Origins & Meanings


Bare knuckle fighting, during the Regency Period in England used to happen even though it was against the law. A little like the illegal raves of today, news of an up coming fight spread by word of mouth. Sometimes as many as 20,000 people would turn up and bet heavily on the spectacle. On the floor of the ring, there was marked a chalk square. The fighters would both stand at the edge of the square at the beginning of each bout. If one of them was unable to 'square up', he was declared the loser.  


The name of a prison which was on Clink Street in the Southwark area of London. There is now a museum on the same spot, near the rebuilt Globe Theatre.


In medieval England there were nomadic mercenaries who wandered the country side and would sell their services to the highest bidder. These were hardened fighters who lived solitary lives in the wilderness. They did not have the luxury of servants to polish their armour and it would oxidize to a blackish hue, and they came to be known as black knights. At local town festivals they would have exhibition jousting matches in which the winner of the fight would win the loser's weapons and armour. The local gentry, softened by the good life, would lose to these black knights. The nomadic knights didn't have much use for an extra set of armour and would sell it back to them immediately after the fight. The losing nobility would be forced to buy back their armour and this after market came to be known as the "Black Market" (submitted by Gonzalo).

Ed. Isn't it kind of strange that if "black market" is a medieval term, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't show it as having been first used until 1931 in "The Economist." This is probably garbage. Fun maybe, but garbage.


After sailors had crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies, they would take the native women on board the ship and have their way with them in between the cannons. Some of the women the sailors left behind would have boys, who were called sons between the guns.


After the Patten shoe which the young women wore in the buttery. When the cream spilled on their shoes, the fat would tend to make the leather shiny.


Meat was roasted until cooked on an upright spit which had to be turned by hand.


Game birds were scared out of their hiding places under bushes and then killed.


Solicitors kept their clients papers in a file folder tied with red ribbon to prevent the papers from falling out. Of course, when they wanted to get at the papers, they would have to cut through the red tape.

Note from Glenn Barry: I read that "red tape" came from the Indian Administrative Service practice of tying files with tape, these were moved by "Peons" by hand from office to office. No senior person would move a file no matter how important because of the caste system. Thus the uneducated lower caste would slow down the movement of files, thus the files were tied up with red tape, having been to India in recent times and seen this still the case I can understand where it came from. One official I went to see had the file we were talking about on the bench behind him but rang his bell for the peon to come, which took some minutes, and then asked him to get the file! This took .2 of a second.

Ps & Qs

Ale was served at local taverns out of a "tankard" ... you were charged by the angle of your elbow ... half-way up... you drank a pint, all the way up... you drank a quart. Since the Quart cost so much more than the Pint, you were warned to "Mind your Ps & Qs"

Comment from Bill Kling: "Minding one's p's and q's" is a typesetter's admonition. When you handle individual character type slugs, you need to be careful of how you store and retrieve the p's and q's, because they look so much alike.

Sally says: It does stand for "Mind your Pints and Quarts," a saying that came into existence long before any typesetters could be concerned about mistaking Ps and Qs on a typewriter! The expression was intended for people to mind how many Pints and Quarts they drank, or in other words, to behave!

Jon wrote: I've always been taught that it's just a shorthand way of saying 'mind your pleases and thank yous' -- something you tell your kids when they go off to spend the night at a friend's house so that they will be polite. Maybe this is a colloquial definition, because the pints and quarts thing sounds more like a general 'take care' kind of warning.

Jim added: Some 20 years ago I was visiting Williamsburg, VA. Specifically I was in Raleigh's Tavern. The derivation of 'minding your P(int)s and Q(uart)s' was deemed to have come from the necessity of the 'barkeep' to keep accurate disbursement records of alcohol for the purpose of paying the tax on alcohol. Don't know if they are still telling that version.

William wrote: I'd heard this stood for Price and Quality, two things that are worth minding.

Joe wrote: The best explanation of "minding your P's & Q's" I've heard came from the fact that the barkeep would keep track of how much you drank on a chalk board. This admonished you to keep track of how much you had to drink so that the barkeep couldn't add a few pints to your tab and charge you for something you hadn't consumed. I was told to pay for each drink as I got them to avoid this problem while on a business trip to Spain in the 70's. Tourists were known to wind up in jail over bar tab squabbles.

Another obscure explanation: It came from the hobby of coin collecting. Old coins had to treated very carefully so as not to harm them. To clean a coin expertly was called "frazing". The coin had to be immersed in a liquid named "pease", then it was bathed in another liquid known as "kyuse". It was essential to get the order of these two baths correct Hence: "Be sure to mind your pease and kyuse" -- to fraze a coin.


When you drank too much out of the above "tankard" you were said to be "tanked" ... if you got so "tanked" that you passed out, there was a chance that somebody might think you had actually died. Since back then they didn't have experience with taking pulses, they often buried people alive who were actually in a drunken stupor or otherwise comatose.


A leather jug treated with tar pitch to help it hold its shape. Also known as a Blackjack.


A bombard is a leather jug which holds 8 pints or 4 quarts. A full bombard of ale would make you drunk.


Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used to blow the whistle to get some service.


Glasses were hand blown, thus flat bottomed glasses were difficult to produce. Those with curved bottoms would tend to tumble over when placed on the table, and too many tumblers of whiskey would make you a little bit tipsy.


When our ancestors realized that they were burying a great deal of people before their time had actually come, they came up with a solution. They tied a string onto the "dead" person's hand, buried them, and tied the other end of the string to a bell and then tied it to nearby tree branch. If the person revived enough to ring the bell, their survivors would rush out and dig them up. Hence... "saved by the bell"

From Pete Hustwayte: Your definition of "Saved by the bell" more closely applies to the term "Dead-Ringer". After several coffins were excavated and found to have scratches on the inside, morticians began the process of tying a string to the finger of the corpse. If that person was alive and they pulled the string, they were called a dead-ringer. This is also the origin of the term Graveyard Shift. The person from the mortuary who was assigned the task of sitting at the new grave sight to listen for the bell to ring was said to be working the Graveyard Shift.

Comment from Michael: "Are you kidding? Where did you get this? From Poe? The expression is from boxing, where a boxer being counted out is "saved by the bell" if the round ends before the count."

Paul wrote: Bells have a long tradition of being used to scare away evil spirits. It was said that ringing a church bell would cause witches flying on their brooms to fall from the sky. Perhaps the ringing of a bell to scare away evil is the source for this saying?

Craig wrote: Saved by the Bell did come from the graveyard bells. People were dying in great numbers from disease, so there was a rush to bury them before disease spread. However, some people did not die, but only fell into comas, and when a person revived in the middle of a funeral, people started to take notice that this may be the case. Special bell ringing devices were put above graves so the buried person, if they revived, could bring help to unearth them.

Another voice: This now refers to a boxing match, but that was definitely a use which evolved from the original meaning which you outlined above. People need to realize that these are the origins we're talking about, not the later developments of the phrases!


The raised door entrance held back the straw (called thresh) on the floor.

Bill says: Thresh (to beat grain) comes from the Old English and has the same root as thrash (to flail about). Tread is also from the AU with a similar root and has kept the meaning of step on or walk. Hence thrash out (in the sense of discussing), threshold (one word, one h, never two), thresh (separate grain by beating -- and on to the relatively recent construct thresher), threshing floor (the obvious), and treadmill (treadmill -- too obvious). Our threshold then carries the stepping connotation from tread, and while it may have been installed originally to keep out the grain, I think it more likely that it was an attempt to keep out wind and water...


A host would offer his guests a piece of bacon, which was stored above the fireplace in the parlour, so they could chew the fat during their visit.


Candles were expensive to make, so often reeds were dipped in tallow and burned instead. When visitors came, it was the custom for guests to make their exit by the time the lights went out. Therefore, if your host didn't want you to stay very long, he would give you a "short stick."

George wrote: In the days of outhouses, often there were outhouses with multiple "holes" so that more than one person could relieve him(her)self at a time. Before the time of toilet paper, Sears catalogs and corn cobs, a stick shaped like a shoe horn was used for "hygienic cleaning." It was rather a short spatula device with a longer handle. Well, if one person was done, he could request that the person using the adjoining hole pass the stick. Of course the person with the stick would pass it holding onto the other person by holding the long end of the stick. The recipient would therefore receive it holding the "short end of the stick."


If they REALLY didn't want you to stay very long, they would light "both ends" at the same time!

