THE ORIGIN OF COMMON EXPRESSIONS
A brief explanation is given of expressions that are in common usage in the English language. They appear in alphabetical order. If any reader can supply additional expressions please let me know and I will add them to the list.
Many of the more obvious expressions e.g. pipped at the post, ace up one's sleeve, at the helm have been omitted.
ABOVE BOARD. Means that a particular action or business dealing is fair or legal.
Probably originates from a card-player keeping his hands above the table or board and avoid suspicion of cheating.
ACHILLES HEEL. Means a small flaw or weakness in a person or thing.
Relates to the vulnerable spot of the Greek warrior Achilles.
ACID TEST. Relates to a decisive test of anything.
Nitric acid can dissolve base metals but not gold. Hence this acid was used to test the authenticity of gold.
ALL MY EYE. Expresses disbelief. A fuller version is:- All My Eye and Betty Martin.
Probably originated and distorted from a Latin prayer to Saint Martin which began:- Ah mihi, beate Martini.
ACROSS THE BOARD. Means to include the whole spectrum or everything.
Originated from horse-racing where a punter would place bets across the whole betting notice-board, covering all possibilities.
AS SURE AS EGGS IS EGGS. Means "without doubt"
Probably originated from the distortion of "X" the unknown in algebra to "eggs". A basic equation is always X=X
AT SIXES AND SEVENS. Means disorder and disagreement.
May have dated back to the 14th century when two old Livery Companies couldn't agree who was sixth and seventh in their order of precedence in ceremonial processions.
AUNT SALLY. Relates to a person who is the target of criticism or blame.
Originated from the fairground game where people would try to win a prize by throwing sticks at a wooden head known as Aunt Sally.
BACK TO SQUARE ONE. Means the need to start all over again.
One theory suggests the origin dates back to radio sport's broadcasts where the field was divided into eight squares and commentators would use the numbered squares to indicate where the ball was at a particular time.
Another suggestion is that it originated from the board game Snakes and Ladders.
BAKER'S DOZEN. A means to ensure that a customer is not given short-weight.
To ensure they were on the right side of the law, bakers would add an extra roll to an order for a dozen rolls just in case any of the rolls were slightly under weight.
BEAT ABOUT THE BUSH. Means to take too long a time to explain or deal with an awkward problem.
Poachers would tap a stick on the ground or in undergrowth to disturb birds they were hoping to catch. This being a preliminary action or a roundabout approach to the actual task in hand.
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA. Means having a choice between two equally unwelcome options.
Relates to a nautical option of either "walking the plank" or being prodded by a pirate holding a sharp spiked tool called a "devil"
BEYOND THE PALE. Relates to a person being coarse or rowdy.
Dates back to the 14th century when the "pale" was an area of civilization- hence beyond the pale was uncivilized.
BITE THE BULLET. Means to face up to the consequences.
Originated before the use of anaesthetics when in field surgery soldiers would be told to bite on a bullet to distract the pain.
BLAZE A TRAIL. Means to identify a route through dangerous or unfamiliar territory.
To " blaze" in this sense referred to people cutting notches on trees as they marked a trail through a forest.
BLUE BLOOD. A term to distinguish people from aristocratic descent.
Originated in Spain where having a pale complexion indicated pure breeding. As the bluish veins of the temple showed conspicuously through the pale skin it was considered a sign of nobility.
BURNING YOUR BRIDGES OR BOATS. Means to deliberately remove the opportunity to reverse a decision.
If advancing troops found the bridges they had just crossed had been burnt they would be more likely to fight harder for victory, knowing that would be the only way they could return home safely.
CATCH-22. Means having to make a choice about a situation but either option is self-defeating.
Originated from the novel "Catch 22" by the writer Joseph Heller where the only way to get out of flying on a bombing raid is to be declared insane but to apply for such an exemption is a clear sign of sanity.
CHALK AND CHEESE. Represents two completely opposites.
Thought to have originated in Wiltshire at the time of to English Civil War. The chalk downs people of the south supported the king whilst the northern people who bred cattle and made cheese supported the parliamentary party.
CHIP ON THE SHOULDER. Means inclined to be belligerent.
Of USA original where a person spoiling for a fight would place a chip of wood on their shoulder inviting another to knock it off. This would represent the onset of a fight.
