a 19th-century document on English phrases

remarks on English phrases (‘to rain cats and dogs’, ‘tit for tat’, ‘the devil to pay’, etc.) – from Notes and Queries (London), 9th November 1861

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history of the 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—cf. also to run the gauntlet. The word is first recorded in Love for […]

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origin of the phrase ‘no room to swing the 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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“the cat’s whiskers”, and all that jazz

  Eastern Vaudeville Bans Unseemly Slang A general order has been sent out from the Keith office to all Keith, Moss and Proctor vaudeville houses, instructing resident managers to hereafter bar the use by artists of the current slang phrases, “That’s the Cat’s Meow,” “Cat’s Pajamas,” “Hot Dog,” “Hot Cat,” etc. This means the phrases […]

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meaning and origin of ‘to have a frog in one’s throat’

  FROG IN YOUR THROAT. 7½d. An instantaneous remedy for “Laryngeal” and “Bronchial Inflammation,” “Tickling,” “Clergymens’ [sic] Sore Throat,” “Smokers’ Sore Throat,” Soreness resulting from dryness of the throat and air passages, or from “clearing the throat.” They afford greater relief than anything hitherto known. Especially useful to Singers, Speakers, Readers, Actors, Teachers, and all […]

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origin of ‘to look like something the cat has brought in’

  Of American-English origin, the phrase to look, or to feel, like something the cat has brought in means to look, or to feel, exhausted or bedraggled. The earliest instances of the form, if not of the phrase, that I have found are in, and as the title of, a story published in The Perrysburg Journal (Perrysburg, Ohio) of 2nd February 1877 […]

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a linguistic investigation into ‘cheese and ‘fromage’

    “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux-cent quarante-six variétés de fromage ?” (“How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”) attributed to Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), French general and statesman, in Les mots du général de Gaulle (1962), by Ernest Mignon photograph: fémivin.com     […]

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the nonsensical origin of ‘Kilkenny cats’

‘To fight like Kilkenny cats’ means ‘to engage in a mutually destructive struggle’.—from the tale of two cats fighting until only their tails remained (early 19th century), which was originally meant to be nothing but amusing nonsense.

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the authentic origin of ‘to buy a pig in a poke’

  In this expression, the noun poke denotes a bag, a small sack. It is from Anglo-Norman and Old Northern French forms such as poke and pouque, variants of the Old French forms poche and pouche — the last of which is the origin of English pouch. (Incidentally, English pocket is from Anglo-Norman poket, pokete, diminutive forms of poke.) The expression to buy a pig in a poke simply cautions against buying or accepting […]

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the authentic origin of ‘to let the cat out of the bag’

    MEANING   to let the cat out of the bag: to disclose a secret   ORIGIN   Although it is possible that to let the cat out of the bag originally referred to some specific allusion, such as a line in a play, that has now been lost, it is probable that this phrase is […]

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