Bill comments: This had nothing to do with getting rid of guests. When a clerk worked at night, it was hard to see by candle-light. they did not have two candles, they would turn the candle on its side, and light both ends. This gave twice as much light, but burned out in half the time. The phrase, therefore, came to mean someone who worked very hard, but would wear themselves out (what today we call 'burn-out') very quickly.

Rob Flynn says: The phrase is actually 'burning the candle at both ends of the day' i.e. getting up early in the morning (and burning a candle) and going to bed late (and again burning a candle). Which is why we say that someone looking tired and haggard from overwork (or overplay) has been burning the candle at both ends...


A menial household task was holding a candle for someone while they completed some type of activity. Some people were not held in much esteem, therefore they were "not fit to hold a candle to."


A short rush, which would burn for a short time, would be used when company came over rather late; when it burnt out, you would want to see the hind end of your guests out the door.

Paul wrote: What utter twaddle! A bum is/was a bum-bailiff, and "getting the bum's rush" was being helped on your way by a couple of officers.

Tim wrote: Rushes, attached to a stick, were used as a broom. Women in a home or inn where a bum came in would chase, or sweep, the unwanted, out of the place with said broom. Thus, the bum's rush.


When a guests would over stay their welcome as house guests, the hosts would (instead of feeding them good, warm meals) give their too-long staying guests the worst part of the animal, not warmed, but the COLD SHOULDER.


Your dinner plate was a square piece of wood with a "bowl" carved out to hold your serving of the perpetual stew that was always cooking over the fire. The kettle was never actually emptied and cleaned out. New ingredients were simply added to the muck. You always took your "square" with you when you went travelling.

From BBC program about antiques: The British war ships of the time of Nelson and Trafalgar had square plates to fit the tables slung between the cannons below decks. So many sailors were from such poor and under nourished backgrounds they saw this as a "Square Meal" - meaning the only good one they had had.

From John we get this version: Food was cooked in the kitchen in a big kettle hanging over the fire, and things were added to the pot every day. People would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes it had food in it that had been in there for over a week. Hence the rhyme: "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."


Medieval physicians believed that the secretions of a frog could cure a cough if they were coated on the throat of the patient. The frog was placed in the mouth of the sufferer and remained there until the physician decided that the treatment was complete.


Visitors to the Anne Hathaway's cottage (near Stratford upon Avon) are given this explanation while looking at the bread oven beside the fireplace in the kitchen: "The bread was put, as a raw lump of dough, straight into the bread oven. No bread tin, it just sits on the floor of the oven. The oven is heated by the fire and is very hot at the bottom. When the bread is done baking and taken out to cool, the base of the loaf is overcooked black and also dirty. The top of the loaf is done just right, and still clean. The bottom of the loaf is for the servants to eat, while the upper crust is for the master of the house.


Servants ate "umble pie" which was made from deer waste while their Master and his guests had the better cuts of meat.


Tables only had one finished side. The other side, less expensive to make, was more rough. When the family was alone, they ate on the rough side to keep the good side nice for company. When company came, the whole top lifted off and was turned to its good side.


The square plate (above) was never washed either. After your daily dose of stew, you wiped your plate clean with a piece of bread. Then you flipped it over which provided a flat surface for your dessert portion (if there was any, that is)


An apprentice would journey to another village to learn more about his craft (journeyman). There he would pay someone for his room, and food for his board.

Julia says: More to the point, the term "board" comes from the eating table. Before power tools, it was a great and lengthy effort to make smooth-hewn tables; people would make do with as few pieces as possible. Usually a table was just one board, sometimes two, set on trestles, making a long narrow surface to eat from. Coming to dinner was called "coming to the board," a table cloth was referred to as "board clothes," and when hired help or an apprentice came to stay, they paid in cash or service for their room (where they slept) and their "board" (what they ate). Note: the American colonials hated making boards suitable for tables so much that they often used split apart shipping crates; there are still examples to be found which have the painted names of the master of the house and the shipping agent/company on the underside.


An old English law declared that a man could not beat his wife with a stick any larger than the diameter of his thumb.

Comment from Lance: When brewing beer, the temperature at which the yeast is added is important. Too cold and the yeast won't work, too hot and it'll die. Before the days of thermometers, a brewer would determine temperature by simply sticking his thumb into the mixture.

Another possibility: As an artist, I always thought that this saying applied to the act of using one's thumb as a judge of scale. You literally use your thumb to act as a ruler to determine the scale of an object in your painting.

Peter wrote: the French word for an inch (puce) is the same as for a thumb. I wonder if the thumb was used as a rough reckoner for inches? Just a thought.

Anthony wrote: this has nothing to do with painting, nor is it anything to do with wife beating, which is just plain old down home American stupidity. It was used by bakers in judging flour, the flour being rubbed between thumb and fingers.


This apparently refers to an old English (Welsh?) belief that keeping a goat in the barn would have a calming effect on the cows, hence producing more milk. When one wanted to antagonize/terrorize one's enemy, you would abscond with their goat rendering their milk cows less- to non-productive.

Comment from Angel: This explains the expression in modern America: "Don't tell people where your goat is tied up --- then they can never get your goat". Meaning if another doesn't know your weakness s/he can't use them against you.


The noble ladies and gentlemen of the late 1700s wore much makeup to impress each other. Since they rarely bathed, the makeup would get thicker and thicker. If they sat too close to the heat of the fireplace, the makeup would start to melt. If that happened, a servant would move the screen in front of the fireplace to block the heat, so they wouldn't "lose face."


This came from the days when smallpox was a regular disfigurement. Fine ladies would fill in the pocks with beeswax. However when the weather was very warm the wax might melt. But it was not the thing to do for one lady to tell another that her makeup needed attention. Hence the sharp rebuke to "mind your own beeswax!"


Slate floors were often cold enough during the winter months that any bare skin coming in contact with them would "stick". The slate floors were covered with a layer of hay to provide some warmth. The kitchen was the only room kept heated during the winter. All of the family spent the day cooped up in this one room (often 10 kids or more)... also the family cats and dogs who served important functions of "mousing," "garbage disposal," and etc.

with holes in the seat (a.k.a. "drainage chair")

During the winter months, young babies were strapped into their chairs and were never allowed to crawl around in the hay on the stone-cold floor. They didn't wear any diapers of any sort. They sat in that chair all day... and you know why there were holes in their chair!


The layer of hay in the kitchen, was finally hauled out of the house when the weather turned warm in the Spring.


The discarded "bones" from winter meals were piled outside and a bonefire would be set to get rid of them.

Comment from Jeff Parsons: The term Bonfire originated in Scandinavia (Denmark specifically) and was the celebration after a battle victory. The bodies of the dead were piled and burned. The fire provided warmth and light for the aftermath party. The term was later (about 600 years) used for any large celebratory fire.

From Randy: The word Bon Fire is taken from Tudor History. In 1555, Edmund Bonner was the Bishop of London. Acting on his orders, over 300 English men and women were burnt at the stake for their faith. Because of Bonner's actions we now call them Bon's fires.


The bed frames were strung with ropes on which straw mattresses were placed. After some time the ropes would loosen and one of the young men would pull them tight.

From Bob Vila's tour of famous American homes: In Colonial America (and, presumably in Europe as well) the beds were not of the box spring variety that we enjoy today. The mattress laid on top of a web of ropes. There was a tool - an iron type of gadget that looked somewhat like an old clothes pin but larger - which was used to tighten the ropes when they became too slack. Thus, the expression "sleep tight."


An old superstition said that it was bad luck to put the left foot down when getting out of bed.


Tying the knot of the ropes in the marriage bed.

James in Japan writes: ... the priest performing the wedding would bind the bride and grooms hands with rope during the ceremony. In modern day, you will often see the priest place a sash around their hands rather than rope, and it is from this that the saying comes. Although the practice is not as common as it was, depending on your denomination it is still done.

Karen: This is also from the old marriage custom of actually tying the couple's hands together as part of the ceremony. They were not allowed to untie it until they had consummated the marriage.

Claudie wrote: A Swedish exchange student told me that illiterate sailors and soldiers of yesteryear would send a piece of rope to their sweethearts when they wanted to get married. If the rope came back with a knot in it, that meant she said "yes" to the marriage proposal. He demonstrated this by tying two ornate knots in a length of rope. When the ends were pulled, the knots came together in the middle. Even if this isn't the origin of the expression, it was a charming demonstration.

Mike wrote: Having recently attended a Hindu wedding it would seem that the phrase is a quite literal one where the bride and groom each tie a necklace of flowers to consummate the marriage.


