the fourth estate

  MEANING   the press; the profession of journalism   ORIGIN   The first known user of the expression, designating the ordinary people, was the English author and magistrate Henry Fielding (1707-54) writing, under the pseudonym of Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knt. Censor of Great Britain, in The Covent-Garden Journal of Saturday 13th June 1752: It […]

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shoplifting

  Tyburn’s triple tree Illustration, said to be from about 1680, of the permanent gallows at Tyburn, which stood where Marble Arch in London now stands. This necessitated a three-mile cart ride in public from Newgate prison to the gallows. Huge crowds collected on the way and followed the accused to Tyburn. They were used […]

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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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picnic

  Blowing up the PIC NIC’s:—or—Harlequin Quixotte attacking the Puppets. Vide Tottenham Street Pantomime (1802), by James Gillray (1756-1815) — image: The British Museum     MEANING   a meal eaten outdoors   ORIGIN   This word is from French pique-nique, probably formed with reduplication from the verb piquer, to pick. (Similarly, pêle-mêle, the origin […]

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tennis

  advertisements for sphairistike, or lawn tennis The Morning Post (London) – Tuesday 26th May 1874     The word tennis in its current sense is short for lawn tennis. The original form of tennis (known as real tennis to distinguish it from the later lawn tennis) was played with a solid ball on an […]

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to sack

    a set of seven hand-painted wooden bowling pins in the form of clowns photograph: Le Bonheur du Jour – Etsy     To sack someone means to dismiss someone from employment. This verb seems to have appeared in the first half of the 19th century. For example, the Perthshire Courier (Scotland) of Thursday 29 […]

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Shanks’s pony

  “Go by Shanks’ pony – Walk short distances and leave room for those who have longer journeys” – a Second World War poster by Lewitt-Him for the Ministry of War Transport – image: Imperial War Museums     The phrase Shanks’(s) pony, or mare, etc, means one’s own legs as a means of conveyance. It is […]

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to carry coals to Newcastle

  A trainload of coal on the High Level Bridge in Newcastle photograph: Stephen Craven     MEANING   to supply something to a place where it is already plentiful; hence, figuratively, to do something wholly superfluous or unnecessary   ORIGIN   This phrase (in which coals is an obsolete plural) refers to Newcastle upon […]

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Harriet Lane – Fanny Adams

  Lamentation of Henry Wainwright, For the Murder and Mutilation of Harriet Lane (1875)     MEANING   The Northern Daily Mail and South Durham Herald (Northumberland) of 14th July 1894 published an article titled Naval slang: How Jack re-christens things, which contains the following: The preserved meat served out to him is known as “Fanny Adams” or “Harriet Lane.” But the term Harriet Lane was also […]

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to rain cats and dogs (1)

giving the true origin of the phrase “it is raining cats and dogs” and debunking its false etymologies

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