CLIMB ON THE BANDWAGON. Means to follow the someone else's example.
Originated in the Southern states of America. Candidates for elections would parade through the streets led by a band of musicians performing on a horse-drawn wagon. Candidates would mount the wagon in an effort to woo voters.
CLINK, THE Not the name given to rattling chains but refers to a prison in an area of 13th century London,
The prison was renown for harsh punishments.
CLOUD-CUCKOO-LAND. Means a fantasy land where everything is perfect.
Taken from the imaginary city, floating in the air, in the play "The Birds" by Aristophanes.
COCK AND BULL STORY. Infers that a particular topic of conversation has been made up is totally untrue.
Relates to coach travel in the 17th century when travellers alighted at the Bull Inn in London and the Cock Inn in Birmingham. There would be an exchange of stories as passengers waited for their coaches.
CROSSING THE RUBICON. Means once an action has been taken it cannot be reversed. See also The " DIE IS CAST"
Relates to Julius Caesar when having crossed over the boundary Rubicon river he was committed to invading Italy.
CURATE'S EGG. Used by reviewers of films, plays, etc to denote mediocrity.
Dates back to a punch cartoon where a curate eating a bad egg tries not to be offensive by commenting that only part of it is bad when actually it is bad throughout.
CURRY FAVOUR. Means the desire to please someone.
Relates to a 14th century French poem about a mythical centaur called Favel. He offered rewards to anyone who would rub down his coat (to curry is to rub down with a currycomb) hence the term developed from curry favel.
CURTAINS FOR SOMEONE. Means that certain death or disaster is coming.
Relates to the closing curtain in a stage show.
CUT OFF WITHOUT A SHILLING. Means to be disinherited.
The "shilling" probably relates to the mistaken belief that it complete disinheritance is illegal. Therefore, a token of a shilling was given to ensure the disinheritance was legal.
CUTTING THE GORDIAN KNOT. Means solving a problem by taking prompt and bold unconventional action.
The Gordian knot was an intricate knot tied with rope made from a tree by King Gordius Phrygia in the 4th century BC. Whoever could undo the knot was destined to reign over Asia Minor. Alexander the Great took up the challenge by hacking through the knot with his sword
DEAD AS A DOORNAIL. Means complete lifelessness.
Before the time of modern doorbells a knocker would be banged against a "doornail" which was usually in the form of a human face- hence, having been bashed on the head so many times the doornail is definitely dead.
DEAD RINGER. In early Britain it was not uncommon for a person who was thought to be dead to be buried only for them to regain consciousness later and die of suffocation. To prevent this from happening people were buried with string attached to their wrist which was tied to a bell above ground. Those who couldn't believe the sight of a friend back from the dead would say they looked just like them or a dead ringer.
DEVIL TO PAY. Used to suggest trouble is on the way.
Contracted from "the devil to pay and no pitch hot". Suggests lack of preparation when sailors were to seal the gap between the planks of wood of a sailing ship. The "devil" was the gap.
The DIE IS CAST. Means the result cannot be reversed.
Taken from the idea of a die or dice being thrown. See also "CROSSING THE RUBICON".
DON'T LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH. Infers that you shouldn't criticise something given as a present.
Relates to the days when horses were traded like cars are today and their ages could be assessed by the condition of the teeth
DON'T SPOIL THE SHIP FOR A HA'P'ORTH OF TAR. Means one shouldn't risk a ending up with a poor product for the want of a small additional outlay or effort.
Not a nautical expression but a distortion of the word "sheep". If a sheep had a wound disinfected with tar, prevention of death or the saving of the condition of the sheep's fleece could be ensured.
DOUBLE CROSS. Means to betray or deceive a person.
Dates from around 1870 and comes from English horse-racing. A cross was a swindle where a person undertook to lose a race. The term double-cross then meant to set out to win after agreeing to lose.
DRAW A BLANK. Means the failure in the search to find something.
Relates to the days when winning lottery tickets had printing on them and losing tickets were blank.
DRESSED UP TO THE NINES. Infers that a person is smartly dressed.
Probably a mispronunciation of "eyes" when the expression was originally "dressed up to the eyes"
DRUNK AS A NEWT. A newt was a name given in the 17th and 18th century to boys who looked after gentleman's horses whilst they were out on the town. The gentleman would send "warm-up" drinks to the boys waiting outside who would often be found rolling around drunk when the horses were collected.