It was the accepted practice in Babylonia 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer, and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the "honey month" or what we know today as the "honeymoon".


Most English homes of old had "thatched" roofs. Canopies were placed over the beds to keep bugs, mice, dirt, rain, etc. from disturbing your sleep! Of course, I think I would want to stay awake because I'd be so afraid of having to be "saved by the bell"!


Kenyon wrote that he was told that the term "Black Mail" came from the armour used in Medieval times. The armour which was worn was called maol and it became black (as described in black market). When the two knights were duelling and one attained the upper hand, he would give the other an alternative of life or death as the sword was pointed at his face. This was known as black mailing someone.

Andy in Scotland wrote: Centuries ago, Maol was the silver which was paid in rent in Scotland. Sheep and cattle stealers would steal the cattle and then try to legitimise the theft by threatening to keep the animals unless the owner paid them rent for the grazing the animals had while they were stolen. This became known as Black Maol or Blackmail. We Scots invented Blackmail, something to be proud of ??

Bought the farm

From Mark Palos: To my knowledge, in the U.S. "to buy the farm" is to die. I have heard this originated do to a cynical way of looking at the life span's and earnings of the lower/ immigrant classes of the industrial revolution. City people wishing to buy a farm to retire to in their "golden years" would usually die before actually reaching this goal. Therefore, their burial plot was the only lot of land they would own. Hence, they finally "bought the farm."

From James O'Donnell: This comes from the early barn-storming days of American Aviation. It refers to a pilot who crashed and burned. Thus he retired suddenly from aviation and, so to speak, bought the farm.

From Tyler Klan: I believe that "bought the farm" has to do with the amount of time to pay off a farm mortgage. It takes so long to buy a farm, that rarely does one achieve the task in a lifetime. Since it is nearly impossible to buy a farm in a normal life span, the last payment will come due after the poor farmer has died.

Frank comments: I had heard that this relates to the barnstorming days of American Aviation. It was not uncommon for pilots to make forced/crash landings in farmer's fields. In so doing, they often ruined whatever was growing in that field. Farmers would charge pilots for the damage caused. Later the phrase came to suggest that the pilot didn't survive the crash.

Definitions from Steve Sabram: 1) Until recently, US military veterans while in service, had their mortgages of their land promised to be paid by the US Govt. if they were killed in action. Thus if you were killed (most notably aircraft pilots) the mortgage of your land was paid in full and hence you "bought the farm". 2) A Biblical reference referring to Heaven as a "farm of the soul" -- I can't quote the exact passage but I believe it is Old Testament. -- and if you were killed, especially in service the Lord, you had you place in Heaven and thus "bought the farm".

Break a leg; knock on wood

P.J. says: From my older relatives, I learned that to either wish somebody extravagant success or to praise them extravagantly would attract the attention of the "evil eye", which would lead to bad luck or disaster for them. Hence, any compliment was generally followed with the Yiddish word, "kinneh-hurreh" (phonetic spelling), to ward off the "evil eye". (Isn't it amazing how many pagan customs persist in cultures following non-pagan religions?) I suspect that "break a leg" follows from the same sort of reasoning.

Philip wrote: Many belief systems encompass mischievous spirits. If such spirits heard one wish another good luck, they would surely act to produce the opposite result. Similarly, if one speaks of their good fortune such spirits would promptly seek to work a reversal. One belief system including such spirits is druidism, which postulated that such creatures inhabited the trees. Hence the custom of "knocking on wood" to drive away such gremlins when speaking of one's own good fortune.

Jeff wrote: The reason it is bad luck to wish good luck in the theatre is Zymurgiski's Non-reciprocal Law of Expectations, to wit: "negative expectations produce negative results; positive expectations produce negative results." From the German "Hals und Bein brecken," literally, "break your legs and neck," an ironic good-luck wish to bob sledders, luge runners, and more recently, skiers. Probably worked its way into Americanisms through the early 20th Century New York theatre, with its strong Yiddish and German roots, and with typical American efficiency and disdain for redundancy, shortened to the classic good luck wish to young hoofers, "Break a leg!"

Gary contributed: Break a leg has nothing to do with bad luck. Actors are for the most part witty, intelligent, and well read type people and break a leg was a pun for "I hope you get in a cast."

Another comment: I've heard that people knocked on wood because they believed the devil dwelled within wood. They were trying to deafen him so he could not spoil the positive thing they had just spoke of.

Michael wrote: I believe that 'break a leg' comes from a tradition in theatre. It was considered bad luck to wish a person good luck in their performance, so if you wished to show your support, you wished them ill. Breaking a leg during a performance would be very bad indeed, so 'break a leg' became an expression of good luck. As to why it is bad luck to wish good luck, I have no idea. I never 'cottoned to' those theatre types.

British Bobbies

P.J. says: The police force in London was established by Sir Robert Peel. For a time policemen were called 'Peelers' or 'Bobbies men'....hence Bobbies.

Cheap at half the price

"Cheap at half the price" is a way of pointing out a very low price. It's cheap, but even cheaper at half the price, therefore it's incredibly cheap. Along the same lines is "not half bad" meaning pretty good.

Dave adds: Tongue in cheek meaning "It's too expensive at the asking price." The seller is probably thinking it's cheap at twice the asking price.

Michael asks: Isn't the expression the less puzzling "cheap at twice the price"?

Clear as a bell

Close, but no cigar

Cigars were given as prizes at carnivals. The rest is self explanatory.

Cloud nine

Another comment: Cloud nine is an easy one. It is of relatively recent origin. The US weather bureau listed the different cloud formations and assigned them numbers. Cumulous clouds are #9.

...description by Milton(?) of nine different levels of heaven where the most pleasant would be at the top say, cloud nine.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

Alan: This saying also has roots in fact in India. The "Monkey" or brass plate to hold cannon balls was used in some on the barracks that were in colder parts of the continent, When the temperature dropped, the contracting metals would cause the pile to fall.

Definition from Lawson Tremellen: On war ships the cannon balls were of iron and the plate they were stacked on beside the cannon was made of brass, the plate was known as a monkey. In extreme cold the two metals would contract differently and the iron balls would fall off the monkey.

Cut the mustard

The devil to pay; between the devil and the deep blue sea

Kevin wrote: In the large wooden sailing ships of yore, large beams running down both sides of a ship, supporting the thwarts on which the main deck was laid, were called "the Devil(s)." "Paying" is the task of caulking and pitching seams. Since the devil was outside the guardrails, it was dangerous work because it was unlikely that one would be rescued if one fell overboard (too long to turn the ship around and they were mostly pressed men, anyway!). The task of "Paying the Devil" was assigned to Men Under Punishment; hence, the expression, "I've got the Devil to Pay." If one were really in trouble, one was assigned the task of paying the seam between the devil and the ship's side. This was particularly difficult since one was slung in a boson's chair, caulking with oakum (rotten lengths of fibre rope) which rained hemp fibre into one's eyes, then pitching against gravity with hot pitch which splattered all over one's body, burning exposed skin--all the while having to contend with the rolling of the ship. If you were given this task, during its execution you were, "Between the devil and the deep blue sea" - stuck between two most unpleasant options.

Dead as a door nail

Phil explains it: Nails were once hand-tooled and costly. When someone tore down an aging cabin or barn he would salvage the nails so he could re-use them in later construction. When building a door, however, carpenters often drove the nail through then bent it over on the other end so it couldn't work its way out. When it came time to salvage, these bent "door nails" were considered useless or "dead."

Don't take any wooden nickels

Fair and square

Mark the Master Mason wrote: The square is the symbol of the Master (the presiding officer) of a Masonic lodge, and one of the two Masonic working tools used in the square and compass logo that most people immediately recognize as the symbol of Freemasonry worldwide.

Flaming Faggot

Jeremy wrote: I believe the use of the word "faggot" in reference to homosexuals is a bit more gruesome than the one given above. "Faggots" are kindling, and homosexuals themselves, burned at the stake, were considered the kindling, tossed as so many branches onto a fire. In reference to witches, I have also heard the explanation that homosexuals were burned with suspected witches; the homosexuals were the kindling for the witches.

Howard asks: Is this because homosexuals were burnt to death in the Middle Ages and the flaming sticks (faggots) were what ignited them? And if so, since heretics and witches were also burnt at the stake, why didn't they get the name as well?

A flash in the pan (he/she is nothing but...)

