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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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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the Cat-and-Mouse Act

  the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act, 1913 – image: www.parliament.uk   The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act, 1913 was rushed through Parliament by Herbert Henry Asquith’s Liberal government in order to deal with the problem of hunger-striking suffragettes, who were force-fed, which led to a public outcry. The Act allowed for the […]

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a cat may look at a king

  Executioner argues with King about cutting off Cheshire Cat’s head – illustration by John Tenniel (1820-1914) for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) The executioner’s argument was, that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from.     The phrase a cat may look at a king means even a person of low […]

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to see which way the cat jumps

  Tip-Cat in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly (1787 edition)     The phrase to see which way the cat jumps means to see what direction events are taking before committing oneself. One of its earliest instances is from The Berkshire Chronicle […]

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who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother?

  crossword in The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury of 23rd January 1950 30 across: The cat’s mother? (3).     The phrase who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother? and variants are said to a person, especially a child, who uses the feminine third person singular pronoun impolitely or with inadequate reference. The earliest use of the phrase that I found is from The White […]

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like a cat on hot bricks/on a hot tin roof

poster for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), an American film directed by Richard Brooks, based on the play by Tennessee Williams     The phrase like a cat on hot bricks and its American-English equivalent like a cat on a hot tin roof mean very agitated or anxious. An earlier form of the […]

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not a cat in hell’s chance

  Jackson’s Oxford Journal – 29th September 1753     The phrase not a cat in hell’s chance, which means no chance at all, is puzzling. It is a shortening of the more explicit no more chance than a cat in hell without claws.  The earliest instance of this phrase that I have found is from Jackson’s Oxford […]

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grimalkin

    In The Tragedie of Macbeth (around 1603), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Gray-Malkin is the name of a fiend in the shape of a grey she-cat, the cat being the form most generally assumed by the familiar spirits of witches according to a common superstition: (Folio 1, 1623)             […]

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tit for tat

  original illustration for The Spider and the Flie (1556), by John Heywood     The phrase tit for tat means an equivalent given in return or retaliation. The expression seems to be a variation of the obsolete and more comprehensible tip for tap, in which both tip and tap meant a light but distinct blow, stroke, hit. The phrase therefore meant blow for […]

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