missing the printing deadline, without properly proof-reading the typesetting.

take a rain check - postpone something - many believe this derives from the modern English meaning of 'check' (ie 'consider', or 'think about'), and so the expression is growing more to mean 'I'll think about it', but the original meaning stems from its derivation, which was from the custom started in 19th century America for vouchers to be issued to paying baseball spectators in the event of rain, which they would use for admission to the rearranged game.

raining cats and dogs - torrential rainfall - various different origins, all contributing to the strength of the expression today. The expression has been around for hundreds of years, appearing in the work of many writers (including Swift, Thackery and Shelley) since the first recorded use by English playwright Richard Brome in 1653, when in 'The City Wit' when he wrote ' shall raine dogs and polecats..' (Quite why he cited polecats (more like ferrets) instead of cats we'll never know..... Contributory origins as follows (much referenced by Brewer in 1870, which shows they were just as confused about origins then as now..):

  • Inefficient sewerage and drainage systems of 17th century England apparently used to flood and throw up all sorts of debris during a heavy downpour, including dead cats and dogs, giving the impression that the animals had fallen with the rain. (This not from Brewer, but various other etymological references.)
  • There were many ancient North European mythological imagery and expressions associating cats and dogs with the weather, storms, wind and rain, which will undoubtedly have contributed to the development of the modern day expression. Cats symbolised rain, and dogs the wind. Cats particularly figure weather and rain metaphors, including witches riding on storms taking the form of cats; sailor's terms relating cats to wind and gales; the stormy North-West wind in Northern Germany's mountainous Harz region was called the 'cat's nose'. Dogs and wolves have long been a symbol of the wind, and both animals accompanied Odin the storm god. Old German mythology showed pictures of a roaring dog's or wolf's head to depict the wind. (Brewer)
  • There is certainly a sound-alike association root: the sound of heavy rain on windows or a tin roof could be cats claws, and howling wind is obviously like the noise of dogs and wolves. These would certainly also have contributed to the imagery described in the previous paragraph.
  • Some etymologists argue the root is from a phonetic association or mis-translation from the French 'catadoupe', meaning waterfall - this is most unlikely to be a single cause, but it could have helped to some degree in forming the interpretation. (Brewer)
  • Amusingly and debatably: In 1500s England it was customary for pet cats and dogs to be kept in the thatched (made of reeds) roof-space of people's houses. When it rained heavily the animals would be first affected by leaking roofs and would hurriedly drop or fall down to the lower living space, giving rise to the expression, 'raining cats and dogs'.

ramp up - increase - probably a combination of origins produced this expression, which came into common use towards the end of the 20th century: ramper is the French verb 'to climb', which according to Cassells was applied to climbing (rampant) plants in the English language from around 1619. The French root word ramper, is in turn from Old High German rimpfan, confusingly originally meaning creep (again applied to creeping plants, as well as in the sense of creeping on the floor or ground). Ramper also produced the word rampant meaning standing on hind legs, as in the expression 'lion rampant' (used in heraldry and statue descriptions). From the same French ramper origin, the English word ramp is also a sloping access from a lower level to a higher level, and metaphorically fits the meaning of increasing degree of quantity, effort, size, volume, etc., to which the 'ramp up' expression is typically applied in modern times. It is also significant that the iconic symbol of a wedge-shaped ramp has been used since the start of the electronic age to signify a control knob or slider for increasing sound volume, or other electronic signals. Interestingly the term 'ramping up' does seem to be a favourite of electronics people, and this may well have been the first area of common usage of the modern expression. It is also very possible that the poetic and alliterative qualities shared by the words ramp and amp (short for ampere - the unit of electrical power) and amplifier (equipment which increases strength of electrical signal) aided the adoption and use of ramp in this context. We use words not only because of their meaning and association, but also because they are natural and pleasing to vocalise, ie., words and expressions which are phonetically well-balanced and poetically well-matched with closely related terms are far more likely to enter into usage and to remain popular.

rap - informal chat (noun or verb) and the black culture musical style (noun or verb) - although rap is a relatively recent music style, the word used in this sense is not recent. It almost certainly originally derives from the English mid-1500s, when rap, (based on the 'rappe' from 1300s Scandinavia meaning a quick sharp blow), meant to express or utter an oath sharply, which relates also to the US adoption of rap meaning an accusation or criminal charge (hence 'take the rap' and 'beat the rap'). Sometime during the 1800s or early 1900s the rap term was adopted by US and British Caribbean culture, to mean casual speech in general, and thence transferred more widely with this more general meaning, and most recently to the musical style which emerged and took the rap name in the late 1900s. (Sources Chambers and Cassells.)

raspberry - a fart or a farting sound made with the mouth - the act of 'blowing a raspberry' has been a mild insult for centuries although its name came from cockney rhyming slang (raspberry tart = fart) in the late 1800s, made popular especially in the theatrical entertainment of the time. See also fart.

read the riot act - to rebuke strongly - from the Riot Act of 1716, whose terms stated that a group of twelve or more people must disperse if someone in authority read a portion of the act out loud to them. Apparently it was only repealed in 1973.

caught red-handed - caught in the act of doing something wrong, or immediately afterwards with evidence showing, so that denial is pointless - the expression 'caught red-handed' has kept a consistent meaning for well over a hundred years (Brewer lists it in 1870). It's based simply on the metaphor of a murderer being caught with blood still on their hands, and therefore would date back probably to the days even before guns, when to kill another person would have involved the use of a direct-contact weapon like a dagger or club. The red-handed image is straightforward enough to have evolved from common speech, that is to say, there's unlikely to have been one single quote that originated the expression.

red herring - a distraction initially appearing significant - from the metaphor of dragging a red (smoked) herring across the trail of a fox to throw the hounds off the fox's scent.

red-letter day - a special day - saints days and holidays were printed in red as opposed to the normal black in almanacs and diaries.

red tape - bureaucracy, administrative obstruction, time-consuming official processes - from the middle-to-late English custom for lawyers and government officials to tie documents together with red tape. The term was first used metaphorically to describe official formality by Charles Dickens (1812-70).

red sky at night, shepherd's/sailor's delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd's/sailor's warning - while the expression's origins are commonly associated with sailing, the first use actually appears in the Holy Bible, Matthew 16:2-3, when Jesus says to the Pharisees, upon being asked to show a sign from heaven: He answered and said unto them "When it is evening, ye say, 'it will be fair weather: for the sky is red.' And in the morning, 'It will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowering.' Oh ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky, but ye cannot discern the signs of the times..." This is firm evidence that the expression was in use two thousand years ago. Over time the expression has been attributed to sailors or shepherds, because their safety and well-being are strongly influenced by the weather. The theory behind the expression, which would have underpinned its very earliest usage, is based on the following explanation, which has been kindly provided by physicist Dr John Elliott: "...the weather systems in Europe drift from the West, [not the East as stated incorrectly in a previous explanation]. If clouds are over Britain in the evening, but clear skies are following over the Atlantic, then the red light from the western setting sun can illuminate the undersides of the cloud cover, causing the red sky. This then indicates that the clouds will be followed (by the following morning) by clear skies. Shepherd's (or sailor's) delight. Similarly, if clear skies in the east are coincident with clouds over Britain in the morning, the red light from the rising, easterly sun will illuminate the undersides of the clouds, and the immediate weather for the coming day will be cloudy, perhaps wet. Shepherd's warning. The red colour of the sun (and moon) at its rising and setting is because the light travels through a great distance in the atmosphere, tangentially to the earth's surface, and because of that undergoes much more scattering than during the main daylight hours. The blue light is scattered out much more than the red, so that the transmitted light appears reddened."

bring something into strong relief - highlight or emphasise something - this expression is an example of many cliches that are commonly used but not listed in dictionaries of slang and expressions, in books or online resources. This is because the expression is not slang or any other sort of distortion - the phrase is simply based in a literal proper meaning of the word. The literal word-meaning of relief here is a three-dimensional (3D) contrast or a physical feature that sticks out from an otherwise flat surface or plane - something that literally 'stands out', in other words. 'Strong relief' in this sense is a metaphor based on the literal meaning of the word relief, for example as it relates to three-dimensional maps and textured surfaces of other sorts (printing blocks, etc). When something is brought into strong relief - which particularly can also be achieved by increasing the strength of lighting or changing the angle of light - it means that the feature itself and the contrast between it and its surroundings or environment are more noticeable or emphasised or highlighted. That this is normally achieved by suitably lighting the subject of course adds additional relevance to the metaphor. As with many other expressions that are based on literal but less commonly used meanings of words, when you look at the definitions of the word concerned in a perfectly normal dictionary you will understand the meanings and the origins.

no rest for the wicked/no rest for the weary/no rest for the righteous - pressure of work is self-imposed or deserved - there are several variations to this expression, making it quite a complex one to explain, and an impossible expression to which to ascribe a single 'correct' meaning. There are no right or wrong usages - just different variations. No rest for the righteous or no rest for the wicked seem most commonly used these days. In my view weary is a variation of righteous. Probably the origins are ''There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked", from the Bible, the book of Isaiah chapter 48 verse 22. In this sense the expression meant that wicked people deserve and get no peace, or rest. The expression has evolved more subtle meanings over time, and now is used either literally or ironically, for example 'no rest for the wicked' is commonly used ironically, referring to a good person who brings work on him/herself, as in the expression: 'if you want a job doing give it to a busy person'. In this sense the expression is used to convey a meaning that the person is being good by working or being active or busy, and (jokingly) might somehow be paying dues for past sins or failings, as if the denial of rest is a punishment, which clearly harks back to the original Biblical meaning. The variations and irony make it difficult (and actually irrelevant) to say whether today any single variation or interpretation is more 'correct' than any other. Language and expressions evolve according to what they mean to people; language is not an absolute law unto itself, whatever the purists say. Otherwise we'd all still be speaking like they did thousands of years ago, which was a lot less efficiently and effectively than the way we speak today.

no/neither rhyme nor reason - a plan or action that does not make sense - originally meant 'neither good for entertainment nor instruction'. According to Brewer (1870) Thomas More (Henry VIII's chancellor 1529-32) received a book manuscript and suggested the author turn it into rhyme. On seeing the revised draft More noted the improvement saying 'tis rhyme now, but before it was neither rhyme nor reason'. I was advised additionally (ack Rev N Lanigan, Aug 2007): "...the Oxford Book of English Anecdotes relates that the expression came from a poet, possibly Edmund Spenser, who was promised a hundred pounds for writing a poem for Queen Elizabeth I. He wrote the poem which pleased the Queen, but her treasurer thought a hundred pounds excessive for a few lines of poetry and told the Queen so, whereupon she told the treasurer to pay the poet 'what is reason(able), but even so the treasurer didn't pay the poet. He then wrote another poem and sent it to the Queen with lines that went something like 'Once upon a season I was promised reason for my rhyme, from that time until this season I received no rhyme nor reason,' whereupon the Queen ordered that he be paid the full sum. Since Queen Elizabeth I came after Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More, the first version may be the more correct one, or the poet might have known the phrase from More's use of it..." (Thanks Rev N Lanigan)

riff-raff - common people - originally meant 'rags and sweepings' from Anglo-Saxon 'rief' meaning rag, and 'raff' meaning sweepings.

ride roughshod over - to severely dominate or override something or someone - a 'roughshod' horse had nails protruding from the horseshoes, for better grip or to enable cavalry horses to inflict greater damage.

ring of truth/ring true - sounds or seems believable - from the custom of testing whether coins were genuine by bouncing on a hard surface; forgeries not made of the proper precious metal would sound different to the real thing. 'Ring' is from the Anglo-Saxon 'hring-an', meaning ring a bell.

when in Rome... ( as the Romans do) - (when in a strange or different situation) it's best to behave (even if badly) like those around you - a great example of why these expressions endure for thousands of years: they are extremely efficient descriptions; they cram so much meaning into so few words. This expression originates not from the Bible (as commonly suggested, including here previously), but later - from an exchange between when two bishops who lived in the late 4th and early 5th centuries: St Ambrose of Milan and St Augustine of Hippo. It was recorded (by Brewer notably in 1870) that St Ambrose answers a question from St Augustine and his mother St Monica about what day to fast, given that Rome observes Saturday but not so in Milan, to which St Ambrose replies, "While I am at Milan, I do as they do in Milan; but when I go to Rome, I do as Rome does." Brewer gives the reference 'Epistle xxxvi', and suggests 'Compare 2 Kings v.18, 19' which features a tenously similar issue involving Elisha, some men, and the barren waterless nature of Jericho, which is certainly not the origin of the saying. Brewer's Epistle xxxvi is unclear and seems not to relate to St Ambrose's letters. Further clarification of Epistle xxxvi is welcome. (My thanks to P Acton for helping with this improved explanation.)

RSVP (Respondez S'il Vous Plait) - please reply - properly in French Répondez s'il vous plaît, using the correct French diacritical marks. RSVP, or less commonly the full expression 'Respondez S'il Vous Plait', is traditionally printed on invitations to weddings and parties, etc., as a request for the recipient to reply. Literally translated as 'reply if it you pleases', or more recognizably, 'reply please', since 's'il vous plait' has long meant 'please' in French, literally from the earlier full construction of 'if it pleases you'. The practice of using French phrases in English society etiquette dates from hundreds of years ago following the Norman invasion when French was used in the English royal court, underpinning the tendency for aspects of French lifestyle and language to have been adopted by the 'aspiring' English classes. The word 'etiquette' itself is of course fittingly French. It has been suggested to me (thanks G Chilvers) that French people tend to use Prière de Répondre instead of/in addition to Répondez s'il vous plaît. Indeed Bill Bryson in his book Mother Tongue says RSVP is not used at all in French now, although there seem conflicting views about the relative popularity of the two phrases in French, and I'd be grateful for further clarification.

cross the Rubicon/crossing the Rubicon - commit to something to the point of no return - the Rubicon was a river separating ancient Italy from Cisalpine Gaul, which was allotted to Julius Caesar. When Caesar took his army across the river in 49 BC he effectively invaded Italy. See also 'the die is cast'.

rubric - written instructions or explanation - from Latin 'rubrica' meaning the colour vermilion (red - originally referring to red earth used for writing material); adopted by the Romans to mean an 'ordinance' or 'law' because it was written in red.

rule of thumb - general informal rule, or rough reference point - thought to derive from, and popularized by, an 18th century English legal precedent attributed to Judge Sir Francis Buller (1746-1800), which supposedly (some say this is myth) made it illegal for a man to beat his wife with a stick that was thicker than the width of his thumb. The 'law' or assertion presumably gained a degree of reputation because it was satirized famously in the late 1700s by political/social cartoonist James Gillray (1757-1815) in an etching called 'Judge Thumb', featuring Judge Buller holding bundles of 'thumsticks' with the note: 'For family correction: warranted lawful'. So even if the legal validity of the story is debatable there is certainty that the notion existed in the public domain. The expression 'rule of thumb' is however probably more likely to originate from the mundane and wide human habit of measuring things with the thumb, especially the thumb-width, which was an early calibration for one inch (in fact the word 'thumb' equates to the 'inch' equivalent in many European languages, although actually not in English, in which it means a twelfth-part of a foot, from Roman Latin).



St Fagos (acronym for 'Sod This For A Game Of Soldiers') - Saint Fagos is the made-up 'Patron Saint' of thankless tasks. When you next hear someone utter the oath, 'For the love of St Fagos...', while struggling with a pointless report or piece of daft analysis, you will know what they mean. Also St Fagoc - conkers instead of soldiers... (Ack T Beecroft) A suggested origin of the 'game of soldiers' phrase (ack R Brookman) is as an old English and slang name for the game of darts, seemingly used in Yorkshire. See sod this for a game of soldiers entry. See also sod.

sackbut - trombone - similar expressions developed in French (saquebutte), Spanish (sacabuche) and Portuguese (saquebuxo), all based on the original Latin 'sacra buccina' meaning 'sacred trumpet'.

sailor's cake - buggery - see navy cake.

take something with a grain of salt, or pinch of salt (a statement or story) - expression of scepticism or disbelief - originally from the Latin, Cum Grano Salis, which is many hundreds, and probably a couple of thousand years old. The expression appears in its Latin form in Brewer's dictionary phrase and fable in 1870 and is explained thus: 'Cum grano salis. With great limitation; with its grain of salt, or truth. As salt is sparingly used in condiments, so is the truth in the remark just made.' This is a slightly different interpretation of origin from the common modern etymologists' view, that the expression derives from the metaphor whereby a little salt improves the taste of the food - meaning that a grain of salt is required to improve the reliability or quality of the story.