Linda in Seattle: I'd always thought this phrase related to gold panning: a prospector, thinking he'd seen gold dust in the pan, looking more closely discovered it was just a "flash" (of light), not gold. The phrase came to be used to describe something that seemed at first very exciting, but turned out disappointing.

Joy Foy wrote: A musket has a flint attached to the hammer and a small steel pan attached to the side of the barrel just below it. There is a small hole in the barrel, right by the pan, going directly to the main charge of powder in the gun. When loading, one pours powder down the barrel for the main charge, and then puts a small bit in the pan below the flint. When the trigger is pulled, the flint slams down, ignites the powder in the pan, the fire moves through the hole into the barrel, ignites the main charge and the gun goes off. But sometimes there is a misfire: the flint ignites the powder in the pan, but the gun does not go off. All that happens is that there is a "flash' in the pan.

Frick & Frack

Edmond wrote: Quite a number of years ago, don't remember how many, there was a well known ice skating show. I believe the name was the Ice Capades. Two featured skaters by the name of Frick & Frack defied gravity by skating bent over at the knees with their backs horizontal to the ice.

Getting nailed

Phil writes: The saying "I got nailed" or "Be careful, you might get nailed" refer to Jesus when he was "nailed to the cross." A very painful experience.

Andy in Scotland wrote: A few centuries ago in Britain, 'justice' was meted out mostly by hanging or flogging. However there were some crimes for which you could be 'nailed' for. For these crimes you would be taken to the hangman's gibbet and nailed through the earlobe(s) until night. You had two options: you could either stand all day, nailed to the scaffold or else tear your ear from the nail (yuk!). Women could also be nailed through the tongue for spreading malicious gossip.

A few centuries ago in Britain, 'justice' was meted out mostly by hanging or flogging. However there were some crimes for which you could be "nailed" for. For these crimes you would be taken to the hangman's gibbet and nailed through the earlobe(s) until night. You had two options: you could either stand all day, nailed to the scaffold or else tear your ear from the nail. Women could also be nailed through the tongue for spreading malicious gossip.

Getting off Scott free

Another variation: A scot is a payment or a charge, also an assessment or tax. To get off "scot free" means you get off without paying anything; no assessment, fine or tax. Check "scot" in any good dictionary.

Dr. Shelia M. Kennison wrote: I was under the impression that the phrase "getting off Scott free" originated with the "Dredd Scott vs. Illinois" court case in the mid 1800s. Dredd Scott was a slave of a Missouri man who moved to Illinois, a free state at the time. Dredd Scott sued for his freedom. However, the court ruled against him. So there's a bit of irony in the meaning of the phrase, as Dredd Scott didn't become free.

Another comment: Refers to exemption from taxes (Scots) - probably medieval and originally referring to taxes to fund English wars against the Scots.

Steve asks: My family are all Scots and this is a question I have wondered about for years! I assume it has something to do with the "frugalness" (aw heck cheapskate!) characterization of Scottish folks.

Going to hell in a hand basket


As in "He got gyped!" Laura asks if this could be in reference to thieving gypsies?

Jena wrote: It was actually a derogatory term used to refer to the Roma people (commonly known as Gypsies) who were known as unusually adept thieves. So when one is 'gyped', one has become a victim of thievery. I also heard that the reason the Roma, who some speculate originated in the lower part of Eastern Europe, were given the slur of 'gypsy' in the early middle ages because they bore some social resemblance to Egyptians in the eyes of the western Europeans, who were not too fond of the North Africans at the time.

Half Assed

We've all heard the phrase that something was done "half-ass," but few people stop to wonder what such a ridiculous expression could possibly mean. The term "half-ass" evolved from "half-adz." An adz is an axe like tool with a curved blade used for shaping wood. If you were wealthy and paid top-dollar for a new fireplace, the mantle would be shaped using an adz in the front as well as the back side, which isn't visible. However, if you weren't wealthy and wanted to save money, you could have only the front visible portion of the mantle shaped, this cheaper job being a "half-adz" job.

Ham it up

From Alan: The theatre lights used (see above) gave a green colour. Poor actors could not afford real makeup, so they made their own. It was made of lard (usually rendered bacon or ham fat) mixed with red brick dust. The smeared this on their faces!!!!

Hand over fist

As in: "He was making money hand over fist."

Heavens to Murgatroyd

Ron wrote: From my childhood I can remember a Saturday morning cartoon with a character, a humanized lion, by the name "Snagglepuss." Whenever he found himself in a peculiar predicament, he would utter the phrase as a mild expletive.

Hell bent

Tina asks: Is it "hell bent for leather" or is it "hell bent for election"? Quite a controversy is brewing and I was wondering if you could clarify.

Here's mud in your eye

Hip hip hurrah

Sir Sidney Weinstein, Kt.M., O.S.J., Ph.D. wrote: I just received the following definition from a scholar in Israel. HEP stands for the Latin "Hierusalyma (sp) est perdita." [Jerusalem is destroyed.] Perhaps the ubiquitous use at high schools and other sports events of this "cheer" or request for a cheer should now be discouraged, as a blatant example of anti-semitism. I encountered it when someone called to my attention a quotation in a old book entitled, "Children's History of Israel," by Sulamith Ish-Kishor. The title page lists the publisher as "New York: The Jordan Publishing Co." However, on the page facing the first chapter, I note "Copyright 1933, by Hebrew Publishing Co."; Page 299 discusses Theodor Herzl's fear of anti-semitism. "Even this noble-looking, well-dressed, tall and imposing Jew 'had to tremble all the time in case someone should shout Hep! Hep! after me.' (Hep-hep is the cry which the mobs of the Middle Ages used to call after the Jews. It is formed by the initials of the Latin words which mean 'Jerusalem is destroyed.')"; The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd ed.) lists one definition of "hep" as "hip" (older slang). "Hip" (for this application) is defined as a "cheer or signaling for cheers: Hip, hip, hurrah! [11745-55; orig. uncert.]" My question concerns the validity of the Ish-Kishor statement that 'Hep" is formed from the Latin, "Jerusalem is destroyed." If any Latin scholars can shed any light on this I would be grateful.

Holy Moly

from we find that according to the ancient Greek poet Homer, the magical properties of Allium moly allowed Ulysses to enter unharmed the lair of the sorceress Circe. Southern European folklore regards the plant as good luck and a protection against demons. Allium moly is an ornamental allium, or flowering onion. It is a close relative of the famous edible alliums: Allium sativum (garlic) and Allium cepa (the common cooking onion).

Garlic reportedly gave strength to the pyramid builders and courage to the Roman legions. Medicinally, it has served as a popular remedy for colds, sore throats and coughs; physicians and herbalists prescribed garlic as a diuretic and for intestinal disorders and rheumatism; and people ate garlic daily as protection against plagues, disease and, of course, creatures of darkness. Early American colonists relied on the plant to treat a variety of medical problems, while later settlers strapped garlic cloves to the feet of smallpox victims hoping to cure them.

Onions also have been used medicinally for centuries. In the Middle Ages the onion was used as a charm against evil spirits, the plague and infection. The onion was a favorite spring food of American Indians, providing a frontiersman with a good nose a telltale means of locating an Indian encampment.


British sailors got in the habit of referring to a particular prostitute as a "hooker", indicating that although she had been around a while, she was still serviceable. There is NO truth to the rumor that the term came from the American Civil war. General Hooker's Hookers (camp followers) were called such because of the convenient similarity of the names, they did not get the name from him.

Marc wrote: Originally a tubby little fishing boat favored by the Dutch in the 18th century. Because they had long lifespans and were no-nonsense working boats they tended to look a bit shabby and "well-used".

I have(n't) got an axe to grind

Morgan wrote: There once was a woodcutter in Old England who tended to get angry very easily when someone offended him. It was rumored that he was also responsible for a series of axe murders that had been occurring, because he tended to confront those that he was angry with, ending the conversation by saying, "Well, heck, why should I stand around here and talk to such a fool when I've got an AXE TO GRIND." Figure it out.

In the lime light

Jeremy wrote: Why would "Limelight" be green? Does Calcium Oxide ("lime") burn green in a flame? Because that is what is meant when it is said that limelight is the incandescence of lime. CaO was burned to create a beam of light, like a spot light, to shine on actors.

From Alan: In the 1800s/early 1900 the spot lights used in theatres were created by burning lime in an oil or gas flame. The colour of this light (of course) was a little green. People who were getting a lot of attention were said to be in the Lime Light.

