tennis

  advertisements for sphairistike, or lawn tennis The Morning Post (London) – Tuesday 26th May 1874     The word tennis in its current sense is short for lawn tennis. The original form of tennis (known as real tennis to distinguish it from the later lawn tennis) was played with a solid ball on an […]

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Ajax

  This word means a toilet, especially an outdoor one. The following is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), by Randle Cotgrave: Retraict [modern French retrait]: masculine. An Aiax, Priuie, house of Office [= outdoor toilet]. It is a humorous respelling of a jakes, of same meaning, after Ajax, the name […]

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from pillar to post

  Christ before Pilate (1881), by Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900)     This phrase means from one place to another in an unceremonious or fruitless manner. Its earliest recorded form is from post to pillar in The Assembly of Gods, an anonymous dream-vision allegory most likely written in the early fourth quarter of the 15th century (it […]

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to beggar belief

   original illustration for Scribbleomania; Or, The Printer’s Devil’s Polichronicon (1815) by William Henry Ireland (Amabilis insania et mentis gratissimus error means A delightful insanity and a most pleasing error of the mind)     MEANING   The phrase to beggar belief (or description) means to be too extraordinary to be believed (or described).   […]

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to sleep like a top

whip and top – St Fagans National History Museum     MEANING   to sleep very soundly   ORIGIN   In A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1993), B. A. Phythian explains that, unlikely as it may seem, the top referred to here is the child’s toy which seems not to be moving when […]

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