Interestingly, for the phrase to appear in 1870 Brewer in Latin form indicates to me that it was not at that stage adopted widely in its English translation version. Other etymologists suggest that the English 'with a grain of salt' first appeared in print in 1647, but I doubt the Latin form was completely superseded in general use until later in the 19th century. It is also said that etymologist Christine Ammer traced the expression back to the Roman General Pompey's theory that a certain antidote to poison had to be taken with a small amount of salt to be effective, which was recorded by Pliny in 77 AD (some years after Pompey's death in 48 BC). Pliny used the expression 'cum grano salis' to describe the antidote procedure, and may even have used the expression to imply scepticism back then - we'll never know. This story, like any others surrounding word and expression origins, would certainly have contributed to the expression's early usage and popularity.

Salt is a powerful icon and is well used in metaphors - The Austrian city Salzburg was largely built from the proceeds of the nearby salt mines. The superstition of regarding spilled salt as unlucky dates back to the last supper, and specifically Leonardo da Vinci's painting which shows the treacherous Judas Iscariot having knocked over the salt cellar. Other salt expressions include 'salt of the earth' (a high quality person), 'worth (or not worth) his salt' (worth the expense of the food he eats or the salt he consumes, or worth his wage - salt was virtually a currency thousands of years ago, and at some stage Roman soldiers were actually partly-paid in salt, which gave rise to the word 'salary' - see below). A lovely old expression now fallen out of use was 'to sit above the salt', meaning to occupy a place of distinction, from the old custom of important dinner guests sitting between the centre-placed salt cellar and the head of the table). Even the word 'cellar, as in salt-cellar, is derived from the word salt - it's from the Latin 'sal', and later Anglo-Norman 'saler', and then to late Middle-English 'celer', which actually came to mean 'salt container', later to be combined unnecessarily with salt again (ack Georgia at Random House). As with all expressions, popularity and sustainability are more likely if the imagery is evocatively very strong and commonly understood, and this clearly applies in the case of 'with a grain of salt'.

See also the detail about biblical salt covenants in the 'worth his salt' origins below. Direct connection isn't clear, but some influence from the covenant practice cannot be discounted.

worth his salt - a valued member of the team - salt has long been associated with a man's worth, since it used to be a far more valuable commodity than now (the Austrian city of Salzburg grew almost entirely from the wealth of its salt mines). The expression originates as far back as Roman times when soldiers' pay was given in provisions, including salt. The modern day version probably grew from the one Brewer references in 1870, 'true to his salt', meaning 'faithful to his employer'. Additionally, there may be roots back to the time of biblical covenants, one in particular called the salt covenant: men back in those days would carry sacks or bags filled with salt for many different reasons. When men wanted to come into covenant with each other (for a bond, agreement, lifelong friendship, etc) they would take a pinch of their own salt and put it in the other person's bag of salt. This signified the bond and that once done, it could not be undone, since it was customary to shake the bags to mix the salt and therefore make retrieval - or retraction of the agreement - impossible. (Ack Preston)

salad days - youthful, inexperienced times (looked back on with some fondness) - from Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra; Cleopatra says 'My salad days, when I was green in judgement, cold in blood, to say as I said then'.

sandwich - (the snack) - most will know that the sandwich is named after the Earl of Sandwich, 17th century, who ordered a piece of meat between two slices of bread so as not to have to interrupt another marathon card-playing session; the practice of eating in this way was not invented by Sandwich though, it dates back to Roman times.

satan - the devil - satan means 'the enemy' in Hebrew.

scapegoat - a person blamed for a problem - from the ancient Jewish annual custom, whereby two goats were brought before the alter of the tabernacle (place of worship) by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Lots were drawn to determine which goat should be sacrificed. The surviving goat then had the sins of the priest and the people transferred to it by the priest's confession, after which it was taken into the wilderness and allowed to escape, hence 'scapegoat' ('scape' was a middle English abbreviation of 'escape' which is still a word but has disappeared from use).

scarper - run away - see cockney rhyming slang.

schadenfreude - popular pleasure derived from someone else's misfortune, often directed at someone or a group with a privileged or enviable existence - Schadenfreude is one of a few wonderful German words to have entered English in their German form, whose meaning cannot be matched in English. Schaden means harm; freude means joy. Schadenfreude means feeling joy from seeing the harm or discomfort felt by another. We see schadenfreude everwhere, especially in the media, which is of course driven by popular demand. There is something in human nature which causes most of us to feel better about ourselves when see someone falling from grace. The misery on TV soap operas persists because it stimulates the same sort of need-gratification in people. Public hangings were not only attended for ghoulish reasons. People feel safer, better, and less of a failure when they see someone else's failure. It's not pretty but it's life, and probably has been for thousands of years. The frustration is that reckless leaders and opinion-formers do so little to counsel against this human tendency; instead they fuel schadenfreude at every opportunity. Much of the media industry, in defending their worst and most exploitative output - say they only produce what the public demands, as if this is complete justification for negative excess. If it were, then we should bring back public hanging. Schadenfreude, like other negative human tendencies, is something of a driver in society, which many leaders follow. One day more leaders and publishers will realise that education and positive example are better ways of reacting to human weaknesses.

scot free - escape without punishment) - scot free (originally 'skot free') meant 'free of taxes', particularly tax due from a person by virtue of their worth. One who avoided paying their tax was described as 'skot free'. 'Scot and lot' was the full English term for this levy which applied from 12th to 18th century. Scot was derived from the Norse 'skot', meaning tax due from a tenant to his landlord; 'lot' meant the amount allotted. Less significantly, a 'skot' was also a slate in Scottish pubs onto which customers' drinks debts were recorded; drinks that were free were not chalked on the slate and were therefore 'skot free'. In the USA, the expression was further consolidated by the story of Dred Scott, a slave who achieved freedom, presumably towards the end of the slavery years in the 19th century, by crossing the border fom a 'slave state' into a 'free state'.

up to scratch - fit for purpose, or meets the required standard - from the practice in early organised bare-knuckle and prizefighting (1600-1700s) of scratching a line in the ground as a starting point for prize fighters or bare-knuckle boxers to face each other, signifying that contestants were ready in the required position and capable of fighting at the beginning of each round. A fighter who failed to come up to the scratch at the start of a round was deemed incapable of continuing and so would lose the contest. The expression was originally 'up to the scratch'.

screaming mimi/mimi's/meemies/meamies - An aliterative expression with similar meanings to sister terms such as heebie-jeebies and screaming abdabs, which roll off the tongue equally well (always a relevant factor to the creation and survival of any expression). The common use of the expression seems to be American, with various references suggesting first usage of the 'meemies/mimis' part from as far back as the 1920s. An underworld meaning has developed since then to describe a bad reaction to drugs, rather like the expression 'cold turkey'. A 'Screaming Meemie' was also US army slang for the German 'nebel-werfer', a multi-barelled mortar. The expression 'to have the screaming meemies/mimis' describes hysterical or paranoic behaviour in a general sense, or indeed a 'screaming meemie/mimi' would be a person behaving in such a way. Then as now the prefix 'screaming' is optional; the 'meemies' alone also means the same, and is the older usage. There is a sense of being possessed by demons, which are the meemies. The expression is likely to be a combination of 'screaming' from 'screaming abdabs/habdabs' and the stand-alone use of 'meemies' or 'mimis', which predated the combined form.The full expression certainly pre-dated, but was made more famous in Fredric Brown's 1956 novel called The Screaming Mimi, and subsequently made in to a film of the same name in 1958. The Screaming Mimi film (according to Shock Cinema Archives) was a Columbia Studios dark psychological thriller, soon withdrawn after release but now considered by ahead of its time by 'film noir' fans. It starred Swedish actress Anita Ekberg as a traumatised knife-attack shower victim (the film was in fact two years before Psycho) who becomes institutionalised, tormented and then exploted as an erotic dancer, by her doctor. The mental-case attacker re-appears and terrorises the dancer, now called Yolanda. The 'Screaming Mimi' in the film is actually a statue of a mad screaming woman coincidentally owned by each of the attacker's victims. In more recent years, the Marvel Comic 'Thunderbolts' team of super-criminals (aka and originally 'The Masters Of Evil') have a character called Screaming Mimi, which will also have helped to sustain the appeal use of the expression. Screaming Mimi first appeared as a member of the gang in Marvel's Two-In-One #54 in August 1979. But what of the actual root origin of the word meemie, or mimi (which it seems was the first form)? The earliest root seems actually to be Aboriginal. 'Mimi' is an ancient word (likely thousands of years old) from Australian Aborigine culture in the western Arnhem Land, on the north of the Northern Territory close to Darwin and the most mythologically rich area of the country. Mimi are spirits. Mimi spirits were/are believed to inhabit rocky terrain, hiding in caves and crevices or even within the rocks, emerging at night-time by blowing holes through the rocks to make doorways. The Aborigine culture has a deep respect for the Mimi spirits, believing them to have taught the forefathers their customs such as how to paint and hunt. Mimi spirits are apparently also renowned for their trickery - they disappear into rock, leaving their shadows behind as paintings - and for their sexual appetite and adventures. It's not possible to say exactly how and when the word was picked up by the British or Americans, but the likelihood of this being the primary root of the 20th century 'screaming mimis' expression is extremely strong.

scrubber - insulting term for a loose or promiscuous woman - according to Cassells and Partridge there are several, and perhaps collective origins of this slang word. None can be linked to massage parlours or massaging. The earliest scrubber slang referred to unkempt children, and to a lesser extent women and men, in the 1800s, when scrub alluded to the need of a good wash. This metaphor would have merged quite naturally with the other old sense of the word scrub, referring to an insignificant or contemptible person, alluding to scrub plant or vegetation, being stunted and not particularly tidy. In addition women of a low standing attracted the term by connection to the image of a char-lady on her hands and knees scrubbing floors. There is also a strong subsequent Australian influence via the reference in that country to rough scrubland animals, notably horses - a scrubber seems to have been an Australian term for a rough wild scrubland mare. The modern insult referring to a loose or promiscuous woman was apparently popularised in the RAF and by naval port menfolk during the mid 1900s, and like much other 1900s armed forces slang, the term had been adopted by wider society by the late 1950s. (Thanks T Barnes for raising this one.)

(a person without/having no/has got no) scruples - behaving with a disregard for morality or probity or ethical considerations - when we say a person 'has no scruples' we mean he/she has no moral consideration or sense of shame/guilt for an action which most people would consider unethical or morally wrong. A scruple is an anxiety about the morality of one's actions, although since about 1500 the word began to appear more commonly in plural form, so that we refer to a person's scruples, rather than a single scruple. Unscrupulous means behaving without concern for others or for ethical matters, typically in the pursuit of a selfish aim. The origin is fascinating: the expression derives from Roman philosopher/statesman Cicero (106-43BC) in referring metaphorically to a 'scrupulus' (a small sharp stone or pebble) as the pricking of one's moral conscience - like a small sharp stone in one's shoe. When we refer to scruples, we effectively refer metaphorically to a stone in our shoe.

scuba - underwater diving and related breathing equipment - SCUBA is an acronym for 'self-contained underwater breathing apparatus'.

sea change - big significant change - from Shakespeare's The Tempest, when Ariel sings, 'Full fathom five thy father lies, Of his bones are coral made, Those are pearls that were his eyes, Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange, Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell, Ding-dong. Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong, bell'.

sell - provide or transfer a product or service to someone in return for money - to most people these days the notion of selling suggests influencing or persuading someone to buy, with an emphasis on the seller profiting from the transaction. The early origins of the word however remind us that selling in its purest sense should aim to benefit the buyer more than the seller. This strong focus on achieving a positive outcome for the buyer features firmly in good modern selling methodologies, where empathy, integrity, trust, and sustainability are central to the sales process. The English word sell is a very old word with even older origins. Before about 1200 the word was sellen, evolved from sellan, which appears in the old English epic poem Beowulf, first written about 725 AD. At this time the word sellan carried the wider meaning of giving, and exchanging for money (i.e., selling). We see this broader meaning in cognates (words with the same root) of the word sell as they developed in other languages. In Old Frisian (an early Dutch language) the word sella meant to give. In Old Saxon the word sellian meant to give. The Old Norse word salja meant to give up (something to another person). The old Gothic word saljan meant to offer a sacrifice. Related to these meanings, the Old Slavic word sulu was a word for a messenger, and the Latin suffix selere carries the sense of taking counsel or advice. The original derivation is generally traced back to the ancient Indo-European language, in which the words sel and sol meant to take. It is only in relatively recent times that selling has focused on the seller's advantage and profit. When selling does this, it is rarely operating at its most sustainable level. Selling is truly sustainable - as a profession, a career, and a business activity - when it focuses primarily on the customer benefiting from the relationship. The seller is an enabler, a messenger, a facilitator - a giver. Fascinatingly, the history of the word sell teaches us how best to represent and enact it.

shanghai - drug and kidnap someone, usually for the purpose of pressing into some sort of harsh or difficult work, and traditionally maritime service - Shanghai is a reference the Chinese port, associated with the practice of drugging and kidnapping men into maritime service, notably in the second half of the 1800s. Shanghai is on the eastern coast of China, south of the mouth of the Yangtze river.The expression could logically have applied also to the same practice in US and British ports seeking sailors for ships involved with the China opium and tea trade, for which Shanghai was the ultimate destination. Later (1900s) the shanghai word also refers to a catapult, and the verb to catapult, which presumably are extensions of the maritime meaning, as in forcibly impel. The maritime drug-kidnap meaning is recorded first in 1871 (USA), and 1887 (UK). Dictionaries suggest the first use was US nautical rather than British, but this is probably merely based on first recorded use. In Australia shanghai also means to get thrown from a horse, which apparently relates to the catapult meaning, but this is not recorded until early-mid 1900s, and as such is probably an effect and certainly not a cause of the maritime expression. If there is more detailed research available on the roots of the Shanghai expression it is not easy to find. So I can only summize: if you consider the history of Chinese trade with the US and the UK - based heavily on opium, smuggling, conflict, etc - the association of Shanghai with the practice of drugging and kidnapping men for manning ships, and to describe the practice itself, is easy to understand. Shanghai was by far the most significant Chinese port through which the opium trade flourished and upon which enormous illicit fortunes were built - for about 100 years between around 1843-1949. No doubt men were 'Shanghaied' in other ports too, but the expression was inevitably based on the port name associated most strongly with the activities and regarded as the trading hub, which by all indications was Shanghai. For additional interest:

waiting for my ship to come in/when my ship comes in/when the boat comes in/home - anticipating or hoping for financial gain - as implied by the 'when my ship comes in' expression this originates from early maritime trade - 1600s-1800s notably - and refers to investors waiting eagerly for their ships to return to port with cargo so that profits could be shared among the shareholders. The Act for the Registration of British Vessels in 1845 decreed that ships be divided into 64 shares, although the practice of ships being held in shares is recorded back as far as the 1600s, according to Lloyd's Register, London. Incidentally the reason for ships being divided into 64 shares (in Britain - other nations have different rules) is explained in a meeting note of the General Shipowners Society, 11 Dec 1823 - and nothing to do with the number of ribs in a ship or Victorian tax percentages: "...the committee also conceive that the division of the property on ships into sixty-four assumed shares, upon the binary principle of halving the ship, and proportions under each, down to a sixty-fourth part, will be found in practice to be a more convenient system..." Allen's English Phrases is less specific about the share-ownership aspect, stating that expression 'when my ship comes in' is a more general metaphor alluding to ships returning with valuable cargo, and suggests that the expression is first recorded in the 1800s. The metaphoric use of the expression obviously spread and was used far back, as now, by people having no actual shipping ownership. The metaphor is broader still when you include the sister expression 'when the boat comes in', which also connects the idea of a returning vessel with hopes and reward. This notion features in the (1800s) Northern English ditty 'The Little Fishy' alluding to fishermen returning safely with their catch: Dance to your daddy, My little babby, My little lamb, You shall have a fishy, In a little dishy, You shall have a fishy, when the boat comes in. Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, written 1596-98, is an earlier consideration for the popularity of this metaphor, in which the character Antonio's financial and physical safety is for much of the story dependent on the return of his ships. (Thanks S Cook and S Marren)

shit - slang for excrement or the act of defecating, and various other slang meanings - some subscribe to this fascinating, but I'm sorry to say false, derivation of the modern slang word: In the 16th and 17th centuries most cargo was transported by ship. At this time, manure was the common fertiliser. The manure was shipped dry to reduce weight, however when at sea if it became wet the manure fermented and produced the flammable methane gas, which created a serious fire hazard. The practice logically evolved of stowing manure high in the ship to keep it as dry as possible, with the result that the request to 'Ship High In Transit' became a standard shipping instruction for manure cargo. I repeat, this alleged origin is entirely false. It is perhaps not suprising that the derivation can actually be traced back to less interesting and somewhat earlier origins; from Old English scite and Middle Low German schite, both meaning dung, and Old English scitte meaning diarrhoea, in use as early as the 1300s.

shoddy - poor quality - 'shoddy' originally was the fluff waste thrown off or 'shod' (meaning jettisoned or cast off, rather like shed) during the textile weaving process. The word then became the name of the material produced from fluff mixed with wool, or a material made from recycled garments. The early use of the expression was to describe a person of dubious or poor character. The origins of shoddy are unrelated to slipshod.

