shell out

  photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Bill Ebbesen     The phrasal verb shell out means to pay a specified amount of money, especially one regarded as excessive. It is first recorded in Moral tales for young people (1801), by the Anglo-Irish novelist and educationist Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849): “One of you, it’s plain, must shell out your corianders.” (The word coriander (or coliander), short […]

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happy as a sandboy

  The phrase (as) happy (or jolly) as a sandboy means extremely happy or carefree. A sandboy was a boy hawking sand for sale. It seems that the earliest use of the word is The Rider and Sand-boy: a Tale, the title of a poem written by a certain Mr Meyler and published in Harvest-Home in 1805: A poor shoeless urchin, half-starv’d and sun-tann’d, Went by […]

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myrmidon

  statue of Ovid in Constanţa (ancient Tomis, the city where he was exiled), Romania – 1887, by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari – photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Kurt Wichmann     The noun myrmidon denotes a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly. This word first […]

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tell that to the marines

  “HUNS KILL WOMEN AND CHILDREN!” “TELL THAT TO THE MARINES!” First-World-War US recruiting poster by James Montgomery Flagg image: Disappearing Idioms This poster, which attracted a great deal of attention, portrays an angry-looking young man in the act of pulling off his coat as though he were anxious to get into a fight. The […]

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apple-pie order

  chaussons aux pommes (apple turnovers) photograph: The Good Life France       The compound apple-pie order means perfect order or neatness. Its first known user was a British Royal Navy officer, Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley (1734-1808), in his journal in 1780: Exercised Great Guns and small Arms as I constantly do every Tuesday […]

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Rotten Row

  the Rotten-row in Glasgow, circa 1570 image: The Glasgow Story     The street name Rotten Row occurs in many different towns. For example, The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh) of 10th December 1728 published the following advertisement: There is just come to Leith, a Parcel of fine Figs both in Casks and Frails [= baskets], […]

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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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pedigree

  Whooping Crane (Grus americana) from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1904)     The word pedigree appeared in the early 15th century in the Latin form pedicru and in English forms such as pe-de-grew and pedegru, from Anglo-Norman French pé de grue and variants (pied de grue in Modern French), meaning literally foot of crane. The Anglo-Norman French word is first recorded during the […]

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put a sock in it!

  This cartoon by Bert Thomas (1883-1966) for the British Ministry of Information during World War II illustrates the folk etymology of the phrase.     MEANING    stop talking!   ORIGIN   The earliest known mention of this phrase is in a letter published by the London literary magazine The Athenæum of 8th August 1919: Sir, The […]

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forlorn hope

  MEANING   a persistent or desperate hope that is unlikely to be fulfilled, a faint hope, a ‘hope against hope’   ORIGIN   On the face of it, this is a curious expression, because the adjective forlorn does not normally mean faint but miserable, lonely, forsaken or sad. The current sense of forlorn hope […]

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