black sheep

  photograph: Hill Farm, Abermule     MEANING   a member of a family or group who is regarded as a disgrace to it   ORIGIN   This was perhaps originally an allusion to the book of Genesis, 30. Jacob has already worked fourteen years for both of Laban’s daughters, and after Joseph’s birth he desires to […]

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a horse that was foaled of an acorn

    The phrase a horse that was foaled of an acorn denoted the gibbet, sometimes also called triple tree. In A Collection of English Proverbs (1678), the English naturalist and theologian John Ray (1627-1705) wrote: You’ll ride on a horse that was foal’d of an acorn. That is the gallows. Pelham; or, The Adventures […]

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the forbidden fruit

  Eve offering the apple to Adam in the Garden of Eden, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (circa 1472-1553)     According to the post-biblical Christian tradition, the apple is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in defiance of God’s commandment. However, in the Book of […]

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lobster – locust

      The English nouns lobster and locust are doublets (as are turban and tulip). Doublets (or etymological twins) are words in one given language that go back to the same etymological source but differ in form and meaning.   The word lobster is from Old English forms such as loppestre, alterations of Latin locusta, which […]

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helpmate

  the creation of Eve and the verse 2:18 of the Book of Genesis in the Coverdale Bible (1535)     The word helpmate means a helpful companion or partner, especially one’s husband or wife. This noun was originally helpmeet, about which the New English Dictionary (i.e. the Oxford English Dictionary – 1901 edition) explained […]

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from pillar to post

  Christ before Pilate (1881), by Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900)     This phrase means from one place to another in an unceremonious or fruitless manner. Its earliest recorded form is from post to pillar in The Assembly of Gods, an anonymous dream-vision allegory most likely written in the early fourth quarter of the 15th century (it […]

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the apple of one’s eye – la prunelle de ses yeux

   prunelles – photograph: JP. RING – SFO-PCV (Société Française d’Orchidophilie de Poitou-Charentes et Vendée)   In early use, apple was a general term for all kinds of fruits other than berries, including even nuts. In fact, apple and berry are the only Anglo-Saxon fruit names, the rest being of Latin or ‘exotic’ origin. This […]

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to rain cats and dogs (1)

giving the true origin of the phrase “it is raining cats and dogs” and debunking its false etymologies

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