fifth column

    The term fifth column, which translates Spanish quinta columna, denotes the enemy’s supporters in one’s own country, or a body of one’s supporters in an attacked or occupied foreign country, hence, more generally, any group of hostile or subversive infiltrators, any enemy in one’s midst. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was the conflict […]

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doolally

Four’s a Crowd.—A merry, irresponsible farce that dips frequently into pure crazy comedy. For this they have chosen to give Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland a “break” from their usual story book hero and heroine types. These two lovely young people do very well, but I cannot think that crazy comedy suits them best. […]

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to chance one’s arm

    The informal British phrase to chance one’s arm means to undertake something although it may be dangerous or unsuccessful. Its origin is unclear. The earliest use that I have found is from How our blue-jackets are fed, an article about the “diet of the British sailor at sea” published in The Weekly Telegraph […]

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mayonnaise

  photograph: Farm Shop     The noun mayonnaise denotes a thick, creamy sauce consisting of egg yolks emulsified with oil and seasoned, used as a cold dressing or accompaniment for salad, eggs, fish, etc., or as the base for other sauces. It is used in two French phrases: la mayonnaise prend, literally, the mayonnaise […]

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to leave no stone unturned

  photograph: pixabay     The phrase to leave no stone unturned means to try every possible course of action in order to achieve something. (The equivalent French phrase has a cosmic dimension since it is remuer ciel et terre, literally, to move heaven and earth.) The image of turning every stone was already proverbial […]

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to push up daisies

  photograph: Max Pixel       Several colloquial phrases associate daisies with being dead: under the daisies, which means dead and buried, to push up (the) daisies and to turn one’s toes up to the daisies, which mean to be in one’s grave, to be dead. I have found an early instance of the […]

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ham-fisted – ham-handed

  The word ham denotes the part of the hindquarters of a pig or similar animal between the hock and the hip, hence, in cookery, the meat of this part, especially when salted or smoked. The comparison between large hands and hams (aided by the alliteration ham–hand) gave rise to the adjectives ham-fisted and ham-handed, meaning having large hands, hence also heavy-handed, awkward, bungling. These adjectives […]

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Albion

The name Albion did not originally refer to the white cliffs of Dover. (photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Fanny)   The name Albion first appeared in English in the very first sentence of the first Book of the 9th-century translation of Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) originally written by the English monk, theologian and historian St. Bede (circa 673-735):   […]

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Kilkenny cats

    Kilkenny cats denotes two cats fabled to have fought until only their tails remained, hence combatants who fight until they annihilate each other, and to fight like Kilkenny cats means to engage in a mutually destructive struggle. (The name Kilkenny denotes both a county in south-eastern Ireland and its chief town.) The earliest […]

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heart of oak

  A New Song, sung by Mr. Champness in Harlequin’s Invasion from The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure – March 1760     The phrase heart of oak denotes a person with a strong, courageous nature, especially a brave and loyal soldier or sailor, and a courageous or valorous spirit. Its literal meaning is the heartwood of the oak. The heartwood […]

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