origin of the British journalistic term ‘red top’

  three red tops: the Daily Mirror, The Sun, the Daily Star     In the following, the noun tabloid has the sense of a newspaper having pages half the size of those of the average broadsheet, aimed at the mass market, with relatively little serious political or economic content but considerable amounts of sport, celebrity gossip, scandal and trivial […]

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The name ‘Albion’ did not originally refer to the white cliffs of Dover.

  The white cliffs of Dover— to which the name Albion did not originally refer [cf. note]. (photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Fanny)   The name Albion first appeared in English in the very first sentence of the first Book of the 9th-century translation of Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) originally written by the English monk, […]

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the origin and various meanings of ‘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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origin of ‘black sheep’ as a derogatory appellation

  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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meaning and origin of the phrase ‘caviar to the general’

  The letter written to his family by the French resistant Yves Daoudal (1891-1944) on 5th April 1944, before he was shot. A passage has been “caviardé”, blue-pencilled. (Photograph: Le Mont-Valérien)     The phrase caviar to the general is used to denote a good thing unappreciated by the ignorant (here, the general refers to the multitude). It is from The Tragicall Historie […]

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origin of ‘corduroy’: ‘colour de roy’ (i.e. king’s colour)?

  photograph: javi.velazquez       MEANING   a heavy cotton pile fabric with lengthways ribs   ORIGIN: UNKNOWN   The original form of this noun, in the late 18th century, was corderoy. The earliest use of the word that I have found is from The Manchester Mercury (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Tuesday 7th April 1772: […]

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‘midinette’: originally a seamstress taking a light dinner at midday

  Phonetically and semantically similar to milliner, the French word midinette was defined as “a milliner’s female assistant, especially in Paris” in the 1933 Supplement to the New English Dictionary (as the Oxford English Dictionary was known). However, while milliner literally means a Milanese, a native or inhabitant of Milan, midinette is a portmanteau word, […]

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the probable origin of ‘donkey’

   definition of donkey in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), by Francis Grose     Donkey is a word of late appearance and of uncertain origin. It was first defined by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785): Donkey, donkey dick: a he, or […]

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