In like Flin/Flint

As an added bonus, it is said that the irreverent and self-indulgent Flynn had the letters I.G.M.F.U. displayed on the side of his yacht. When asked what they stood for, he replied: "I got mine, F--- you!"

The Crawfords wrote: The phrase is actually "In Like Flynn" and was coined back when actor Errol (sp?) Flynn (of Robin Hood fame) was accused of molesting a young woman. He got off "scott free" and many Americans believed it was only because he was famous (a la O.J.) - the phrase "In Like Flynn" was coined on the street to mean someone who got away with something, or was on the "inside."

Robert writes: The original expression, "In Like Flynn," dates from the 1930's, and refers to the legendary sexual prowess of Eroll Flynn. Thus, if you were sure to get laid, you too were going to be "in like flynn." "In Like Flint" is the title of one of the James Bond parody movies starring James Coburn (there were three, as I recall), and is an obvious play on the original expression. Derek Flint was also irresistible to the ladies. The movies are hilarious, by the way, featuring such great gags as hairdryers that brainwash their occupants, and eagles trained by the bad guys to detect and attack Americans ("An anti-American eagle!")

Flint Weiss wrote: "In like Flynn" (not flin) references the late, great Errol Flynn. He seems to have had much sexual prowess (or energy at least) in that he would take very many lovers a day. Potential lovers are said to have lined up outside his door. Thus if you were "In like Flynn", you were "all set"/would have no trouble. The phrase "In like Flint" was "popularized" by a James Coburn movie in the sixties (In Like Flint and the sequel, Our Man Flint). These movies were low budget spy movie spoofs. The "Flint" character had an amazing way with women allowing for an easy pun on the aforementioned "In like Flynn". I am sure somebody will come up with some reference to the book by Louis Lamour ("Flint") , but I have never heard the above phrases compared with that book -- always Flynn & Coburn.

Eroll Flynn had a wide reputation as a ladies' man. Therefore, the expression "In like Flynn" should not require much further explanation.

In the offing

From Gary: Comes from the days of the tall ships. The offing was the sea just off shore. Wives, girlfriends, and other interested parties would scan the offing for ships coming in. When a ship was sighted "in the offing" it was of course almost here.

Jumping Jehoshaphat

Jehosaphat was a wealthy king of Jerusalem. One day an army from the east march on Jerusalem to take his gold. Jehosaphat told the people not to worry that the battle would be his and Judas's on the following day. The people let out a joyous cry "Great Jumping Jehosaphat" . I am not sure exactly the meaning of the saying other than total joy at not having to go to war!!!

Jumping the gun

Comment from Philip Page: In military use, used by the Royal Artillery from years ago to describe poor timing by the infantry and later armour with regard to advancement or attack into area with preparatory artillery barrages. With the earlier smoothbore cannons, infantry was commonly slightly behind batteries, to advance as the enemy closed to prevent loss of guns. Some ill-disciplined troops would literally jump the guns to have a bash at the enemy.

Definitions from Steve Sabram: 1) Refers to track and field events where everyone is to run after a starter's gun is fired. If you started to run before it was fired, you "jumped the gun". 2) Referring to the Oklahoma Land Grab of the 1800's. All of the settlers literally were at the territory border 'til a cannon was fired allowing them to move into the territory to make a claim. If you ran before the cannon was fired, you were shot by US Troops. Thus "jumped the gun".

Kangaroo court

DanB writes: I believe the origin is the common-man court established in Australia, which was principally inhabited by criminals released from England, typified by trumped up charges and swift justice.

Keep a stiff upper lip

Andy in Scotland wrote: Before the Napoleonic wars there was a bizarre fashion among officers to have tarred moustaches. Their moustaches would be smeared with hot pitch and then moulded into shape before it solidified. And so these brave officers would keep a stiff upper lip.

Definition from Steve Sabram: European nobility term to dictate how to behave in court so as to not show favouritism nor your feelings toward an issue brought up.

From Barb Petty quoting from "phrase and origins a study of familiar expressions" (sic - no caps) by Alfred H. Holt (1936, reprinted by Dover Pubs. Inc. 1961), p. 150: New England origin (about 1830). It means, "Don't let your lip quiver, as if about to cry," i.e., "Don't be a baby." The story is told of a singer who, making her debut on the radio, was advised by a friend experienced in radio technique to "keep a stiff upper lip." Unfortunately the novice was so flustered that she took the advice literally, and the result was that her first audition was a failure.

Keep your shirt on!

Kevin wrote: In the Royal Navy, "kit" is equipment, including uniforms, that is provided by the service. I believe that "kaboodle" was a slang phrase for personal items kept by the sailor (necessarily small in size and quantity because of little or no storage space/privacy). If one was transferred out, one was required to take all "kit and kaboodle."

Shirts in the earlier days were rather expensive, so when a bloke was thinking of fighting someone he would take of his shirt. So if you had a grievance with a person and he began to take off his shirt (in other words, I don't want to fight with you.)

Life of Riley

Who was he? What did he do? What does this mean?

Lock, stock & barrel

Sheldon: An entire musket! The lock was the firing mechanism; the stock, the wooden part that rests against the shoulder, and the barrel you already know.

May day!

Gabriel wrote: While it is a possibility that this expression comes from the French "M'aidez", it seems unlikely given that "aidez-moi" (help me) would be closer to the meaning of "mayday". "m'aidez" is not a command, rather it is the verb "help" and the object "me" with no subject. It would be "[you] help me", however, in French unlike English it is not customary to leave out subjects. In addition, an English speaker saying "help me" would clearly be using the command form, even though it is identical to the 1st person form. Also, it is more likely that a Frenchman would say something like "au secours" rather than a direct translation of the English expression "help me."

The international distress signal, used by ships and aircraft, comes from the French word "m'aidez".

Money for old rope

This saying originates from the days of public hangings. It was a perquisite of the hangman to keep the rope used to hang his 'customer'. The rope, however, was popular with the macabre crowds, so the hangman used to cut the rope up and sell it.

More than you can shake a stick at

Definition from Steve Sabram: 1) a military phrase of guerrilla warfare where you do not have much in weapons and you fight with what you get from the land (i.e. sticks). If you have so many people to fight or animals to hunt, you cannot count let alone chase them all. 2) Another I heard of is it is an old shepherding term where you have so many animals to herd, you cannot shake you stick at every individual animal to herd them.

David Windmueller: I remember reading in a book that it came from the revolutionary war. There was some scene where Washington was waving a wooden ceremonial sword over the British forces that he had just been victorious over.

Nitty Gritty (get down to the...)

No quarter was asked, no quarter was given

Jeremy wrote: this does not refer to horse-racing in any way. Quarter is an old word for mercy (according to the Webster dictionary, "mercy granted to a surrendering foe." A defeated army might have to surrender, but they did not have to ask for or accept mercy ("cry for quarter"); it would have been a show of bravery and pride to accept whatever harsh treatment the enemy then meted out. This saying is found on very old military reports in reference to captured prisoners.

It was used in reference to a horse race in which the trainer of the losing horse was being interviewed.

Old coot

Steve in South Dakota: The coot is an unloved and unlovely aquatic bird that shares habitat and migration patterns with ducks. Among duck hunters, the coot is considered a pest and a distraction. It is also a truly ugly and awkward bird, and virtually inedible to most people. So to call someone an "old coot" is to label them as a pest, unattractive, sort of an unwelcome hanger-on. Also, the coot is reluctant to fly, and when it does, it makes a great commotion in its attempt to get airborne, running across the water and flapping frantically. "Old coot" may also, therefore, suggest an old man who is slow to rise and reluctant to move.

Old lag

Andy in Scotland wrote: UK prison term form an old prisoner. See Screw. As the prisoner became older and less able he would LAG behind his target number of revolutions.

On the level

Mark the Master Mason wrote: "On the level" refers to a Masonic word used in Freemasonry. As you may know, the modern day Freemasons are fashioned somewhat after the operative freemasons who built the great cathedrals in Europe. A level (usually with a bubble gauge) was used to prove horizontals in foundations and floorings, etc. The level indicated that things were as they should be. So, on the level means he is as he should be, or truthful. You will also find that all good Masons are always "On the level."

Rev. Dr. James Stickney, 32 degree Mason replies: Mark the Mason (above) is only partially right. It also means that all masons are brothers and are all equal regardless of social rank.

On the QT

"QT" was simply an abbreviation of "quiet," hence, something heard "on the QT" is something that should be kept quiet.

