between the devil and the deep blue sea

early 17th century, with ‘the Dead Sea’ and ‘the deep sea’—originated in the image of a choice between damnation (‘the Devil’) and drowning (‘the sea’)

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origin of ‘to break the ice’

from the image of breaking the frozen surface of a river in order to make a passage for boats – probably from Latin ‘scindere glaciem’, in Erasmus’s Adages

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let the cobbler stick to his last

‘Let the cobbler stick to his last’ goes back to Pliny’s story of the Greek artist Apelles answering a cobbler who had criticised one of his paintings.

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don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

A horse’s teeth reveal its age. It is therefore bad manners to look in the mouth of a horse that has been received as a gift in order to establish its value.

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(as) mad as a March hare

‘(As) mad as a March hare’ refers to the fact that, in the breeding season, the hare is characterised by much leaping, boxing and chasing in circles.

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to make no bones about something

    Sacrifice of Isaac, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (circa 1571-1610)     MEANING   to have no hesitation in stating, or dealing with, something, however unpleasant or awkward it is   ORIGIN   Always used in the negative, this phrase dates back to the 16th century, originally as to make no bones at or in. It also […]

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one swallow does not make a summer

  photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Thermos     MEANING   a single fortunate event doesn’t mean that what follows will also be good   ORIGIN   The annual migration of swallows to Europe from southern climes at the end of winter was the subject of a proverb in Ancient Greece: μία χελιδὼν ἔαρ οὐ ποιεῖ, in which […]

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at sixes and sevens

  Gilbert and Sullivan: All at Sixes and Sevens – image: Thimothy Knapman     The phrase at sixes and sevens means in a state of total confusion or disarray. Based on the language of dicing, the phrase was originally to set (all) on six and seven. It denoted the hazard of one’s whole fortune, or carelessness as to the consequences of one’s actions. From this […]

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