the cultural background to ‘the Swan of Avon’

an epithet for William Shakespeare, born at Stratford-upon-Avon, on the River Avon—first used by Ben Jonson in the earliest collected edition (1623) of Shakespeare’s plays—but this use of ‘swan’ for a bard, a poet, is rooted in a tradition going back to antiquity

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meaning and origin of ‘to see which way the cat jumps’

  Tip-Cat in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly (1787 edition)     The phrase to see which way the cat jumps means to see what direction events are taking before committing oneself. One of its earliest instances is from The Berkshire Chronicle […]

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the origin and various meanings of ‘grimalkin’

In The Tragedie of Macbeth (around 1603), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Gray-Malkin is the name of a fiend in the shape of a grey she-cat, the cat being the form most generally assumed by the familiar spirits of witches according to a common superstition: (Folio 1, 1623)                 […]

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the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand’s doing

The phrase the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing and variants express unawareness, or (deliberate) ignorance, of one’s own activities. This phrase is now mainly used to convey that there is a state of confusion within a group or organisation. But, in early use, it was an injunction to be discreet in […]

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meanings and origin of the phrase ‘no love lost’

The phrase there’s no, or little, or not much, love lost between means there is mutual dislike between. This expression is ambiguous, and has also been used to mean there is mutual affection between. Both senses are found in Clarissa; or, The history of a young lady (1748), an epistolary novel by the English author and printer Samuel Richardson (1689-1761): – ‘positive’ sense: “Why, […]

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‘Richard Snary’, humorous name for a dictionary

The term Richard Snary is an alteration, with humorous substitution of Richard for the pet-form Dick, of Dick Snary, itself a humorous remodelling of dictionary. These terms are first recorded in Apollo shrouing composed for the schollars of the free-schoole of Hadleigh in Suffolke. And acted by them on Shrouetuesday, being the sixt of February, 1626, by William Hawkins (died 1637): – I […]

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The veracious story of a worthy knight, called Sir Loin of Beef

  At Astley Hall (Lancashire), you can still see this chair… … with the following explanation: Sirloin Chair – King James I reputedly knighted a loin of beef upon this chair at Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, in 1617. Se non è vero, è ben trovato. (Even if it is not true, it makes a good story.)   […]

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