waiting for the other shoe to drop/waiting for the other boot to drop - awaiting the inevitable, waiting for the final stage in a (usually unwanted or annoying) effect or action or experience over which one has no control, (and to an extent an experience or effect which one longs to be completed so that normality can resume, until the next time...) - the expression is mid-to-late 20th century, and based on the metaphor of living in an apartment beneath someone (occupying the floor above) who has a habit of removing their shoes or boots before getting into bed, while sitting on the edge of the bed, dropping each shoe or boot with a thud onto the floor, disturbing the occupant(s) in the room below. The analogy is typically embroidered for extra effect by the the fact that the person dropping the boots goes to bed late, or returns from shift-work in the early hours, thereby creating maximum upset to the victims below, who are typically in bed asleep or trying to get to sleep. The sense of expectation of the inevitable thud of the second shoe is also typically exaggerated by describing a very long pause between first and second shoes being dropped. The sense of being powerless to prevent the ritual - a sort of torture - and potentially the fact that it is a recurring experience also feature in the meaning and use of the expression.

shop - retail premises (and the verb to visit and buy from retail premises)/(and separately the slang) betray someone, or inform an authority of someone's wrong-doing - the word shop is from Old English, recorded c.1050 as 'scoppa', meaning a booth or shed where goods were made. This is from the older Germanic words 'schoppe', meaning shed, and 'scopf', meaning porch or shed, in turn from the even older (i.e., anything between 4,000-10,000 years ago) Indo-European root 'skeub', thought very first to refer to a roof thatched with straw. Later in English, in the 1300s, scoppa became 'sshope' and then 'shoppe', which referred generally to a place of work, and also by logical extension was used as slang for a prison, because prisoners were almost always put to work making things. Later still these words specifically came to refer, as today, to retail premises (you may have seen 'Ye Olde Shoppe' in films and picture-books featuring old English cobbled high streets, etc). Interestingly, hundreds of years ago, retailing (selling goods to customers) was commonly done by the manufacturers of the goods concerned: i.e., independent (manufacturing) shops made and sold their goods from the same premises to local customers, so the meaning of shop building naturally covered both making and selling goods. The combined making/retailing business model persists (rarely) today in trades such as bakery, furniture, pottery, tailoring, millinery (hats), etc. The slang 'to shop someone', meaning betray a person to the authorities evolved from the slang of shop meaning a prison (a prison workshop as we would describe it today), and also from the late 1500s verb meaning of shop - to shut someone up in prison. The 'inform' or 'betray' meaning of shop (i.e., cause someone to be sent to prison) also encouraged extension of the shop slang to refer to the mouth, (e.g., 'shut your shop'). The original general 'premises for making goods' meaning of shop was eventually replaced by the term 'workshop', no doubt to differentiate from newer and more widely used meanings of shop in retailing, which increasingly implied a place where goods were sold rather than made. In this respect the word shop is a fascinating reflection of work/society, and we might predict that in the future its meaning will alter further to mean selling to customers effectively regardless of premises, as happens online. It is amazing how language changes: from 'skeub', a straw roof thousands of years ago, to a virtual shop on a website today.

shoplift - steal from a shop - 'lift' derives from the Gothic 'hlifan', meaning to steal, originally from Latin 'levo', to disburden.

short strokes/getting down to the short strokes - running out of time - the expression short strokes (alternatively short shoves or short digs) alludes to the final stages of sexual intercourse, from the male point of view. The metaphor refers to running out of time, or to the final (often increasingly frantic) moments or last stages of a particular activity. Surprisingly (according to Cassells slang dictionary) the expression dates back to the late 1800s, and is probably British in origin. (Thanks JH for the question..)

silly - daft - originally from the German 'selig' meaning 'blessed' or 'holy', which was the early meaning of silly. The modern meaning developed because holy people were often considered gullible due to their innocence, therefore the meaning changed into 'foolish'. Interestingly, the 'silly season' originally described the time when newspapers resorted to filling their pages with nonsense while Parliament was in Summer recess, just as they still do today.

sitting duck - easy target or something that is vulnerable or defenceless to attack- a metaphor from shooting field sport, in which a sitting or hatching duck, (or pheasant or other game bird) would be an easier target than one flying in the air. Strangely there is very little etymological reference to the very common 'sitting duck' expression. The term doesn't appear in Brewer or Partridge. Cassells suggests it was first popularised by the military during the 1940s, although given the old-fashioned formation of the term its true origins could be a lot earlier, and logically could be as old as the use of guns and game shooting, which was late 16th century.

six of one and half a dozen of the other - equal blame or cause between two people, parties or factors - Bartlett's Quotations attributes this expression to British author Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), from his 1836 book 'The Pirate': "It's just six of one and half a dozen of the other."

sixes and sevens/at sixes and sevens/all sixes and sevens - confused, chaotic, in a state of unreadiness or disorganisation - There are various supposed origins for this well-used expression, which in the 1800s according to Brewer meant 'confused', when referring to a situation, and when referring to a person or people, meant 'in disagreement or hostility'. Nowadays the expression commonly describes choas and disorganisation whatever the subject. Here are the origins and usages which have helped the expression become so well established:

  • Brewer in 1870, as often, gets my vote - he says that the expression 'six yea seven' was a Hebrew phrase meaning 'an indefinite number'. By implication this would make the expression many hundreds of, and probably more than a couple of thousand, years old.
  • Brewer (and therefore many other sources do too) also quotes from the bible, where the phrase is found in Job V:19: 'He shall deliver thee in six troubles, yea in seven there shall no evil touch thee.'
  • Bartlett's cites usage of the words by Chaucer, in his work 'The Romaunt Of The Rose' written c.1380, '...But manly sette the world on six and seven, And if thou deye a martyr, go to hevene!' This suggests and and supports the idea that the expression was originally based on the singular 'six and seven' like the old Hebrew, to be pluralised in later times.
  • Shakespeare used the expression in Richard The Second, II ii line 120, from 1595-96: '...But time will not permit:- all is uneven, And everything is left at six and seven.'
  • Brewer also quotes Taylor, Workes, ii 71 (1630): 'Old Odcombs odness makes not thee uneven, Nor carelessly set all at six and seven..', which again indicates that the use was singular 'six and seven' not plural, until more recent times.
  • Bartlett's also quotes Goldsmith, The Good Natured Man (1768) from Act I: '.Things going on at sixes and sevens..', which perhaps indicates approximately when usage became plural.
  • According to internet language user group discussion 'Sixes and Sevens' is the title of a collection of short stories by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) published in 1911. This is obviously nothing to do with the origins of the suggestion, merely an another indicator as to development of plural usage of the term.
  • Various sources suggest that the sixes and sevens expression is from a very old English and probably Southern European dice gambling game in which the the game was played using two dice, each numbered up to seven rather than the modern-day six, in which the object was to throw a six and a seven, totalling thirteen. Quite how a dice had seven sides I can't imagine... While this is a popularly cited origin, it is not one that I favour; it looks like something made to fit retrospectively.
  • Another language user group internet posting suggests that according to the The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (the precise encyclopedia isn't stated) the expression dates back (I assume in print) to 1340 (which is presumably based on Chaucer's usage) and that this most likely evolved from the old dice game of 'hazard', in which sinque-and-sice ('five' and 'six') represented the highest risk bet, and that people trying to throw these numbers were considered 'careless and confused'. Later, (according to the theory) 'sinque-and-sice' evolved to become 'six and seven'. The posting finishes with the suggestion that an old Italian expression 'a tredici' meaning 'at thirteen' might be connected with the origins. Perhaps.
  • Other suggestions , which I consider somewhat shaky, from various etymology sources and discussions, include such claims as: the expression sixes and sevens being derived from a league table of London livery companies in which particular adversaries called Taylors and Skinners routinely fought over sixth and seventh postion in the table rankings; also the suggestion that the phrase originated in the workshops where sewing needles were made, in which sixes and sevens were the most common sizes and presumably a basis for confusion.
  • I am subsequently informed (thanks C Summerrose, 22 Sep 2008) of an additional possibility of origin and/or influence for the 'sixes and sevens' expression, namely tarot cards, in which the 'reverse' interpretations of the middle cards (sixes and sevens) entail problems and confusions which need to be resolved, for example (loosely): six of wands = indecision and fear; seven of wands = indecision and retreat; six of cups = clinging to the past; seven of cups= reliance on false hopes; six of swords = unexpected developments; seven of swords = reluctance to complete; six of coins = financial recklessness; seven of coins = money worries.

skeleton in the closet/skeleton in the cupboard - a hidden trouble or secret shame (usually referring to something that a person or a family prefers to keep secret for fear of embarrassment or shame, in the eyes of friends and neighbours) - this well-used expression seems to come from an old and rather disjointed and puzzling story, which Brewer references in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1870: A woman's only son writes home from his posting in India, suffering from failing health, asking her to "...get someone who has no cares or troubles to make me six shirts". After much searching for a suitable candidate, the mother is eventually taken by a lady to a bedroom in her house, whereupon she opens a closet (Brewer definitely says 'closet' and not 'cupboard'), in which hangs a human skeleton. The woman says to the mother, "Madam, I try to keep my troubles to myself, but every night my husband compels me to kiss that skeleton". The woman goes on to explain to the mother that that the skeleton was once her husband's rival, whom he killed in a duel. Then turning to the mother the woman asks, "Think you I am happy?" (Are you still with this?... I know, it is a bit weird..) The mother later writes back to her son (presumably relating her strange encounter with the woman - Brewer omits to make this clear), and the son replies: "I knew when I gave the commission that everyone had his cares, and you, mother, must have yours." (I should bloody well think so with a son like hers.) The son's letter went on: "Know then that I am condemned to death, and can never return to England." (Shock, horror... and now the punch-line...) "Mother, mother! .. there is a skeleton in every house."

Brewer seems to suggest that the expression 'there is a skeleton in every house' was (in 1870) actually more popular than the 'skeleton in the closet' version. I say this because the item entry, which is titled 'Skeleton', begins with the 'there is a skeleton in every house' expression, and gives a definition for it as: 'something to annoy and to be kept out of sight'. From this we can infer that the usage tended towards this form in Brewer's time, which was the mid and late 1800s. Some etymologists suggest that the expression was originally 'skeleton in the cupboard' and that the closet version is a later Americanism. I don't agree with this. Brewer clearly uses 'closet' in the story.

Additionally Brewer says that the word 'skeleton' alone means 'trouble', which may well pre-date the daft woman story, and it is easy to understand how the association between skeletons and bad things could have developed quite naturally from imagery, witchcraft and tribal custom going back thousands of years, just as the skull and cross-bones have been a symbol of piracy for ages, up to modern times, for example the skeletal villain 'Skeletor' featured in the children's cartoon 'Masters of the Universe'.

Skeleton is a natural metaphor for something bad, and a closet is a natural metaphor for a hiding place. And whether Brewer's story was the cause of the expression, or a retrospective explanation, it has certainly contributed to the establishment of the cliche.

have/put/throw some skin in the pot - commit fully and usually financially - similar to 'put your money where your mouth is', there are different variations to this expression, which has nothing to do with cooking or cannibalism, and much to do with gambling. Skin here is slang for money, representing commitment or an actual financial stake or investment, derived from skin meaning dollar (also a pound sterling), which seems to have entered US slang via Australian and early-mid 20th century cockney rhyming slang frogskin, meaning sovereign (typically pronounced sovr'in, hence the rhyme with skin) which has been slang for a pound for far longer. The pot refers to the pot which holds the stake money in gambling. The related term 'skin game' refers to any form of gambling which is likely to cheat the unwary and uninitiated. Skin game is also slang in the game of golf, in which it refers to a form of match-play (counting the winning holes rather than total scores), whereby a 'skin' - typically equating to a monetary value - is awarded for winning a hole, and tied holes see the 'skins' carried over to the next hole, which adds to the tension of the game. Judging by the tiny number of examples (just three in the context of business/negotiating) found on Google at March 2008 of the phrase 'skin in the pot', the expression has only very recently theatened to go mainstream. When it does I would expect much confusion about its origins, but as I say it has absolutely nothing to do with cooking.

slag - loose woman or treacherous man - the common association is with slag meaning the dross which separates during the metal ore (typically iron) smelting process. In fact the iron smelting connection is probably more of a reinforcing influence rather than an originating root of the expression. Francis Grose's Vulgar Tongue 1785 dictionary of Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence has the entry: "Slag - A slack-mettled fellow, not ready to resent an affront." In other words a coward. In this sense 'slack-mettled' meant weak-willed - combining slack meaning lazy, slow or lax, from Old English slaec, found in Beowulf, 725AD, from ancient Indo-European slegos, meaning loose; and mettle meaning courage or disposition, being an early alternative spelling of metal from around 1500-1700, used metaphorically to mean the character or emotional substance of a person, as the word mettle continues to do today. Partridge says that the modern slag insulting meaning is a corruption and shortening of slack-mettled. Certainly the associations between slack, loose, lazy, cheating, untrustworthy, etc., are logical. The mettle part coincidentally relates to the metal smelting theory, although far earlier than recent 20th century English usage, in which the word slag derives from clear German etymology via words including slagge, schlacke, schlacken, all meaning metal ore waste, (and which relate to the coal-dust waste word slack), in turn from Old High German slahan, meaning to strike and to slay, which referred to the hammering and forging when separating the waste fragments from the metal. Slag was recorded meaning a cowardly or treacherous or villainous man first in the late 18th century; Grose's entry proves it was in common use in 1785. Slag meaning a female prostitute seems to have first developed much later - around the 1950s - and its more general application to loose girls or women is later still, 1960s probably at soonest. So the notion that slag came directly from the iron and steel industry to the loose woman meaning is rather an over-simplification. The first slags were men, when the meaning was weak-willed and untrustworthy, and it is this meaning and heritage that initially underpinned the word's transfer to the fairer sex. (Thanks Patricia for the initial suggestion.)

slipshod - careless, untidy - slipshod (first recorded in 1580) originally meant wearing slippers or loose shoes, from the earlier expression 'slip-shoe'. Slip referred to slide, since the shoes offered no grip. The careless/untidy meaning of slipshod is derived from 'down-at-heel' or worn shoes, which was the first use of the expression in the sense or poor quality (1687). The early careless meaning of slipshod referred to shabby appearance. More recently the expression's meaning has extended also to careless actions or efforts. The word has different origins to shoddy.

slowcoach - lazy or slow person, specially lagging behind others - Based on the metaphor of a slow horse drawn coach. English origin from at latest 19th century since Brewer defines the expression in his 1870 dictionary: "A dawdle. As a slow coach in the old coaching-days..."

slowpoke - slow person or worker - slowpoke is USA slang - 1848 first recorded in print according to Chambers. Same meaning as English equivalent slowcoach above. Probably from cowpoke - the word originally used to describe the men who prodded cattle onto slaughterhouse trains. Poke represented the image of work, being based on a common work activity of the times, as did punch (cowpunch or bullpunch). As with slowcoach, slowpoke's rhyming quality reinforced adoption into common speech and continuing usage. People like to say things that trip off the tongue comfortably and, in a way, musically or poetically.

that smarts - that hurts - smart, meaning to suffer pain actually pre-dated all other 'smart' meanings. Smart (to suffer pain) first appeared around 1150 (Chambers) and is developed from the Old English word Smeorten, which is in turn from Proto-Germanic Smertanan, with cognates in Greek (Smerdnos = fearful), Latin (Mordere = to bite), and Sanskrit (Mardati = he destroys). These very early origins (thousands of years ago, essentially from ancient Indo-European languages) are the same roots which led to the more common modern use of the adjective or adverb word Smart, meaning sharp, neatly dressed, and clever/intelligent, which appeared a few years later than the 'suffer pain' verb. All modern 'smart' meanings are therefore derived from the pain and destruction-related origins.

nothing to sneeze at/not to be sneezed at - okay, not so bad, passable, nothing to be disliked - the expression was in use late 19thC and probably earlier. 1870 Brewer explains that the expression evolved from the use of the word snuff in a similar sense. 'Up to snuff' meant sharp or keenly aware, from the idea of sniffing something or 'taking it in snuff' as a way of testing its quality. Shakespeare used the expression more than once in his plays, notably in Love's Labour's Lost, "You'll mar the light by taking it in snuff..." Snuff in this sense is from old Northern European languages such as Dutch and Danish, where respectively snuffen and snofte meant to scent or sniff.

put a sock in it - shut up - from the days before electronic hi-fi, when wind-up gramophones (invented in 1887) used a horn to amplify the sound from the needle on the record; the common way to control or limit the volume was to put a sock on the horn, thus muting the sound. The practice was still common in the 1930s.

pull your socks up - smarten yourself up, get a move on, concentrate - an admonishment or words of encouragement. Partridge says pull your socks up is from about 1910. Allen's English Phrases says it's from the turn of the 1800s and quotes HF McClelland "Pull up your socks. I'll see naught goes wrong with you..." from Jack and the Beanstalk, 1893. The imagery suggests young boys at school or other organised uniformed activities, in which case it would have been a natural metaphor for figures of authority to direct at youngsters.

