...turns of phrase
Writing is on the wall, the - the warning (of approaching calamity) is plain for all to see
When Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon, held a great feast during which wine was drunk from the vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzer had removed from the temple at Jerusalem, the fingers of a man's hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall. As his own astrologer could not interpret the message he sent for Daniel, who had successfully explained Nebuchadnezzer's dream (see Feet of clay). Daniel read the message as foretelling Belshazzar's overthrow because of his opposition to the God of the Hebrews and his defilement of the temple vessels. That night the king was killed and his kingdom divided. This famous story, demonstrating God's intervention in favour of the Jews, is in Daniel, chapter 5.
Worth one's salt
It is interesting to note that the word salary is closely connected to salt. The Roman soldier's salarium, from the Latin sal for salt, was an allowance for the purchase of salt and passed into English as a word for 'pay'. Even today to be worth one's salt is to be worthy of one's pay and of respect.
With flying colours
Colours are the general name for a flag, banner or ensign of a regiment or ship, so called because the colours of these identified a particular fighting unit and were also extremely important in enabling men to keep together in some sort of organisation during the tumult of hand-to-hand battle in earlier days. Loss of colours to an enemy was a sign of disgrace if not defeat.
This piece of military history has given rise to several popular expressions such as with flying colours (in triumph, with colours not captured by the enemy but still streaming in the wind) and nail one's colours to the mast (commit oneself firmly and openly to a course of action), as one might nail colours to a mast as a sign of defiance and to make it difficult to seize them. A pirate ship might sail under false colours, a sign of deception; conversely one's true colours showed to which side one really belonged. The modern expression in one's true colours (one's true nature or character) forgets that one fought under colours, not in them.
Wind of change
Now a cliché but originally a striking metaphor, principally because of the circumstances in which it was first used. It occurred in a speech by Harold Macmillan when he was the British prime minister. He was referring to the strength of African national consciousness and he introduced the phrase when actually addressing the South African parliament (1960), which at the time was rigorously committed - as it was until 1991 - to the policy of apartheid: 'The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of political consciousness is a political fact'.
It is not known whether the phrase was coined by the person who wrote the speech (David Hunt, a diplomat) or by one of the revisers (who included Macmillan himself), or whether it was a conscious echo of the words used in 1934 by Stanley Baldwin (a prime minister himself, though not at the time he said them): 'There is a wind of nationalism and freedom blowing round the world, and blowing as strongly in Asia as elsewhere'.
Wide of the mark - wrong
Mark is an old word for anything set up to be aimed at. The whole expression is borrowed from target-shooting.
White elephant - something no longer wanted by its owner; something, often property, requiring so much expenditure and care as to be an encumbrance or give little profit
The kings of Siam, now Thailand, used to give white elephants as gifts to courtiers who fell out of favour. The white elephant was not only rare but also sacred, and so could not be put to work to recoup the cost of its upkeep. Nor could it be got rid of, because like all white elephants it remained the property of the king. The gift was symbolic rather than ruinous, but the message was clear.
Whipping boy - person punished for another's mistakes
In some European royal families a prince was educated in the comapany of a commoner-boy who was whipped if the prince offended. Apart from preserving the royal hide, the boy kept for whipping was perhaps intended as an encouragement to the prince to behave well and so avoid manifestly unfair consequences, but nothing is known of the success rate of this curious educational practice
What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts
A catchphrase originating in fairground language. It is an optimistic assertion that, all things considered, matters tend to turn out satisfactorily if you take the rough with the smooth. Swings go up and down, and roundabouts go round and round, but taken both together they add up to the same thing - a way of giving amusement and making a living.
Wear one's heart on one's sleeve - be very open in showing one's feelings
From the old custom in which a young man tied to his sleeve a favour - perhaps a ribbon or handkerchief - given to him by a lady as a sign of her affection (i.e. of her heart). The expression is now used of one's own heart (i.e. feelings) on one's own sleeve.
Vaulting ambition - extreme ambition
A quotation from Macbeth's soliloquy at the beginning of I, 7: 'I have no spur/To prick the side of my intent, but only/Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself/And falls on the other'. The metaphor is from horse-riding: ambition is envisaged either as a horse that jumps too high over an obstacle and falls down on the other side of it, or as a rider who leaps too energetically into the saddle and falls off the other side of the horse. Thus the original sense was of coming to grief by being over-ambitious.
Unkindest cut of all - most hurtful action or words
A quotation from Mark Antony's famous funeral speech in Julius Caesar, III, 2, line 183. Speaking over Caesar's body he describes to the citizens of Rome how Caesar was murdered and points out the holes made in his mantle by the daggers of his assassins. The 'unkindest cut' - he means 'cut' literally - is that made by Brutus, whom Caesar trusted.
Under the auspices of - with the help or protection of
In ancient Rome the Auspex, literally the bird-watcher, was a priest who observed the flight of birds as an omen. If his auspice, i.e. observation, was favourable he would advise that the signs indicated divine approval for a course of action. The modern expression which comes from this carries no such supernatural implication.
Under the aegis of - under the sponsorship or protection of
The original aegis was the shield of Zeus, king of the gods in Greek mythology. It took its name from the Greek word for goatskin: as a child Zeus had been suckled by a goat, Amalthea, and as a man he carried a shield covered with its skin. The aegis therefore symbolised divine protection - a far cry from its usually humdrum modern use.
