to cock a snook

  illustration by the Danish artist Thomas Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-59)   The literal sense of to cock a snook is to make a rude gesture by putting one thumb to the nose with the fingers of the hand outstretched. Its figurative meaning is to show contempt by being insulting or offensive. Here, to cock means […]

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imbecile

  Orphan Man with Cap and Walking Stick (1882), by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) image: Van Gogh Gallery     The English adjective imbecile is, via French, from the Latin imbecillus, or imbecillis, meaning weak, feeble, in body or mind. In his etymological encyclopaedia Originum sive Etymologiarum (The Origins or Etymologies), the Spanish archbishop and Doctor of the Church St Isidore of Seville (circa 560-636) wrote […]

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of that kidney

  bust of Jonathan Swift – Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin     The word kidney, which is attested around 1325, is of unclear origin. The second element of the Middle-English form kidenei, plural kideneiren, is apparently ey, plural eyren, meaning egg (cf. German Eier, literally eggs, used to mean testicles). The first element remains uncertain; it […]

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bonfire

  a Fifth of November bonfire in Hastings – photograph: VisitEngland     In A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84) thus defined bonfire: [from bon, good, French, and fire.] A fire made for some publick cause of triumph or exultation. In support of this etymology, bonfire in several languages is, literally, fire of joy. For […]

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flirt

  photograph: Famille Michaud, beekeepers since 1920     MAIN MEANINGS   – verb: to behave as though sexually attracted to someone, but playfully rather than with serious intentions – noun: a person who acts flirtatiously   ORIGIN   The verb flirt is probably onomatopoeic, the phonetic elements /fl-/ and /-əːt/ both suggesting sudden movement. […]

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The veracious story of a worthy knight, called Sir Loin of Beef

  At Astley Hall (Lancashire), you can still see this chair… … with the following explanation: Sirloin Chair – King James I reputedly knighted a loin of beef upon this chair at Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, in 1617. Se non è vero, è ben trovato. (Even if it is not true, it makes a good story.)   […]

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