meaning and origin of ‘dressed to the nines’

  We’ll show her dressed to the nines, posing with a tribe of gypsies in the Pyrenees illustration by Steven Spurrier for The Vanishing Star. A Comedy of Love and Strategy in Hollywood, by Reita Weiman, published in Britannia and Eve (London) of December 1932     The phrase dressed to the nines means dressed […]

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origin of the phrase ‘as warm as toast’

  advertisement from the Hastings & St. Leonards Observer (East Sussex) 25th November 1950 How warm is Toast? Correctly toasted and caught at the moment of ripeness, opinion has it that the crispest toast reaches the ultimate in its exquisite flavour at a temperature of between 150 and 160 degrees. But willy-nilly, tastes vary, and it would less […]

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the authentic origin of ‘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 accepting […]

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meaning and origin of the phrase ‘a cat may look at a king’

  Executioner argues with King about cutting off Cheshire Cat’s head – illustration by John Tenniel (1820-1914) for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) The executioner’s argument was, that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from.     The phrase a cat may look at a king means even a person of low […]

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origin of the phrase ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’

title page of The Scourge of Folly (1611?), by John Davies of Hereford     The proverb you can’t have your cake and eat it (too) means you can’t enjoy both of two desirable but mutually exclusive alternatives. It made more sense in its early formulations, when the positions of have and eat had not […]

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origin of ‘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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origin of ‘Witham’ (a place whose inhabitants are stupid)

  Witham (Essex) – town sign photograph: East Anglian Daily Times     Witham is the name of several villages in Lincolnshire and Essex. With a pun on wit, the expression little, or small, Witham was used proverbially for a place of which the inhabitants were remarkable for stupidity. For example, the following, from A fourth […]

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meaning and origin of the phrase ‘make hay’

  The phrase make hay means make good use of an opportunity while it lasts. This is a shortening of make hay while the sun shines, recorded in A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue compacte in a matter concernyng two maner of mariages (1546), by the English […]

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meaning and origin of the phrase ‘tit for tat’

  original illustration for The Spider and the Flie (1556), by John Heywood     The phrase tit for tat means an equivalent given in return or retaliation. The expression seems to be a variation of the obsolete and more comprehensible tip for tap, in which both tip and tap meant a light but distinct blow, stroke, hit. The phrase therefore meant blow for […]

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origin and history of the word ‘dandy’

   Dandy Dinmonts by the Haining Loch (1888), by the Scottish artist Robert Smellie     MEANING   a man unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable   ORIGIN   As it was originally in use on the Scottish Border at the end of the 18th century, dandy represents perhaps the name Andrew. (From Dandie […]

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