Uncle Tom - black person who is thought to have a deferential attitude towards white people
A derogatory reference to the central character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) who is a faithful and dignified old black slave. His attitudes towards white people were regarded as servile by later black activists for whom the establishment of equal rights was incompatible with 'Uncle Tomism'. Others have argued that the book originally helped the US public towards a better understanding of the iniquities of slavery.
Unacceptable face of - unpleasant aspect of (something generally admirable)
In May 1973 the then British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, commenting in the House of Commons about the business practices of a company which was alleged in the High Court to run a company-owned mansion and to have made payments into an offshore tax haven, said 'It is an unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism'. Coming from a politician whose party was generally sympathetic to capitalism, this statement was much commented on and remains much quoted both in its original form and with variations.
Turn a blind eye - pretend not to notice
Lord Nelson was blinded in the right eye in Corsica during the war with France. During the first battle of Copenhagen (1801), when the admiral to whom Nelson was second in command signalled that he should break off the action, Nelson ignored the order (or, in one version, put his telescope to his blind eye), claiming that he had both a blind eye and the right to use it. To have obeyed at that time would have risked disaster because of nearby shallows.
The familiar expression came into use after his widely mourned death at Trafalgar in 1805.
To the nth degree - to the utmost degree or extreme
In mathematics 'n' represents an indefinite number, usually the greatest in a series. To do something for the nth time is to do it yet again, after performing it innumerable times already.
To the bitter end - to the last extremity, however painful or difficult
On old ships the bitts were the strong posts or framework on the deck to which the anchor cable was attached. The bitter end of the cable was the end nearer the bitts, as distinct from the anchor-end, and if the cable was paid out to the bitter end there was none left to go.
It is possible that this expression passed into general use, where this technical sense of 'bitter' was unknown and the expression was assumed to have a sense of painfulness not in the original. It is equally possible that the expression developed in an entirely different way and that the existence of an identical nautical term was an irrelevant coincidence. The expression does make sense in its own right. Moreover, bitter and end are in fact found together in Scripture: 'her end is bitter as wormwood' (Proverbs, 5: 4).
Tilt at windmills - (ludicrously) fight imaginary evils or enemies
The hero of the satirical romance Don Quixote (1605-15) by the Spanish novelist and dramatist Cervantes (1547-1616) is a poor, dignified and amiable gentleman whose wits have been so affected by too much reading of ballads and romances of chivalry that he has lost any sense of reality. He sets off, in rusty armour and on an ancient horse, in search of adventure. His attempts to right the wrongs of the world involve him in absurd escapades, and he is finally persuaded to return to his village. In one of his absurder adventures he charges with his lance (i.e. tilts) at some windmills, imagining them to be evil giants whom it is his duty as a chivalrous knight to destroy (Part I, 8). His lance gets caught in a sail and he is carried up in the air before being brought back to earth with a bump. The expression therefore implies a rather crazy action likely to end in ridicule.
The book, intended as a burlesque of popular tales of chivalry, is actually a rich and affectionate celebration of the common man, though it gave rise to the often pejorative adjective quixotic, meaning idealistic, optimistic, chivalrous, but in a rash, improbable or impractical way.
Three sheets to the wind - very drunk
In nautical parlance, sheets are ropes attached to sails and are let out or pulled in to adjust the sails' positions. If they (and therefore the sails) are flapping loose they are said to be in the wind; the result is loss of control. A drunken person, experiencing a similar disorientation, was therefore said to be 'a sheet in the wind'; if one was three sheets in the wind (now a rather dated expression) one's condition was more desperate.
Three R's, the - reading, writing and arithmetic
Reputed to have been proposed, in all seriousness, as a toast by Alderman Sir William Curtis (1752-1829), an illiterate lord mayor of London, at the end of a speech in favour of elementary education for all. It has been common, as useful jocular shorthand, since 1828.
Third degree - vigorous questioning (to extort confession)
In medieval natural philosophy, degrees were the successive stages of intensity in which the elementary qualities of bodies (hot, cold, moist, dry) were described. The third degree, out of a normal total of four, was very intense; Shakespeare humorously describes one of his characters as lying 'in the third degree of drink'. The terminology survives in third degree burns (the deepest variety) and in the (originally American) idea of third degree interrogation, though this may owe something to Masonic ritual in which initiation into the third or highest degree of membership is said to be rigorous.
There but for the grace of God (go I)
A comment on someone's ill fortune, meaning that it could easily have happened to oneself (or to anyone at all). It is based on a remark reputed to have been made by the much admired clergyman John Bradford on seeing some criminals going to execution. He himself was charged with heresy during the reign of Mary I and burned at the stake in Smithfield in 1555 as part of the official persecution of Protestants.
Teach one's grandmother to suck eggs - offer advice, instruction, etc. to an older or much more experienced person than oneself
Raw eggs, with or without a little seasoning, used to be a popular food and regarded as healthy. Grandmothers, especially those without teeth, would have been particularly addicted to them and therefore needed no instruction about how to drink them.
One must regret the passing of a parallel expression 'teach one's grandam to grope ducks', i.e. use the fingers to measure the distance between a duck's pelvic bones; if these were close together the duck was not laying and could be consigned to the pot.
Take the mickey - make fun of
Mike Bliss, sometimes shortened to Mike, is Cockney rhyming slang for 'piss'; it is not known who he was or even if he ever existed. To take the mickey (Mickey being a variant of Mike, short for Michael) is a euphemism for 'take the piss' (jeer at, deride, deflate - perhaps from the idea of deflating the bladder). The meaning is kinder too.