EAT HUMBLE PIE. Means to be suffering humility.
Originally humble pie had nothing to do with humility. The expression developed from "umble pie" which was a pie made from the offal of deer and eaten by lower status people such as servants.
FACE THE MUSIC. Means to accept ones punishment or criticism.
No definite explanation is known. Could be a performer on stage facing the orchestra in the pit or a military theory suggests an officer being cashiered would have to stand and listen to a drum beat whilst his offence was read out.
A FEATHER IN YOUR CAP. Said in honour of some notable achievement.
Originated from hunters who after killing a bird, for example, would pluck a feather from it and wear it in their hat.
FEET OF CLAY. Refers to a flaw in a person who is otherwise highly regarded.
The expression derives form the Bible when Daniel interprets King Nebuchadnezzar's dream. The dream saw a statue made of gold, silver, brass and iron but the feet were clay. Hence any kingdom descending from this king could easily crumble and fall.
FIFTH COLUMNIST. Relates to an enemy spy inside you own ranks.
Originated during the Spanish Civil War when Franco's nationalist forces tried to demoralise the loyalist defenders living in Madrid by saying that they faced not just four columns on the battlefield but a fifth column from within their own ranks.
FLASH IN THE PAN. Means a rare occurrence, something that cannot be repeated consistently.
Originated from the use of the flintlock gun when loose gunpowder was placed in the pan before being lit from the spark of a flint. All too often the powder failed to ignite.
FOLLOW SUIT. To copy someone else's action.
As could be expected, taken from following suit when playing a hand of cards.
FORLORN HOPE. Means a misguided expectation or a desperate action.
Taken from the Dutch "verloren hoop" where it originally meant a group of soldiers sent out with little expectation of surviving.
FORTH ESTATE. A journalism term which means to have a certain power in the land.
In France during the 18th century the three original estates were- "citizens with political rights", "the Church" and the "British Parliament".
FREELANCE, GOING Means to be self-employed.
In the Middle Ages a free-lancer was a lance soldier for hire. The knight would sell his services to the highest bidder.
GET DOWN TO BRASS TACKS. Means t o get to the main or real issue of a task.
Three different explanations exist. One refers to Cockney rhyming slang "hard facts". The second is nautical where sailors scrubbing the hull were only making progress when they had reached the brass tacks fixing reinforcing iron strips.
GET DOWN TO THE NITTY GRITTY. Means to discuss the essential matters.
Probably arose from the reference to the scratching with the nails of an unclean scalp infected with nits.
GIVE SOMEONE AN EVEN BREAK. Means to ensure that an advantage does not prevail in any sort of contest.
Originated from the sport of hare-coursing where the hounds had to be released at exactly the same time.
GIVE SOMEONE THE COLD SHOULDER. Means to give someone an unwelcome response.
Thought to have originated from giving an uninvited guest a dish of cold mutton instead of the hot roast he might have expected which was a hint that the person was unwelcome.
GO THROUGH FIRE AND WATER. Means to suffer much hardship in the pursuit of a desire.
Relates to punishment in the Middle Ages where accused people would have to walk blindfolded between red hot ploughshares or have their hands immersed in boiling water. If they were relatively uninjured they were considered innocent.
GOING FOR A SONG. Relates to the idea that something can be purchased very cheaply.
Probably has no more meaning than the fact that songs were once considered to be trivial and worthless.
GORDON BENNETT. Used as an exclamation of surprise.
Relates to James Gordon Bennett (1841-1918) editor-in-chief of New York Herald. He was renown for remarkable antics like setting fire to a bulky wad of banknotes in his pocket.
GRIST TO THE MILL. Suggests that something may turn out to be useful even though at first it does not seem so.
Relates to an old grain mill such as a watermill which treats and grinds anything presented to it regardless.
HANGING BY A THREAD. Means that there is an ever-present danger or threat that there will be a change for the worse.
Probably relates to the "Sword of Damocles". Damocles, whilst eating a banquet at the court of Dionysius had a sword suspended by a single thread of horsehair hanging over him, indicating that his position was precarious.
HIDING ONE'S LIGHT UNDER A BUSHEL. Means to be modest about one's talents or achievements.
