trumpery

  Donald Trump Lookups for trumpery have been spiking periodically since the end of 2015, as a result of the burgeoning political fortunes of Donald Trump. Recently, people have begun posting trumpery definitions to various social media sites. This fairly obscure word has a decidedly negative set of meanings which have delighted the real estate […]

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a horse that was foaled of an acorn

    The phrase a horse that was foaled of an acorn denoted the gibbet, sometimes also called triple tree. In A Collection of English Proverbs (1678), the English naturalist and theologian John Ray (1627-1705) wrote: You’ll ride on a horse that was foal’d of an acorn. That is the gallows. Pelham; or, The Adventures […]

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myrmidon

  statue of Ovid in Constanţa (ancient Tomis, the city where he was exiled), Romania – 1887, by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari – photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Kurt Wichmann     The noun myrmidon denotes a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly. This word first […]

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to miss the bus

  The phrase to miss the bus, or the boat, etc., means to be too slow to take advantage of an opportunity. In A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1993), B. A. Phythian explained: This expression is said to originate in an Oxford story of the 1840s about John Henry Newman, fellow of Oriel […]

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knight in shining armour

  Lancelot and Guinevere, illustration by N.C. Wyeth, for The Boy’s King Arthur: Sir Thomas Malory’s History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, 1917 – image: Encyclopædia Britannica     The expression knight in shining armour denotes a person regarded as a medieval knight in respect of his chivalrous spirit, especially […]

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at sixes and sevens

  Gilbert and Sullivan: All at Sixes and Sevens – image: Thimothy Knapman     The phrase at sixes and sevens means in a state of total confusion or disarray. Based on the language of dicing, the phrase was originally to set (all) on six and seven. It denoted the hazard of one’s whole fortune, or carelessness as to the consequences of one’s actions. From this […]

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put a sock in it!

  This cartoon by Bert Thomas (1883-1966) for the British Ministry of Information during World War II illustrates the folk etymology of the phrase.     MEANING    stop talking!   ORIGIN   The earliest known mention of this phrase is in a letter published by the London literary magazine The Athenæum of 8th August 1919: Sir, The […]

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forlorn hope

  MEANING   a persistent or desperate hope that is unlikely to be fulfilled, a faint hope, a ‘hope against hope’   ORIGIN   On the face of it, this is a curious expression, because the adjective forlorn does not normally mean faint but miserable, lonely, forsaken or sad. The current sense of forlorn hope […]

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caviar to the general

  The letter written to his family by the French resistant Yves Daoudal (1891-1944) on 5th April 1944, before he was shot. A passage has been “caviardé”, blue-pencilled. (Photograph: Le Mont-Valérien)     The phrase caviar to the general is used to denote a good thing unappreciated by the ignorant (here, the general refers to the multitude). It is from The Tragicall Historie […]

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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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