over the top

‘Over the top’, which means ‘excessive’, originated as a WWI expression meaning ‘over the parapet of a trench and into battle’.

Read More

(with) tongue in cheek

The phrase ‘(with) tongue in cheek’ originally referred to a sign of contempt or derision consisting in sticking one’s tongue in one’s cheek.

Read More

origin of ‘quiz’

Originally students’ slang, ‘quiz’ is from Latin ‘quis’, meaning ‘who’, as used by the Roman poet Horace in “vir bonus est quis?”, “who is a good man?”

Read More

toad-in-the-hole – pigeon à la crapaudine

    In a letter that she wrote to her sister in December 1797, the English novelist, diarist and playwright Madame d’Arblay (née Frances Burney – 1752-1840) gave an account of a conversation with Princess Augusta, daughter of King George III (Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), one of the greatest English tragediennes, had bought Sadler’s Wells, a London […]

Read More

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 […]

Read More

sæva indignatio

  Jonathan Swift’s grave, marked by a simple brass plaque on the floor at the west end of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, is adjacent to that of his great friend in life, Stella (Esther Johnson – 1681-1728): plaques marking the graves of Jonathan Swift and Esther Johnson     Latin sæva indignatio, meaning savage indignation, expresses a […]

Read More

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 […]

Read More

red top

  three red tops: the Daily Mirror, The Sun, the Daily Star     In the following, the noun tabloid has the sense of a newspaper having pages half the size of those of the average broadsheet, aimed at the mass market, with relatively little serious political or economic content but considerable amounts of sport, celebrity gossip, scandal and trivial […]

Read More

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 […]

Read More

to amputate one’s mahogany

  cut one’s stick, to be off quickly, i.e., be in readiness for a journey, further elaborated into amputate your mahogany from A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words (2nd edition – 1860), by the English publisher and author John Camden Hotten (1832-73)     The expression to amputate one’s mahogany is a […]

Read More