Relates to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount requesting the open practice of faith. "Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on the candlestick".
HOBSON'S CHOICE. Means to have no choice at all.
Originated from Thomas Hobson a contemporary of Shakespeare who hired out horses. His policy was to use the horses in strict rotation, meaning customers were compelled to take the one nearest the stable door regardless of any other preference.
HOI POLLOI. Means the masses, the common people.
From the Greek meaning "the many", and should therefore not be preceded by "the" in an English sentence.
HOIST WITH ONE'S OWN PETARD. Means to be caught out by one's own scheming or cleverness.
The expression means literally " blown up by one's own bomb".
HOOK, LINE AND SINKER. Means to be gullible to the point of being easily deceived.
Relates to fishing where a person is likened to a fish that was so greedy and stupid it gobbled down not only the bait but the hook, some of the line and the lead weight,
IN FOR THE HIGH JUMP. Means to be in serious in the near future.
Could be either the reference to a child jumping with pain after it had been spanked or maybe the downward jump of a prisoner as he fell though the trapdoor of his gallows.
IN QUEER STREET. Means to be in financial trouble.
Two theories exist. The first suggests that a shopkeeper might write in his accounts book a question mark at the side of a person's name who was being "queried" for his ability to settle his bills. The second relates to Carey St in London WC2 where a Bankruptcy Court resided. Queer St then being a corruption of Carey St.
IN THE DOLDRUMS. Means to be feeling gloomy or down in the dumps.
The expression relates to area in equatorial seas where ships were often becalmed.
IN THE LIMELIGHT. Means to be the centre of attraction.
Relates to the theatre where an actor or performer would be securing the audience's attention when the spotlight was on him.
JERRY BUILT. Means to have been built to a very poor standard.
Could be a reference to the walls of Jericho which came tumbling down but is more likely to be likened to the houses of a 19th century building company called Jerry Bros. whose houses looked sturdy but were in fact slipshod and unreliable.
KEEP IT AT BAY. Means to remain safe from something.
The Romans notices that bay trees never seemed to get struck by lightning and hence were thought to have protective powers. The superstition still existed during the Great Plague of London when city dwellers wore bay leaves to keep the disease "at bay".
KEEP YOUR EAR TO THE GROUND. Means to be vigilant and aware of future events before they occur.
Derived from Indians or hunters who may have the ability to hear the amplified sounds of game or enemies by placing their ears to the ground.
KICK THE BUCKET. Phrase used to say someone is dead or has deceased. Term is derived from when suicides were common by a person preparing to hang themself, and used a bucket to stand on, and then kicked the bucket when suicide was desired.
LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG. Means to reveal a secret or trick.
In the old days at country fairs is was possible to buy a live piglet held in a bag, ready to carry home. Dishonest traders would often try to maximise profits by hiding a stray cat in the bag in the hope that the buyer would not notice.
LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED. Means to search in every possible place.
Dates back to the Persian wars in 479BC when the Greek army was searching for Persian treasure and were advised to turn every stone. The treasure was eventually found under a stone floor.
LEAVE SOMEONE IN THE LURCH. Means to have been left in a position of danger or in a poor condition.
Two theories exist. The first relates to the card game cribbage where a player is in the lurch if at the end of the game he is still in the first half of the peg-board. The second suggests the lurch was the hiding place used by poachers. Hence one poacher spotting the gamekeeper could slip away without telling his cronies and leave them in the lurch
LICK INTO SHAPE. Means to bring a person or thing into a better condition.
Dates back to an early belief that bear cubs were born as shapeless lumps of flesh and that the concealed actions of the mother bear licking them molded the bear cubs in to a recognisable shape.
LION'S SHARE. Implies the largest or best part of the whole.
Probably relates to one of Aesops's fables where a lion and other animals went hunting. Instead of sharing the spoils the lion ensured that he got everything because he was the strongest.
LOADED DICE. Means that someone has an unfair advantage.
As a means of cheating dice were often tampered with by adding lead to one side ensuring that certain numbers came up more frequently.
LOCK STOCK AND BARREL. Means the whole thing.
Taken from the three main components of a musket or rifle. The stock is the rear handle and the lock the firing mechanism.
MAD AS A HATTER. Means to be completely abnormal or unusual.
