‘to be a box of birds’: meaning and origin

Australia and New Zealand, 1939—to be in good spirits, ‘chirpy’—the image is of a boxful of chirping birds (cf. the extended form ‘happy as a bird in a box of birdseed’)—New-Zealand variant ‘to be a box of fluffy ducks’, also ‘to be a box of fluffies’

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‘green thumb’: meaning and origin

British, 1907—denotes considerable talent or ability to grow plants—in this phrase, the adjective ‘green’ refers to the colour of growing vegetation—1921: ‘green-thumbed’ (adjective)

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‘Buckley’s (chance): meaning and origin

Australia, 1887—a forlorn hope, no prospect whatever—may refer to the British convict William Buckley (1780-1856), who escaped from custody in 1803 and lived for thirty-two years with Aboriginal people

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‘butterfingered’ | ‘butterfingers’

‘butterfingered’, adjective, 1615: having a tendency to let things fall or slip from one’s hands—also (English, regional) unable or unwilling to handle hot items with one’s bare hands—‘butterfingers’, noun, 1835: a butterfingered person, a person with a tendency to let things fall or slip from his or her hands

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‘Adam and Eve’ (to believe)

UK, 1925—the verb ‘Adam and Eve’ is rhyming slang for ‘to believe’—there is no truncation, contrary to the usual rhyming-slang formation (cf. ‘scooby’, rhyming slang for ‘clue’, which is short for ‘Scooby Doo’)

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‘to spin a yarn’: meaning and origin

UK and USA, 1816—to tell a long, far-fetched story—of nautical origin? (perhaps alludes to making ropes from lengths of yarn on board ship: the men would have told one another stories while performing this long and tedious task)

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‘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’

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‘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

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‘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.”

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