Expressions & Sayings

~ A ~

A1 - in first-class condition
A borrowing from the Register of Shipping maintained by Lloyd's of London, the insurance market, from the 18th century onwards. The quality of a ship's hull is denoted by a letter and that of its equipment by a number. 'A1' therefore indicates the best quality in all respects. The term is now normally used of someone's health.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here
The common but inaccurate version of a famous line from Dante's Divina Commedia (Inferno, iii 9), more correctly translated as 'All hope abandon, ye who enter here'. In the poem, the words are inscribed over the entrance to hell.
Above board
Something that is above board is done honestly, without concealment. 'Board' here is the old word for 'table', as in 'sideboard'. The whole expression was originally a gambling term: when playing, one was expected to keep one's hands 'above the board' to avoid suspicions of cheating.
sweep the board (win comprehensively) was to clear the table by taking all the tricks and winning all the stake-money.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
A catchphrase quoting a line in an anonymous song from Francis Davidson's Poetical Rhapsody (1602) later popularised by the much ridiculed society poet T. H. Bayly (1797-1839) in his song Isle of Beauty.
According to Cocker - in a manner that is correct, accurate, or reliable
The expression honours the English arithmetician Edward Cocker (1631-75). He is the reputed author of a popular book on mathematics titled Arithmetick, which went into more than a hundred editions.
...The expression was popularised when introduced into the play The Apprentice (1756) by the actor and playwright Arthur Murphy (1727-1805).
...A similar expression is according to Gunter, used to describe a task carefully and correctly done with no chance of a mistake. The English mathematician and astronomer Edmund Gunter (1581-1626) invented Gunter's chain, a device used by surveyors to measure distances. A chain is an imperial unit of length equal to 22 yards (66 feet), the actual chain being divided into 100 links each of 7.92 inches.
...The American equivalent of according to Cocker is according to Hoyle. This expression honours the British clubman and expert on games Sir Edmund Hoyle (1672-1769). At that time, the game of whist was very popular and Hoyle was the first person to prepare an authoritative guide to its rules, A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist, published in 1742. He also compiled Hoyle's Standard Games, the authoritative book of rules of card games. The expert reputation of Hoyle meant that the expression according to Hoyle was applied not only to a method of playing in accordance with the rules but also more generally to correct or honourable behaviour.
Ace up one's sleeve
An ace was originally the side of a dice that was marked with a single pip, counting one. The term was later extended to a playing card similarly marked, and has long been used figuratively to denote any very small amount: a person who comes within an ace of doing something fails to do it by only a very narrow margin.
...As well as signifying something insignificant, ace can - rather confusingly - stand for something important, because in some card games an ace is a powerful card. A person who succeeds by a masterstroke may be said to have played his or her ace, i.e. produced, perhaps unexpectedly, a winning tactic. If he has an ace up his sleeve, his advantage is not only powerful by also hidden, as a conjurer may conceal a playing card.
...This meaning of the word accounts for the development in First World War slang of ace to denote a person, usually an airman, who was expert or showy. The word is still in use, rather informally, with the first of these meanings.
...The use of ace as a slang exclamation or adjective expressing pleasure, usually by young people, is a more modern and obviously related development of this.
Achilles' heel/tendon
In Homer's Iliad (c. 8th century BC), the story of the siege of Troy, Achilles is the great Greek hero whose principal exploit is the killing of Hector, commander of the Trojan army. According to legend, he was as an infant immersed by his mother Thetis in the Styx, a river of the underworld, to make him invulnerable. However, the heel by which she held him was untouched by the waters and remained vulnerable. Paris, the Trojan prince, knew this and so was able to kill him at the siege by shooting him in the heel with a poisoned arrow (though this part of the story is not in Homer).
...A person's Achilles' heel is therefore his vulnerable spot or fatal weakness - his only one, strictly speaking. The Achilles' tendon, between heel and calf, is often strained by athletes and takes its name from its position and this vulnerability.
Acid test - crucial test that determines worth, truth, reliability, etc.
In former days aquafortis, or nitric acid was used to test the genuineness of gold, which remains unaffected by the action of other acids, to assist in making valuations when buying or selling. The acid test - the name goes back to the Middle Ages - was accepted as definitive and, in its more general modern sense, still is.
Across the board - wide-sweeping, all-encompassing
At American racetracks one can find notice boards showing the odds on a horse to come first, second or third. An across-the-board bet is one that places equal amounts of money on these three outcomes. From this the expression spread to more general use, and is particularly popular with writers on economics, especially with reference to wage negotiations.
