‘a sprat to catch a mackerel’: meaning and origin

1747—a small outlay or risk ventured in the hope or expectation of a significant return—a metaphor from fishing, in which sprats are used as bait to catch larger fish—in early use with the words ‘salmon’ and ‘herring’ instead of ‘mackerel’

Read More

‘to make a spoon or spoil a horn’: meaning and origin

Scotland, 1806—to make a determined effort to achieve something, whether ending in success or failure—refers to the making of spoons out of the horns of cattle or sheep, which was common in Scotland till late in the 19th century

Read More

‘see that’s wet, see that’s dry’: meaning and origin

Ireland, 1889—emphasises the truthfulness and sincerity of what one is saying—derives from a children’s oath which involved licking a finger, drying it, and drawing it across the throat while saying “My finger’s wet. My finger’s dry. Cut my throat if I tell a lie.”

Read More

‘elbow grease’ | ‘huile de coude’

The humorous expression ‘elbow grease’ (1639) denotes vigorous physical labour, especially hard rubbing. The corresponding French expression is ‘huile de coude’ (1761), literally ‘elbow oil’.

Read More

‘beetle-crusher’: meaning and origin

denotes a foot or a boot, especially a big one—1856, in the caption to a cartoon by John Leech, published in Punch (London, England): “A vulgar and disgusting expression, implying that a foot is big enough, and flat enough, to kill Black-beetles”

Read More

‘vinegar trip’: meanings and origin

Lancashire, England, 1973—a wasted journey; a weird way of behaving; a fit of ill temper—origin unknown—one hypothesis is that when wine boats from the Mediterranean arrived in Liverpool, the wine was occasionally sour and therefore useless

Read More

‘Tom Pepper’: meaning and early occurrences

USA, 1812—UK, 1818—the name of a character proverbially said to have been so great a liar that he was expelled from Hell—hence, frequently in ‘a bigger liar than Tom Pepper’, and variants: an outrageous liar

Read More

‘savoury duck’: meaning and origin

Lancashire, England, 1833—a faggot, a meatball, “a compound of onions, flour, and small pieces of pork” (The Liverpool Echo, 20 August 1880)—probably one of the common dishes humorously named after daintier items of food

Read More

‘blind scouse’: meaning and origin

Liverpool, England, 1939—scouse without meat—“from the general early sense of ‘blind’ meaning ‘deficient’” (Liverpool English Dictionary)—‘scouse’, shortened form of ‘lobscouse’: “a dish of hashed meat stewed with potatoes and onions; an Irish stew” (English Dialect Dictionary)

Read More