sod - clump of grass and earth, or a piece of turf/oath or insult or expletive - First let's deal with the grassy version: this is an old 14-15th century English word derived from earlier German and/or Dutch equivalents like sode (modern Dutch for turf is zode) sade and satha, and completely unrelated to the ruder meaning of the sod word. Now for the more interesting bit: Sod as a swear-word or oath or insult was originally a shortening - and to an extent a euphemism or more polite alternative - for the words sodomy and sodomite, referring to anal intercourse and one who indulges in it. These words derive from Sodom, which along with Gomorrah were two cities, as the bible tells it, supposedly destroyed by fire (and brimstone, i.e., sulphur - hence the expression, fire and brimstone) sent from from heaven (God) because of the outrageously naughty behaviour of their inhabitants. The bible in its first book Genesis (chapter 19) wastes little time in emphasising how wrong and terrible the notion of two men 'knowing' each other is (another old euphemism for those who couldn't bring themselves to refer to sex directly). The story goes that two (male) angels visit Sodom, specifically Lot, a central character in the tale. The men of Sodom, apparently all of them, young and old (we can only guess what the women were up to) come to Lot's house where the men-angels are staying, and somewhat forcibly try to persude Lot to bring out the visitors so that the men of the city can 'know' them. (Have sex up the bottom, if such clarification is required.) To my surprise at having just read the passage (pun intended, sorry) Lot incredibly replies to the men, "No, but you can have my two virgin daughters instead.." or words to that effect. In fact the actual (King James version) words are: "Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye unto them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing..." That's alright then. One assumes that the two virgin daughters were completely happy about their roles as fodder in this episode. Whatever, this was seemingly all the encouragement that our mighty and compassionate Lord needed to raze the cities to the ground. Firm but fair you might say. A bit harsh, but life was tough at the dawn of civilisation. I should add that whereas the suggestion of anal sex between men was sufficient to bring about the complete destruction of two entire cities, our Lord seemed to smile favourably on the incest that Lot subsequently committed with his two daughters after they escaped the inferno, since Lot's wife was turned to a pillar of salt for daring to look back at the scene of carnage, no doubt remembering sadly the mums and toddlers she'd had to leave behind to be exterminated along with their anally fixated menfolk. Tough times indeed, and let that be a lesson to you. Bottoms are for sitting on, is the word of the Lord. In this respect (but not derivation) sod is similar to the word bugger, which is another very old word used originally by the righteous and holy to describe the unmentionable act - arguably the most unmentionable of all among certain god-fearing types through the ages. Which is why these words become so firmly rooted as oaths and expletives. Methinks they all protesteth too much. I will say finally that expert fans of the bible will correctly notice that while I've tried my best to make a decent fist of this, my knowledge in this area of biblical teaching lacks a certain insight and depth of appreciation, and as ever I am open to corrections as to the proper interpretation of these lessons. If you can explain what the bible seeks to convey through this particular story please let me know, and I'll gladly publish any reasonable suggestions. See bugger also, which has similar aspects of guilt, denial, religious indignation, etc., in its etymology.

sod this for a game of soldiers/bugger this for a game of soldiers - oath uttered when faced with a pointless or exasperating task - popular expression dating back into the mid-1900s and possibly before this, of uncertain origin although it has been suggested to me (ack R Brookman) that the 'game of soldiers' referred to a darts game played (a variation or perhaps the game itself) and so named in Yorkshire, and conceivably beyond. There certainly seem to be long-standing references to 'soldiers' in darts games, for example when numbers on the board are allocated to players who then 'kill' each other's soldiers by landing darts in the relevant numbers. There is also a fundamental association between the game of darts and soldiers - real or perceived - since many believe that the game itself derived from medieval games played by soldiers using spears or arrows (some suggest with barrel-ends as targets), either to ease boredom, or to practise skills or both. The allusion of the expression is to a difficult and painstaking or frustrating pastime, for which a game (perhaps darts, or some other reference now forgotten and lost) serves as the metaphor. See also ST FAGOS in the acronyms section. In this context (ack P Kone and S Leadbeater for raising this particular point) sod, and bugger for that matter, are expletives referring to the act of anal intercourse, which through history has been regarded by righteous sorts a most unspeakable and ungodly sin, hence the unending popularity of these words as oaths. See sod and bugger.

sold down the river - exploited or betrayed for profit - from the American slave trade 1620-1863, and particularly during the 1800s, after the abolition of the slave trade across the Atlantic and the increasing resistance against slavery in the northen USA, slaves were literally 'sold down the river' (typically The Mississippi) to the cotton producing heartlands of the southern states.

son of a gun - an expression of surprise, or an insulting term directed at a man - 'son of a gun' is today more commonly an expression of surprise ("I'll be a son of a gun"), but its origins are more likely to have been simply a variation of the 'son of a bitch' insult, with a bit of reinforcement subsequently from maritime folklore, not least the 19th century claims of 'son of a gun' being originally a maritime expression. The earliest origins however seem based on the rhyming aspect of 'son of a gun', which, as with other expressions, would have helped establish the term into common use, particularly the tendency to replace offensive words (in this case 'bitch') with an alternative word that rhymed with the other in the phrase (gun and son), thus creating a more polite acceptable variation to 'son of a bitch'. Renowned etymologist Michael Sheehan subscribes to this view and says that 'son of a gun' actually first appeared in 1708, which is 150 years before the maritime connections seem to have first been suggested. The maritime adoption of the expression, and erroneous maritime origins, are traced by most experts (including Sheehan) back to British Admiral William Henry Smyth's 'Sailor's Word Book' of 1865 or 1867 (sources vary), in which Smyth described the 'son of a gun' expression: "An epithet applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea; one admiral declared he was thus cradled, under the breast of a gun carriage." The allusion was reinforced by the fact that (according to writer Suzanne Stark) "...Births often took place on one of the tables between two guns on the lower deck, with only some canvas draped across to provide a modicum of privacy.." (from Suzanne Stark's 1996 book 'Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship In The Age Of Sail', and referenced by Michael Sheehan in 2005). Smyth's comments seem to have established false maritime origins but they do suggest real maritime usage of the expression, which is echoed by Stark. In the maritime or naval context the 'son of a gun' expression seems to have developed two separate interpretations, which through usage became actual meanings, from the second half of the 19th century: Firstly, and directly relating to Smyth's writings, the expression referred to a boy born at sea, specifically (in truth or jest) on the gun deck. Secondly, used as an insulting term, a boy born from the union of a woman and sailor (of dubious or unknown identity) when the sailor's ship was in port. The suggestion (for which no particular source exists) was that the boy was conceived on board ship on the gun deck in seedy circumstances; the identity of the boy's father was not known, hence the boy was the 'son of a gun', and the insulting nature of this interpretation clearly relates strongly to the simple insult origins. (Thanks to Michael Sheehan for his helpful advice with this item up to this point.) A separate and bizarre school of thought (ack Quinn G), and an example of how a myth often develops around expressions and their origins, is the strange theory (apparently held in certain parts of the US) that the 'son of a gun' expression derives from the American War of Independence (aka the American Revolutionary War, 1775–1783), and specifically that a woman who happened to get in the way of a stray bullet, (presumably while loitering carelessly near to a battlefield), would fall pregnant, and the resulting offspring, presumably male, would then be called a 'son of a gun'. This weird theory includes the disturbing qualifying detail that the offending bullet had somehow to have entered the woman's uterus. By which route we can only wonder. Of course weirdness alone is no reason to dismiss this or any other hypothesis, and it is conceivable (no pun intended) that the 'son of a gun' term might well have been applied to male babies resulting from women's liaisons, consenting or not, with soldiers (much like the similar British maritime usage seems to have developed in referring to sons of unknown fathers). This surely is as far as possibility extends in relation to the 'war and bullet' theory. Anyone believing otherwise, and imagining that pregnancy, instead of a slow lingering death, could ever really have been considered a logical consequence of being shot in the uterus, should note also the fact the 'son of a gun' expression pre-dates the US War of Independence by nearly 70 years. The war and bullet theory, without doubt, is a myth.

sour grapes - when someone is critical of something unobtainable - from Aesop's fable about the fox who tried unsuccessfully to reach some grapes, and upon giving up says they were sour anyway.

gone south, went south - failed (plan, business or financial venture) - almost certainly derived from the South Sea Scheme, also called the South Sea Bubble, stock scheme devised by Sir John Blunt from 1710-1720, which was based on buying out the British National Debt via investors paying £100 for a stake in exclusive South Seas trading rights. The shares soon increased in value by ten times, but 'the bubble burst' in 1720 and ruined thousands of people. The expression would have been further reinforced by the similar French scheme 1717-1720, based on paying the French national Debt, then totalling £208m, started by John Law, a Scot, which promised investors exclusive trading rights to Louisiana, on the banks of the Mississippi, central to USA southern states cotton trade, and the global textiles industry. 1870 Brewer confirms the South Sea Bubble term was used to describe any scheme which shows promise and then turns to ruin. South also has the meaning of moving or travelling down, which helps the appropriate 'feel' of the expression, which is often a factor in an expression becoming well established.

call a spade a spade - (see call a spade a spade under 'C')

speedy gonzales - a very quick person - some might remember the Warner Brothers Speedy Gonzales cartoon character; the original Speedy Gonzales was apparently a Mexican-American film studio animator, so called because of his regular lunchtime dash for carnal liaison with a girl in the paint and ink department.

spick and span - completely clean and in a new condition (normally describing a construction of some sort) - was originally 'spick and span new', and came from a shipbuilding metaphor, when a 'spic' was a spike or nail, and chip a piece of wood. The original expression meant that the thing was new even down to these small parts. One of many maritime expressions, for example see swing the lead.

spinster - unmarried woman - in Saxon times a woman was not considered fit for marriage until she could spin yarn properly. Interestingly, and in similar chauvanistic vein, the word 'wife' derives from the Anglo-Saxon 'wyfan', to weave, next after spinning in the cloth-making process.

spin a yarn - (see this origin under 'Y' for yarn)

(didn't know whether to) spit or go blind - uncertain, indecisive, or in a shocked state of confusion - the fact that this expression seems not to be listed in the major reference sources probably suggests that usage is relatively recent, likely late 1900s. Usage also seems mostly US-based. Most commonly 'didn't/doesn't know whether to spit or go blind' is used to describe a state of confusion, especially when some sort of action or response or decision is expected or warranted. Commonly used to describe a person in a pressurised or shocked state of indecision or helplessness, but is used also by commentators to describe uncertain situations (political situations and economics, money markets, etc.) Perhaps an interpretation and euphemism based on 'shit or get off the pot' expression (euphemisms commonly rhyme with obscenities, ie spit = shit), and although the meaning is slightly different the sense of delayed decision in the face of a two-way choice is common between the spit/go blind and shit/pot versions. Spit and go blind are a more natural pairing than might first be thought because they each relate to sight and visual sense: spit is used as slang for visual likeness (as in 'spitting image', and/from 'as alike as the spit from his father's mouth', etc.) Conceivably (ack Ed) there might be some connection with the 'go blind' expression used in playing card gambling games ('going blind' means betting without having sight of your own hand, raising the odds and winnings if successful) although unless anyone knows better there is no particular evidence of this association other than the words themselves and the connection with decision-making.

spoonerism - two words having usually their initial sounds exchanged, or other corresponding word sounds exchanged, originally occuring accidentally in speech, producing amusing or interesting word play - a spoonerism is named after Reverend William A Spooner, 1844-1930, warden of New College Oxford, who was noted for such mistakes. Chambers says that the term spoonerism was in informal use in Oxford from about 1835. Strictly speaking a spoonerism does not necessarily have to create two proper words from the inversion, but the best spoonerisms do. Spoonerisms are nowadays not only accidents of speech; they are used as intentional comedic devices, and also arise in everyday language as deliberate euphemisms in place of oaths and profanities. Here are some examples of different sorts of spoonerisms, from the accidental (the first four are attributed accidents to Rev Spooner) to the amusing and the euphemistically profane:

  • a well-boiled icicle (well-oiled bicycle)
  • queer old dean (dear old queen)
  • a half-warmed fish (a half-formed wish)
  • shake a tower (take a shower)
  • flutterby (butterfly - said by some to have contributed to the origin of the word butterfly)
  • a lack of pies (a pack of lies)
  • no wucking furries (a popular Australian euphemism)
  • pheasant plucker (inspired a well-known tongue-twister)
  • cunning stunts (a title for various publications and media features)

sprog - child, youngster, raw recruit - according to Cassell's slang dictionary, sprog is from an 18th century word sprag, meaning a 'lively fellow', although the origin of sprag is not given. Sprog seems to have been used commonly by the RAF in the 1930s with reference to new recruits, possibly derived from a distortion of 'sprout' (something that is growing), or from either or both of these spoonerisms (inversion of initial letter-sounds): sprocket and cog (reference to being a small part in a big machine) or frog-spawn (frog egg being a possible association to a new recruit or young man)

square the circle - attempt the impossible - based on the mathematical conundrum as to whether a circle can be made with exactly the same area as a square, the difficulty arising from the fact that a circle's area involves the formula 'pi', which, while commonly rounded down to 3.14149, carries on infinitely.

back to square one - back to the beginning/back to where we started - Cassell and Partridge suggest this is 1930s (Cassell says USA), from the metaphor of a children's board game such as snakes and ladders, in which a return to sqaure on literally meant starting again. Suggested origins relating to old radio football commentaries involving the listeners following play with the aid of a numbered grid plan of the playing field are almost certainly complete rubbish.

steal someone's thunder - to use the words or ideas of another person before they have a chance to, especially to gain the approval of a group or audience - from the story of playwright John Dennis who invented a way of creating the sound of thunder for the theatre for his play Appius and Virginia in 1709. The play flopped but his thunder effect was used without his permission in a production of Macbeth. Dennis was said to have remarked 'They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder'.

stereotype - a fixed image or representation of something - the word stéréotype was originally a French printing term, and referred to a printing process in which a plate was molded to contain a section of composed type. The word came into English with this meaning in or before 1798. The metaphorical sense of stereotype, referring to a fixed image, developed in English by 1850. The prefix stereo is from Greek stereos, meaning solid or three-dimensional, hence stereophonic, stereogram and stereo records, referring to sound. See also cliche.

stigma - a generally-held poor or distasteful view associated with something - from the Roman practice of branding slaves' foreheads; a 'stigma' was the brand mark, and a 'stigmatic' was a branded slave; hence 'stigmatise', which has come to mean 'give something an unlikeable image'. Originally from the Greek word 'stigma', a puncture.

stipulate - state terms - from various ancient and medieval customs when a straw was used in contract-making, particularly in loan arrangements, and also in feudal England when the landowner would present the tenant with a broken straw to signify the ending of a contract. 'Stipula' is Latin for a straw.

strafe - to shoot from the air at something on the ground - from the German World War I motto 'Gott Strafe England' meaing 'God Punish England'.

strapped/strapped for cash - penniless, poor, short of funds or ready cash (especially temporarily so, and unable to afford something or needing to borrow) - 'strapped' in this sense is from 1800s English slang. Reputable sources (Partridge, Cassells, Allen's) suggest it was first a rural expression and that 'strapped (for cash)' refers to being belted tight or constrained, and is an allusion to tightening one's belt due to having no money for food. 'Strapped' by itself pre-dated 'strapped for cash', which was added for clarification later (1900s). A possible separate origin or influence (says Partridge) is the old countryside rural meaning of strap, meaning strip or draw from (notably a cow, either milk it or strip the meat from it). The original sense of strap besides 'strip' was related to (a leather) strop, and referred in some way to a sort of bird trap (OED), and this meaning, while not being a stated derivation of the monetary expression, could understandably have contributed to the general sense of being constrained or limited.

strike a bargain - agree terms - from ancient Rome and Greece when, to conclude a significant agreement, a human sacrifice was made to the gods called to witness the deal (the victim was slain by striking in some way).