Action stations - a state of preparedness for some activity
From positions taken up by soldiers in readiness for battle.
Adam's ale
See Fall from grace
Add insult to injury
First found in a play by Edward Moore, The Foundling (1748), though it may owe something to a fable by Aesop in which a bald-headed man suffers the indignity of hitting himself on the head in a vain attempt to swat the fly that has just bitten him.
Ad hoc - for a particular (usually exclusive) purpose
Latin, 'to this'.
Ad-lib - to speak without preparation, to improvise
Latin, 'according to pleasure'.
Affluent society, the
A phrase, in fashion from the late 1950s, used to describe the growth in the material wealth of British society during the decade after WWII, with the increasingly widespread ownership of houses, cars, televisions and white goods, etc. Health care and other social services were also newly available to all. The term was popularised in J K Galbraith's book The Affluent Society in 1958: 'In the affluent society no useful distinction can be made between luxuries and necessities.'
After due consideration
Due consideration has a quasi-legal meaning, in that if you can be shown to have acted without the consideration due to something, then you may be liable to be prosecuted. In this sense, the wording has been around since the 16th century. From this has come a cliché, popular in business letters and formal pronouncements, which is meant to imply serious thought, but which in fact adds little or nothing to the statement.
Against the grain - against the natural order of things
When working wood or any material with a natural grain, it is much easier to work with the grain, than against or across it - hence the development of against the grain to mean much the same as to rub the wrong way. The expression has been a common one since the 17th century.
Age before beauty
This expression started life in the late 19th century, probably as a graceful way for an older woman to acknowledge the courtesy of a younger one who stands aside to let her take precedence in entering a room. It soon came to be a gallantry of an older man to a girl, and to be used jocularly or maliciously between other pairs.
Agony column
A newspaper or magazine column in which readers write in with their problems, which are answered by the agony aunt or uncle. Originally a newspaper column containing advertisements for missing relatives and friends.
Aladdin's cave - a place full of valuable or desirable objects
From the tale of Aladdin in the Arabian Nights who gained access to such a cave with the help of the genie from his magic lamp.
Albatross round one's neck - encumbering, inescapable liability
In Coleridge's the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) the mariner tells of an occasion when his ship became ice-bound and was visited by an albatross, greeted as a bird of good omen. The ship was freed from the ice but for some unknown reason the mariner shot the albatross. A curse fell on the ship, the dead albatross was hung round his neck as punishment and the rest of the crew died. While watching beautiful water-snakes around the ship the mariner found himself blessing them; the albatross fell from his neck, the ship was no longer becalmed and his life was saved. He must wander the earth telling his tale and teaching reverence for God's creation, 'All things both great and small'.
...In the metaphorical expression to which this story has given rise the albatross is, strictly speaking, a symbol of personal guilt from which freedom has to be earned. In practice, it is used of any oppressive influence that is difficult to escape from.
Alive and kicking - very active, lively
This is one of many expressions that lend themselves to imaginative interpretation. One authority maintains that it is a fishmonger's call to advertise his wares. The fish are so fresh that they are still jumping and flapping about. Another suggestion says it refers to the months of pregnancy following 'quickening', when the mother is able to feel the child she is carrying moving in her womb. The choice is yours!
All and sundry - each and every one
All and sundry has been in use since the 14th century. Like so many doublet expressions, where each half means more or less the same as the other, it started life in legal language, the repetition used to cover the writer against loopholes.
All at sea - bewildered; unable to understand
Originally a nautical expression to describe the condition of a ship out of sight of land and having lost its bearings.
All good things come to an end
This probably originates in scripture: 'I see that all things come to an end' is in the Prayer Book version of Psalm 119:96. The extra word good somehow slipped in over the centuries during which the expression became proverbial.
All hell broke loose - there was terrific uproar, confusion, violence, etc
A colloquial expression coming unexpectedly and not at all colloquially from John Milton's majestic epic Paradise Lost (1667). Before expelling Satan from the Garden of Eden the chief of the angelic guards, Gabriel, asks him why he has come alone: 'Wherefore with thee/Came not all hell broke loose?' i.e. all the denizens of hell, having broken loose.
...Similar expressions occur in literature up to a century earlier, but Milton was the first to provide the exact words quoted and the great popularity of his work accounts for their survival.
