to miss the bus

  The phrase to miss the bus, or the boat, etc., means to be too slow to take advantage of an opportunity. In A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1993), B. A. Phythian explained: This expression is said to originate in an Oxford story of the 1840s about John Henry Newman, fellow of Oriel […]

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a skeleton at the feast

  Death comes to the table, by Giovanni Martinelli (1600-1659) image: The Art Tribune     The phrase a skeleton at the feast, or at the banquet, denotes a person or event that brings gloom or sadness to an occasion of joy or celebration. This was originally an allusion to the practice of the ancient Egyptians, as recorded by […]

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peeping Tom

  A drawing of Peeping Tom, in the exact state in which he is carved, but divested of all paint and superfluous ornaments. W. Reader in The Gentleman’s Magazine: and Historical Chronicle (London) of July 1826 The Coventry Peeping Tom statue, which dates from around 1500, survives today. Though it is now stripped down to […]

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beyond the pale

  MEANING   outside the limits of social convention   ORIGIN   The primary meanings of the noun pale are a wooden stake or post used with others to form a fence and a wooden fence made of stakes driven into the ground. This word appeared in the late 14th century and is from Anglo-Norman and Middle French pal, meaning a stake, a palisade, a […]

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curfew

  Nowadays, a curfew is a regulation requiring people to remain indoors between specified hours, typically at night – for example: a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The word is from Old French and Anglo-Norman forms such as cuevre-feu and covrefeu, hence the Modern French word couvre-feu (plural couvre-feux), composed of: – couvre, imperative of the verb couvrir, to cover, – feu, meaning fire. The corresponding medieval Latin names were ignitegium […]

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budget

  bulga – from Dictionnaire illustré latin-français (1934), by Félix Gaffiot     MEANING   The following definition of budget is from the New English Dictionary (i.e. Oxford English Dictionary – 1888 edition): A statement of the probable revenue and expenditure for the ensuing year, with financial proposals founded thereon, annually submitted by the Chancellor of […]

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milliner

  A Morning Ramble, or The Milliners Shop (1782) image: The British Museum       A milliner is a person (generally a woman) who makes or sells women’s hats. But a Milliner was originally a native or inhabitant of Milan, a city in northern Italy. The word is first recorded in this sense in […]

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the fourth estate

  MEANING   the press; the profession of journalism   ORIGIN   The first known user of the expression, designating the ordinary people, was the English author and magistrate Henry Fielding (1707-54) writing, under the pseudonym of Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knt. Censor of Great Britain, in The Covent-Garden Journal of Saturday 13th June 1752: It […]

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shoplifting

  Tyburn’s triple tree Illustration, said to be from about 1680, of the permanent gallows at Tyburn, which stood where Marble Arch in London now stands. This necessitated a three-mile cart ride in public from Newgate prison to the gallows. Huge crowds collected on the way and followed the accused to Tyburn. They were used […]

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The language of domination

  Sir Walter Scott (1829), replica by John Graham Gilbert – image: National Portrait Gallery     The Anglo-Saxons were the Germanic inhabitants of England before the Conquest, i.e. the invasion and assumption of control by William of Normandy in 1066. Known as William the Conqueror, William I (circa 1027-87) defeated Harold II at the […]

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