to steal someone’s thunder

  photograph: pixabay     The phrase to steal someone’s thunder means: to use the ideas, policies, etc., devised by another person, political party, etc., for one’s own advantage or to anticipate their use by the originator. It is said to have originated in an exclamation by the English critic and ineffective playwright John Dennis […]

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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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philtrum

photograph: Google+ Communities     The noun philtrum denotes the vertical groove between the base of the nose and the border of the upper lip. The literal and obsolete signification of this word, which appeared in the early 17th century, is love potion, from classical Latin philtrum, of same meaning. In post-classical Latin, philtrum came to also denote the dimple in the upper lip. It […]

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not a cat in hell’s chance

  Jackson’s Oxford Journal – 29th September 1753     The phrase not a cat in hell’s chance, which means no chance at all, is puzzling. It is a shortening of the more explicit no more chance than a cat in hell without claws.  The earliest instance of this phrase that I have found is from Jackson’s Oxford […]

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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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origin of ‘the forbidden fruit’

  Eve offering the apple to Adam in the Garden of Eden, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (circa 1472-1553)     According to the post-biblical Christian tradition, the apple is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in defiance of God’s commandment. However, in the Book of […]

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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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rhesus

  Le Rhesus (Simia Rhesus) – illustration by Jean-Baptiste Audebert for his treatise, Histoire naturelle des singes et des makis (1799) – image: Bibliothèque nationale de France / gallica.bnf.fr     This word is from French rhésus, formerly rhesus, and from its etymon, the scientific Latin (Simia) Rhesus. In Histoire naturelle des singes et des makis (Natural […]

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beyond the pale

  MEANING   outside the limits of social convention   ORIGIN   The primary meanings of the noun pale are a wooden stake or post used with others to form a fence and a wooden fence made of stakes driven into the ground. This word appeared in the late 14th century and is from Anglo-Norman and Middle French pal, meaning a stake, a palisade, a […]

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