‘Queen Anne front and Mary Ann back’

UK and USA, 1889—used of anything that is speciously high-class in appearance, but is commonplace in reality—‘Queen Anne’ means ‘beautiful’, as opposed to ‘Mary Ann’, meaning ‘vile’; ‘low’; ‘mean’

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‘morning, noon and night’: meaning and early occurrences

UK, 1741—all day, incessantly—also, in early use, ‘morn, noon and night’—different from the juxtaposition of the nouns ‘morning’, ‘noon’ and ‘night’, which refers to an action taking place first in the morning, then at noon, and finally at night

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‘another brick in the wall’: meanings and origin

a small component of a much larger structure, system or process; an insignificant individual within a large population or community—commonly associated with ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, the title of a three-part composition by the British band Pink Floyd in their 1979 rock opera ‘The Wall’, but has been used since 1867

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‘a memory like a sieve’: meanings and origin

17th century—contrasts what the mind remembers with what it forgets (with reference to the opposition between the coarser particles, which are retained by a sieve, and the finer ones, which pass through it)—denotes an extremely poor memory (with reference to the fact that a sieve does not hold all its contents)

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‘like a headless chicken’: meaning and origin

USA, 1853—in a panic-stricken and unthinking manner—alludes to the phenomenon whereby a chicken can move about for a short time after decapitation, due to reflex activity of the nervous system

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‘in a cleft stick’: meaning and origin

UK, 1710—in a situation in which any action one takes will have adverse consequences—‘cleft’, past participle of the verb ‘cleave’, means ‘split in two to a certain depth’—the image is of one being squeezed between the stick’s prongs

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‘paper tiger’: meaning and origin

UK, 1836—a person, country, etc., that appears powerful or threatening but is actually weak or ineffective—from Chinese ‘zhǐlǎohǔ’ (‘zhǐ’, paper, ‘lǎohǔ’, tiger)—used in the post-war years by the Chinese Communist Party of the USA and other reactionaries

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‘to nail one’s colours to the mast’: meanings and origin

UK, 1808—to make one’s beliefs or intentions plain—from the former practice of nailing an ensign to the mast of a ship, after damage during battle resulted in the ship’s colours no longer being clearly displayed, which otherwise might have been interpreted as a signal of surrender

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‘Jesus Hilton’: meaning and origin

Australia—familiar name of St Vincent’s Private Hospital, Sydney—‘Jesus’ refers to the fact that the hospital is operated by a religious organisation—‘Hilton’ alludes to the hospital’s plushness

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