to set the Thames on fire

from the image of an impossible task, ‘to set the Thames on fire’: to work wonders — typically used negatively in the ironic sense never to distinguish oneself

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to let the cat out of the bag

    MEANING   to disclose a secret   ORIGIN   Although it is possible that to let the cat out of the bag originally referred to some specific allusion, such as a line in a play, that has now been lost, it is probable that this phrase is simply based on the comparison between the surprise […]

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you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

    The proverb you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear means you can’t create a fine product from inferior materials. It originated in Scotland, according to its first recorded instance, in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699), by “B. E. Gent.”: Luggs, […]

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pandemonium

  Charles Macklin (circa 1792), by John Opie image: National Portrait Gallery       MEANING   a place or state of utter confusion and uproar   ORIGIN   In Paradise Lost (1667), the English poet John Milton (1608-74) invented Pandæmonium, with a capital P, as the name for the capital of Hell, containing the […]

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panjandrum

  cover of The Great Panjandrum Himself (1885), a picture book based on the text attributed to Samuel Foote, by the English artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-86) – photograph: Aleph-Bet Books     MEANING   a pompous self-important official or person of rank   ORIGIN The word is supposed to have been coined in […]

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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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