Take the gilt off the gingerbread - deprive something of (some of) its attractive qualities
Gingerbread, a cake spiced with ginger, was often sold in toy shapes, especially as a flat human figure, covered or ornamented with either real or more usually imitation gilt. It was a metaphor for anything showy but insubstantial as early as Elizabethan days. The idea of taking off the gilt to reveal something less valuable developed in the 19th century, perhaps as a result of the popularity of gingerbread stalls at country fairs.
The word tabloid was invented in 1884 by Burroughs, Wellcome, the pharmaceutical company, as a trademark for concentrated drugs and chemicals in tablet form. The newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe was the first to apply the word to half-size newspapers; Burroughs, Wellcome successfully applied for an injunction to prevent this use but had to give way three or four years later and accept that tabloid had become common property. At the time, the word was intended to mean no more than 'concentrated' or compressed'; if anything it was complimentary, implying that tabloid journalism (1901) was as good, handy and beneficial as tabloid medicine. In the light of experience it has become a term of abuse meaning 'oversimplified, superficial, bigoted and nasty'.
Sword of Damocles
The sword of Damocles was, according to the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero, a sword hung from the ceiling by a single hair. It was so placed at a banquet above the head of the sycophantic courtier Damocles by Dionysius the Elder, ruler of Syracuse from 404 to 367 BC, to remind Damocles of the precariousness of the power and privilege which he envied. It is still a popular metaphor for any great and threatening evil that may befall one at any time.
Sweet Fanny Adams or sweet FA - nothing at all
Fanny Adams was a little girl who was murdered in Hampshire in 1867. Her body, cut into pieces, was found in a river. The adjective sweet was probably added in a popular poem or ballad of the sort that was often composed in the 19th century to memorialise drama or disaster.
With heartless humour, sailors came to apply the unfortunate child's name to the tinned mutton issued on board ship; one authority states that the joke originated in a sailor's discovery of a button in one such tin. By natural shift, the expression transferred from mutton to monotony of diet and then to any lack of a popular or necessary item.
Shipshape and Bristol fashion
Shipshape (in neat order) is a tribute to the traditional high standards of good order on board sailing ships, especially in the Royal Navy. The second syllable is a shortening of 'shapen', the old form of 'shaped', i.e. fashioned. Shipshape and Bristol fashion means the same: before the growth of Liverpool, Bristol was the major British west-coast trading-port with a high reputation for the standards of equipment and service needed for long voyages.
Scylla and Charybdis - two equally dangerous alternatives
In Greek legend these were two redoubtable sea-monsters who lived on opposite sides of the Straits of Messina which separate Italy and Sicily. Scylla, on the Italian side, was specially associated with a rock on to which she lured sailors who came too close. Charbydis, on the other coast, was a dangerous whirlpool. In avoiding the one, seamen were in danger of destruction by the other. The earliest reference is in Homer's Odyssey (XII).
Run the gauntlet
This expression has nothing to do with the explanation of throw down the gauntlet. Here gauntlet comes, by confused etymology, from the earlier and now obsolete gantlope, which in turn came from the Swedish 'gata' (lane) and 'lopp' (running course), a 17th century military punishment in which a culprit was stripped to the waist and made to run between two rows of men who aimed blows at him with sticks or knotted ropes. The expression now means to be attacked, criticised or exposed to danger from two or more sides.
Road to Damascus - occasion or circumstance of changing one's allegiance, belief, point of view, policy, etc.
An allusion to the conversion of St Paul. As Saul of Tarsus, an ardent persecutor of Christians, he was travelling to Damascus in Syria in 33 AD to find and capture some of them when God spoke to him in a blinding light. Taken to Damascus, he had his sight restored, was baptised and became the most notable advocate, missionary and preacher of the early church, his letters to which form an important part of the New Testament. He was martyred at Rome in 64. The Damascus story is in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 9.
In modern use this act of divine intervention, perhaps the most dramatic and influential in the establishment of Christianity after Christ's death, is trivialised by being used in references to political U-turns or simple changes of mind.
Rip van Winkle - person who is very much behind the times
This is the name of the happy-go-lucky character in a story by Washington Irving (The Sketch Book, 1820) who takes refuge from his scolding wife by taking a ramble in the Carskill Mountains north-west of New York, falls asleep after drinking too much and awakens twenty years later to find things have changed. For example, he goes to sleep as a subject of the king of England and wakes up as a citizen of the USA.
Pyrrhic victory - victory won at too great a cost to oneself
Between 280 and 275 BC Pyrrhus, king of Epirus in Greece, who had crossed into southern Italy to help the Greek city-states against early Rome, won a number of costly victories over the Romans. The well-known phrase derives from these, notably from the Battle of Asculum (279) after which Pyrrhus exclaimed: 'One more such victory and we are lost'. In due course he was defeated and returned across the Adriatic.
Pros and cons - reasons or arguments for and againstNot to be confused with 'pro's' as an abbreviation for professionals. It is an adaptation of the Latin pro et contra (for and against).
Pidgin English - English with the pronunciation, spelling or grammatical construction of another language
The development of trading contacts between Britain and China led to the emergence in 19th century China of a trading language consisting of basic English and some Chinese with Chinese pronunciation and some Chinese grammatical forms. The Chinese called this hybrid language 'business English', but as they had difficulty in pronouncing 'business' this came out as 'bidgin' or pidgin, which is now a standard English word.
