origin of ‘blarney’

‘blarney’: originally an allusion to the lies told by those who, having not reached the Blarney stone (in a castle near Cork), explained how they did reach it

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auld lang syne

  Old Long Syne – broadside ballad (probably 1701)     The Scots lang syne means long since, long ago. Conversely, short syne means a short time ago, recently. Especially in recalling old experiences shared with friends, auld lang syne, literally old long-ago, is used as a noun to mean the years of long ago, old times, memories of the past, and for auld lang syne is used to mean for old times’ […]

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you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

    The proverb you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear means you can’t create a fine product from inferior materials. It originated in Scotland, according to its first recorded instance, in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699), by “B. E. Gent.”: Luggs, […]

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the cold shoulder

    The phrase the cold shoulder denotes a show of intentional and marked coldness or of studied indifference. Because the two earliest instances of this phrase recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition – 1989) are from the Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott (1771-1832) and do not refer to food, Robert Allen writes in Dictionary of English Phrases (2008) that […]

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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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thick as thieves

  bust of Jonathan Swift – Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin     Among other figurative meanings, the adjective thick has the sense of close in confidence and association, intimate, familiar. In Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, published in 1812, John Nichols quoted Edmund Law (1703-87), Bishop of Carlisle: “Yes,” said he, “we begin now, though contrary to my expectation, and without my […]

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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 […]

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dandy

   Dandy Dinmonts by the Haining Loch (1888), by the Scottish artist Robert Smellie     MEANING   a man unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable   ORIGIN   As it was originally in use on the Scottish Border at the end of the 18th century, dandy represents perhaps the name Andrew. (From Dandie […]

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The language of domination

  Sir Walter Scott (1829), replica by John Graham Gilbert – image: National Portrait Gallery     The Anglo-Saxons were the Germanic inhabitants of England before the Conquest, i.e. the invasion and assumption of control by William of Normandy in 1066. Known as William the Conqueror, William I (circa 1027-87) defeated Harold II at the […]

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The veracious story of a worthy knight, called Sir Loin of Beef

  At Astley Hall (Lancashire), you can still see this chair… … with the following explanation: Sirloin Chair – King James I reputedly knighted a loin of beef upon this chair at Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, in 1617. Se non è vero, è ben trovato. (Even if it is not true, it makes a good story.)   […]

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