I swan - 'I swear', or 'I do declare' (an expression of amazement) - This is an American term, found mostly in the southern states. The modern spelling is derived from an old expression going back generations, probably 100-200 years, originating in East USA, originally constructed as 'Is wan' (pronounced ize wan), which was a shortening of 'I shall warrant', used - just like 'I swear' or 'I do declare' - to express amazement in the same way. Interestingly usage now is mostly by women - it certainly would not have been many years ago - perhaps because many now think that the expression derives from the word 'swoon', which is not a particularly manly activity.

sweep the board - win everything - based on the metaphor of winning all the cards or money stake in a game of cards. Partridge says first recorded about 1830, but implies the expression could have been in use from perhaps the 1600s. This is certainly possible since board meant table in older times, which is the association with card games played on a table. The spelling has been 'board' from the 1500s. It was previously bord, traceable to Old Saxon, also meaning shield, consistent with similar foreign words dating back to the earliest beginnings of European language. This table sense of board also gave us the board as applied to a board of directors (referring to the table where they sat) and the boardroom.

swing the lead/swinging the lead - shirk, skive or avoid work, particularly while giving the opposite impression - almost certainly from the naval practice of the 19th century and before, of taking sea depth soundings by lowering a lead weight on the end of a rope over the side of a ship. (According to etymologist Michael Quinion, the lead lump weighed nine pounds and had tallow - grease - on its base, which also enabled a sea bed sample to be brought up from below; the rope had colour coded markers to help gauge the depth.) It seems entirely logical that the impression would have stemmed from the practice of time-wasting while carrying out the depth soundings: a seaman wishing to prolong the task unnecessarily or give the impression of being at work when actually his task was finished, would 'swing the lead' (probably more like allow it to hang, not doing anything purposeful with it) rather than do the job properly. A lead-swinger is therefore a skiver; someone who avoids work while pretending to be active. There are lots of maritime expressions now in everyday language, for example devil to pay, footloose, by and large, spick and span, and the bitter end. The lead-swinging expression also provides the amusing OP acronym and even cleverer PbO interpretation used in medical notes, referring to a patient whose ailment is laziness rather than a real sickness or injury.

sycophant - a creepy, toady person who tries to win the approval of someone, usually in a senior position, through flattery or ingratiating behaviour - this is a truly wonderful derivation; from ancient Greece, when Athens law outlawed the exporting of figs; the law was largely ignored, but certain people sought to buy favour from the authorities by informing on transgressors. The informers were called 'suko-phantes' meaning 'fig-blabbers'. Wonderful...



to a 'T'/down to a T - exactly (fits to a T, done to a T, suits you to a T, etc) - Brewer lists this expression in 1870, so it was well established by then. Apparently 'to a T' is from two origins, which would have strengthened the establishment of the expression (Brewer only references the latter origin, which personally I think is the main one): Firstly it's a shortening of the expression 'to a tittle' which is an old English word for tiny amount, like jot. Secondly, it is a reference to something fitting as if measured with a T-square, the instrument used by carpenters, mechanics and draughtsmen to measure right-angles. Additionally I am informed (thanks D Simmons) of the following alternative theory relating to this expression: "...I have seen this expression used in Richard Henry Dana's famous book Two Years before the Mast, written about the author's experience as an ordinary seaman on a ship trading in furs on the west coast of the USA following a two year voyage begun in 1834. He returns in later years and visits San Francisco, by then a busy port, and notes that the square rigged sailing ships in harbour look very smart with their rigging 'Down to a T', i.e., just mast and spars, with no sails attached..."

bring nothing (or something) to the table - offer nothing (or something) of interest - almost certainly the expression is a contraction of the original term 'bring nothing (or something) to the negotiating table'. As such it's nothing directly to do with food or eating. Someone who brings nothing to the negotiating table has nothing of interest to offer the other side or participants, which is precisely what the modern expression means. Interestingly the word 'table' features commonly in many other expressions and words, and being so embedded in people's minds will always help to establish a phrase, because language and expressions evolve through common use, which relies on familiarity and association. Other 'table' terms: 'turn the tables' (from the practice of turning a backgammon board to reverse players' positions, and earlier according to Brewer from ancient Roman male tradition of spending vast amounts on extravagant tables which drew criticism and a ready retort from their womenfolk); 'under the table' (meaning drunk, originally pertaining to the dinner table); plus combinations we now totally take for granted: tablespoon, table-tennis, tablecloth, table-wine, table-manners, timetable, times-tables, and now tables in computer documents - they're all from the same source originally based on a tablet of stone. It's a seminal word - the ten commandments were known as 'the two tables' and 'the tables of the law', and the table is one of the most fundamental images in life, especially for human interplay; when you think about it we eat, drink, talk, work, argue, play and relax around a table, so its use in expressions like this is easy to understand.

takes the cake/biscuit/bun - surpasses all expectations, wins, or sarcastic reference to very poor performance - see 'cakewalk' and 'takes the cake'.

tank - heavy armoured fighting vehicle - from the First World War British code-name that was used for tanks when they were under development in 1915 and subsequently used when shipping them around, partly because under canvas they resembled large water containers, and partly because such a word was felt would seem reasonable to enemy code-breakers, given that desert warfare activities would require large water-containing tanks. According to Bill Bryson's book Mother Tongue, tanks were developed by the Admiralty, not the army, which led to the naval terms for certain tank parts, eg., turret, deck, hatch and hull.

taxi/taxicab - fare-charging car, although taxi can be a fare-charging boat - taxi and taxicab are words which we tend to take for granted without thinking what the derivation might be. In fact (thanks D Willis) the origin of taxi is the French 'taximetre' and German equivalent 'taxameter', combining taxi/taxa (meaning tarif) and metre/meter (meaning measuring instrument). Taximeter appeared (recorded) in English around 1898, at which time its use was transferring from horse-drawn carriages to motor vehicles. Cab is an abbreviation of another French word cabriolet, which came into English in the 1700s, and it appears in the full French taxicab equivalent 'taximetre cabriolet'. Cab appeared in English meaning a horse drawn carriage in 1826, a steam locomotive in 1859, and a motor car in 1899. Chambers suggests that the French taximetre is actually derived from the German taxameter, which interestingly gave rise to an earlier identical but short-lived English term taxameter recorded in 1894, applied to horsedrawn cabs.

teetotal - abstaining from alcohol - from the early English tradition for a 'T' (meaning total abstainer) to be added after the names (presumably on a register of some kind) of people who had pledged to abstain completely from alcohol. Similarly, people who had signed the abstinence pledge had the letters 'O.P.' (for 'Old Pledge') added after their names. If anyone knows anything about the abstinence pledge from early English times please tell me. A teetotum from the same period was an alcohol-free working man's club. Later, 'teetotum' was an American four-sided spinning-top used for gambling, the meaning derived here from the letter 'T' on one side which represented the total stake money).

on tenterhooks - very anxious with expectation - a metaphor from the early English cloth-making process where cloth would be stretched or 'tentered' on hooks placed in its seamed edges. 'Tentered' derives from the Latin 'tentus', meaning stretched, which is also the origin of the word 'tent', being made of stretched canvas. Another possible derivation links the tenterhooks expression to the brewery docks of Elizabethan London (ack John Burbedge), where the practice at the old Anchor Brewery on the Thames' south bank (close to the Globe Theatre) was apparently to insert hooks, called 'tenters' into the barrels, enabling them more easily to be hoisted from the quayside into waiting boats.

through thick and thin - through good times and bad - from old 'thick and thin blocks' in a pulley mechanism which enabled rope of varying thickness to be used.

throw me a bone/throw a bone - see the item under 'bone'

throw the book (at someone) - apply the full force of the law or maximum punishment, let no transgression go unpunished - from the 1930s, a simple metaphor based on the image of a judge throwing the rule book, or a book of law, at the transgressor, to suggest inflicting every possible punishment contained in it.

thimble - finger protector used when sewing - from the original word 'thumb-bell'. Thimbles were invented in Holland and then introduced into England in 1695 by John Lofting's Islington factory. Sailors particularly wore thimbles on their thumbs.

thing - an nameless object, subject, person, place, concept, thought, feeling, state, situation, etc - thing is one of the most commonly used words in language, yet its origins are rarely considered, strangely, since they are very interesting. Thing is first recorded in English in the late 7th century when it meant a meeting or assembly. The assembly meaning equates to cognates (words of the same root) in old German ('ding') and ('ding' and later 'thing') in Norse (Denmark, Sweden, Norway), Frisian (Dutch) and Icelandic. The Viking age and Danelaw (Viking rule) in Britain from the 8th to the 10th centuries reinforced the meeting/assembly meaning of the word thing, during which time for example, Thing was the formal name of a Viking 'parliament' in the Wirral, in the North-West of England. Thingwall or Dingwall meant 'meeting field' in Norse, and was the root of Tynwald, the Isle of Man parliament, and Thingvellir, the Iceland parliament, now the Althingi. The village of Thingwall in the Wirral remains close to where the assembly met, and a nearby field at Cross Hill is thought to be the exact spot. A place called Dingesmere (literally 'assembly-marshland' - interpreted by some now to mean: 'assembly here, but be careful not to get stuck in the bog') features in poetic accounts of the 10th century victory of the Saxons over the Norse in the Battle of Brunanburh, which some historians say occurred in the same area of the Wirral. A Viking assembly also gave rise to the place name Dingwall in the Highlands of Scotland near Inverness. The word thing next evolved to mean matter and affair (being discussed at the assembly) where the non-specific usage was a logical development. (Intriguingly a similar evolution of the word was happening in parallel in the Latin-based languages, in which the Latin root word causa, meaning legal case, developed into the French word chose, and the Spanish and Italian word cosa, all meaning thing.) Thing in English later began to refer to objects and articles in the middle ages, around 1300. By the 1500s the meaning of thing had extended to include cause, reason, and similar notions. By the 1700s thing could be used for any tangible or intangible entity; literally 'anything', and this flexibility then spawned lots of variations of the word, used typically when a proper term or name was elusive or forgotten. The list of thing-word variations is long and still growing, for example: thingy/thingie, thingamy, thingamyjig, thingamabob, thingamadodger, thingamerrybob, thingamadoodles. There are maybe a hundred more. Thing-a-ling/ding-a-ling is a notable exception, referring euphemistically to a penis. This is far removed from the parliamentary origins of the word, although satisfyingly apt given what people think of politicians these days. Tracing the thing/ding words back much further, Cassells suggests the origin lies in the ancient Indo-European word tenk, meaning 'a length of time' (or more literally a 'stretch' of time), being the day of the assembly rather than the assembly itself. Tenk is also the root of a whole range of words derived from the notion of stretching or extending, for example: tend and tendency, thin, tenant, tenacity, tender (as in offer), tendon, tense, tension, and some argue the word tennis too.

threshold - the beginning of something, or a door-sill - from the Anglo-Saxon 'thoerscwald', meaning 'door-wood'. Alternatively some claim the origin is from the practice of spreading threshed wheat and similar crops on dirt floors of medieval houses. A piece of wood was used in the doorway to stop the loose threshings from spilling onto the street.

thunderbolt - imaginary strike from above, or a massive surprise - this was ancient mythology and astronomy's attempt to explain a lightening strike, prior to the appreciation of electricity. The original ancient expression was 'thunderstone' which came from confusing thunder and lightening with meteor strikes and shooting stars, and was later superseded by 'thunderbolt' ('bolt' as in the short arrow fired from a cross bow). The word 'thunderbolt' gave rise directly to the more recent cliche meaning a big surprise, 'bolt from the blue' (blue being the sky).

just/that's the ticket - that's just right (particularly the right way to do something) - from 'that's the etiquette' (that's the correct thing to do). See 'Etiquette'.

tidy - orderly - late middle English from the word 'tide' (of the sea), the extension originally meaning things done punctually and methodically. The word 'tide' came from older European languages, derived from words 'Tid', 'tith' and 'tidiz' which meant 'time'. See 'time and tide wait for no man'.

time and tide wait for no man - delaying a decision won't stop events overtaking you - Around 16th century the English word 'tide' became established in its own right, up until which it had been another word for 'time', so it's unlikely the expression originated prior to then. The original wording was 'tide nor time tarrieth no man' ('tarrieth' meaning 'waits for').

tinker - fix or adjust something incompetently and unsuccessfully - this derives from the old tinker trade, which was generally a roving or gipsy mender/seller of pots and pans. Brewer's 1870 dictionary suggests the word tinker derives from "...The man who tinks, or beats on a kettle to announce his trade..." Other opinions (Chambers, OED) fail to support this explanation of the derivation of the word tinker, on the basis that the surname Tynker is recorded as early as 1252, arriving in English via Latin influence. Quite how this disproves an obvious onomatopoeic (sounds like) connection and derivation, between the tinker's trade and the word, I don't know, but officially it seems the origin of tinker remains uncertain. Whatever, the word tinkering has come lately to refer mainly to incompetent change, retaining the allusion to the dubious qualities of the original tinkers and their goods.

tinker's dam/tinker's damn/tinker's cuss/tinker's curse (usage: not worth, or don't give a tinker's damn) - emphatic expression of disinterest or rejection - a tinker was typically an itinerant or gipsy seller and fixer of household pots and pans and other kitchen utensils. The expression implies that a tinker's language was full of gratuitous profanities, and likens a worthless consideration to the common worthlessness of a tinker's expletive. The words dam, damn, cuss and curse all mean the same in this respect, i.e., a swear-word, or oath. Entirely false etymology has grown in recent years claiming that the expression 'tinker's dam' refers to some sort of reservoir used in soldering (when mending pots, etc), or a temporary plug used to repair a leaking vessel, but this is all complete nonsense, and not worth a tinker's cuss, if you'll pardon the expression. According to Allen's English Phrases the 'tinker's damn' version appeared earliest, before the dam, cuss and curse variations, first recorded in Thoreau's Journal of 1839.

tip - gratuity or give a gratuity/piece of 'inside information or advice, or the act of giving it - Brewer's 1870 dictionary gives an early meaning of 'tip' as a 'present of money' or ' a bribe'. This definition is alongside the other meaning for 'tip' which commonly applies today, ie, a piece of private or secret information such as given to police investigators or gamblers, relating to likely racing results. The expressions and origins are related: 'Tip the wink' and 'tip off' are variations on the same theme, where 'tip' means to give. Tip (as a verb in English) seems first to have appeared in the sense of giving in the early 17th century (Chambers) and is most likely derived from Low German roots, pre-14th century, where the verb 'tippen' meant to touch lightly. These early derivations have been reinforced by the later transfer of meaning into noun form (meaning the thing that is given - whether money or information) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Apparently (Ack PM) J R Ripley's book, 'Believe it or not', a collection of language curiosities, circa 1928, includes the suggestion that 'tip' (meaning a gratuity given for good service) is actually an acronym based on 'To Insure Promptness'. While there is a certain logic to this, the various 'tip' meanings almost certainly existed before and regardless of this other possible acronym-based contributory derivation.

tit for tat - retribution or retaliation, an exchange insults or attacks - 'tit for tat' evolved from 'tip for tap', a middle English expression for blow for blow, which also meant a trade of verbal insults. Tit is an old English word for tug or jerk. Tat evolved from tap partly because of the alliteration with tit, but also from the verbal argument aspect, which drew on the influence of the Middle English 'tatelen' meaning prattle, (Dutch tatelen meant stammer) which also gave rise to tittle-tattle. Tip and tap are both very old words for hit. (eg 'tip and run' still describes a bat and ball game when the player hits the ball and runs, as in cricket). Tit for tat was certainly in use in the mid-late 16th century. Tip for Tap was before this. As with lots of these old expressions, their use has been strengthened by similar sounding foreign equivalents, especially from N.Europe, in this case 'dit vor dat' in Dutch, and 'tant pour tant' in French. Skeat's 1882 dictionary of etymology references 'tit for tat' in 'Bullinger's Works' . Brewer in 1870 suggests for 'tit for tat' the reference 'Heywood', which must be John Heywood, English playwright 1497-1580 (not to be confused with another English playwright Thomas Heywood 1574-1641). According to James Rogers dictionary of quotes and cliches, John Heywood used the 'tit for tat' expression in 'The Spider and the Flie' 1556.

toe the line - conform to rules or policy, behave as required - from early 1900s, first deriving from military use, related to parade drill, where soldiers' foot positions were required to align with a real or imaginery line on the ground. The expression is commonly misinterpreted and misspelled as 'tow the line', which is grammatically incorrect, although one day perhaps like other distortions of expressions this version could also become established and accepted in language simply by virtue of common use, in which case etymologists of the distant future will wonder about its origins, just as we do today about other puzzling slang and expressions distortions which occurred in the past.

tomboy - boyish girl - can be traced back to the 16th century, meaning a harlot, and in this sense nothing to do with boys or the name Tom. The development was actually from 'romping girl', derived from Anglo-Saxon 'tumbere' meaning dancer or romper, from the same roots as the French 'tomber' (to tumble about). The development of the modern Tomboy (boyish girl) meaning is therefore a corruption, largely through misinterpretation and mistaken use over centuries. The early meaning of a promiscuous boisterous girl or woman then resurfaced hundreds of years later in the shortened slang term, Tom, meaning prostitute, notably when in 1930s London the police used the term to describe a prostitute working the Mayfair and Bayswater areas. Australia and US underworld slang both feature similar references, the US preferring Tommy, but all these variations arguably come from the same Tomboy 'romping girl' root. In the late 17th c. in England Tom Rig was a slang term for a prostitute or loose woman (Rig meant a wanton, from French se rigoler = to make merry). In Australia the term Tom, for woman, developed from Tom-Tart (= sweetheart) which probably stemmed from early London cockney rhyming slang. The development of the prostitute meaning was probably also influenced by old cockney rhyming slang Tommy Tucker = the unmentionable......

