to chance one’s arm

    The informal British phrase to chance one’s arm means to undertake something although it may be dangerous or unsuccessful. Its origin is unclear. The earliest use that I have found is from How our blue-jackets are fed, an article about the “diet of the British sailor at sea” published in The Weekly Telegraph […]

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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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“the cat’s whiskers”, and all that jazz

  Eastern Vaudeville Bans Unseemly Slang A general order has been sent out from the Keith office to all Keith, Moss and Proctor vaudeville houses, instructing resident managers to hereafter bar the use by artists of the current slang phrases, “That’s the Cat’s Meow,” “Cat’s Pajamas,” “Hot Dog,” “Hot Cat,” etc. This means the phrases […]

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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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to knock into a cocked hat

    In the USA, cocked hat denoted a game similar to ninepins, except that only three pins were set up, in triangular position. It took its name from cocked hat in the sense of a hat with the brim permanently turned up (i.e. cocked), especially the three-cornered hat of this shape worn at the end […]

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marrowsky

  The noun marrowsky, which has also been spelt Marouski, Marowsky, morowski and mowrowsky, denotes a variety of slang, or a slip in speaking, characterised by the transposition of the initial letters or syllables of two words. The more usual term is spoonerism. The word is first recorded in the verbal form Marrowskying in the critical review […]

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bag of mystery

  Roast Donkey!—Everybody who has eaten roast donkey has pronounced it excellent (says a writer in Macmillan’s Magazine for October). In flavour it is said to resemble turkey, though the colour is considerably darker. The accomplished gourmet is aware what animal it is that contributes most largely to the composition of the best sausages in […]

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to amputate one’s mahogany

  cut one’s stick, to be off quickly, i.e., be in readiness for a journey, further elaborated into amputate your mahogany from A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words (2nd edition – 1860), by the English publisher and author John Camden Hotten (1832-73)     The expression to amputate one’s mahogany is a […]

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blarney

  As a noun, blarney means amusing and harmless nonsense and talk which aims to charm, flatter or persuade; as a verb, it means to influence or persuade (someone) using charm and pleasant flattery. This word is from Blarney, the name of a village near Cork in Ireland; in the castle there, is an inscribed stone, in a position difficult of access, said to […]

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to get the bird

  detail from the frontispiece to The Life of an Actor (1825), by Pierce Egan     The phrase to get, or to give, the bird means to receive, or to show, derision, to be dismissed, or to dismiss. It originated in theatrical slang and referred to the ‘big bird’, that is, the goose, which hisses as people do when they make a sound of disapproval […]

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