conundrum

The word ‘conundrum’, attested in 1596, originally meant ‘whimsy’, ‘oddity’. It perhaps originated as a parody of some Latin scholastic phrase.

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the various meanings of ‘earthling’

Before being a science-fiction term used by aliens to refer to an inhabitant of the earth, ‘earthling’ denoted an inhabitant of the earth as opposed to heaven.

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Hogs Norton

Light Programme 12.0, Family Favourites; 1.30, Mr. Gillie Potter, Sage of Hogsnorton from B.B.C. Sunday – The Derry Journal (Ireland) – 28th March 1952     The name Hogs Norton, also Hog’s Norton and Hogsnorton, denotes a fictional town renowned for its uncultured and boorish inhabitants. It has often been used in depreciative phrases suggesting that […]

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wouldn’t say boo to a goose

  photograph: Blackwells farm shop     The phrase wouldn’t say boo to a goose is used to emphasise that someone is very timid. Here, boo is not an expression of disapproval but a later form of bo, an exclamation intended to frighten. In Notes and Queries of 10th September 1870, the English philologist Walter […]

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above board

  Le Tricheur à l’as de carreau, by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652)     MEANING   in the open; without dishonesty, concealment or fraud   ORIGIN   The adverb above board originally meant with one’s cards visible above the level of the board (that is, the playing table), so as to avoid suspicion of […]

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Shock-headed Peter

  In The English Struwwelpeter and the Birth of International Copyright (The Library, journal of the Bibliographical Society, 2013), Jane Brown and Gregory Jones explain that the ancient free city of Frankfurt am Main saw in 1845 the first appearance of Dr Heinrich Hoffmann¹’s Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder², a German children’s Christmas picture book. […]

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on the nail

    MEANING   of payments: without delay   ORIGIN   This expression refers to the fingernail and might originally have alluded to drinking fair and square. A clue might be provided by the French phrase payer rubis sur l’ongle (literally to pay ruby on the fingernail), which means to pay exactly what is due. (A variant, used by prostitutes, was rubis sur pieu, […]

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Witham

  Witham (Essex) – town sign photograph: East Anglian Daily Times     Witham is the name of several villages in Lincolnshire and Essex. With a pun on wit, the expression little, or small, Witham was used proverbially for a place of which the inhabitants were remarkable for stupidity. For example, the following, from A fourth […]

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piping hot

  Piping Hot – Glasgow International Piping Festival. (The name has changed to Piping Live.) It is a pun, as, here, piping means playing (a tune) on bagpipes.     The adjective piping hot is used to refer to very hot food or liquid, usually when served. It referred originally to the hissing of viands in […]

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fit as a fiddle

  Caricature of Gabriel Harvey from Haue with you to Saffron-walden. Or, Gabriell Harueys hunt is vp (1596), by Thomas Nashe. Entitled The picture of Gabriell Harvey as he is readie to let fly upon Ajax, this caricature depicts him rushing to the toilet at the thought of Nashe’s publication. Ajax was a pun on […]

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