Pig in a poke; don't let the cat out of the bag

Ron' version: Pig in a Poke is easy. A poke is a sack or bag of rough cloth such as used for grain, potatoes, or whatever. If one sold a pig in a poke, that meant that the buyer was buying the pig in the poke with the assurance by the seller that there actually was a pig in the bag. Thus the meaning of buying sight unseen.

Bob wrote: in ref. to "a pig in a poke" an interesting tidbit is the phrase's association with the second half. "Letting the CAT out of the Bag" which was a reference to the person (not a rube) who was smart enough to look into the poke to make sure that there was indeed a pig in there, and would often find a stray cat.

Ginger wrote: The warning is usually to not buy a pig in a poke. (A poke being a sack; possibly from the French word "poche" meaning roughly bag or pocket.) The story I've heard is that people would go to markets to buy piglets and the sellers would have them bound up in sacks, so customers could carry them home more easily. An unscrupulous seller, though, would sometimes put a cat or dog in the bag instead of a pig. The warning "don't buy a pig in a poke" means make sure you're getting what you pay for. Sort of like "Caveat emptor" (Buyer beware).

Pluck Yew!

Jennifer kindly sent me this humorous account which will be replaced as soon as possible with a link over to the great CARTALK.COM website:

A recent Car Talk radio program Puzzler was about the Battle of Agincourt. The French, who were overwhelmingly favored to win the battle, threatened to cut a certain body part off of all captured English soldiers so that they could never fight again. The English won in a major upset and waved the body part in question at the French in defiance.The puzzler was: What was this body part? This is the answer submitted by a listener:

Dear Click and Clack,

Thank you for the Agincourt 'Puzzler', which clears up some profound questions of etymology, folklore and emotional symbolism. The body part which the French proposed to cut off of the English after defeating them was, of course, the middle finger, without which it is impossible to draw the renowned English longbow. This famous weapon was made of the native English yew tree, and so the act of drawing the longbow was known as "plucking yew". Thus, when the victorious English waved their middle fingers at the defeated French, they said, "See, we can still pluck yew! PLUCK YEW!"

Over the years some 'folk etymologies' have grown up around this symbolic gesture. Since 'pluck yew' is rather difficult to say (like "pleasant mother pheasant plucker", which is who you had to go to for the feathers used on the arrows), the difficult consonant cluster at the beginning has gradually changed to a LABIODENTAL FRICATIVE 'f', and thus the words often used in conjunction with the one-finger-salute are mistakenly thought to have something to do with an intimate encounter. It is also because of the pheasant feathers on the arrows that the symbolic gesture is known as "giving the bird"

Another comment: What was cut off were the first and middle fingers of the right hand used to draw the bow. The traditional English version of this salute is two fingered, the one fingered version is a modern derivative of the obscene f derivative of the saying.

Addendum from Joe in Eugene: This lays quite a bit to rest. Within the historical explication, I find myself wrestling with "Labiodental Fricative." Not to put my foot in my mouth, but is the pheasant, once plucked, cooked as a fricassee? Fricassee, being a French word, could explain their troops chickening out. (What gall.) Could the labiodental transformation of "pluck yew" explain the term "give head"- as "dent" again, the French for teeth, and "labio" the Latin for lips - this meaning, the teeth (being part of the head, and the tongue's gateway), transferring attention from fricassee to a more amorous destination? This should give folks something to chew on. We can see whose feathers are ruffled, and separate the lambs from the yews.

Historical and Etymological Origins of an Infamous Anglo-Saxon Gesture

Raining cats and dogs

Another source: I have heard two interesting origins of this phrase: 1) In the Pennsylvania Dutch culture of the US there was an expression "Raining cats and ducks," both animals being related to rain. The cat from witch craft and the duck for obvious reason. This phrase was corrupted over the years to Cats and Dogs. 2) Much earlier, there were the Norse gods, and the exact one I don't remember, but the god of storms was also the god of animals. Hence the work of the god in a storm also included animals which were also his province.

In old(e) England, the houses were surrounded with open sewers, big ditches running down the road to channel the rainwater. The houses were low, with low hanging thatched roofs and the dogs and cats used to climb up there, one after the other. In heavy downpours, the said animals would tumble from their perches, past the windows and fall into the ditches compelling the 'tankarded' or 'bombed' residents to exclaim, "Aaargh, it's raining cats and dogs."

Definition from Lawson Tremellen: Before sewers any rain, rubbish, etc. was thrown into a ditch that ran beside the road. When animals died they were also thrown into the ditch. When the heavy rains came the dead cats and dogs would be carried away with the water.


Marc wrote: The name given to the raised backmost deck of early sailing ships was called the Poop (from the Latin: Puppis - stern). In heavy seas a ship needed to avoid having the waves come up from behind since the rudder has little effect and a large wave could crash over the stern, filling it with water and turning her broadside to the next wave which could roll her over. This was obviously a very tiring ordeal to recover from.


Bob wrote: Posh stands for "Port Outwards, Starboard Home" and comes from the old empire days when people traveled between the UK and India via the Mediterranean and Suez. The most expensive cabins were the ones that faced north and avoided at least some of the heat and sun.

Matt "the Splat" writes: I agree with PJ on the origin of this term with one slight variation. PJ writes that the more expensive "port out starboard home" ticket gave the wealthy Brits shade on the boat ride. I heard that port out to India gave them a view of the shoreline as they traveled to India and starboard home also kept the shore line in view. Makes sense to me!!!

P.J. says: When sailing from England to the eastern parts of the Empire (India etc) the north (port) side of the ship was more comfortable as it was shaded from the sun in the southern sky. When returning it was the starboard side that was to the north, shaded, and preferred by the passengers. Wealthy travelers could afford to pay extra for these preferences and therefore their baggage was marked P.O.S.H......Port Out Starboard Home.

Proof is in the putting vs. pudding

Pontius observes: This phrase makes no sense as stated here, whether it is pudding or putting. The conventional form of the cliche is "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."

Tom from the Capital Newspaper wrote: There's an argument in my newsroom about the phrase "proof is in the putting/pudding." I believe it is "putting" even though everyone thinks it is "pudding." My memory is that it has to do with hunting, i.e. putting birds in a bag. An officer who charged a hunter with poaching said the "proof was in the putting." Who's right?

Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies,
ashes ashes, we all fall down.

Ursala wrote: During the Black Plague, people would carry flower petals in their pockets to mask the smell of the plague. I believe that the disease was marked with a reddish ring on the body. It was spread by bodily fluids. Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies. Achew Achew (sneezing). All fall down. Ring around the rosie -- bubonic plague sufferers got awful bruises that would appear to be rings around a bright center. Pocket full of posies -- either a medieval remedy or what the dead were buried with. Do posies have a strong scent? Husha, husha, we all fall down -- I don't think I need to interpret this line too much.

Bruce wrote: During the plague some people use to keep a bunch of flowers, or a dried up orange laced with spices, with them as they walked through the streets of a large town. When they passed by a house struck by the plague, or other fowl smelling places, they would smell the flowers or spices, so as to avoid the stench of death.

Randy wrote: I thought I heard that this was indeed a description of the Plague in Europe. "Ring around the rosie" described the sores with surrounding reddened skin that developed and "pocket full of posies" was the puss or infection under the skin in the sore. "Ashes ashes we all fall down" was the allusion to death. Quite a happy little song to teach our children!

I am not sure when the saying came about but about the time of the plague is probably right. The pocket full of posies would be simply a bunch of flowers for putting on a grave or funeral pyre. The posies were bunches of herbs supposed to ward off infection. It was believed during the black plague if you had a pocket full of posies (some sort of flower, I think) it would prevent the plague from reaching you. the ashes, ashes part of the rhyme refers to when you die of the plague, you are burnt, and the all fall down is people succumbing to the disease.

Another comment: This rhyme originates from the time of the plague in England in the 17th Century. The rosie is the red rash, the first sign of the plague, the pocket full of posies were herbs or flowers that people carried with them to cover up the smell of sickness and death. I thought the third line was 'a tishoo, a tishoo' referring to sneezes or a cold, which was the last symptom of the plague, after which they 'all fell down', dead.

Adam wrote: This does indeed relate to the plague of 1665 (I think that was the year). The ring of roses where the marks that appeared on the faces of the sufferers. The posies were thought to ward of the plague. 'Atishoo' signifies one of the symptoms of the plague - sneezing. And falling down, of course, means dying. How many children recite this pleasant song without realizing its true horror?!

