to chance one’s arm

    The informal British phrase to chance one’s arm means to undertake something although it may be dangerous or unsuccessful. Its origin is unclear. The earliest use that I have found is from How our blue-jackets are fed, an article about the “diet of the British sailor at sea” published in The Weekly Telegraph […]

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to toe the line

    The phrase to toe the line means to accept the authority, policies or principles of a particular group, especially unwillingly. Its literal sense is to stand or crouch with the toes touching the line, especially at the start of a race or fight. The current meaning is an extension of a figurative usage, […]

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not to give a tinker’s damn

  The phrase not to give, care or be worth a tinker¹’s curse, cuss² or damn (or elliptically a tinker’s) is an intensification of not to give, care or be worth a curse, cuss or damn, with reference to the bad language reputedly used by tinkers. The low repute in which tinkers were held is also […]

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mayonnaise

  photograph: Farm Shop     The noun mayonnaise denotes a thick, creamy sauce consisting of egg yolks emulsified with oil and seasoned, used as a cold dressing or accompaniment for salad, eggs, fish, etc., or as the base for other sauces. It is used in two French phrases: la mayonnaise prend, literally, the mayonnaise […]

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thinking cap

  The term thinking cap denotes an imaginary cap humorously said to be worn in order to facilitate thinking. The earliest instance that I have found is from the Western Carolinian (Salisbury, North Carolina) of 16th October 1821: We advise the editor to put his thinking-cap on, before he hazards another such assertion. The term also […]

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cock-and-bull story

Democritus Junior (Robert Burton) from the frontispiece to the 1628 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy     The phrase cock-and-bull story denotes an implausible story used as an explanation or excuse. The French expression sauter du coq à l’âne, literally to jump from the cock to the (male) ass, means to skip from one subject to another, the […]

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stirrup cup – one for the road

    Huntsmen still use stirrup cup to designate an alcoholic drink offered to riders either as they are about to depart or when they return. Mr. Barry Puilan, Master of the East Antrim Hounds, hands a stirrup cup to huntsman Jack Taylor during the meet at Trench Hill, Ballyeaston, yesterday. from The Northern Whig […]

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origin of ‘blarney’

‘blarney’: originally an allusion to the lies told by those who, having not reached the Blarney stone (in a castle near Cork), explained how they did reach it

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Albion

The name Albion did not originally refer to the white cliffs of Dover. (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, theologian and historian St. Bede (circa 673-735):   […]

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teetotal

  tombstone of Richard ‘Dicky’ Turner at Preston “Beneath this stone are deposited the remains of Richard Turner, author of the word teetotal as applied to abstinence from all intoxicating liquors, who departed this life on the 27th day of October 1846, aged 56 years.” photograph: Paul D. Swarbrick     The adjective teetotal in […]

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