‘to make a spoon or spoil a horn’: meaning and origin

Scotland, 1806—to make a determined effort to achieve something, whether ending in success or failure—refers to the making of spoons out of the horns of cattle or sheep, which was common in Scotland till late in the 19th century

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‘to have both oars in the water’: meaning and origin

USA, 1977—to be mentally stable—usually depreciatively in negative contexts, as ‘not to have both oars in the water’—refers to the necessity of dipping both the oars into the water to keep a rowing boat steady and steer it in a straight line

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‘to nail one’s colours to the mast’: meanings and origin

UK, 1808—to make one’s beliefs or intentions plain—from the former practice of nailing an ensign to the mast of a ship, after damage during battle resulted in the ship’s colours no longer being clearly displayed, which otherwise might have been interpreted as a signal of surrender

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meanings and origin of ‘a far cry’

The phrase ‘a far cry’ means ‘something very different’. Its literal signification (first recorded in A Legend of Montrose (1819), by Walter Scott) is ‘a long way’, ‘a great distance’. Here, the noun ‘cry’ denotes ‘a calling distance’, as in ‘within cry of’, meaning ‘within calling distance of’.

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origin of ‘lock, stock and barrel’ (i.e. ‘completely’)

USA, 1811—based on the three principal components that make up a flintlock gun: ‘lock’ denotes the firing mechanism, ‘stock’ the handle or wooden shoulder-piece to which it is attached, and ‘barrel’ the tube down which the bullet is fired

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‘slipshod’: ‘wearing loose shoes or slippers’

‘slipshod’: ‘characterised by a lack of care, thought or organisation’—formed after the obsolete noun ‘slip-shoe’ (= ‘a loosely fitting shoe or slipper’); ‘shod’ (meaning ‘wearing shoes’) is the past participle of the verb ‘shoe’

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