meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to play gooseberry’

PLAYING “GOOSEBERRY.” Incredible though the statement may sound in these days, there still exist shy and diffident lovers of both sexes to whom, before they are quite, quite sure of themselves or each other, the presence of a “gooseberry” acts at once as support and fillip. Naturally the sensible girl will select as gooseberry a […]

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meaning and origin of ‘not to give a tinker’s damn’

  The phrase not to give, care or be worth a tinker¹’s curse, cuss² or damn (or elliptically a tinker’s) is an intensification of not to give, care or be worth a curse, cuss or damn, with reference to the bad language reputedly used by tinkers. The low repute in which tinkers were held is also […]

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meaning and origin of ‘cock-and-bull story’

Democritus Junior (Robert Burton) from the frontispiece to the 1628 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy     The phrase cock-and-bull story denotes an implausible story used as an explanation or excuse. The French expression sauter du coq à l’âne, literally to jump from the cock to the (male) ass, means to skip from one subject to another, the […]

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meaning and origin of the phrase ‘the cup that cheers’

    The phrase the cup that cheers but not inebriates and its variants refer to tea as a drink which invigorates a person without causing drunkenness. It is from The Winter Evening, the fourth book of The Task. A Poem, in six Books (1785), by the English poet and letter-writer William Cowper (1731-1800): Now stir the fire, and close the […]

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a linguistic investigation into ‘Teddy boy’

  Grown-up Teddy boys SHOWADDYWADDY, who put fifties rock ’n’ roll and that era’s Teddy Boy look into the seventies pop scene are back on vinyl – and on compact disc too – with a new single, Why, on Tiger Records, and a compilation hits album and cassette, The Best Steps To Heaven. It’s also […]

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meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to read the riot act’

  Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies.           […]

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origin of ‘Maconochie’ (tinned stew)

      Maconochie Brothers was a company set up in 1873 by Archibald (1854-1926) and James (1850-1895) Maconochie. (Maconochie is a surname derived from the Gaelic Macdonochie, the son of Duncan.) With food processing plants on the Isle of Dogs (London), in Lowestoft (Suffolk), in Fraserburgh (Aberdeenshire, Scotland) and other places, the company was a wholesale provision merchant and manufacturer of pickles, potted meat and […]

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origin of the phrase ‘auld lang syne’

  Old Long Syne – broadside ballad (probably 1701)     The Scots lang syne means long since, long ago. Conversely, short syne means a short time ago, recently. Especially in recalling old experiences shared with friends, auld lang syne, literally old long-ago, is used as a noun to mean the years of long ago, old times, memories of the past, and for auld lang syne is used to mean for old times’ […]

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origin of ‘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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meaning and origin of ‘who’s she—the cat’s mother?’

  crossword in The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury of 23rd January 1950 30 across: The cat’s mother? (3).     The phrase who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother? and variants are said to a person, especially a child, who uses the feminine third person singular pronoun impolitely or with inadequate reference. The earliest use of the phrase that I found is from The White […]

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