All in a day's work
Said of an unusual or unexpected task that can be obligingly included in the normal daily routine. The expression was common by the 18th century, but it is uncertain when it was first coined. A character in Sir Walter Scott's novel The Monastery (1820) says, 'That will cost me a farther ride ... but it is all in the day's work.'
All my eye (and Betty Martin) - nonsense
This was first explained by a commentator writing in 1823 as a corruption of 'O mihi, beate Martine ...' (O grant me, blessed Martin) from the words of a Latin prayer to St Martin. It is said to have been picked up abroad by sailors and to have come into English use in the 18th century by way of nautical slang.
...Those who find this far-fetched prefer to think that there was a London character called Betty Martin, perhaps an actress or popular serving-wench, though this does not explain the first part of the expression. Perhaps it is a snatch of an otherwise forgotten popular song: the earliest version, in a slang dictionary of 1785, is the more intelligible 'That's my eye, Betty Martin', which could be a swain's plaintive reproach to a lady who has delivered a firm rebuff.
All over bar the shouting
This expression is firmly rooted in the world of sport, and means that victory is certain, only the cheering of the crowd at the end of the game or contest being lacking. The phrase may perhaps be derived from boxing, the shouting being the noisy appeal from the supporters of one of the fighters against the referee's decision. It is also often applied to political elections in which the outcome is assured even before the ballot papers have been counted.
All-singing, all-dancing
Of a machine, system etc., very advanced with a great many modern features, sometimes not all necessary. The phrase was inspired by the first Hollywood musical, Broadway Melody in 1929, the era in which sound first came to the movies, which was advertised with posters proclaiming: 'The New Wonder of the Screen! ALL TALKING, ALL SINGING, ALL DANCING, Dramatic Sensation!'
...The phrase caught on immediately, being quickly adopted by rival film studios. In the 1970s, the computer world adopted the phrase to hype up new software and subsequently the expression has been linked with anything that is considered to be laden with the latest features.
All that glitters is not gold - appearances are not what they seem
This is the normal modern version of a Latin proverb, though 'glitters' has been common only since the 17th century. Earlier the verb was 'glisters' (in, for example, The Merchant of Venice) and before that, it was 'shines', as in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales ('The Canon's Yeoman's Tale').
All things to all men
Normally a criticism levelled at someone who lacks firmness of purpose or belief, goes along with whatever is put to him or her and is therefore guilty of inconsistency if not dishonesty. The original is more reputable: 'I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some' (1 Corinthians, 9:22). St Paul is explaining that in preaching the gospel he seeks to make converts by appealing to different people in ways appropriate to their differences.
All to pot/Gone to pot
Anything that has gone to pot or is all to pot is ruined, destroyed, not functioning. The allusion, as various 16th century references make clear, is to the cutting up of meat into pieces ready for the cooking pot.
Alma mater - one's old university, college or school
Latin, 'bountiful mother'.
Alpha and omega - the beginning and the end (i.e. everything)
Literally these are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. They are used to signify God's eternity in 'I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty' (Revelation, 1:8). From this quotation comes the modern non-theological use to denote anything all-embracing.
Also-ran - loser
A horseracing term for a runner that fails to gain a place among the first three. It originates in the way racing results are normally published in newspapers: the first, second and third horses are specified because they are the ones on which bets are payable; the remainder are merely listed with an introductory 'Also ran:'.
American dream, the
The hope of achieving success and prosperity through hard work, from the dreams which immigrants had when they landed in America to start a new life.
Am I my brother's keeper?
'I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?' was the petulant reply of Cain when God asked him about the whereabouts of Abel, whom he had just murdered (Genesis, 4:9). With brother in the sense of fellow-creature, the expression is now used of one's responsibility for another or for other people in general.
Angry young man
A person who expresses angry dissatisfaction with established social, political and intellectual values. A term applied to British dramatist, John Osborne, author of the play Look Back in Anger.
Annus mirabilis - year of wonders
Now a rather high-faluting term for a special year in a field of activity or in one person's success. It was originally applied to 1666 - the year of the Great Fire of London, the plague and victories over the Dutch - by John Dryden in his poem of 1667 to which he gave the modern Latin title Annus Mirabilis. Conversely, a particularly bad or miserable year may be described as annus horribilis or 'horrible year'.
Answer to a maiden's prayer - exactly what one desires and is looking for
The answer to a maiden's prayer was thought to be an eligible bachelor.
