it’s Greek to me

    The noun Greek has long been used in the sense of unintelligible speech or language, gibberish, and the phrase it’s (all) Greek to me means I can’t understand it at all. This expression is well known from The Tragedie of Julius Cæsar (1599), by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616): (Folio […]

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cold comfort

  AUTHOR OF “COLD COMFORT FARM”: MISS STELLA GIBBONS. Miss Stella Gibbons’s novel has been most favourably reviewed. It is a well-sustained parody of the Loam-and-Love-child school of fiction. from The Sketch (London) of 21st September 1932     The expression cold comfort means inadequate consolation for a misfortune. The adjective cold has long been used to mean felt as cold […]

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grimalkin

    In The Tragedie of Macbeth (around 1603), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Gray-Malkin is the name of a fiend in the shape of a grey she-cat, the cat being the form most generally assumed by the familiar spirits of witches according to a common superstition: (Folio 1, 1623)             […]

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moonshine

      MEANING   foolish or fanciful talk, ideas, plans, etc.   ORIGIN   It is a shortening of moonshine in the water, meaning appearance without substance, something unsubstantial or unreal. In this phrase, moonshine means moonlight. The 15th-century correspondence between members of the Paston family of Norfolk gentry, and with others connected with […]

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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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stalking horse

  The forme and manner of the Stalking horse of Canuasse stopt. – from Hungers preuention: or, The whole arte of fowling by water and land Containing all the secrets belonging to that arte (1655 edition)   The term stalking horse originally denoted a horse trained to allow a fowler to conceal himself behind it or […]

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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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heart of hearts

  Sir William Davenant (1672), by William Faithorne, after John Greenhill image: National Portrait Gallery     MEANING   the depths of one’s conscience or emotions   ORIGIN   This anatomically curious but firmly established expression is a variant of the older and more comprehensible heart of heart, meaning very centre of the heart, which […]

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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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short shrift

  The Murder of the Princes in the Tower – illustration from The National and Domestic History of England (1870?-80?), by William Hickman Smith Aubrey (1848?-1916)     The expression short shrift means brief and unsympathetic treatment, and to make short shrift of means to dispose of quickly and unsympathetically. A short shrift was originally […]

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