The origin is not certain. Could be earlier than the reference to the Mad Hatter's tea party in Alice in Wonderland. Another theory suggest it relates to hatmakers who used dangerous chemicals whilst making felt hats. The chemicals caused symptoms likened to insanity.
MAKE A ROD FOR YOUR OWN BACK. Means to deliberately cause yourself a problem.
A rod was a switch that was used to hand out corporal punishment, quite often upon one's back.
MAKE ENDS MEET. Means that you are in a position to pay all your bills.
Arose from the saying "to make the two ends of the year meet" which infers that you are able to manage your finances so that you do not find yourself in debt at the end of the year.
MIND YOUR P'S AND Q'S. Means to behave in a polite and respectful fashion.
There are at least three explanations for this saying. The first has a French dancing connection when teachers told their male pupils to mind their "pieds" (feet) and "queues" ( ponytails) so as not to annoy their female partner. The second suggests it dates back to the old alehouses where customers could chalk up credit on a slate, P for pints and Q for quarts. The third relates to teaching children the letters of the alphabet and the similarity between p and q.
NAIL YOUR COLOURS TO THE MAST. Means to show precisely whose side you are on.
A nautical expression which dates back to sea-battles. The "colours" were the ship's flags and were often nailed to the mast so that they couldn't easily be taken down and replaced by a "flag of surrender".
NAMBY-PAMBY. Suggests a person is spineless and lacking in spirit.
The term originated around the 1700's and involved two poets, Ambrose Philips and Henry Carey. Carey critcised Philip's work in a poem called "Namby Pamby" which suggested that the Philips style of writing was childish.
NINE DAY'S WONDER. Means that a person or thing may at first seem spectacular but the impression is short-lived.
The expression is thought to date back to religious festivals such as the novena (Latin for nine). This Roman Catholic festival lasted for nine days then life returned to normal.
NOT ROOM TO SWING A CAT. Means there is insufficient space to conduct an activity.
The "cat" refers to the cat-o'-nine-tails that was used to flog insubordinate sailors. The punishment usually took place on deck because there was not enough room to swing it below decks.
OFF YOUR OWN BAT. Means to take responsibility for something.
Refers to the game of cricket where sometimes two batsmen would play the game in such a way so as to ensure the stronger of them faced most of the bowling. Thus intending the runs to be scored off his own bat.
OLD CHESTNUT. Used to suggest that a joke or anecdote is very old and well known.
Relates to a play The Broken Sword written by William Dimond in 1816.One of the characters is always repeating the same boring stories and mentions, in one of them, a cork tree. Another character remarks that previously the tree mentioned was always a chestnut tree.
ON TENTERHOOKS. Means to be anxiously waiting for something to happen.
The term arose from the action of cloth manufacturers who, to prevent cloth from shrinking whilst still wet, would stretch it and secure it with hooks over a framework called a tenter.
ONE FELL SWOOP. Means to employ an action that will bring about the immediate end to a task.
Was first used by Shakespeare who used the words fell, an archaic word for cruel, and swoop, an obsolete word for a blow.
PAINT THE TOWN RED. Means to go out and have a good time.
Originated in America referring to the wild nights out enjoyed by cowboys. They would visit prostitutes who displayed red lights in their windows.
PAR FOR THE COURSE. Means that some achievement or result is just average or typical.
A golfing term where its use means an extremely good score. Taken from the Latin word par which means "equal".
PARTING SHOT. Means a final sneer or cutting remark at the end of an argument.
Refers to the battlefield tactics of ancient Parthians who would turn in the saddle while retreating and shoot a volley of arrows at their pursuers.
PASS THE BUCK. Means to be unwilling to accept the responsibility for an unpleasant outcome.
Thought to originate in the early days of the USA when a buckhorn knife was placed alongside a person who was the banker at a card-table. Sometimes, as an alternative a silver dollar was used as the buck and hence the dollar gained its nickname.
PAY THROUGH THE NOSE. Means to pay excessively for something.
When the Vikings invaded Britain they impose strict tax laws on citizens. Ant person refusing to pay would have their nose slit open or cut off.
PECKING ORDER. Means the different levels of power in an organisation or group.
Comes from the behaviour of chickens where the weaker, less aggressive submit to the pecking of stronger ones.
PETER OUT. Means to become exhausted or depleted.