Note from JTR: Everyone seems to be in agreement that this children's poem originated during the 17th Century Bubonic Plague epidemic. What seems to be in question is the actual wording of the poem! My 1949 edition of Childcraft "Poems of Early Childhood" actually has this censored version: "Ring-around-a-rosy, a pocket full of posies; one, two, three, and we all fall down!" The beautiful drawing that accompanies the poem has four smiling children dancing in a circle with a bouquet of roses!

You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours

From BBC program about antiques: This phrase came from the use of the Cat O Nine Tails - the whip used in the British Navy. This saying effectively meant that if the person went easy with the whipping on them when the punishment was reversed they would go easy with them.

Rob Peter to pay Paul

Dave the Librarian writes: Fable has it that the phrase alludes to the fact that on 17 Dec 1540 the abbey church of St Peter, Westminster, was advanced to the dignity of a cathedral by letters of patent...but ten years later was joined to the diocese of London, and many of its estates appropriated to the repairs of St Paul's Cathedral. But it was a common saying long before and was used by Wyclif about 1380: 'How should God approve that you rob Peter, and give this robbery to Paul in the name of Christ.--Select Works, III, 174...."found in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. This is but one of a number of reference books that can be found to give explanations of sayings, aphorisms, slang, etc. that can be found in any good public library and many school libraries.

Shake a leg

Mark wrote: I have been led to believe that having women aboard ship, often wives and girlfriends visiting while the ship was in home port, led to this phrase. When the petty officer's came through the compartments rousing the men in the morning, a women could avoid being dumped out of the hammock by "shaking a leg," showing that the occupant was female and not required to turn to for work.

Shut your face

This harks back to the days of knights in shining armor with face-plates. Shutting your face would effectively limit speech!

Cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear

Andy in Scotland wrote: This is an English corruption of a French word. In old France the peasants would keep their money in a purse called a Sousier {I may have spelled this wrongly} (from the old French coin the Sou). There was no way to make a fine silk purse from a tatty, rough cloth Sousier

Sixes and Sevens

In the City of London, the Guilds had an order of precedence in the Lord mayor's parade. There were two Guilds, the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors, which were in dispute as to which was ranked sixth or seventh so a decision was made by the Lord Mayor that they had alternate places each year.

Andrea wrote: I always heard this in the phrase "they were at sixes and sevens", meaning the kids were out of sorts, out of place, fussing with each other over who goes first, etc. This would lend strength to the second derivation you list, that of the guilds of London.

Definition from John: I believe the origin of "Sixes and sevens to you" is from the Bible. Six is the number of man and seven is the number of God, so you are really saying "fellowship to you with man and God"

Son of a gun

After sailors had crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies, they would take the native women on board the ship and have their way with them in between the cannons. Some of the women the sailors left behind would have boys, who were called sons between the guns.

Here is a variation from Peter at the BBC: In the early days of the Navy, women were allowed to join up in (presumably) non combative roles. The long voyages and feelings of loneliness ended up with babies born whilst at sea. If the woman concerned would not name the father, the Captain would log the birth as being the son of a gun - the gun deck(s) being the only place where decent privacy may be had for such an event.

Rosemary comments: By the way, your explanation of "son of a gun" referred to irresponsible sailors, which may either pre-date or post-date the meaning our book reports. It says that a soldier was called a "gun" (probably, I presume, for the same reason a woman is called a "skirt" and a hippy was called a "beard" - you're nicknamed by that which you carry around on your body). So a son of a gun was a son of a sailor - used increasingly less pejoratively as time went on. I seem to recall my grandfather, a career Navy CPO, calling his son "you son of a gun" with great pride and affection. My uncle was neither illegitimate nor conceived on the deck of a ship, by the way!

Paul adds: The History Channel had a program on its "Great Ships" series about English Ships of the Line, and they gave a slightly different story. According to that program, desertion was so likely that when in port the seamen were not allowed shore leave. Their wives were, however, allowed to board on the gun decks with their mates. It was said on the show that if a woman was having a difficult labor, the cannons on either side of her were fired as an "aid" to the process. It was these (male) children who were referred to as Sons of a Gun.


Andy in Scotland wrote: In Britain it is a prison term for a guard. Around a century ago it was common to give convicts pointless tasks like smashing rocks, digging holes and then filling them in or walking on treadmills. One ingenious device was a handle attached to a wheel with cups around the edge. As the handle was turned, the cups would scoop sand from the bottom and tip out back at the top. In many prisons each cell had one on the wall. The machine had a counter and each prisoner was given a set number of revolutions to complete, sometimes up to 10,000 per day - that's once every three seconds for eight hours. If a prison guard wanted to make life hard for a prisoner, he would use a key to turn a screw on the machine which increased the drag of the wheel. In time they became known as screws.

Sent to Coventry

Dawn Lee wrote: I may be wrong, but I always believed that the phrase "Sent to Coventry" referring to someone who was shunned referred to the town of Coventry in England, and how badly it was bombed out during the second World War. If you were sent to Coventry, there was nothing much there at all, so therefore a good place for a person you didn't like. These days I believe Coventry is actually a very nice place.

Linda adds: This strange way of referring to social shunning has two possible sources, both of which are connected with soldiers. According to one theory, the town of Coventry was a stronghold of Cromwell's supporters during the English Civil War, and royalist soldiers who were captured in the Midlands were therefore sent to Coventry for imprisonment. To be 'sent to Coventry' then, was to be withdrawn very effectively from circulation. The other theory suggests that the people of Coventry were traditionally very unfriendly towards all soldiers. Women were reproached if they so much as talked to a soldier. Any soldier unfortunate enough to be posted to a garrison in or near Coventry could expect nothing but hostility from the townspeople. Being 'sent to Coventry' was to be sentenced to a lonely life, away from the usual support of a friendly social circle."

Sowing your (wild) oats

Spend a penny

It means to take a leak, but is this from an early version of the pay toilet?

Richard wrote: Sure it is. My mother used this expression all the time. When public pay toilets were originally introduced they cost one penny for women to use. Urinals were free for men. An example of early sexual discrimination.


Stonewall it

An explanation: Stonewall Jackson got his nick name at the Battle of Bull Run. While the Union forces attacked, and the firing grew intense, Gen. Jackson stood tall in his saddle while the shots flew around him. A fellow Confederate officer saw him and exclaimed to his troops, "See! There is Gen. Jackson, standing like a stonewall." Therefore, "Stonewall" Jackson has little relevance to the phrase above, which usually means a concerted effort to detain or prevent someone from succeeding.

Philip wrote: There's is some debate over whether Stonewall Jackson's nickname was intended as a compliment. The essential facts are undisputed: Gen. Jackson had been ordered to hold a certain position. He held that position stubbornly and tenaciously. Another Confederate general exclaimed, "Look at Jackson, he stands there like a stone wall!" Clearly, the commenting general meant that Jackson was immovable. What is not clear is whether (as is most widely believed) he was impressed with the staunchness of Jackson's defense and exhorting his men to do the same, or whether perhaps he was exasperated with Jackson's lack of initiative in responding to changing conditions on the battlefield. In light of Gen. Jackson's subsequent performance, I personally think the latter explanation unlikely.

Stop fannying about

It means to stop messing around, but is this because ones own ass often gets in the way of things?

Informally defined as: To refuse to answer or cooperate with, to resist or rebuff. Pres. Richard M. Nixon said "I want you to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment" - also, where do you suppose Gen. Stonewall Jackson got his name?

Sun is over the Yardarm

Toni asks: When sailors say "The sun is over the Yardarm" does it mean that it is late enough to have a drink and call it a day?

Take it with a grain of salt

The third degree

Mark the Master Mason wrote: This usually refers to a rough form of interrogation by police officers, but is another Masonic term. In the Masonic lodge, there are three degrees, the first is called Entered Apprentice, the second Fellowcraft, and the third is Master Mason. When a candidate receives the third degree in a Masonic lodge, he is subjected to some activities that involve an interrogation, and it is more physically challenging than the first two degrees (though he not beaten or harmed in any way whatsoever). Giving the person the "third degree" means interrogating him with vigor, and is a phrase taken from the Masonic third degree.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

Joe wrote: This is an expression which originated in Ireland as a result of the large families we used to have. It was convenient to bathe many of our children at the same time, and the baby was usually included with the last batch. At times, the mother was so eager to clear out the kitchen after the bathing that she became more concerned with emptying the bath than making sure all the family was present. As the baby was the smallest he/she often ended up being chucked outside with the water - these were "hip - baths", used before we had "running water" in Ireland. The expression now means that we can be so concerned with one issue that we sacrifice something else.

