lupus

  illustration from The British Wolf-Hunters. A Tale of England in the Olden Time (1859), by Thomas Miller     The Latin noun lupus/-pi meant wolf. It is kindred with ancient Greek λύκος (= lukos) – cf. lycanthrope, which originally designated a person who believes that he or she is a wolf, and which, via modern Latin lycanthrōpus, is from Greek λυκάνθρωπος (= lukanthropos), literally wolf-man, from λύκος and ἄνθρωπος (= anthropos), man. The Latin lupus has sometimes […]

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black sheep

  photograph: Hill Farm, Abermule     MEANING   a member of a family or group who is regarded as a disgrace to it   ORIGIN   This was perhaps originally an allusion to the book of Genesis, 30. Jacob has already worked fourteen years for both of Laban’s daughters, and after Joseph’s birth he desires to […]

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virtus dormitiva

  Molière dans le rôle de César dans La Mort de Pompée de Corneille (circa 1650) par Nicolas Mignard (1606-68) – image: Musée Carnavalet     This Latin expression is composed of virtus, virtue, and dormitiva, feminine of dormitivus, dormitive. It first appeared in the following lines in dog Latin of Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid – 1673), in which the French playwright Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin […]

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hand of glory

  mandragoras – from Stirpium historiae pemptades sex sive libri XXX (1583), by Rembert Dodoens     The term hand of glory originally denoted a charm made from, or consisting of, the root of a mandrake. A calque of French main de gloire, it was first used in Curiosities of nature and art in husbandry […]

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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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to teach one’s grandmother to suck eggs

  Original illustration for Of the Swine in The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658), by Edward Topsell     The phrase to teach one’s grandmother to suck eggs means to presume to advise a more experienced person. Raw eggs, with or without a little seasoning, used to be a popular food and were regarded as healthy. Grandmothers obviously needed no […]

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halcyon

  kingfisher – photograph: Wikimedia Commons/JJ Harrison     The Latin noun halcyon, more properly alcyon, was derived from Greek ἀλκυών (= alkuon), incorrectly spelt ἁλκυών (= halkuon), meaning kingfisher. The ancients fabled that the halcyon bred about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea, and that it charmed […]

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on the nail

    MEANING   of payments: without delay   ORIGIN   This expression refers to the fingernail and might originally have alluded to drinking fair and square. A clue might be provided by the French phrase payer rubis sur l’ongle (literally to pay ruby on the fingernail), which means to pay exactly what is due. (A variant, used by prostitutes, was rubis sur pieu, […]

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short shrift

  The Murder of the Princes in the Tower – illustration from The National and Domestic History of England (1870?-80?), by William Hickman Smith Aubrey (1848?-1916)     The expression short shrift means brief and unsympathetic treatment, and to make short shrift of means to dispose of quickly and unsympathetically. A short shrift was originally […]

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reseda

  Reseda lutea L. photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Udo Schmidt     MEANING   any plant of the European genus Reseda, including mignonette and dyer’s rocket, which has small spikes of greenish, yellowish or whitish flowers   ORIGIN   Through translations of Naturalis Historia (Natural History – 77), a vast encyclopaedia of the natural and human worlds […]

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