origin of ‘quiz’ (“Vir bonus est quis?”)?

Originally meaning ‘person of ridiculous appearance’, ‘quiz’ (students’ slang, late 18th century) was jocularly derived from the Latin interrogative pronoun ‘quis’ in “Vir bonus est quis?” (“Who is a good man?”)—a good, ingenuous, harmless man being likely to become an object of ridicule or even of harassment.

Read More

the nonsensical origin of ‘Kilkenny cats’

‘To fight like Kilkenny cats’ means ‘to engage in a mutually destructive struggle’.—from the tale of two cats fighting until only their tails remained (early 19th century), which was originally meant to be nothing but amusing nonsense.

Read More

the authentic origin of ‘a pretty kettle of fish’

The phrase ‘a pretty kettle of fish’ originally referred to a net full of fish, which, when drawn up with its contents, is suggestive of confusion, flurry and disorder—‘kettle’ being a form of ‘kiddle’, a noun denoting a dam or other barrier in a river, with an opening fitted with nets to catch fish.

Read More

the authentic origin of ‘to rain cats and dogs’

First recorded circa 1629 as ‘to rain dogs and cats’, this phrase is based on a cat-and-dog fight as a metaphor for a storm or hard rain; the theory that Jonathan Swift coined the phrase is ludicrous.

Read More

‘sticker-licker’: meaning and origin

state of South Australia, 1952—a traffic warden—from the fact that South Australian traffic wardens licked the adhesive parking tickets in order to stick them to the windscreens—hence also the verb ‘sticker-lick’

Read More

‘Queen Anne’s fan’: meaning and early occurrences

UK, 1883—a gesture of derision made by putting one’s thumb to one’s nose and outspreading the fingers like a fan; can be intensified by joining the tip of the little finger to the thumb of the other hand, whose fingers are also outspread fanwise—the motivation for the choice of ‘Queen Anne’ is unknown

Read More

‘Briticism’: meaning and origin

USA, 1868—coined by U.S. critic Richard Grant White (1822-1885) to denote a word or expression whose original acceptation (preserved in U.S. English) was changed to one that he regarded as debased

Read More

‘Indian burn’: meaning and origin

USA, 1937, as a wrestling term—an act of placing both hands on a person’s wrist or arm and then twisting it to produce a burning sensation—alludes to the fiendish methods of torture attributed to the ‘(Red) Indians’

Read More

‘Chinese burn’: meaning and origin

UK, 1956, children’s slang—an act of placing both hands on a person’s wrist or arm and then twisting it to produce a burning sensation—alludes to the fiendish methods of torture attributed to the Chinese

Read More

‘to cover more ground than Burke and Wills’

Australia, 1952—to travel a long distance—refers to the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860-61, which aimed to cross Australia from Melbourne, in the south, to the Gulf of Carpentaria, in the north

Read More

‘lager lout’: meaning and origin

UK, 1987—a young man who behaves in an unpleasant or aggressive manner as a result of drinking (typically lager) excessively—lager, a pale beer, is favoured by the young as opposed to the dark, traditional bitter English beer

Read More