By a curious and misguided tidying-up process, 'that's not my pidgin' (that's not my business) entered written English as that's not my pigeon. The familiar that's your pigeon (i.e. your responsibility) is from the same error.
Philosopher's stone - panacea
Before the word 'philosopher' settled down into its modern sense it meant, among other things, a practitioner of occult science, including alchemy. The alchemist's or philosopher's stone was, in medieval times, the solid or preparation reputed to be able to turn all base metals into gold. The discovery of it was a supreme objective.
Peeping Tom - voyeur
Leofric, Earl of Mercia and one of the most powerful men in England during the first half of the 11th century, imposed certain taxes which his wife, Lady Godiva, patroness of Coventry, asked him to remove. He promised to do so if she would ride naked through the city, which she accordingly did in 1040. This story, first recorded in a 13th century history, was subsequently embellished. A 17th century addition was that the people of Coventry stayed indoors behind drawn curtains in order not to offend her modesty, but that an inquisitive tailor called Tom peeped out, whereupon he was struck blind or, according to another story, done to death by more upright citizens. Thus peeping Tom became the name for a voyeur.
Pay through the nose - pay excessively; be overcharged
Three explanations of this expression have been offered. One traces it to a 9th century Irish poll tax imposed by the Danes, who slit the noses of non payers. If this is the origin it is odd that the expression did not appear in print until 1672. A second links 'rhino', slang for money, with the Greek word rhinos (nose). This is as far-fetched as the third, which connects a nose-bleed with the idea of being 'bled' of one's money.
A simpler and more plausible solution exists. There is an old and popular expression, found in 16th century English as well as in Italian, Greek and Latin, which is lead by the nose. Literally this means 'control' or 'dominate', as an animal is led by the nose, perhaps by means of a ring through it. Figuratively it means 'make a fool of': Shakespeare has 'led by the nose, as asses are' (Othello, I, 3, lines 399, 400). A development of this into pay through the nose, with the same implication of being fooled, must be a strong possibility.
Patience of Job - very patient
Job's story, told in the Old Testament Book of Job, is that of a God-fearing man who is suddenly prostrated by a succession of calamities which strip him of goods, children and health. He remains steadfast throughout and these disasters are then revealed to have been God's tests of his faith. Because of his endurance, Job is blessed by God and his prosperity is made greater than before. The patience of Job thus became proverbial and is referred to as early as the New Testament (James, 5: 11).
Job also had friends who wrongly attributed his misfortune to his sinfullness. He rejected their interpretation: 'miserable comforters are ye all' (Job, 16: 2). A Job's comforter is now a person who, in trying to offer help or advice, says something that merely adds to distress.
Pass the buck - shift responsibility to someone else
A term from poker originating in the USA. A knife with a buckhorn handle, abbreviated to buck, was put in the jackpot; some other handy object could be used but it was still called 'the buck'. It was temporarily held by the winner of the jackpot, but when the deal reached him a new jackpot had to be made and the responsibility of holding the buck was passed on. One version of poker was called pass the buck.
In other versions the buck is placed on the table to indicate who the dealer is or whose turn it is to put an agreed sum into the pool. In either case the buck is then passed on clockwise.
Harry S. Truman, President of the USA from 1945-53 and a keen poker-player, had a sign on his desk 'The buck stops here'. Passing the buck had by this time come to signify an evasion or denial of responsibility. Originally it simply meant a passing on of accountability by rotation.
Parthian shot - pointed or wounding remark made on departure, giving no time for replyThe idea of having the last word may now imply flouncing bad temper but the original phrase did not. Parthia was a non-Greek kingdom which emerged in about 238 BC in what is now north-eastern Iran, west of Afghanistan. It became the object of a number of campaigns by the Romans, notably Crassus in the 1st century BC, and it was then that the Parthian horsemen became noted for their skill at discharging their missiles backwards while in real or pretended retreat.
On the right/wrong tack - in the right/wrong direction; following the (in)correct course of action or line of thought
From sailing, in which tack means 'direction'. More specifically it means the direction given to a ship's course by the act of tacking, i.e. moving in a zig-zag fashion by adjusting the sails so as to move into the wind but obliquely to its direction.
On tenterhooks - in a state of tension, anxiety or suspense
From the literal tension applied to newly woven cloth in order to stretch it evenly and allow it to dry without shrinking. The wooden framework used for this operation was called a tenter; the word 'tent' comes from the same Latin origin, tendere (stretch). The hooks to which the cloth was attached were therefore called tenterhooks.
On cloud nine - ecstatically happy
Said to be from the terminology of the US Weather Bureau. Just as wind may be force five or an earthquake measure seven on the Richter scale, cloud nine is that which reaches to 30,000-40,000 feet, i.e. very high. The idea of being on a cloud comes from the traditional association of the sky with heaven, the place of supreme bliss.
Another explanation is that the expression is merely an intensification of the earlier 'cloud seven', an Americanism for seventh heaven.
Old chestnut - story, joke or excuse often repeated
This seems to originate in William Dimond's melodrama The Broken Sword (1816) in which a captain tells an unlikely story about a chestnut tree time and time again until he is shown to be romancing when he inadvertently changes the chestnut tree into a different type of tree.
