‘like a headless chicken’: meaning and origin

USA, 1853—in a panic-stricken and unthinking manner—alludes to the phenomenon whereby a chicken can move about for a short time after decapitation, due to reflex activity of the nervous system

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‘in a cleft stick’: meaning and origin

UK, 1710—in a situation in which any action one takes will have adverse consequences—‘cleft’, past participle of the verb ‘cleave’, means ‘split in two to a certain depth’—the image is of one being squeezed between the stick’s prongs

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‘paper tiger’: meaning and origin

UK, 1836—a person, country, etc., that appears powerful or threatening but is actually weak or ineffective—from Chinese ‘zhǐlǎohǔ’ (‘zhǐ’, paper, ‘lǎohǔ’, tiger)—used in the post-war years by the Chinese Communist Party of the USA and other reactionaries

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‘Jesus Hilton’: meaning and origin

Australia—familiar name of St Vincent’s Private Hospital, Sydney—‘Jesus’ refers to the fact that the hospital is operated by a religious organisation—‘Hilton’ alludes to the hospital’s plushness

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‘a penny soul never came to twopence’

UK, 1844—extreme meanness never made anyone better off—compare Book of Proverbs, 11:24: “There is one who scatters, yet increases more; and there is one who withholds more than is right, but it leads to poverty.”

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‘scarlet letter’: meanings and origin

a representation of the letter A in scarlet cloth which Hester Prynne is condemned to wear in The Scarlet Letter (1850), by Nathaniel Hawthorne—soon came to be used figuratively in the sense of a stigma, a mark of infamy

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