Kilkenny cats

    Kilkenny cats denotes two cats fabled to have fought until only their tails remained, hence combatants who fight until they annihilate each other, and to fight like Kilkenny cats means to engage in a mutually destructive struggle. (The name Kilkenny denotes both a county in south-eastern Ireland and its chief town.) The earliest […]

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to kick the bucket

    MEANING   to die   ORIGIN   What is nowadays considered a folk etymology may well be the true origin: to kick the bucket quite possibly refers to suicide by hanging after standing on an upturned bucket. For example, the following was published in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 27th September 1788: Last Week John Marshfield, a labouring Man, hanged […]

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to buy a pig in a poke

    In this expression, the noun poke denotes a bag, a small sack. It is from Anglo-Norman and Old Northern French forms such as poke and pouque, variants of the Old French forms poche and pouche — the last of which is the origin of English pouch. (Incidentally, English pocket is from Anglo-Norman poket, pokete, diminutive forms of poke.) The expression to buy a pig in a poke simply cautions against buying or […]

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to let the cat out of the bag

    MEANING   to disclose a secret   ORIGIN   Although it is possible that to let the cat out of the bag originally referred to some specific allusion, such as a line in a play, that has now been lost, it is probable that this phrase is simply based on the comparison between the surprise […]

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straight from the horse’s mouth

    MEANING   The phrase (straight) from the horse’s mouth refers to information and means from the person directly concerned or another authoritative source.   ORIGIN   This phrase is from horse racing, and alludes to the presumed ideal source for a racing tip. The earliest instance that I have found is from Bell’s […]

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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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fed up

  Sunderland Day By Day HE SMASHED WINDOW— Because He Was “Fed Up” “I AM ‘fed up’; I have been out of work six years and I want to be locked up,” said John Scott (61), of Hood Street, Monkwearmouth, who appeared in the dock at Sunderland Police Court to-day accused of breaking a plate glass window, […]

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Our lunatic contributor

  Ernest Weekley circa 1935     In the chapter Our lunatic contributor of Words and names (1933), the British philologist Ernest Weekley (1865-1954) wrote: The correspondence columns of our middlebrow weeklies and of our two Sunday papers are the happy hunting-ground of the amateur etymologist. A few years ago he published the discovery that ‘nap,’ ‘a short sleep,’ […]

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starboard – port

  image: nageur-sauveteur   MEANINGS   The noun starboard denotes the side of a ship or aircraft that is on the right when one is facing forward, while port denotes the opposing side.   ORIGINS   From the Germanic bases of the nouns steer and board, starboard, which appeared in Old English as steorbord, denotes literally the steer board, the steer side. This side of the ship […]

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gazette

  Venetian gazeta     In A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave gave the following definition of the French word gazette: A certaine Venetian coyne scarce worth our farthing; also, a Bill of Newes; or, a short Relation of the generall occurrences of the Time, forged most commonly at Venice, and thence dispersed, euery month, […]

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