Off one's own bat - on one's own initiative
A reference to using one's bat to score runs in cricket. It is rather a tautologous term as there are few other methods of scoring.
Not worth a tinker's damn or cuss - worthless
Also not give a tinker's damn/cuss (not care in the slightest). Cuss is modern (mid-19th century American) for 'curse'. 'Not worth a curse/damn' is very old and means that anything so called is so worthless as not to justify even the expenditure of breath to swear at it. Tinker's was added later for emphasis: tinkers were usually itinerant mender of pots and pans whose position in society, like their language, was low.
Not to be sneezed at - not to be underrated or treated lightly
Taking snuff may induce sneezing. 'Snuff' also used to be a word for anything of little value, so anything of greater value was 'not snuff', i.e. not a sneezing matter.
Not set the Thames on fire - not do anything notable in life
An English version of a similar Latin tag about the Tiber. There are also French and German versions referring to the Seine and the Rhine. Some authorities offer an explanation in terms of a pun on an obsolete word 'temse'; this appears to be guesswork.
Not fit to hold a candle to - person much inferior to or not to be compared with another
the phrase originated at a time when holding a candle to (i.e. for) a person was the task of a servant, lighting the householder's way from one part of the residence to another, for instance. Hence the modern sense of inferiority.
Not cricket - unfair
Versions of cricket go back to the Middle Ages but the game became established in the 18th century when the first recognisably modern matches were played and rules were establised. The game has always been synonymous with gentlemanly conduct and fair play because of its leisurely nature and strong amateur tradition.
Not a patch on - nowhere near as good as
A not very intelligible variant of an older and clearer expression 'but as [i.e. no more than] a patch on', meaning 'inferior to'. The idea is that a patch is inferior in that it spoils a garment.
Cat among the pigeons - disturbance
Originally an expression about a cat in the dove-house and would have made better sense when dovecotes were common because of the popularity of pigeons as food. Also more explicit than its modern version was 'no more chance than a cat in hell without claws', now shortened to the more puzzling not a cat in hell's chance (no chance at all). Like a cat on hot bricks used to be '... on a hot bake-stone', the stone top of an oven. The proverb that a cat has nine lives is an obvious reference to its survivability, especially its ability always to fall on its feet, and may be related to superstitions that cats were associated with the supernatural as one of the forms taken by the devil and as witches' familiar spirits.
Nosey parker - prying person
Nosey has a long history as a nickname for a person with a prominent nose and as an informal adjective applied to an inquisitive person who pokes their nose into other people's business in order to get a closer look at it. Parker seems to have been added in the 1900s with the appearance of a character on a comic postcard who was named Nosey Parker. Perhaps Parker was chosen arbitrarily as the character's surname, or perhaps it comes from the dialect word 'pawk' (be inquisitive) or from parker, an old word for park-keeper, a person better placed than most for spying on what people get up to.
The traditional explanation that the name originated with Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury in Queen Elizabeth I's day and a zealous inquisitor, fails to take into account that there is no record of the term either in his lifetime or during more than 300 years following his death.
Nod is as good as wink, a
A catchphrase acknowledging that a hint has been understood. Oddly enough, the original sense was the opposite: 'a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse' means that whatever sort of hint one may give, whether a nod of agreement or a more secret wink of complicity, some people are unable to understand it.
No strings attached
A string means, among other things, a cord for leading an animal, especially a horse, and is therefore found in a number of expressions having to do with the excercise of control. They include no strings attached (without restrictions), string along (join the 'string' of horses, i.e. accompany, often reluctantly; mislead), and possibly pull strings (exercise influence), though the latter may derive from puppetry. 'String' is also short for bowstring: to have more than one string to (i.e. for) one's bow, a sensible precaution for archers, is to have more than one expedient, including a second string, s second resource in case the first should fail. Holding the purse-strings (controlling expenditure) is a reminder of the days when a purse was a small bag, the neck of which was held tight by a drawstring.
No holds barred - without any rules or constraints, especially those of fair play
From all-in wrestling of the most primitive kind, in which no hold or grip or indeed any method of dealing with an opponent was forbidden.
No great shakes - nothing very special
From gambling: if one makes no great (i.e. no very successful) shakes of the dice, one achieves no great score.
Namby-pamby - insipidly or sentimentally childish
The nickname of the minor poet Ambrose Philips (1674-1749) which was invented by one one of his fellow writers, probably the dramatist Henry Carey whose Namby Pamby (1726) ridiculed Philip's pastoral poems. The nickname is of earlier date, however, and was based on the poet's Christian name and the infantile style of some poems he had written for children. In the closely knit and backbiting literary world of early 18th century London the sobriquet would rapidly have become common knowledge; by the middle of the century it was standard English with its modern sense.
Main Entry: so.bri.quet
Pronunciation: 'sO-bri-"kA, -"ket, "sO-bri-'
: a descriptive name or epithet : NICKNAME
Mum's the word - say nothing
Mum in this sense of 'silence' is a word fabricated from the inarticulate sound 'mmmm' made with closed lips and conveying no information. this use was first recorded in 1540 but may well be two centuries older than that.
Mountain will not come to Mohammed, if the
Mohammed (570-632 AD) was the founder of Islam, the Muslim religion. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain advises swallowing one's pride in order to take the initiative is something. The story behind the saying is that when people asked Mohammed to give miraculous proof of his teaching he ordered a mountain to move towards him; when it did not do so he used the incident as a lesson that God had spared them from destruction by the mountain, and he went to it to offer thanks for God's mercy. The story first appeared in English in Francis Bacon's Essays ('On Boldness', 1625) to illustrate boldness in an orator or leader, not with the interpretation now placed on it.
