nul points

  Seventies spectacle – Brotherhood of Man featured on Channel 4’s Top Ten – Eurovision There was once a time when it [= the Eurovision Song Contest], along with Miss World and the FA Cup Final, formed part of an annual must-see television triumvirate. The only people who did not watch it were social deviants — […]

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philtrum

photograph: Google+ Communities     The noun philtrum denotes the vertical groove between the base of the nose and the border of the upper lip. The literal and obsolete signification of this word, which appeared in the early 17th century, is love potion, from classical Latin philtrum, of same meaning. In post-classical Latin, philtrum came to also denote the dimple in the upper lip. It […]

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to buy a pig in a poke

    In this expression, the noun poke denotes a bag, a small sack. It is from Anglo-Norman and Old Northern French forms such as poke and pouque, variants of the Old French forms poche and pouche — the last of which is the origin of English pouch. (Incidentally, English pocket is from Anglo-Norman poket, pokete, diminutive forms of poke.) The expression to buy a pig in a poke simply cautions against buying or […]

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to let the cat out of the bag

    MEANING   to disclose a secret   ORIGIN   Although it is possible that to let the cat out of the bag originally referred to some specific allusion, such as a line in a play, that has now been lost, it is probable that this phrase is simply based on the comparison between the surprise […]

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a cat may look at a king

  Executioner argues with King about cutting off Cheshire Cat’s head – illustration by John Tenniel (1820-1914) for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) The executioner’s argument was, that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from.     The phrase a cat may look at a king means even a person of low […]

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the ring finger – l’annulaire

      In the Etymologies (Etymologiarum sive Originum libri viginti), compiled between around 615 and the early 630s in the form of an encyclopaedia arranged by subject matter, St Isidore (circa 560–636), bishop of Seville and Doctor of the Church, wrote the following about the names of the fingers (the original Latin words are […]

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like a cat on hot bricks/on a hot tin roof

poster for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), an American film directed by Richard Brooks, based on the play by Tennessee Williams     The phrase like a cat on hot bricks and its American-English equivalent like a cat on a hot tin roof mean very agitated or anxious. An earlier form of the […]

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sanglier

  original illustration for Of the Swine in The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658), by Edward Topsell     The French masculine noun sanglier denotes a full-grown wild boar. It literally means a boar living on its own, separated from the herd, since, via Old and Middle French forms such as sengler and senglier, it is from the popular Latin singularis (porcus), solitary (pig) – cf. Middle-French terms […]

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to make no bones about something

    Sacrifice of Isaac, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (circa 1571-1610)     MEANING   to have no hesitation in stating, or dealing with, something, however unpleasant or awkward it is   ORIGIN   Always used in the negative, this phrase dates back to the 16th century, originally as to make no bones at or in. It also […]

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starboard – port

  image: nageur-sauveteur   MEANINGS   The noun starboard denotes the side of a ship or aircraft that is on the right when one is facing forward, while port denotes the opposing side.   ORIGINS   From the Germanic bases of the nouns steer and board, starboard, which appeared in Old English as steorbord, denotes literally the steer board, the steer side. This side of the ship […]

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