‘to pile Pelion upon Ossa’: meanings and origin

1609—to add to what is already great, also to add difficulty to difficulty—Pelion and Ossa are two mountains in Thessaly—in Greek mythology, two giants, Otus and Ephialtes, tried to pile Pelion and Ossa on Olympus in order to reach the gods and overthrow them

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‘to bury one’s head in the sand’: meaning and origin

to refuse to face up to unpleasant or awkward realities—refers to the practice traditionally attributed to the ostrich of thrusting its head into the sand when being overtaken by pursuers, supposedly through an incapacity to distinguish between seeing and being seen

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‘capsize’: meaning, early occurrences and origin

to upset, to overturn—1777—origin unknown—perhaps based on Spanish ‘capuzar’, meaning ‘to sink (a ship) by the head’—or perhaps based on a Provençal compound of ‘cap’, meaning ‘head’

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‘all roads lead to Rome’: meaning and origin

1793—probably ultimately after post-classical Latin ‘mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam…’ (‘a thousand roads lead for ever to Rome the men…’)—the metaphor occurred in A Treatise on the Astrolabe (ca 1391), by Geoffrey Chaucer

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sense evolution of ‘rhubarb’: from theatre to nonsense

UK—‘rhubarb’ is colloquially used to denote ‘nonsense’—originated in the theatrical practice consisting for a group of actors in repeating the word ‘rhubarb’ to represent an indistinct background conversation or the noise of a crowd

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‘royal we’: meaning and origin

UK, 1821—‘we’ used in place of ‘I’ by a monarch or other person in power, also (frequently humorously) by any individual—originated as a loan translation from French ‘nous royal’, as used of Napoléon Bonaparte by Madame de Staël in her memoirs published in 1821

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‘lead in one’s pencil’: meaning and origin

USA, 1927—denotes male vigour, especially sexual—with wordplay on ‘penis’—interestingly, via an alteration of the Latin diminutive ‘pēnĭcillus’, denoting literally a little tail, hence a painter’s brush or pencil, ‘pencil’ is derived from Latin ‘pēnis’, denoting literally a tail, hence the penis

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‘elbow grease’ | ‘huile de coude’

The humorous expression ‘elbow grease’ (1639) denotes vigorous physical labour, especially hard rubbing. The corresponding French expression is ‘huile de coude’ (1761), literally ‘elbow oil’.

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‘boustrophedon’: meaning and origin

1762—(especially of an ancient style of writing): having alternate lines written from left to right and from right to left—from the Greek adverb ‘βουστροφηδόν’, meaning literally ‘as an ox turns (in ploughing)’, with allusion to the course of the plough in successive furrows

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‘mare nostrum’: meanings and origin

classical Latin ‘mare nostrum’, literally ‘our sea’: one of the names given by the Romans to the Mediterranean Sea—USA, 1824: any sea or other stretch of water belonging to, or under the control of, a nation

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