Mind one's p's and q's - be careful of one's behaviour
This sounds as if it is a warning to children and it probably originated as a classroom admonition in the days when children learnt to write by copying the letters of the alphabet from a model (see criss-cross and blot one's copybook): p and q were adjacent letters, both had tails and so it would have been easy to confuse the two. A teacher's catchphrase advising care and correctness in writing might readily have become generally adopted as one advocating similar virtues in behaviour.
A more fanciful suggestion is that p's and q's were abbreviations of the pints and quarts recorded on a blackboard by a publican keeping a tally of a customer's drinking (see chalk up). The expression then becomes a customer's warning to the innkeeper to get the sums right.
Milk of human kindness - ordinary everyday kindness
The phrase was first coined by Shakespear in Macbeth, I, 5, lines 13-14: 'Yet I do fear thy nature/It is full o' th' milk of human kindness ...'. As the speaker, Lady Macbeth, regarded this as a weakness (milk being baby-food), the image did not mean quite what it now does.
Method in one's madness - an element of good sense in otherwise senseless behaviour
An adaptation of Polonius' comment on Hamlet's madness in which there are moments of sanity: 'Though this be madness, yet there is method in't' (II, 2, line 211). Method here means 'orderliness of thought'.
Mealy-mouthed - unwilling or afraid to speak plainly
Although this now implies insincerity or even hypocrisy, it originally meant no more than 'soft-spoken'. Mealy is the adjective from 'meal' in its sense of powdered grain, as in wholemeal. Mealy-mouthed therefore expressed a comparison between a soft voice (of diminished strength) and soft grain (reduced to powder from its original size).
Mark or brand of Cain
Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain, the elder, killed his brother out of jealousy that God seemed to favour him more. The two are therefore the archetype of brotherly discord, and Cain appears throughout literature as the personification of the original sin of murder. The mark/brand of Cain, though placed on him by God to protect him (Genesis, 4: 5), is now used to mean an identifying stigma. To raise Cain is to create a great disturbance, as if raising up or evoking the turbulent spirit of the first murderer.
Man's inhumanity to man
A quotation from Robert Burns' poem Man was made to Mourn (line 55): 'Man's inhumanity to man/Makes countless thousand mourn!
Make short shrift of - deal with or dispose of rapidly or inconsiderately
'Short shrift' was a brief time allowed by law to a condemned person to make a confession to a priest before execution. Shrift is an obsolete word now used only in this expression. It comes from the verb 'shrive', another obsolete word, which meant to hear a confession and pronounce absolution of sins. It survives in Shrove Tuesday, so called because, as the day before the Christian fast of Lent, it is an occasion for preparatory confession.
Make no bones about - admit without fuss; say or do openly, without hesitation or apology
An odd term: people cannot normally be said to 'make bones'. The explanation is that the phrase was originally (mid-15th century) 'to find bones in/about', meaning to find difficulty or an obstacle in something. This was a simple comparison with finding bones in food. The image was obviously so useful that people adapted it to express its opposite, i.e. not finding trouble but making it. By the mid-16th century it had therefore become 'make bones about' (make difficulty about). In its more familiar negative form it has remained fixed in the language.
Make hay while the sun shines - take advantage of a favourable opportunity
To make hay is to cut grass and spread it out to dry, for later use as fodder. The proverb is very ancient, and very English in its reference to variable weather.
Make ends meet - live within one's income
This was originally 'make both ends meet', the two ends being the extremities of the year, i.e. the beginning and the end. Meet has its old sense of agree or tally. The whole phrase therefore means 'keep one's finances, income and expenditure, in balance throughout the year'.
Make a pig's ear - blunder; make a mess
Probably from the 16th century proverb 'You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear' (you cannot make something good out of inferior materials), in which the sow's ear is synonymous with something useless, valueless, etc.
Maddening crowd - people, or society in general, behaving in a way that makes one angry
A common misquotation, and consequent misinterpretation, of a phrase from Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751): 'Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,/Their sober wishes never learned to stay ...' from which Thomas Hardy took the title of his novel Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). 'Madding' means 'acting madly', which is not the same as maddening (intolerable).
Orig., maggoty. from Dan. maddik, an earthworm.
Apt to cause satiety or loathing; nauseous; disgusting.
Easily disgusted; squeamish; sentimentally fastidious.
Of, pertaining to, or appropriate to, a person of high birth; noble; not plebeian.
A person of refined upbringing and manners.
L. plebeius, from plebs, plebis, the common people.
Of or pertaining to the Roman plebs, or common people.
Of or pertaining to the common people; vulgar; common.
Rom. Antiq. Of or pertaining to the Roman patres (fathers) or senators, or patricians. Originally, a member of any of the families constituting the populus Romanus, or body of Roman citizens, before the development of the plebeian order; later, one who, by right of birth or by special privilege conferred, belonged to the nobility. Patricians were the uppermost elite class of ancient Rome. They were largely consisting of families with famous or influential ancestors. In the early days of the Roman Republic intermarriages were forbidden between patricians and plebeians.
Grist to the mill
'Grist' is corn that is to be ground; grist to the mill thus used to mean business providing profit, but it now more usually means work that has to be done.
