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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to play to the gallery

  the gods at the Comedy Theatre, London, 1949 source: Historic England – The Theatres Trust     Via Middle French galerie, the noun gallery, attested in the late 15th century, is from the medieval Latin of Italy galeria, an alteration of medieval Latin galilaea, designating a porch at the entrance of a monastery’s church—hence English […]

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peaceable kingdom

  one of the versions of The Peaceable Kingdom (circa 1834), by Edward Hicks image: National Gallery of Art (Washington DC)     The expression peaceable kingdom, in the sense of a state of harmony among all creatures as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah, 11:1-9, first appeared in the King James Version (1611):                       […]

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French pig idioms

  A violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously. Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what […]

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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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widow’s cruse

  The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta (circa 1630-40), by Bernardo Strozzi (circa 1581-1644) – image: wikiart.org     The noun cruse denotes a small earthenware vessel for liquids. It is of Germanic origin and related to words such as Dutch kroes and Swedish krus, of same meaning. The expression widow’s cruse signifies an apparently small supply that proves inexhaustible. It is an allusion […]

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as cold as charity

    The phrase (as) cold as charity refers to the perfunctory, unfeeling manner in which acts of charity are often done, and public charities administered. It originally alluded to the gospel of Matthew, 24:12, which is as follows in the Early Version (around 1382) of the Wycliffe Bible (wexe is the verb wax and […]

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a fly in the ointment

  “I think we may say everything’s more or less oojah-cum-spiff. With one exception, Jeeves,” I said, a graver note coming into my voice as I gave Gus his second helping of kipper. “There remains a fly in the ointment, a familiar saying meaning—well, I don’t quite know what it does mean. It seems to […]

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the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand’s doing

  Ralph Griffiths – from European Magazine, January to June 1804     The phrase the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing and variants express unawareness, or (deliberate) ignorance, of one’s own activities. This phrase is now mainly used to convey that there is a state of confusion within a group […]

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lupus

  illustration from The British Wolf-Hunters. A Tale of England in the Olden Time (1859), by Thomas Miller     The Latin noun lupus/-pi meant wolf. It is kindred with ancient Greek λύκος (= lukos) – cf. lycanthrope, which originally designated a person who believes that he or she is a wolf, and which, via modern Latin lycanthrōpus, is from Greek λυκάνθρωπος (= lukanthropos), literally wolf-man, from λύκος and ἄνθρωπος (= anthropos), man. The Latin lupus has sometimes […]

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