Any Tom, Dick or Harry - dismissive term for any ordinary person
The list has included other names down the centuries, such as Jack and Will - Shakespeare has 'Tom, Dick and Francis' in Henry IV, Part I - but the current trio has been invariable since 1734. The names have no significance other than being common ones chosen at random.
Anything for a quiet life
A catchphrase expressing a resigned willingness to do anything to secure freedom from trouble. It first appears as the title of a play by John Middleton first performed in about 1621.
Apple of discord - subject of dissention
Comes from a story in Greek mythology. In a fit of pique because she had not been invited to the marriage of Thetis and Peleus, Eris, the goddess of Discord, threw on the table a golden apple bearing the inscription 'for the most beautiful' among the goddesses. Pallas, Hera and Aphrodite each claimed the apple and a bitter quarrel ensued. Paris, acting as umpire, awarded it to Aphrodite who had promised him the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. As Paris was a Trojan prince and Helen a Greek queen, this judgement led to the Trojan War.
Apple of one's eye - a cherished person or thing
It originally meant the pupil of the eye, thought to be globular and solid like an apple, and acquired its present metaphorical sense because of the special preciousness of the pupil and the need to protect it. This sense is first found in the Bible in several places, e.g. 'he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye' (Deuteronomy, 32:10).
Apple-pie bed
A practical joke in which a bed is made using only one sheet, folded over part way down the bed, thus preventing the would-be occupant from stretching out. The phrase may be a folk corruption from the French nappe pliée (folded cloth). Alternatively, the expression may well refer to an apple turnover, which is a folded piece of pastry (just as the sheet is folded over in the bed), with an apple filling in the middle.
Apple-pie order - complete and perfect order
Several old military expressions are French, and in the 16th century a familiar one was cap-à-pie, meaning 'from head to foot'. The ghost of Hamlet's father is 'Armed at point exactly, cap-à-pie' (I,2, line 200). If this term was pronounced as spelt it could well have become corrupted to apple-pie (i.e. complete) in jocular military slang, or it could simply have been consistently misspelt.
Argus-eyed - vigilant, observant
Argus, the all-seeing giant of Greek mythology, had 100 eyes of which 50 remained opened while the other 50 were closed in sleep. He was employed by the goddess Hera to spy on her husband Zeus. After his death, Hera distributed his eyes in the tail feathers of the peacock, her favourite bird.
Armed to the teeth - heavily armed
Nothing at all to do with the romantic image of pirates boarding an enemy ship brandishing blunderbusses in each hand and clenching cutlasses in their teeth. Armed to the teeth is just one of many uses of the metaphorical phrase to the teeth, meaning 'very fully or completely'. To the teeth has been used as an equivalent to the popular up to here (with hand signal indicating the neck region) since around the 14th century. The first modern use of armed to the teeth was in an 1849 speech by the English industrialist and statesman Richard Cobden, who, speaking of the defence budget, asked 'Is there any reason why we should be armed to the teeth?'
Arms akimbo
Meaning to have the arms in a position in which the hands are on the hips and the elbows are bowed outward, usually regarded as a posture of defiance. This is one of those cases where a word is found exclusively in reference to another, in that from the very earliest recorded references akimbo has been used only with arms. Why this is so is not known. The first recorded spelling was in kenebowe in a work called The Tale of Beryn that dates from 1400. This looks as if it ought to come from Old Norse, meaning something bent into a curve, but it has never been found. (The last part of the word is essentially the same as our bow for a curve.) The phrase went through several changes, variously being written as on kenbow and a kembo, until it became the modern form in the 18th century.
Artful dodger - crafty person, especially one engaged in criminal or sharp practice
This may also be spelt with capital letters as it is in the original nickname of Jack Dawkins, a young and expert pickpocket in the gang of thieves headed by Fagin, in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1837-8).
As every schoolboy knows
This is a rather condescending put-down, said as a rejoinder to someone who has said something that is already considered common knowledge. The expression is particularly associated with Lord Macaulay (1800-59), although it had been recorded much earlier. In 1840 one of Macaulay's contemporaries, Lord Clive, wrote: 'Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa.' It is, however, doubtful whether many schoolboys today would actually know these facts.
As old as Methuselah - extremely old
Methuselah was an Old Testament patriarch known only as grandfather of Noah and the oldest man in the Bible: according to Genesis, 5: 27, he lived for 969 years.