Keep one's nose to the grindstone - keep one(self) working hard
The original meaning, some of the flavour of which survives in its current one, was to keep someone punished or oppressed. A grindstone used to be a common punishment - a revolving stone disc used for sharpening tools, knives, etc. - and the effect of this on the nose can be easily imagined.
It takes all sorts to make a world
First recorded in this form in D. W. Jerrold's The Story of Feather (1844) though the same sentiment in different words goes back at least another two centuries.
Hoist by one's own petard - made a victim of one's own (malicious) intentions or actions
Properly 'with', not 'by', if one is to be true to the original in Hamlet (III, 4, lines 206-7): 'For 'tis the sport to have the engineer/Hoist with his own petard'. A petard is a bomb, hoist means 'blown up' and an 'engineer' is a person who makes engines of war.
Hobson's choice - no choice at all
Thomas or Tobias Hobson (1544-1631) was a Cambridge carrier who hired out horses but compelled customers either to take the horse next in line or to go without. Because he insisted on this strict rotation everyone was treated alike and no horse was overworked. No doubt he was known to generations of Cambridge undergraduates and their slang was responsible for broadcasting his name and scrupulousness.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned
A misquotation from William Congreve's tragedy The Mourning Bride (1697), III, 8: 'Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,/Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned.
Hanged, drawn and quartered
People sentenced to be executed used to be drawn to the site behind a horse or cart. At first they were dragged along the ground, but so many failed to survive that the custom grew up of drawing them on a hurdle or hide or in a cart. After being hanged, but while still alive, they were lowered to the ground and castrated; disembowelment and the burning of viscera were performed before their eyes. They were then decapitated and quartered, the resultant pieces being preserved for exhibition by being boiled and perhaps coated in pitch.
Hanged, drawn and quartered was not a legal formula but a common expression summarising a much longer and more detailed sentence delivered by a judge. It is not clear whether drawn refers to the conveyance to execution or to the removal of viscera ('draw' is an old word for disembowel) - probably the latter, judging from its position in the expression.
arse-over-head, arse-over-elbow, arse-over-tit v. tripping, going head over heels, falling in an embarrasing way cf. ass-over-tea-kettle
Halcyon days - calm, peaceful, happy time
Halcyon is the Greek, and in English literature a poetic word, for a kingfisher. In Greek mythology this bird was fabled to breed at the time of the winter solstice (December 21), the shortest day of the year, in a nest floating on the sea, which it was able to charm into calmness so that its eggs could be safely hatched. A period of calm usually lasting about a fortnight before and after the winter solstice was therefore known as the halcyon days, though the expression has come to have a wider application.
Hair of the dog - (small) alcoholic drink taken as an antidote to a hangover
An allusion to an old belief that the (burnt) hair of a dog would act as an antidote to the bite of a mad dog if it was placed on the wound. This belief was in accordance with an older Roman one that 'like is cured by like'.
In Old English a hackney was an ordinary horse (i.e. not a thoroughbred) suitable for general use, especially for riding by ladies; the name may have come from Hackney in London, where horses used to be raised. Shortened to hack, the word is still in use for a horse of this kind. By the 16th century a hackney had also become a horse available for hire: this enabled the word to become a metaphor for a person hired to do low-grade work. this contemptuous sense is found, again abbreviated to hack, in such terms as hack-work (drudgery) and hack-writer as well as in hack in the sense of 'low-grade journalist'. The modern meanings of hackneyed can readily be traced back to the idea of a hired horse worn out by overwork.
Gung-ho - excessively enthusiastic or zealous
From the Chinese for 'work together'. During World War II the term was adopted as a motto by a US marine division whose colonel knew it from his period of attachment to the Chinese army as an observer. He may not have known that the words are short for an expression meaning Chinese Industrial Cooperatives Society.
The term became more generally known as the title of a later film about the marines. Thus gung-ho became associated with tough adventurism. In general use it now implies a dangerous insensitivity, especially when applied to political attitudes or military mood.
Great unwashed, the - the broad mass of people
First found in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford (1830), though this phrase is said to have been used earlier in speeches by Edward Burke at the time of the French Revolution and by Lord Brougham (1778-1868), a lawer and politician. As a contemptuous term for the lower orders it was perhaps originally restricted to the private audiences of the upper ones. It is now jocular.
From the sublime to the ridiculous
Adapted from Tom Paine's influential The Age of Reason (1793): 'The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again'. Napoleon may have helped to popularise this idea in its more succinct modern form: he is reported as saying, in the year of the retreat from Moscow (1812), 'From the sublime to the ridiculous there is only one step'.
Fork out or up - pay, contribute (money)
In slang, from the late 17th century, the 'forks' were the forefinger and middle finger and the verb 'to fork' was to pickpocket, especially by inserting the two 'forks' into a victim's pocket. In standard English a fork is, among other things, a bifurcation, v-shape or division into two branches, and it is easy to see why this came to be applied to the first two fingers of the hand. To fork out (now colloquial rather than slang) developed naturally from the basic idea of fingering money and bringing it out of a pocket.
Fool's paradise - state of illusory happiness
Medieval Christian (Roman Catholic) theologians considered the problem of the souls of the mentally deficient, who could not be held responsible for their actions during their lives. It was decided that after death they could not be punished in purgatory, yet they were not fitted for heaven, so they were destined for a special limbo or Paradise of Fools. The term has been metaphorical since the 15th century and has long since lost whatever theological sense it had.
