Mayday

  Frederick Stanley Mockford’s gravestone at Selmeston, East Sussex, England – photograph: Geoffrey Gillon/Find A Grave     The word Mayday, which dates from 1923, is used as an international radio distress signal, especially by ships and aircraft. It was supposedly coined by Frederick Stanley Mockford (1897-1962), a senior radio officer at London’s Croydon Airport, but […]

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trick or treat

  London Weekend Television logo     Originally North American, the phrase trick or treat is a traditional formula used at Hallowe’en by children who call on houses threatening to play a trick unless given a treat or present. It is recent, since it is first recorded in The Lethbridge Herald (Alberta, Canada) of 4th November 1927: “TRICK OR TREAT” […]

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in the swim

  G. A. SALA, TO SIR AUGUSTUS HARRIS, ON PASSING THE PALACE THEATRE:—“I SAY, GUS, THINGS LOOK A LITTLE LIVELIER HERE THAN WHEN YOU AND I WERE IN THE SWIM!” — from The Entr’acte and Limelight (London) of 10th March 1894 (Augustus Harris (1825-73) was a British actor and theatre manager. George Augustus Sala (1828-95), was […]

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hat trick

  THE HAT TRICK. ORGANISER OF GRACE TESTIMONIAL: — “I AM NOT DOING THIS TO GET ADVERTISEMENT; MY ONLY OBJECT IS TO HELP THIS POOR UNDERPAID CRICKETER!” caricature from The Entr’acte & Limelight (London) – 22nd June 1895 In 1895, a testimonial fund was set up for W. G. Grace (1848-1915), the Grand Old Man […]

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happy as a sandboy

  The phrase (as) happy (or jolly) as a sandboy means extremely happy or carefree. A sandboy was a boy hawking sand for sale. It seems that the earliest use of the word is The Rider and Sand-boy: a Tale, the title of a poem written by a certain Mr Meyler and published in Harvest-Home in 1805: A poor shoeless urchin, half-starv’d and sun-tann’d, Went by […]

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human bean

  The term human bean is a humorous alteration or mispronunciation of human being, frequently used as part of an extended pun relating to beans. It is first recorded in Punch, or The London Charivari (1842): This little wretch is exciting the most intense interest, (Faugh!) and we have bribed the authorities in all directions to obtain information regarding him. […]

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tell that to the marines

  “HUNS KILL WOMEN AND CHILDREN!” “TELL THAT TO THE MARINES!” First-World-War US recruiting poster by James Montgomery Flagg image: Disappearing Idioms This poster, which attracted a great deal of attention, portrays an angry-looking young man in the act of pulling off his coat as though he were anxious to get into a fight. The […]

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Rotten Row

  the Rotten-row in Glasgow, circa 1570 image: The Glasgow Story     The street name Rotten Row occurs in many different towns. For example, The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh) of 10th December 1728 published the following advertisement: There is just come to Leith, a Parcel of fine Figs both in Casks and Frails [= baskets], […]

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fag end

      MEANINGS   – the last part of something, especially when regarded as less important or interesting – British, informal: a cigarette end   ORIGIN   The obsolete adjective flag, attested in the late 16th century, meant flabby, hanging down. It was either an onomatopoeic formation or, via Middle French flac, from Latin […]

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milliner

  A Morning Ramble, or The Milliners Shop (1782) image: The British Museum       A milliner is a person (generally a woman) who makes or sells women’s hats. But a Milliner was originally a native or inhabitant of Milan, a city in northern Italy. The word is first recorded in this sense in […]

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