Originated in the North American mining camps where peter was a contraction of saltpetre, a chemical used in explosives. As the precious vein of metal became exhausted there was no point in blasting any more.
PIG IN A POKE. Relates to something that has been purchased without seeing it first.
From the custom of selling live piglets in a sack or "poke". A dishonest trader may sneak a stray cat or dog in the bag.
PLAY FAST AND LOOSE. Means to cheat or act in an underhanded manner.
Relates to a 16th century fairground game called fast and loose. A bunched up belt or ring of rope was placed on a table and a knife pressed through the coils. Bets would then be placed to see if the rope was held fast by the knife or came loose when the rope was pulled away.
PULL SOMEONE'S LEG. Means to play a joke or deceive someone.
PULLING OUT ALL THE STOPS. Means to put all one's energy into fulfilling a task.
Relates to the great dexterity required to manipulate the many stops on an organ whilst playing it.
PUT A SOCK IN IT. This is a plea to be quiet.
Originates from the late 19th century and relates to early gramophones. They had no volume control so the only way of reducing the sound was to stuff a sock into the horn-shaped amplifier,
PUT YOUR FOOT DOWN. Means to assert your authority.
Originates from "standing your ground".
Probably dates back to early street-muggers who would trip a person up before going through his pockets.
RAINING CATS AND DOGS. Means the be raining very heavily.
The origin is unclear. Could have some connection with Odin, the God of storms in Norse mythology. Odin was often accompanied by a dog or wolf.
THE REAL McCOY. Infers that a particular thing is genuine.
Relates to the brand of whisky "Mackay". In the 1880's this whisky was considered to be so good it was shipped out to expatriates in Canada and America who craved a genuine taste of home.
RED HERRING. Means a false clue or a distraction in the search to achieve some goal.
In order to improve a dog's sense of smell whilst training it to follow the trail of a fox, a red herring would be drawn across the path. A well-trained dog would be able to ignore this powerful distraction and stick to the correct trail.
RED LETTER DAY. Refers to a memorable or important day in a person's life.
Taken from church calendars that had the days of religious festivals marked in red.
RESTING ON ONE'S LAURELS. Means to rely one one's past achievements instead of maintaining the required effort.
Laurels were originally wreaths given as a mark of respect and honour.
RIGMAROLE. Means a troublesome and time-consuming task.
Dates back to King Edward 1 when Scottish noblemen signed a deed of loyalty to the English king. Each noble man was required to fix his seal to the document and once all the seals were added the document was 40ft long. It was such a mess it became known as the Ragman Roll which became Rigmarole over time.
RING THE CHANGES. Does not mean to make changes but to repeat the same thing in a different way.
Relates to the ringing of bells in churches in the 17th century. A church with 4 bells can ring 24 different changes whereas a church with 12 bells 479,001,600 changes are possible.
ROUND ROBIN. This is a petition where the people signing it place theirs signatures in the form of a circle.
Originated in the 17th and 18th centuries when sailors wishing to rebel against their captain would produce a petition. Their signatures would be written in a circle so that the ringleader could not be identified.
RUN THE GAUNTLET. Means to have to follow a path of torment and punishment.
Nothing to do with gloves worn by knights of old. It is a distortion of the Swedish word gantlope meaning running lane where an unfortunate soldier had to dodge the sticks and ropes of his tormentors.
SENT TO COVENTRY. Means to be shunned and ignored by society.
Thought to have originated during the English Civil War. Coventry was a stronghold of Cromwell's supporters and captured royalist soldiers were sent there for imprisonment, effectively being withdrawn from circulation.
SHOW A LEG. Means to get out of bed or get down to a task in hand.
Originated in the navy in the 1800's when sailors were sometimes allowed to have wives or sweethearts living on board. Sailors were expected to rise early, but the women were permitted to lie in. To distinguish who was in a still-occupied bed the boatswain's mate would shout show a leg to ensure the occupant was not a worksheet sailor.
SHORT SHRIFT. To give a person short shrift means to have little time or sympathy for them.
A shrift was a confession to a priest. The lack of sympathy relates to the short time it took to absolve a convict of their sins before execution.
SOLD DOWN THE RIVER. Means to have been cheated, betrayed or deserted.
During the times of slavery in North America the slaves were treated much better in the northern States. Any slave sold down the river would be sent down the Mississippi river to the less tolerant southern States.
