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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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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