Fifth column - traitors; people within a country, organisation, etc. who secretly work against it
Popularised by Ernest Hemingway's play The Fifth Column (1938), the expression was first used two years previously in a radio broadcast by the fascist General Mola during the Spanish Civil War. While besieging Madrid with an army of four columns of troops he claimed that he also had a 'fifth column' in the shape of the citizens of the city who were ready to rise up in his support.
Face the music - face the consequences of one's actions, especially punishment
In the mid-19th century this meant to meet a test without flinching; the modern sense emerged over half a century later. The origin is almost certainly military, either from forcing a cavalry horse to face the regimental band to accustom it to the noise, or from formally expelling a disgraced soldier to the beat of drums.
Cup that cheers - cup of tea
Now a cliché, originally an adaptation from William Cowper's The Task (1785): 'the cup/That cheers but not inebriate ... '
By hook or by crook - by any means possible; by fair means or foul
The modern meaning is different from the original one, which was that only two means were allowed - the hook or billhook, a chopper with a hooked end, used for pruning, and the shepherd's crook, a long staff with a bigger hook at the end for catching the back leg of a sheep. The reference is to medieval laws or rights which restricted the gathering of firewood to prevent depradations: one was allowd to cut off, with the hook, only those branches that could be pulled down with the crook.
Buggins' turn- appointment of person by rotation, or promotion as a result of mere legth of service, rather than on merit
The earliest recorded use of this expression is by Admiral Fisher, later First Sea Lord, in 1901. It is not known whether he invented it or was merely the first to write down and make public, in disparaging terms, an existing piece of private Civil Service joularity. Certainly the Buggins principle was deeply embedded, and perhaps still is, in the higher ranks of the Civil Service and the armed forces.
The surname Buggins was probably chosen because it was thought to be appropriately nondescript.
Beyond the pale - unacceptable, intolerable
A pale used to be an area within certain bounds, subject to a particular jurisdiction. Its name came from a now obsolete sense of pale - a wooden stake used in enclosing an area with a fence. There were English Pales in France in the 15th century (the territory of Calais) and in Ireland, around Dublin, from the Middle Ages until the 16th century. Those beyond the Pale were held to be beyond the limits of civilised jurisdiction. The modern expression, with a small p, retains this colouring.
Bee's knees, the - the height of perfection
A more intelligible piece of slang, 'no bigger than a bee's knee', is recorded from the late 18th century onwards. This might, or might not, have been transmogrified into the present expression by the bright young things of the 1920s, when not only language, but music, dancing, dress and social behaviour were frantically valued - in the wake of the First World War - for their breaking of convention. Bee's knees, like the equally improbable cat's pyjamas and its variant the cat's whiskers - all three mean the same - belongs to that period and has survived because of an engaging idiocy reinforced by rhyme.
Ballpark figure - realistic estimate
Ballpark is the American term for the playing area of a baseball match. The idea behind a ballpark figure is that of a ball being hit within the playing area where it can be seen, as distinct from being hit out of the ballpark - both out of sight and high-scoring.
Because of ignorance of baseball among the British, and their willingness to adopt Americanisms without understanding them, this expression is frequently used to mean no more than a very vague estimate.
At the end of one's tether - at the limit of one's endurance
A tether is a fixed rope or chain to which an animal is tied, enabling it to move or graze within a limited area but preventing it from straying. The earliest metaphorical use (16th century) has to do with living 'within one's tether', i.e. within one's resources. The sense of frustration at being restricted by a tether is a later development.
Albatross round one's neck - encumbering, inescapable liability
In Coleridge's the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) the mariner tells of an occasion when his ship became ice-bound and was visited by an albatross, greeted as a bird of good omen. The ship was freed from the ice but for some unknown reason the mariner shot the albatross. A curse fell on the ship, the dead albatross was hung round his neck as punishment and the rest of the crew died. While watching beautiful watersnakes around the ship the mariner found himself blessing them; the albatross fell from his neck, the ship was no longer becalmed and his life was saved. He must wander the earth telling his tale and teaching reverence for God's creation, 'All things both great and small'.
In the metaphorical expression to which this story has given rise the albatross is, strictly speaking, a symbol of personal guilt from which freedom has to be earned. In practice it is used of any oppressive influence that is difficult to escape from.
Discretion is the better part of valour - carefulness is the most important feature of courage
The proverb is most famously articulated by Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I: 'The better part of valour is discretion'. He was commenting on an old maxim that discretion is as great a virtue as valour but that discretion and valour combined are greater still. His cynical misinterpretation, effectively a justification of cowardice, is probably more popular - and certainly more often quoted - than the original maxim.
Damn with faint praise - express disapproval by praising inadequately
A quotation from Alexander Pope's critical portrait of Joseph Addison in lines 201-2 of Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot (1735):'Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, / And without sneering teach the rest to sneer.' A similar form of words had appeared earlier in one of the works of William Wycherley, who knew and was later edited (and plagiarised?) by Pope: 'And with faint praises one another damn.'
Dance attendance on - serve or attend obsequiously
There may be some connection with the old custom of requiring a bride to dance with everyone who attended her wedding, however tired she might be, but the more persuasive explanation is that dance her is a jocular or fanciful variant of kick one's heels, i.e. move the feet idly while enduring the tedium of waiting, like a servant standing by to be summoned.