SON OF A GUN. Suggests someone is a troublemaker but originally meant a person born out of wedlock.
Arose in the 18th century if a woman on board ship gave birth to a child and the sailor-father was unclear. A makeshift maternity area would be screened off near the mid-ship cannon. The child, if a boy, was recorded as son of a gun.
SPICK AND SPAN. Means to be in a new condition or absolutely clean and tidy.
Originally alluded to a new sailing vessel, spic and span new. A spic was a spike or nail and a span was a plank of timber. Thus if every nail and piece of timber looked new the ship was referred to as spick and span.
STEAL SOMEONE'S THUNDER. Means to claim credit for something belonging or devised by another person.
A playwright named John Dennis wrote a play in 1709 and invented a machine to imitate thunder. The play was a flop but his machine was used by others in different subsequent plays.
STOOL PIGEON. Someone who informs to the authorities of another person's misdemeanours.
The term dates back to bird-hunters who, to fool other birds, would a tie a decoy pigeon to a stool with crumbs placed on it. Other birds would then join the decoy and a net would be thrown over them.
SWEET FANNY ADAMS. A term meaning "nothing at all".
Fanny Adams was a girl from Hampshire, murdered in1820 and chopped in pieces. At that time a new type of preserved food was introduced into Royal Navy ships and was disliked by sailors. There was a suggestion that part of Fanny Adams had finished up in one of the tins and the food then was regarded as low grade, negligible value and eventually nothing at all.
TAKE SOMEONE DOWN A PEG OR TWO. Means to humble or reduce a person's authority.
Related to the naval practice of honouring celebrities by raising the ship's colours. The flag was held in position by a system of pegs and to lower the flag a peg or two was to reduce the person's honour.
TALK TURKEY. Means to discuss important matters in a forthright way.
There are several theories suggesting the origin. The most likely relates to the early explorers in North America who with the Indians there considered the turkey to be the easiest game bird to catch and was a no-nonsense food. Or maybe the explanation related to the fact that turkey was the most important item on a Christmas dinner menu at the expense of all the other trimmings.
THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND. Means to be in a state of drunkenness.
Sheets to a sailor were the ropes binding a sail to the mast's crossbeams. If several of them were hanging loose the sail would flap about in the wind and be difficult to control. This was then likened to the actions of a drunken sailor.
TIT FOR TAT. Means to show retaliation.
The origin is disputed. Most likely to be taken from the Dutch dit voor dat meaning "so much for so much"
TURN THE TABLES. Means to switch from a disadvantage position to an advantageous one.
Derived from card games such as "backgammon". If the board or table, as it was called, was turned through 180 degrees the position would be switched and the loser would become the winner.
UNDER THE THUMB
Means to be under the control of another person.
Thought to have originated in early Rome when gladiators fought. If they fought courageously the crowd would signal their support with theirs thumbs and the gladiator's life would be spared.
UP TO SCRATCH. Means to be in a good enough condition or state.
The term is taken from early boxing matches where the scratch was a line in the middle of the ring. Contestants, after being knocked down, had to be able to walk unsupported to the line if they wanted to continue.
UP TO THE MARK. Is probably another way of saying "up to scratch" as above.
A different theory of its origin suggests that the mark was the hallmark stamped on gold, platinum and silver to identify its authenticity.
THE WALLS HAVE EARS. Means that your conversation is likely to be overheard.
Originated in the time of Catherine de Medicis who lived from 1519-1589. In order to thwart any plots against her certain rooms in the Louvre were constructed with a network of listening tunnels,
WHITE ELEPHANT. Refers to a object or project the value or usefulness of which is questionable.
The white elephants of Asia were regarded as very special and had to be given expensive protection and upkeep. Owning one was considered a great honour but could eventually be ruinous.
WILD GOOSE CHASE. Means to pursue a quest or ambition which is silly, worthless or imaginary.
Probably dates backs more than 400 years and the fact that chasing and catching a wild goose was extremely difficult and once caught turned out to be of little value because the meat was too tough to eat.
WIN HANDS DOWN. Means to win a race or other competition very easily.
Originated from horse-racing where if a jockey was winning a race easily he would tend to relax his grip on the reins, his hands being down, rather than raised as they would be in a close finish.
Return to previous page.