old chestnut – marronnier

    photograph: Alba Trees     The term old chestnut denotes a joke, story or subject that has become tedious and uninteresting through constant repetition. Here, the adjective old is simply an intensifier of the noun. The figurative use of chestnut originated in American-English theatrical slang. Diary of a Daly Débutante: being passages from the […]

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origin of ‘quiz’

Originally students’ slang, ‘quiz’ is from Latin ‘quis’, meaning ‘who’, as used by the Roman poet Horace in “vir bonus est quis?”, “who is a good man?”

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cat-o’-nine-tails

  cat-o’-nine-tails (1866-79) – photograph: National Maritime Museum     The noun cat-o’-nine-tails denotes a rope whip with nine knotted cords, formerly used, especially at sea, to flog offenders. This instrument of punishment was authorised in the British navy and army until 1881. The word is first recorded in Love for love (London, 1695), a comedy […]

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no room to swing a cat

  Q. Once hairy scenter did transgress,      Whose dame, both powerful and fierce,      Tho’ hairy scenter took delight      To do the thing both fair and right,      Upon a Sabbath day. A. An old Woman whipping her Cat for Catching Mice on a Sunday. from The True Trial […]

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show a leg

  HOW A SAILOR BEGINS HIS DAY’S WORK A Scene on board H.M.S. “Trafalgar.” The boatswain blows his whistle at 5 o’clock in the morning and cries, “All hands.” Diving in and out beneath the hammocks he goes with bent head calling the same old cry of Nelson’s day: “Rise and shine. Show a leg—show […]

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blotto

  The adjective blotto, which has mainly been used to mean drunk, originated in World War One British military slang. It is first recorded in this sense in the chapter Slang in a War Hospital of Observations of an Orderly: Some Glimpses of Life and Work in an English War Hospital (London, July 1917), by Lance-Corporal Ward Muir: The words […]

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to eat humble pie

  A puzzle published in The Hibernian Magazine, or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge (Dublin, Ireland) in 1774 punned on the humble of humble pie, which may indicate that the latter term was already used figuratively at that time. The following is from the October issue:                     […]

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banger

    It has often been said that the noun banger appeared as British slang for sausage in the World War One trenches. But, in fact, it was in use in the British Navy before the outbreak of the war. On 27th July 1904, The Tatler (London) published The real letters of a midshipmite [= […]

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soccer

  This important match was played on Saturday, November 30, on the ground of the West of Scotland Cricket Club, at Partick, near Glasgow, and was the first international match played in Scotland according to the Association rules. Four matches had been previously played in London between London Scotchmen and Englishmen. (The illustration, from Sketches […]

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mess of pottage

Hungry sheep on holiday need not complain too vigorously that they look up and are not fed. For instance, there is A Mess of Pottage, by Natala de la Fère. Conceive, if you can, the reactions of a highly respectable family of French peasants when, after having enjoyed a tin of soup sent to them […]

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