grow like topsy/grew like topsy - to grow to a surprising scale without intention and probably without being noticed - from Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1850s book Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which a slave girl called Topsy suggests that as she had no mother or father, 'I 'spects I growed'.

tories - political Conservative party and its members - the original tories were a band of Irish Catholic outlaws in Elizabethan times. The word derived from the Irish 'toruigh', from 'toruighim', meaning to raid suddenly. This meaning seems to have converged with the Celtic words 'Taob-righ' ('king's party'), 'tuath-righ' ('partisans of the king') and 'tar-a-ri' ('come O king'). The Tory party first used the name in 1679. They began calling themselves 'Conservatives' in 1832, but the Tory name has continued to stick.

touch and go - a close decision or narrow escape - from the days of horse-drawn carriages, when wheels of two vehicles might touch but no damage was done, meaning that both could go on their way.

trek - travel a big distance, usually over difficult ground - (trek is a verb or noun) - it's Afrikaans, from the south of Africa, coming into English around 1850, originally referring to travelling or migrating slowly over a long difficult distance by ox-wagon. Trek was earlier trekken in Dutch, the main source language of Afrikaans (of South Africa), when it meant march, journey, and earlier pull or draw (a wagon or cart, etc). Prior to Dutch, the word's roots are Old Germanic words such as trechan, meaning pull, also considered the mostly likely root of the word track in the context of footprints and railway lines.

off your trolley/off his or her trolley - insane, mad or behaving in a mad way - the word trolley normally describes a small truck running on rails, or more typically these days a frame or table or basket on casters used for moving baggage or transporting or serving food (as in an airport 'luggage trolley' or a 'tea-trolley' or a 'supermarket trolley'). However the 'off your trolley' expression is more likely derived (ack H Wadleigh) from the meaning of trolley that was and is used to describe the overhead pick-up for an electric vehicle, including the 'trolley wheel', which connected the vehicle's overhead booms (arms) to the power wires. The vehicle - commonly a bus or a tramcar - that was powered via this a trolley-wheel electric connection was called a trolley car, or streetcar or trolley bus. In this sense the word trolley related to the trolley-wheel assembly connecting the vehicle to the overhead power lines, not to the vehicle itself. Trolley cars and buses were first developed in the UK and USA in the 1880s, and development of improved trolley mechanics continued through the early decades of the 1900s, which gives some indication as to when the expression probably began. The overhead trolley was in past times not particularly reliable. It needed guides to keep it on the wire, but the guides could never be large enough to survive heavy bumps since they would then bump into the structural supports for the wire. Trolleys would therefore often bump off the wire, bringing the vehicle to an unexpected halt. Being 'off the trolley' generally meant disabled or broken, which provided an obvious metaphor for mad behaviour or insanity. Where trolley vehicles have continued in use or been reintroduced the trolleys have generally been replaced by 'pantagraph bars' (named after the piece of illustrator's equipment that they resemble). The evolution of 'troll' and 'trolley' (being the verb and noun forms) relating to wheels and movement seem to derive (according to Chambers) from same very old meanings of 'wander' from roots in Proto-Germanic, Indo-European, and Sanskrit words, respectively, truzlanan, the old 'trus' prefix, and dreu/dru prefix, which relate to the modern words of stroll, trundle and roll. See also 'Trolly and Truck' in the rhyming slang section.

have no truck with - not tolerate, not accept or not deal with (someone or some sort of requirement or body) - truck in this sense might seem like slang but actually it's a perfectly correct word and usage. It's in any decent dictionary. Truck in this context means exchange, barter, trade or deal with, from Old French troquer and Latin trocare, meaning barter. The word truck meaning trade or barter has been used in this spelling in English since about 1200, prior to which is was trukien, which seems to be its initial adaptation from the French equivalent. The 'have no truck with' expression has been used for centuries: Chambers indicates the first recorded use in English of the 'have no truck with' expression was in 1615. This 'trade' meaning of truck gave rise to the American expression 'truck farm' (first recorded in 1784) or 'truck garden' (1866), meaning a farm where vegetables are grown for market, and not as many might imagine a reference to the vehicle which is used to transport the goods, which is a different 'truck' being derived from ultimately (probably) from Greek trochos meaning wheel, from trechein meaning run. (Sources OED, Chambers)

turkey / cold turkey / talk turkey / Turkey (country) - the big-chicken-like bird family / withdrawal effects from abruptly ending a dependency such as drugs or alcohol / discuss financial business - the word turkey, referring to the big chicken-like bird, is very interesting; it is named mistakenly after the country Turkey. Here's how: the turkey bird species/family (as we know it in its domesticated form) was originally native only to Mexico. It was found by the Spanish when they invaded that part of central America in 1518, having been domesticated by the Mexican people. The birds were brought to England in 1524 and appeared in Europe in 1530, and by 1575 had become associated across Europe with Christmas celebrations. The modern word turkey is a shortening of the original forms 'turkeycock' and 'turkeyhen', being the names given in a descriptive sense to guinea-fowl imported from Africa by way of the country of Turkey, as far back as the 1540s. The words turkeycock/turkeyhen were soon (circa 1550s) applied erroneously to the Mexican turkey because it was identified with and/or treated as a species of the African guinea fowl. Much later turkey came to mean an inept person or a failed project/product in the mid 1900s, because the bird was considered particularly unintelligent and witless. This perhaps contributed to the meaning of the 'cold turkey' expression, referring to the painful uncontrollable effects suffered by people when withdrawing from dependence on hard drugs, or simple deprivation. The expression 'cold turkey' seems was first used in this sense in the 1950s and appeared in the dictionary of American slang in 1960. The cold turkey expression is mainly a metaphor for the cold sweat condition, and particularly the effect on the sufferer's skin, experienced during dependency withdrawal. (Specifically, thanks Dr A Howard, during narcotic drug withdrawal, the skin of the patient becomes sweaty, pale and nodular - like the skin of a plucked turkey. This is caused by the over-activity of muscles in the skin layers called Erector Pili muscles.) Prior to this and certainly as early as 1928 (when 'cold turkey' appeared in the British Daily Express newspaper), the cold turkey expression originally meant the plain truth, or blunt statements or the simple facts of a matter, in turn derived from or related to 'talk turkey', meaning to discuss seriously the financial aspects of a deal, and earlier to talk straight and 'down-to-earth'. The constant 'goggle-gobble' chattering associated with turkey birds would have appealed as a metaphorical notion in this expression, as would the image of turkeys pecking 'down-to-earth', and being a commodity subject to vigorous and no-nonsense trading and dealing at seasonal times. This 'talk turkey' usage dates back to the early-1800s USA, where it almost certainly originated. Incidentally the country name Turkey evolved over several hundred years, first appearing in local forms in the 7th century, referring to Turk people and language, combined with the 'ey' element which in different forms meant 'owner' or 'land of'. The original meaning of the word Turk in referring to people/language can be traced to earlier Chinese language in which some scholars suggest it referred to a sort of battle helmet, although in fact we have no firm idea.

turn it up - stop it, shut up, no way, stop doing that, I don't believe you, etc - Cassells Slang Dictionary suggests the 'turn it up' expression equates to 'stop doing that' and that the first usage was as early as the 1600s (presumably Cassells means that the usage was British since the dictionary ostensibly deals with British slang and identifies international origins where applicable, which it does not in this case). For such a well-used and well-known expression the details of origins are strangely sparse, and a generally not referenced at all by the usual expressions and etymology sources. Most informal opinions seem to suggest thet 'turn it up' in the sense of 'stop it' is Australian in origin, but where, when, whom, etc., seem unknown. Other suggestions refer to possible links with card games, in which turning up a card would reveal something hidden, or mark the end of a passage of play. It's particularly difficult to speculate about the origins because the word 'turn' has so many different meanings, especially when combined with other very adaptable words. If you can add anything to help identfy when and where and how the 'turn it up' expression developed please get in touch.

turncoat - someone who changes sides - one of the dukes of Saxony, whose land was bounded by France and England had a coat made, reversible blue and white, so he could quickly switch his show of allegiance.

twit/twitter - silly person/idle or trivial talk or chatter - the word twit referring to a silly person is first recorded in English in 1930, likely deriving from a much older use of the word twit, dating from medieval English times, when twit was an informal verb meaning to tease or taunt someone, typically in a light-hearted way, from Old English aetwitan (= 'reproach with') from the separate words 'aet', at, and 'witan', to blame. Twitter is a separate word from the 1400s, first recorded in Chaucer's 1380 translation of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosopiae (written c.520AD by Italian philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, 480-524/5AD). Twitter then referred to the human uttering of light 'chirping' sounds. Much later, first recorded in 1678, twitter's meaning had extended to refer to a state of human agitation or flutter, and later still, recorded 1842, to the specific action of chirping, as birds do. So arguably the origin of the English word twitter is Italian, via Boethius and Chaucer. Twitter in this sense is imitative or onomatopoeic (i.e., the word is like the sound that it represents), and similar also to Old High German 'zwizziron', and modern German 'zwitschern'. The word twitter has become very famous globally since the growth of the social networking bite-size publishing website Twitter. Fascinatingly the original meanings and derivations of the words twit and twitter resonate very strongly with the ways that the Twitter website operates and is used by millions of people in modern times.

typhoon - whirlwind storm - from the Chinese 't'ai-fun', meaning the great wind. Typhoon was also an evil genius of Egyptian mythology.



ukulele - little guitar-like instrument usually with four strings - the word ukulele is first recorded in US English in 1896 (Chambers) from the same word in Hawaiian, in which it literally translates as 'leaping flea': uku= flea, and lele = leap or fly or jump. This is said to be derived from the nickname of a certain Edward Purvis, a British army officer who apparently popularised the ukulele in Hawaii in the late 1800s, and was noted for his small build and quick movements. Th ukulele was first introduced to Hawaii by the Portuguese around 1879, from which its popularity later spread to the USA especially in the 1920s, resurging in the 1940s, and interestingly now again.

underhand - deceitful, dishonest - the word underhand - which we use commonly but rarely consider its precise origin - was first recorded in the sense of secret or surreptitious in 1592 (the earliest of its various meanings, says Chambers). Brewer in 1870 provides a strong indication of derivation in his explanation of above board, in which (the) 'under-hand' refers to a hand held under the table while preparing a conjuring trick.

unkindest cut of all - a cruel or very unfortunate personal disaster - from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, when Mark Anthony says while holding the cloak Caesar wore when stabbed by Brutus, 'this was the most unkindest cut of all'.

upper crust - high class (folk normally) - based on the image of a pie symbolising the population, with the upper class (1870 Brewer suggests the aristocratic 10%) being at the top. Some have suggested - debatably - that the term is from medieval times when home-baked bread was generally burnt at the base leading to the custom of reserving the better quality upper crust for one's betters.

uproar - collective shouting or noisy complaining - nothing to do with roar, this is from the German 'auf-ruhren', to stir up.

utopia - an unrealistically perfect place, solution or situation - from Sir Thomas More's book of the same title written in 1516; utopia actually meant 'nowhere' from the Greek, 'ou topos' (ou meaning not, topia meaning place), although the modern meaning is moving more towards 'perfect' rather than the original 'impossibly idealistic'. (thanks for corrections Terry Hunt)



operate/work in a vacuum - work without instructions, support reference point or supervision - 'In a vacuum' is a metaphor for 'without support'. Vacuum is a natural metaphor in this context because it also represents lack of air or oxygen, the fundamental requirement for any activity, or for anything to exist at all. As to when the expression began, or where it originated, I doubt anyone knows, although I suspect the origins in English are as old as the word vacuum itself in English: vacuum entered the English language in the 1500s, from the Latin word with the same meaning. I would guess the word was used in a similar expression in Europe even earlier. I say this because the expression is very natural figure of speech that anyone could use. There is no particular novelty or cleverness in it, despite the fact that it is obviously very expressive and elegant in itself. Such is the beauty of words and language. Expressions for instance such as 'crying a river', or 'sweating buckets' or 'eating like a horse' are similar cases in point - they are very expressive and striking, and yet probably have no actual single origin - they just evolve quite naturally in day-to-day speech, as did 'operating (or working, or doing anything) in a vacuum'. An example of a specific quotation relating to this was written by Alfred Whitehead, 1861-1947, English mathematician and philosopher, who used the expression 'think in a vacuum' in the same sense as 'operate in a vacuum'. It was actually published a few years after his death, but I doubt very much whether this affected the use or development of the expression at all - it would almost certainly have already been in use before his time.

vandalism - deliberate damage to property - the Vandals were a German warrior race based south of the Baltic and prominent during the 5th and early 6th centuries. They invaded Spain in 409, crossing to Africa in 429, and under King Genseric sacked Rome in 455, where they mutilated public monuments. The early use of the term vandalism described the destruction of works of art by revolutionary fanatics.

velcro - the tiny plastic hook cloth fastener system - Swiss engineer George de Mestrel conceived the idea of Velcro in 1941 (although its patent and production came later in the 1950s) having been inspired on a hunting trip by the tendency of Alpine burdock burrs to stick to clothing. He named the nylon fastening after 'velours crochet', French for 'velvet hook'. Velcro is a brand, but also due to its strong association with the concept has become a generic trademark - i.e., the name has entered language as a word to describe the item, irrespective of the actual brand/maker.

venison - meat of the deer - originally meant any animal killed in hunting, from Latin 'venatio', to hunt. Venison is mentioned in the Bible, when it refers to a goat kid.

vet - to examine or scrutinise or check something or someone (prior to approval) - the verb 'vet' meaning to submit to careful examination and scrutiny, etc., is derived from the verb 'vet' meaning to care for (and examine) animals, from the noun 'vet' being the shortening of 'veterinarian'. 'Veterinarian' is from Latin, from the equivalent word 'veterinarius' in turn from 'veterinae' meaning cattle. Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary describes a veterinarian as one who is skilled in the diseases of cattle, and also suggests that a good veterinarian will also be able to attend to horses, which traditionally would have been more likely to be cared for by a farrier. Over the course of time vets naturally became able to deal with all sorts of other animals as the demand for such services and the specialism itself grew, along with the figurative use of the word: first as a verb (to examine animals), and then applied to examining things other than animals. According to Chambers etymology dictionary the figurative sense of vet meaning to examine something other than animals was first recorded in Rudyard Kipling's 'Traffics and Discoveries', published in 1904. The evolution of the word vet is not only an interesting example of how language changes, but also how it reflects the evolution of life and social/economic systems too; in this case the development of the veterinarian 'trade', without which it is unlikely that the word vet would have been adopted in its modern sense of bureaucratic or administrative checking and approval. Fascinating.

volume - large book - ancient books were written on sheets joined lengthways and rolled like a long scroll around a shaft; 'volume' meant 'a roll' from the Latin 'volvo', to roll up.



waiting for the other shoe to drop/waiting for the other boot to drop - see the entry under 'shoe'.

walker/hooky walker - nonsense - see the entry under hooky walker

wally - insulting term directed at someone behaving in a daft or soft manner or of strange unconventional appearance (geek-like might be a more modern equivalent), or a pickled cucumber/gherkin, especially from a fish and chip shop - the gherkin meaning appeared a lot earlier than the insult, around 1880 (ref: Partridge), from cockney London with variations wolly, and shock-a-lolly, which could have been rhyming slang for the wally word, although given the taste and practice of eating a gherkin on a wooden fork or cocktail stick might also/instead be simply an apt description. Official sources suggest a corruption of the word (and perhaps a street trader's cry) olive, since both were sold in brine and would have both been regarded as exotic or weird pickles, but this derivation seems extremely tenuous. Separately much speculation surrounds the origins of the wally insult, which reached great popularity in the 1970s. The story is that it began as a call from the crowd when someone or a dog of that name was lost/missing at a pop concert, although by this time the term was probably already in use, and the concert story merely reinforced the usage and popularity of the term. In this respect etymological and dictionary assertions that the pop concert 'wally' call is the origin of the insult are highly questionable. The name Walter, and by natural extension Wally, the traditional shortening, has long been used as a name for pathetic characters by TV writers and comic strip artists, notably the 'softie' victim of Dennis The Menace in the Beano comic, who first appeared in 1951 (that's Dennis, so Walter the softie would have first appeared soon after that year if not then exactly). For millions and at least two whole generations of British boys from the 1950s onwards the name Walter became synonymous with twerpish weak behaviour, the effect of which on the wider adoption of the wally word cannot be discounted. (Interestingly, being an 'Alan' myself, I've noticed that particular name attracting similar attentions in recent years, perhaps beginning with the wonderful Steve Googan twit character Alan Partridge. Now seemingly every twit in an advert or sitcom is called Alan - I even a spotted a dinosaur twit called Alan a few weeks ago. So if you are thinking of calling your new baby son Alan, maybe think again. You have been warned.) I received the following comments related to the music gig 'Wally' calls, (from T Gwynne, Jan 2008): "I remember this very well and it was spontaneously cried out by individual members of the audience before the gig started. It often provoked amusement. I specifically remember this at a gig by the Welsh band, Man, at the Roundhouse in Camden about 1973. The cry was 'Wall-eeeeeeee' (stress on the second syllable) as if searching for a missing person. It was definitely not the pejorative sense of being a twit, where the stress would be on the first syllable. Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner but I always assumed that the use of the word Wally meaning a twit derived from its association with the gherkin, similar to 'you doughnut'... The insulting term wally also serves as a polite alternative, like wombat and wazzock, to the word wanker..." This makes sense; slang language contains very many euphemistic oaths and utterances like sugar, crikey, cripes, fudge, which replace the ruder words, and in this respect wally is probably another example of the device. Additionally I am informed (thanks J Freeborn, Jun 2009) of possible Cornish origins: "...My brother and I attended Redruth School, 1979-85. Mr Wally was a wonderful chap, then in his 60s. Among other worthy duties Mr Wally had run the (as now termed) special needs classes since the late 1950s. 'He's in with the Wallies' was a widely used expression, as was 'You Wally!' - plus expletives, according to degree of stupidity exhibited. 'Wally' is possibly another great Cornish invention like the steam locomotive; gas lighting; the miner's safety lamp; the dynamite safety-fuse and, best of all, clotted cream..." If you have other early recollections and claims regarding the origins of the wally expression - especially 1950s and prior - please send them.