John added:  Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of having the clean water first, then all the other sons and men, then the women, then the children, and last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Twenty three skidoo

From the Jeopardy show on TV: The origin of this phrase come from the fact that due to the arrangement of several buildings in either Chicago or New York, wind would funnel down at 23rd St./Ave. and lift up the skirts from ladies in the 20s or 30s; police were told to keep loitering men moving along and give them the twenty three skidoo.

Bob wrote: The dictionary states it means scram if you differ from me. I think it comes from the era of the roaring 20's. There is a huge website called 23 skidoo but it is full of coincidences regarding the number 23, probably filled by numerology buffs.

Under the weather

Comment from Frank: "Under the weather" is a nautical term that was originated, I believe, in the British navy. When a sailor was ill, he was kept below decks, and thus, under the weather.


Michael adds: While I haven't heard any explanation better than the one Gonzalo offers, I think it's still pretty weak. The Spanish pronunciation of "b" and "v" are the same; from a closed-mouth position (as you would when starting to speak), both sound more like an English "b". The stress on the Spanish word is on the first syllable, not the second. And, the Spanish "o" sound is like an English "long o", but crisp, not a drawn out "ooh". The two words are far more similar in written form than spoken.

Gonzalo wrote: As in "Get Lost" in the old west. My theory is that when cowboys would come to a face to face stand off with their Mexican counterparts they would hear the Mexicans say to each other in Spanish "Vamos" which means "lets go". So, when these cowboys would see another group of Mexicans that they wanted to see go away, they would throw out the words they heard them speak themselves when they last departed "Vamos", which was anglicized to "Vamoose".... whaddya think?

WC: water closet

Alan wrote: the modern toilet was invented by a man named John Crapper, hence the slang terms "crapper" and "john" for the device. Years ago, when indoor plumbing replaced the outhouse, a room needed to be created for the formerly nonexistent "crapper". Most often an existing closet was converted to a "bathroom", and thus become the "water closet".

Robert wrote: Both of your correspondents are wrong. Thomas Crapper was a famous victorian plumber, and while he invented several plumbing and toilet related items, the origin of the flush toilet occurs far earlier. There is also a great biography of Thomas Crapper called "Flushed with Pride". WC stands for Water Closet. And "Crap" probably does not derive from Crapper's name, though the expression "The Crapper" does.

Thomas sets the record straight: The story of Thomas Crapper inventing the flush toilet (as recounted in "Flushed With Pride" by Wallace Reyburn) is a hoax, perpetrated by a man (I can't remember if his name was really Wallace Reyburn or not) who was responsible for numerous hoaxes in the sixties. One of his earlier and more successful ones was a fake presidential campaign for the fictional Mrs. Yetta Bernstein (I think that's what he called her). It is much more likely that the term "crapper" is derived from "crap". To believe that it was invented by (or named for) a man coincidentally named Crapper plays perfectly into the hands of the hoaxer. I am constantly amazed at how many people still seriously and solemnly cite this hoax as fact.

P.J. says: The water flushed toilet was invented by William Crapper. Some say the term WC refers to 'Water Closet', others say they are his initials. There seems to be no doubt about 'going for a .......'

White elephant

Bill writes that in the late 1800s, P.T. Barnum, who then owned "the greatest show on earth," heard of a sacred "white" elephant in India. He sent an agent to buy it sight unseen. When the animal arrived by ship in Bridgeport, CT, Barnum was horrified to see what the Indians considered to be a "white elephant" turned out to be covered with large pink splotches, and was not white at all. The paying public was not impressed and Barnum had to keep his "white elephant" hidden from public view in a stable. Thus the term "white elephant" came to mean something that was generally useless but too valuable (to the owner) to throw away. (By the way, the original "white elephant" later died when the stable caught fire.)

Andy in Scotland wrote: In the UK a white elephant is something which costs a lot to maintain but is of no use at all. In Thailand elephants were put to work for a whole range of tasks, however, white (albino) elephants were considered sacred and therefore were not to be put to work. The poor owner was then left to feed the elephant but get no work from it.

Whole ball of wax

Michael: This is a form of initiation of freemasons. The freemasons took it from the scarab beetle, which is said to roll a ball of earth, which is a microcosm of the universe. I believe it is thought to spring from the ancient mysteries of Egypt. There was much amateur Egyptology during the 19th and early 20th century. The ball of wax has transcendental meaning. It represents a mystery of human godlike creativity which a person aspiring to the mystery of masonic lore carries with him. In the initiation, the person was given a small ball of earwax or some such, which would represent the cosmos. Reference to this ball of wax was a secret symbol of brotherhood.

Whole nine yards & dressed to the nines

Comment from Lance: And this, nine yards applies to just the shirt. The more fabric in the shirt, the wealthier you were. It was against the law to wear a shirt made of more material than your class was permitted.

Comment from Brian Morris: I have heard that the saying the whole 9 yards comes from WWII days when the aircraft guns had their bullets in strings of 27 feet. When you went through all of your bullets, you went through the whole 9 yards.

Comment from David Whyte: Apparently, in early England, an entire load of coal for heating was carried in a container that was nine yards long. Most people could not afford it, but if you could, you would take 'the whole nine yards'. I have no idea of the validity of the story, but it seems reasonable.

Comment from Colin: Last night I was having some beers with a few USAF pilots. One insisted that the whole nine yards comes from the B-52. It's bomb-bay is 9 yards long and the phrase would then refer to dropping all the bombs from the bay. Another guy insisted that the phrase comes from WWI when the machine gunners would be issued nine yards of belted-ammunition at a time.

Rosemary wrote: I have been sewing for 30 years, and cannot conceive of the largest-size shirt in the fullest possible cut using up more than half that amount! Unless perhaps the fabric is only a yard wide, or even 25" wide, both of which were not unusual in my grandmother's day. (Hence the expression "all wool and a yard wide" - not a cheap wool blend and only 25" wide.) However, it is quite conceivable that an average-size, moderately-tailored trousers, waistcoat, and vest would use up 9 yards. Brad Bellows claims the 9 yards would also include an overcoat, but I don't believe a full-grown man could get all 4 items out of 9 yards of fabric unless the fabric were much wider than is sold today.

Lawrence says: I've heard that the whole 9 yards comes from the contents of cement trucks - a full load being 9 cubic yards of cement.

Charles B: I was taught that the "Whole Nine Yards" refers to American football. On second down you go the distance for another first down instead of slugging it out for a couple of yards at a time.

Bob Bledsoe" This may be a corruption of the Middle English "to then eyne" (to the eyes). I have heard "the whole nine yards" came from the amount of cloth on a bolt. When someone wanted to make sure they had enough cloth the got the "whole nine yards."

Robert: from good authority, I hear tell that the phrase comes from the Scottish Kilt. In a proper kilt (including all the pleats) there should be 9 yards of material. Anything less is seen as not a proper kilt. Hence the phrase. 9 yards for a shirt seems a bit much.

Charles B: "Dressed to the nines" refers to the theater in Shakespeare's time when the price of a seat depended on how close it was to the stage. The farthest seats were one pence and the closest seats were nine pence. If you sat in the expensive seats you dressed up so as not to look out of place with the other wealthy patrons.

Even more from Ron: In most of India the everyday sari worn by women is made of material six yards in length. However, for weddings and special occasions, saris of nine yards are used. Hence, for these special occasions one goes 'the whole nine yards'. This could just be another example of the myriad influences the British inherited by controlling India for two centuries.

Ron wrote: I'd just like to add to the confusion of the origin of 'whole nine yards'. In most of India the everyday sari worn by women is made of material six yards in length. However, for weddings and special occasions, saris of nine yards are used. Hence, for these special occasions, one goes "'the whole nine yards." This could just be another example of the myriad influences the British inherited by controlling India for two centuries.

With bells on...

Thomas contributes: To be somewhere with "bells on" refers to a practice peddlers had when they roamed the area west of the Appalachians selling wares. To avoid Indians, they travelled as silently as possible until they reached a settled area. Then they unmuffled bells hung around their horses necks to announce their arrival to outlying cabins. Hence, "I'll be there with bells on." The peddlers' arrival was a much anticipated major event in the mostly tedious and hard lives of settlers, not only for the goods they sold, but also for the news, letters, and messages they carried from the outside world.