hail-fellow-well-met

  Well met, drawing by Charles Altamont Doyle (1832-93)     The obsolete adjective hail meant free from injury, infirmity or disease. It is from Old Norse heill, meaning whole, hale, sound. This Old Norse word is related to the English adjectives whole and hale, which are doublets, as they are both from Old English […]

Read More

make hay

  The phrase make hay means make good use of an opportunity while it lasts. This is a shortening of make hay while the sun shines, recorded in A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue compacte in a matter concernyng two maner of mariages (1546), by the English […]

Read More

tit for tat

  original illustration for The Spider and the Flie (1556), by John Heywood     The phrase tit for tat means an equivalent given in return or retaliation. The expression seems to be a variation of the obsolete and more comprehensible tip for tap, in which both tip and tap meant a light but distinct blow, stroke, hit. The phrase therefore meant blow for […]

Read More

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 […]

Read More

to paint the town red

  Spree at Melton Mowbray. Larking at the Grantham Toll-Gate. Or Coming in for the Brush. A Society of Distinguished Painters, Who Hunt with Fox Hounds, Live Splendidly and only Paint at Night. date: unknown – by Henry Thomas Alken (1785-1851)     Of American-English origin, the colloquial phrase to paint the town red means to […]

Read More

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 […]

Read More

curfew

  Nowadays, a curfew is a regulation requiring people to remain indoors between specified hours, typically at night – for example: a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The word is from Old French and Anglo-Norman forms such as cuevre-feu and covrefeu, hence the Modern French word couvre-feu (plural couvre-feux), composed of: – couvre, imperative of the verb couvrir, to cover, – feu, meaning fire. The corresponding medieval Latin names were ignitegium […]

Read More

caviar to the general

  The letter written to his family by the French resistant Yves Daoudal (1891-1944) on 5th April 1944, before he was shot. A passage has been “caviardé”, blue-pencilled. (Photograph: Le Mont-Valérien)     The phrase caviar to the general is used to denote a good thing unappreciated by the ignorant (here, the general refers to the multitude). It is from The Tragicall Historie […]

Read More

at one fell swoop

  osprey – photograph: Raptor Politics     The phrase at (or in) one fell swoop means all in one go. Here, the noun swoop, which denotes the act of swooping down, refers to the sudden pouncing of a bird of prey (a kite for example) from a height upon its quarry (of Germanic origin, […]

Read More

sport

  the world’s oldest football, late 15th or early 16th century, found in Stirling Castle, Scotland – made of stitched leather, with a pig’s bladder inside; half the size of a modern football – photograph: SWNS     The noun sport is a shortening of disport, which was borrowed in the early 14th century from Anglo-Norman and Old […]

Read More