wanker/wank - insulting term for a (generally male) idiot/the verb to masturbate, to self-indulge, or more recently an adjective meaning useless or pathetic, or a noun meaning nonsense or inferior product of some sort, e.g., 'a load of wank'. These are unusually very British English slang words, which according to Cassells and Partridge appeared relatively recently (1900s) in the English slang vocabulary. Most common British swear words are far older. Like other recent slang words and expressions, wank and wanker were much popularised in the British armed forces during the 1900s, especially during conscription for both World Wars, which usage incidentally produced the charming variation, wank-spanner, meaning hand. Interestingly in the US the words Wank and Wanker are surnames, which significantly suggests that they must have arrived from somewhere other than Britain; the surnames simply do not exist at all in Britain - and given the wide awareness and use of the slang meaning are unlikely ever to do so. Partridge says that wanker is an insulting term, basically meaning what it does today - an idiot, or someone (invariably male) considered to be worthless or an irritation - dating from the 1800s in English, but offers no origin. Partridge also suggests that until the 1970s wank was spelt whank, but this seems a little inconsistent and again is not supported by any more details. How wank and wanker came into English remains uncertain, but there is perhaps an answer. Partridge, nor anyone else seems to have spotted the obvious connection with the German word wanken, meaning to shake or wobble. I have absolutely no other evidence of this possible German etymology of the wank words, but in the absence of anything else, it's the only root that stands out.

warts and all - including faults - supposedly from a quote by Oliver Cromwell when instructing his portrait painter Peter Lely to paint a true likeness including '...roughness, pimples, warts and everything..'

on the wagon/fall off the wagon - abstain from drinking alcohol (usually hard drink) / start drinking again after trying to abstain - both terms have been in use for around a hundred years. 'On the wagon', which came first, is a shortened expression derived from 'on the water wagon'. Before paved and tarmac'd roads, water wagons used to spray the dirt roads to keep dust down, and anyone abstaining from hard liquor was said to be 'on the water wagon', no doubt because the water wagon presented a convenient alcohol-free icon. Vehicle-based cliches make for amusing metaphors although we now take them for granted; for example 'in the cart' (in trouble, from the practice of taking the condemned to execution in a horse drawn cart); 'on your bike' (go away), 'get your skates on' (hurry up); 'get out of your pram' (get angry); and off your trolley (mad or daft - see the origin listed under 'trolley'). Some sources suggest (thanks G Newman for this information) that the wagon-alcohol metaphors derive from stories of condemned prisoners in 17-18th century London being permitted to get 'off the wagon' for a last drink on the way to their execution (or actually 'fall off the wagon' when the drinking became excessive), after which they would get back 'on the wagon', stop drinking and continue to the gallows. If anyone can point me towards reliable record of this suggested origin please do. Unfortunately formal sources seem not to support the notion, fascinating though it is.

watershed - something that separates one time or age or era from another, or a historically significant event that causes or marks great change. The literal meaning is a division or separation of a river or waterway that causes the flow to divide. It's from the German wasserscheide. Wasser is obviously water. Scheide here is from the is the verb Scheiden to divorce or part or separate, not to be confused with the other use of the German word scheide which means something rather different (look it up in a German dictionary..)

well drink - spirit or cocktail drink from a bar - a bar's most commonly served drinks are kept in the 'well' or 'rail' for easy access by the bartender. As such the bottles are positioned below counter-level in front of the bartender, rather than behind on a shelf. The 'well-drinks' would be those provided unless the customer specified a particular maker's name, and would be generic rather than widely-known brands. 'Well' drinks would be bought in by the establishment in volume at lower cost than the more expensive makes, and would therefore produce a bigger profit margin. Known brands were/are therefore logically known as 'call' drinks (behind on the shelf, which customers ask for by name). Logically the 'top shelf' would be the premium drinks brands. Although the expression 'well drink' is American and not commonly heard in UK, the saying's earliest origins could easily be English, since the 'well' of the bar is probably derived from the railed lower-level well-like area in a court where the court officials sit, also known in English as the well of the court. The fact that the 'well' in a bar is also known as the 'rail' would seem to lend weight to the expression's 'court well' origins.

whipping boy - someone who is regularly blamed or punished for another's wrong-doing - as princes, Edward VI and Charles I had boys (respectively Barnaby Fitzpatrick and Mungo Murray) to take their punishment beatings for them, hence 'whipping boy'. Around the same time Henry IV of France enjoyed the same privilege; his whipping boys D'Ossat and Du Perron later became cardinals.

the whole box and die/hole box and die - everything - the 'hole' version is almost certainly a spelling misunderstanding of 'whole'. While the expression appears to be a metaphor based on coffin and death, the most likely origin based on feedback below, is that box and die instead derives from the metalworking industry. Apparently (thanks J Neal, Jun 2008) the expression was in literal use in the 1980s metalworking industry, UK Midlands, meaning 'everything' or 'all', referring to the equipment needed to produce a cast metal part. The box was the casting box holding the negative image formed in casting sand (into which molten metal was poured). The die was the master pattern from which the mould was made. Having the whole box and die equated to having everything necessary to make the part. The expression has spread beyond th UK: I am informed also (thanks M Arendse, Jun 2008) of the expression being used (meaning 'everything') in 1980s South Africa by an elderly lady of indigenous origin and whose husband had Scottish roots. Additionally I am informed (thanks Dave Mc, Mar 2009) that: "...the term 'whole box and dice' was commonly used until recently in Australia. 1970s and 1980s especially, but some of us still use it - mainly trades guys and mainly the metal trades. It was used in the metal trades to describe everything altogether, complete, in the context of 'don't forget anything', and 'have you got it all before we start the works?' etc. I remember some of the old fitters and turners using the term 'box and die'. The use of the term from the foundry is correct and certainly could have been used just before the casting pour. The modern variation possibly reflects the Australian preference for 'dice' sounding better than 'die' and more readily relating to gambling..." Do you have any similar recollections? This is an intriguing expression which seems not to be listed in any of the traditional reference sources. In fact as at June 2008 Google listed only three examples of the use of this expression on the entire web, so it's rarely used now, but seems to have existed for at least a generation, and I suspect a bit longer. If you can help with any clues of regional and historical usage - origins especially - of 'the whole box and die', then please get in touch. In what situation/context and region have you read/heard 'the whole box and die'? And if you use the expression 'whole box and die', what do you mean by it, and where and when did you read/hear it first?

win hands down - win easily - from horse-racing, a jockey would relax and lower his grip on the horse's reins allowing the horse to coast past the finishing line; nowadays an offence that will earn the jockey a fine or ban, due to the effect on the result and therefore betting payouts.

whistleblower/whistle-blower/whistle blowing - informer (about wrongful behaviour) - more specifically an person who informs the authorities or media about illegal or bad conduct of an organization; typically the informer is an employee of the organization. The metaphorical allusion is to a football referee who blows a whistle to halt the game because of foul play, and to reprimand or take firmer action against the transgressor. The expression is said to have been first used/popularized by US political activist Ralph Nader in the 1970s.

white elephant - something that turns out to be unwanted and very expensive to maintain - from the story of the ancient King of Siam who made a gift of a white elephant (which was obviously expensive to keep and could not be returned) to courtiers he wished to ruin. The original expression was 'to have a white elephant to keep', meaning to be burdened with the cost of caring for something very expensive.

wife - see 'spinster'.

gone with the wind - irretrievably lost - although known best as the title of the epic film, the origin is the 1896 poem 'Non Sum Qualis Erum' (also known as Cynara) by Englishman Ernest Dowson (1867-1900): "I have forgot much, Cynara! Gone with the wind, Flung roses, roses, riotously, with the throng, Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind, But I was desolate and sick of an old passion, Yea, all the time, because the dance was long: I have been faithful to thee Cynara! in my fashion." Interestingly, in the same year Dowson also gave us 'the days of wine and roses', meaning past days of pleasure, in his poem 'Vitae Summa Brevis': "..They are not long, the days of wine and roses: Out of a misty dream, Our path emerges for a while, then closes, Within a dream." (Who needs to find a rhyming word when you can use the same one?....)

window - glazed opening in a house or other construction for light/air - literally 'wind-eye' - originally from old Norse vindauga, from vindr, wind, and auga, eye, first recorded in English as window in the late middle-ages (1100-1400s).

I can't see the wood for the trees/can't see the forest for the trees - here wood means forest. This was notably recorded as a proverb written by John Heywood, published in his Proverbs book of 1546, when the form was 'You cannot see the wood for the trees'. It means that the whole or clear view/understanding of something is difficult because of the detail or closeness with which the whole is being seen. The expression is often used when we are too close or involved with something to be able to assess it clearly and fully.

wormwood - bitter herbal plant - nothing to do with worms or wood; it means 'man-inspiriting' in Anglo-Saxon.

worth his salt - a valued member of the team - salt has long been associated with a man's worth, since it used to be a far more valuable commodity than now (the Austrian city of Salzburg grew almost entirely from the wealth of its salt mines). The expression originates as far back as Roman times when soldiers' pay was given in provisions, including salt. The modern day version probably grew from the one Brewer references in 1870, 'true to his salt', meaning 'faithful to his employer'.

the writing's on the wall - something bad is bound to happen - from the book of Daniel, which tells the story of the King of Belshazzar who sees the words of warning 'mene, mene, tekel, upharsin' written on the wall of the temple of Jesusalemen, following his feasting in the temple using its sacred vessels.



xmas - christmas - x is the Greek letter 'chi', and the first letter of the Greek word 'christos' meaning 'anointed one'; first used in the fourth century.



y'all - you all - an abbreviation of contraction of 'you all', from the southern USA, with steadily spreading more varied and inventive use. Notably, y'all frequently can now refer to a single 'you', rather than a group, and is also seen in the form (slightly confusing to the unfamiliar) of 'all y'all', meaning 'all of you', or literally, 'all of you all'. An extremely satisfying logical use of the term y'all is found when talking to a single person who represents a group (a family or a company for example), so that both the singular and plural interpretations are encapsulated in a very efficient four-letter expression. Y'all is commonly misspelled and justified by some to be ya'll, although the argument for this interpretation is flimsy at best. Being from the UK I am probably not qualified remotely to use the expression, let alone pontificate further about its origins and correct application. When/if I can solicit expert comment beyond this basic introduction I will feature it here. (Thanks P Stott for the suggestion.)

yahoo - a roughly behaved or course man/search engine and internet corporation - Yahoo is now most commonly associated with the Internet organization of the same name, however the word Yahoo was originally conceived by Jonathan Swift in his book Gulliver's Travels, as the name of an imaginary race of brutish men. Gulliver's Travels was first published in October 1726. The alleged YAHOO acronyms origins are false and retrospective inventions, although there may actually be some truth in the notion that Yahoo's founders decided on the YA element because it stood for 'Yet Another'.

yankee/yankey/yank - an American of the northern USA, earlier of New England, and separately, European (primarily British) slang for an American - yankee has different possible origins; it could be one or perhaps a combination of these. There are also varying interpretations of what yankee first meant, aside from its origins, although the different meanings are more likely to reflect the evolution of the word's meaning itself rather than distinctly different uses. Brewer's 1870 dictionary favours the explanation that that yankee is essentially a corruption of the word English by native American Indians of the words 'English' and/or the French 'Anglais' (also meaning 'English'), via the distortions from 'yengees', 'yenghis', 'yanghis' to 'yankees'. Not all etymology sources agree however. The modern Chambers etymology dictionary favours and refers to the work of Dutch linguist Henri Logeman, 1929, who argued that the term 'yankees' (plural by implication) came first as a distortion of the Dutch name Jan Kaas - 'Jan Kees' - meaning John Cheese, which apparently was a nickname used by Flemings for Dutchmen. Partridge is less certain, preferring both (either) Brewer's explanation or a looser interpretation of the Dutch theory, specifically that yankee came from Jankee, being a pejorative nickname ('little John') for a New England man or sailor. Skeat's 1882 etymology dictionary broadens the possibilities further still by favouring (actually Skeat says 'It seems to be the same as..') connections with words from Lowland Scotland, (ultimately of Scandinivian roots): yankie (meaning 'a sharp, clever, forward woman'), yanker ('an agile girl, an incessant talker'). Skeat also refers to the words yank ('a jerk, smart blow') and yanking ('active') being related. Skeat then connects those Scottish words with Scandinavian words (and thereby argues Scandinavian origins), jakka (Swedish, 'rove about') and jaga (Swedish - 'hunt'), among other Norse words loosely equating to the notion of sharpness of movement or quality. This is the main thread of the Skeat view, which arguably occurs in the Brewer and Chambers explanations too. Notably Skeat and Brewer cite references where the word yankee occured early (1713) in the US meaning 'excellent' (Skeat - 'a yankee good horse') or 'genuine, American-made' (Brewer - 'a yankee horse' and 'yankee cider'). Sources broadly agree that the yankee expression grew first in the New England or New Amsterdam (later New York) region, initially as a local characterising term, which extended to the people, initially as prideful, but then due to the American civil was adopted as an insulting term used by the Southern rebels to mean the enemy from the Northern states. According to Chambers, yank and yankee were used by the English in referring to Americans in general from 1778 and 1784 (first recorded, respectively). This usage developed in parallel to the American usage, producing different British and American perspectives of the term from those early times. Chambers is relatively dismissive of Brewer's suggested origin, although to an extent it is endorsed by Partridge, i.e., a distortion of Native American Indian pronouncuation of English, and places much faith in the Logeman 'Jan Kees' theory, supported by evidence of usage and association among the Dutch settlers. Personally I am more drawn to the Skeat and Brewer views because their arguments were closer to the time and seem based on more logical language and meaning associations. As often however, the possibility of several converging origins and supporting influences is perhaps closer to the truth of the matter.

spin a yarn - tell a fanciful tale or a tall story - According to Chambers the expression was originally a nautical one, first appearing in print about 1812. Indeed spinning yarn was a significant and essential nautical activity, and integral to rope making. In some cases a winch was used, operated by two men, who presumably passed their time working together telling tales of all sorts, which makes the nautical derivation of the metaphor highly likely and very plausible.

yowza/yowzah/yowser/yowser - teen or humorous expression normally signifying (sometimes reluctant) agreement or positivity - from 1930s USA youth culture, a corruption of 'yes sir'. More recently expressed and found in double form - yowza yowsa - or even triple, as in the 1977 Chic disco hit titled 'Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)', in which case pinching one's nostrils and speaking into an empty baked bean can is an almost mandatory part of the demonstration. Spelling varies and includes yowza (seemingly most common), yowzah, yowsa, yowsah, yowser, youser, yousa; the list goes on..



zeitgeist - mood or feeling of the moment - from the same German word, formed from 'zeit' (time, in the sense of an age or a period) and 'geist' (spirit - much like the English word, relating to ghosts and the mind). Zeitgeist is pronounced 'zite-guyste': the I sounds are as in 'eye' and the G is hard as in 'ghost'. The word zeitgeist is particularly used in England these days to refer to the increasing awareness of, and demand for, humanity and ethics in organised systems of the modern 'developed' world, notably in people's work, lives, business and government. Hence growing interest among employees and consumers in the many converging concepts that represent this feeling, such as the 'Triple Bottom Line' (profit people planet), sustainability, CSR (corporate social responsibility), ethical organisations and investments, 'Fairtrade', climate change, third world debt, personal well-being, etc. Technically the word zeitgeist does not exclusively refer to this sort of feeling - zeitgeist can concern any popular feeling - but in the modern world, the 'zeitgeist' (and the popular use of the expression) seems to concern these issues of ethics and the 'common good'. Zeitgeist is in a way becoming a 'brand name' for the ethical movement, and long may it continue. It is possible that the zeitgeist word will evolve to mean this type of feeling specifically; language constantly changes, and this is a good example of a word whose meaning might quite easily develop to mean something specific and different through popular use.


sayings recorded (and some maybe originated) in john heywood's 'proverbs' collection of 1546

Dramatist and epigram writer John Heywood (c.1497-c.1580) is a particularly notable character in the history of expressions and sayings, hence this section dedicated to him here. Many common cliches and proverbs that we use today were first recorded in his 1546 (Bartlett's citation) collection of proverbs and epigrams titled 'Proverbs', and which is available today in revised edition as The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood. Sources aside from Bartlett's variously suggest 1562 or later publication dates for the Heywood collection and individual entries, which reflects the fact that his work, due to its popularity and significance, was revised and re-printed in later editions after the original collection. Heywood was actually a favourite playwright of Henry VIII and Queen Mary I, and it is likely that his writings would have gained extra notoriety in the times because of his celebrity connections.

The English language was rather different in those days, so Heywood's versions of these expressions (the translations used by Bartlett's are shown below) are generally a little different to modern usage, but the essence is clear to see, and some are particularly elegant in their old form. It's not easy to say how many of these expressions Heywood actually devised himself. He probably originated some because he was a noted writer of epigrams. Whatever, John Heywood and his 1546 'Proverbs' collection can arguably be credited with originating or popularising the interpretation of these sayings into forms that we would recognise today, and for reinforcing their use in the English language.

Here are some of the most common modern expressions that appeared in Heywood's 1546 collection. Whatever their precise origins Heywood's collection is generally the first recorded uses of these sayings, and aside from any other debate it places their age clearly at 1546, if not earlier.

The original translated Heywood interpretation (according to Bartlett's) is shown first, followed where appropriate by example(s) of the modern usage. Where known and particularly interesting, additional details for some of these expressions appear in the main listing above.

  • All is well that ends well/All's well that ends well (Shakespeare's play of this title was written in 1603)
  • Hold their noses to the grindstone/Nose to the grindstone
  • Look ere you leap/Look before you leap
  • Every man for himself and God for us all/Every man for himself
  • Would ye both eat your cake and have your cake/ You can't have your cake and eat it (too)/ He (or she or you ) wants their/your cake and eat it (too)
  • The tide tarrieth no man/Time and Tide wait for no man (also attributed to Chaucer, loosely translated from the 1387 Canterbury Tales - The Clerk's Tale - and specifically quoted by Robert Greene, in Disputations, 1592)
  • Two heads are better than one
  • An ill wind that bloweth no man to good/It's an ill wind that blows no good/It's an ill wind
  • When the steed is stolen, shut the stable door/Shut the stable door after the horse has bolted
  • To hold with the hare and run with the hound/Run with the hare and hunt with the hound/Run with the hare and the hounds
  • Nothing is impossible to a willing heart/Nothing is impossible/Everything is possible
  • While between two stools my tail go to the ground/caught between two stools/between two stools
  • When the sun shineth, make hay/make hay while the sun is shining/make hay/making hay
  • The fat is in the fire/The fat's in the fire
  • She looketh as butter would not melt in her mouth/Butter wouldn't melt in his (or her) mouth/Butter wouldn't melt
  • Beggers should be no choosers/Beggars can't be choosers
  • Set the cart before the horse/Put the cart before the horse
  • There is no fire without some smoke/No smoke without fire (note the inversion of fire and smoke in the modern version, due not to different meaning but to the different emphasis in the language of the times - i.e., the meaning is the same)
  • To rob Peter and pay Paul/Rob Peter to pay Paul
  • A man may well bring a horse to the water, but he cannot make him drink without he will/You can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink/You can take a horse to water
  • Rome was not built in one day/Rome wasn't built in a day
  • You have many strings to your bow/Have a few strings to your bow/Add another string to your bow
  • Better is half a loaf than no bread/Half a loaf is better than no bread at all
  • I know on which side my bread is buttered/He knows what side his bread is buttered
  • One good turn asketh another/One good turn deserves another
  • A dog hath a day/Every dog has its day
  • A hair of the dog that bit us/Hair of the dog
  • Many hands make light work
  • He must needs go whom the devil doth drive/needs must
  • A cat may look on a king/A cat may look at a king/A cat may laugh at a queen
  • Nought venture nought have/Nothing ventured nothing gained
  • Who is worse shod than the shoemaker's wife/the cobbler's kids have got no shoes/the cobbler's children have holes in their shoes
  • And while I at length debate and beat the bush, there shall step in other men and catch the birds/don't beat around the bush
  • Like will to like/like attracts like/likes attract
  • Cut my coat after my cloth/cut your coat to fit your cloth/cut your cloth to fit (interestingly the object has shifted from the coat to the cloth in modern usage, although the meaning of not spending or using resources beyond one's means remains the same)
  • The nearer to the church, the further from God/He who is near the church is often far from God (recorded earlier in French, in Les Proverbes Communs, dated 1500)
  • But in deed, a friend is never known till a man have need
  • Though he love not to buy a pig in a poke/A pig in a poke
  • The moon is made of a green cheese/the moon is made of green cheese/The moon is made of cheese
  • To tell tales out of school
  • This hitteth the nail on the head/You've hit the nail on the head
  • Burnt child fire dreadeth/Burned fingers/Been burned before
  • There is no fool to the old fool/No fool like an old fool
  • A fool's bolt is soon shot/A fool and his money are soon parted
  • For when I gave you an inch you took an ell/Give him and inch and he'll take a mile (an ell was a draper's unit of measurement equating to 45 inches; the word derived from Old High German elina meaning forearm, because cloth was traditionally measured by stretching and folding it at an arm's length - note the distortion to the phonetically similar 'mile' in more recent usage)
  • A penny for your thought/Penny for yout thoughts
  • You cannot see the wood for the trees/Can't see the wood for the trees
  • Neither fish nor flesh, nor a good red herring/Neither fish nor fowl
  • Better is to bow than break/Better to bow than break
  • A fig for care, and a fig for woe/Couldn't care a fig/Couldn't give a fig (from Heywood's 'Be Merry Friends' rather than his 'Proverbs' collection)
  • Tit for tat (also appeared in Heywood's 1556 poem 'The Spider and the Flie')

(Obviously where the male form is used in the above examples the female or first/second-person forms might also apply.)


old cliches

interesting old cliches that have passed out of use

As life changes so does the relevance (and acceptability) of expressions. Here are some that for various reasons have fallen out of use. More are being added to this section from time to time, so if you've any suggestions please email them.

bittock - a little bit - 'ock' was an old English suffix for the diminutive (eg, hillock, bullock).

a bone in my throat - cannot or unwilling to talk.

never wear a brown hat in Friesland - meaning the same as 'when in Rome do as the Romans do' (ie, don't upset the locals by behaving contrary to their customs) - Friesland was a province of the Netherlands, where the custom was to wear several different types of headgear (knitted cap, silk scull-cap, a metal turban and a large bonnet - all at once!).

cat's paw - person doing someone else's dirty work - from Aesop's fable of the monkey who uses the cat's paw to remove roasted chestnuts from the hot ashes.

chatter-broth/scandal-broth - tea (the drink).

cow-lick - a (stubborn) quiff or tuft of hair on the forehead.

the devil's tattoo - to drum one's fingers on a table ('tattoo' meant originally a military drum beat, which was used to call soldiers back to barracks).

driving pigs - snoring - from the metaphor of taking grunting pigs to market.

German comb - using the fingers and thumb of one hand to roughly comb one's hair - from the practice of German people who were much later than the French to adopt combs.

a head full of bees - being mad or very stupid.

keep your breath to cool your porridge - mind you own business.

kiss the hare's foot - be late for or miss dinner (the old metaphor was based on the idea that the hare had run away and you'd only be able to kiss its footprint).

leaves without figs - empty words or promises.

pecksniff - a hypocrite.

shove the queer - attempt to pass counterfeit money (queer used to mean fake money).

scornful dogs will eat dirty puddings - desperate people do desperate things (people understood there was a needs hierarchy long before Maslow told us).

shoe a goose - engage in a fruitless task.

not got a shot in the locker - penniless - from the naval analogy of having no gunshot in the munition store.

parish oven - 1800s French slang for a bus - according to Brewer this is how the French slang expression 'four banal' translates, although the modern translation would be 'common oven' - either way it's a wonderful expression).

stiff - (bought with) credit - also meant an I.O.U., from the 'stiff' rate of interest imposed by money-lenders. Buying something 'stiff' was buying on credit.

tap the admiral - to suck liquid from a container with a straw.

tapster - bar-maid.

touch bottom - learn the details of a bad predicament - a naval metaphor, as in a ship's keel touching the sea-bed.

derivations quiz

Try this quick quiz based on a few of the expressions origins from this page.

words and expressions origins reference sources

Allen's English Phrases published in July 2006 - an excellent reference book for relatively modern English expressions

Words to the Wise - Michael J Sheehan

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870 version reprint especially)

Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English

Cassell's Dictionary of Slang - Jonathon Green

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755 reprint)

The Vulgar Tongue - Francis Grose (1785 reprint)

English Etymology - Skeat

Oxford English Dictionary

Robert Chapman's Dictionary of American Slang (mainly Wentworth and Flexnor's original work)

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology

Cassell's Dictionary of Word Histories

Cockney Rabbit Rhyming Slang Dictionary - Ray Puxley

Cassells Dictionary of Slang - Jonathan Green

Dictionary of Cliches - Julia Cresswell

Dictionary of Cliches -James Rogers

Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Genes, People and Languages - Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza

various historical reference books and foreign language translation dictionaries, and the following internet free website resources:


words, expressions, cliches origins reference sources, dictionaries and links

A commonly ignored reference source for many words and expressions is simply to use a decent dictionary, which provides origins for most words and many related phrases (see the 'strong relief' example above). Aside from this a variety of excellent and relatively inexpensive specialised etymology and slang dictionaries exist, which provide answers for most of the known derivations. I particularly recommend the Oxford English Dictionary (the bigger the better, although even the small editions contain a surprisingly helpful amount of origins and derivations), Brewer's 1870 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (reprinted editions are usually a lot less expensive than the inferior modern versions for researching old English origins); Chambers etymology dictionary, Cassells (Jonathan Green) Slang Dictionary, Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (reprinted older editions are again useful for old English derivations research), Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (for quotations obviously), and any large Websters Dictionary for US English. A visit to a decent library will also enable you to find most known origins. Here are useful words and expressions origins websites. Some are more reliable than others. I particularly recommend Michael Quinion's World-Wide Words.

Michael Quinion's World Wide Words

Word Detective

The Straight Dope

Take Our Word for It

Alt.Usage.English FAQ File

Alternate-Usage-English Group Multi-Site Index

Phrase Finder

Probert Encycolopaedia

Word Wizard

Random House



Google groups alt.use.english search

Online etymology dictionary


If after using these sources you are still unable to find the origins of a particular cliche or expression or word, then:

a) please look in a dictionary just in case it's actually a real proper word (in which case it won't be listed in the expressions and slang resources)

b) it is unlikely that the origins are known,

b) you can ask me, and if I am able to I will look into it,

c) if I do look into it and find something then I'll publish it on this page.


tips for using books for researching words and expressions origins

The free internet (as yet), is generally not as reliable and diverse as using a few good reference books for serious language research. Secure official free-paying dictionary websites like the OED online are effectively as reliable as good quality reference books, but they are not free, and they do not offer the variety of information that can be found in books. That said, the internet and free language origins pages like this one are an increasingly useful source of information and background details. As with any web-based research it's advisable to check free website information with at least one good reference book or some other reliable printed reference. Looking at another website is no guarantee of reliability because information can be (and sometimes tends to be) replicated very easily on the web.

Books available to read online are of course virtually as reliable as holding the real thing in your hands, but it remains to be seen when and if and to what extent online access to books will replace physical books, or more challenging, a library.

For certain types of language research internet search engines and the web as a whole can be used as a real sample of current language usage for particular words and phrases, for example if you are uncertain about most common spelling. Google's standard web search will show you quickly the relative popularity of different spellings, word-forms, and expressions, simply by entering the terms to be compared one after the other, making a note of the numbers of results for each one. This can provide a fascinating view of the popularity of misspellings and disortions of words and expressions, which is one of the main ways that language itself evolves. To search and see results for a phrase enclose it in speech marks "like this". That way the search engine will not count the single words, just the entire phrase.

Even more exciting than that, the recently available and wonderful 'Google trends' now enables regional analysis and relative measurement of words, language and terminology that no book on Earth could ever offer. The potential usefulness of this extends far beyond language and words - it essentially reflects what millions of people are seeking, or not.

For lovers of language, books will perhaps always have a more pleasing feel than the digital word. There is something special about a tableful of books with various pages bookmarked and kept open by assorted paperweights.

Language reference books are not necessarily expensive, and in fact are still free to use if you are close enough to a good reference library. Many useful language reference books, especially used, old, or modern re-prints of old titles, can be found for little money in bookshops and also of course on the web. Some big reference books and dictionaries can be more expensive if bought at cover price, but after a few years many can be found far more cheaply second-hand.

Modern re-prints of old books sometimes appear in 'remaindered' clearance bookshops; these are particular bargains when you find them. Re-prints of very old books like Brewer and Skeat can be the most interesting of all - and often it helps to see what was published a long time ago, rather than read a recent edition. The Brewer dictionary is an example of this - the 1870 reprint is a completely different book to the modern edition sold under the Brewer title.

As ever, research becomes easier when you use the right tools - which means using the right sorts of books. A slang dictionary is not the main tool for detailed word histories (etymology); conversely a big etymology dictionary is not much help for understanding slang meanings. And neither of these will necessarily help find a phrase which began as a quotation or extract, for which you'd need a quotations dictionary. And sometimes the only reference book that will contain what you are looking for, ironically, is a plain simple good-sized dictionary, which is probably the most under-used type of reference book of all.

You will tend to find that several different types of books can offer useful clues when researching any specific word or expression, because you will discover trails and clues, but usually the start of the trail will be found in the type of book that's most appropriate for the sort of search you are conducting. A slang word is unlikely to be found first in a quotations dictionary, but if the origin suggested in a slang dictionary connects to a quotation, then you'll want to find it and more about who wrote or said it. Similarly a word which came into English from French before evolving might not be easy to find in a modern French dictionary (how would you know to look there?), but having found that it came from French originally perhaps by looking in an etmyloogy dictionary, you might then want to look for the current French equivalents (cognates, they are called) in a French dictionary. And so it goes. You follow the trails, moving from book to book where the clues take you, and to a certain degree where you want to go. Research can be creative too. Ask yourself: "What else might this relate to?" "Where might I confirm this, or get another perspective?"

It's therefore important to pick a good starting point (book), but then to have a few different types of books to refer to, depending on where the trail leads.

If you are interested in researching language, here's a short guide of what types of books to look for and for what purpose. The list is not exhaustive, and mainly serves to demonstrate that there are different types of books for different aspects of language research.

There are different types of books for different types of language, for example:

  • word meanings (dictionaries - good dictionaries also provide details of origins)
  • word origins (etymology and word history dictionaries)
  • slang meanings (slang dictionaries)
  • slang meanings and origins (slang dictionaries with origins)
  • idioms and common speech meanings (these would be English phrasebooks and some translation dictionaries)
  • expressions and cliches meanings (metaphors and similes like 'cool as a cucumber', 'mad as a hatter' - these would be in cliches dictionaries)
  • expressions and cliches meanings and origins (these would be in larger slang and phrases dictionaries, some the same as number 3 above)
  • quotations origins (for example 'a rose among thorns' and ' 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all' - these are in quotations dictionaries)
  • foreign language translation dictionaries - can be very useful in language research
  • specialist titles for specialised areas of language meanings and origins - for example expressions associated with particular regions, genres, or social groups, such as trades slang, military, nautical and maritime, armed forces slang, foreign language slang, money slang, business expressions and slang, cockney slang, backslang, lingua franca, pidgin, etc., and interestingly the origins of very common idioms and everyday expressions, which ironically can commonly be omitted from general cliches and slang dictionaries.

Language is so infinitely diverse that no-one can be an expert in all of it. Enticingly at the same time the endless variation and development of language - and especially of slang and cliches and expressions - means that anyone with the right tools and a relatively determined and creative effort can become a world-leading expert authority in one particular aspect of language, even if it is just the history of a single word or phrase.

So next time a word or expression tickles your curiosity, get hold of a reference book or two and see what you can find. Discovering the origins and development of words and language opens a window to how society itself behaves and evolves. The origins of language demonstrate that rules and authority are actually more a guiding reflection of - not a perfect design for - how people communicate, and live too actually.


Alan Chapman/Businessballs

Please see additional referencing/usage terms below.