As rich as Croesus - very rich
Croesus was the last king of Lydia, a region of Asia Minor, who reigned from 560 to 546BC. As a result of his conquests, Croesus became extremely rich. Indeed, he was considered by the Greeks to be the wealthiest person on earth, hence the contemporary expression.
...Legend has it that the Athenian statesman Solon once told Croesus that no man should be considered happy, despite his riches, till he died. Later, when Cyrus the Great defeated Croesus, he condemned Croesus to be burnt alive. It is said that Croesus shouted out Solon's words from the stake. Cyrus intervened, demanding an explanation of Croesus' words, and, being so moved by what his prisoner said, reprieved him and became his friend.
As sure as eggs is eggs - absolutely certain
Either a misunderstanding or jocular misquotation of 'x is x', an irrefutable proof in mathematics or formal logic.
As the actress said to the bishop
This is a cliché of innuendo, used to bring out the double entendre, whether initially deliberate or not, in a statement. It is also found as a formula phrase 'as the ... said to the ...', and sometimes the order of the bishop and the actress are reversed. The joke lies in the contrast between the assumed innocence or rectitude of the bishop and the old reputation of actresses for loose living - in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the term could be a euphemism for prostitute. The expression was well established by the 1940s, and well used in radio comedy in the 1950s, but probably goes back at least to the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1940s, the comedienne Beryl Reid popularised the alternative 'as the art mistress said to the gardener', a catchphrase used in her role as Monica in the popular radio comedy Educating Archie.
As the bell clinks, so the fool thinks - a foolish person believes what he desires
In the 15th century tale of Dick Whittington, the young poor boy went to London because he believed its streets to be paved with gold and silver. Running away from his cruel master, he reached Highgate Hill where, hungry and tired, he did not know whether to continue his flight from the city. Bow Bells began to ring and the boy imagined that they said, 'Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London.' The bells clinked their answer to his thoughts and he returned to prosper as a merchant and to become mayor three times. The story is based on a certain Richard Whittington (c. 1358-1423) who came from Gloucestershire. See also
Streets paved with gold.
As the crow flies - measure of the straight distance between two points
See Make a beeline for.
Asked/given no quarter - no mercy requested by or shown to a person who is being defeated
The reference is to military quarters (accommodation) to which prisoners of war are entitled. Originally the command 'give no quarter' would have meant 'take no prisoners', i.e. 'show no mercy'.
At a loose end - unoccupied
The phrase was originally 'at loose ends', a nautical term for the condition of a rope when unattached and therefore neglected or not doing its job. When one ties up the loose ends one settles the final details of a matter as a sailor makes the loose ends of ropes shipshape.
At death's door - close to death
From Psalm 107: 18, in the Prayer Book translation.
At full blast - at maximum speed, capacity or volume
Among the meanings of blast is that of a strong current of air, artificially produced, especially for iron-smelting. A forge or blast furnace is said to be at full blast when it is fully at work. The term has come to be applied to other sorts of operations, especially noisy ones.
At loggerheads - in a state of dispute
This expression has been much discussed, with reference to several meanings of loggerhead: a heavy wooden block fastened to the leg of a grazing animal to prevent straying (liable to entanglements, as a quarrel is?); an implement for melting tar on board ship (used as a weapon?); a wooden post on a whale-boat for wrapping a rope round (therefore associated with friction?).
...All these are suspect in various ways and as usual, the simplest explanation is the best. Logger is dialect for 'log' in the first of the above senses. The primary meaning of loggerhead is therefore 'blockhead' (wooden head) or 'fool'. As two people locked in dispute are usually equally pig-headed, it seems obvious to say that they are both (at) loggerheads.
At one fell swoop - with a single effort; all at once
A swoop is a sudden descent, like the pouncing of a bird of prey on its victim. Fell is an old adjective meaning 'savage', which comes from an Old French word fel, meaning 'grim, merciless or terrible', which still exists in felon and its related forms felony and felonious. The whole expression is from Shakespeare: Macduff, struggling to come to terms with the murder of his children and wife on the orders of the 'hell-kite' Macbeth, cries 'What, all my pretty chickens and their dam/At one fell swoop?' (Macbeth, IV, 3, lines 218-9). In modern use, the expression does not generally carry this sense of savagery, though it sometimes does.
At sixes and sevens - in a state of confusion
The pips on a dice, and later on playing cards, used to be numbered in an approximation to French: ace (which is still used in card-playing), deuce, trey (both of which persisted into the 21st century), quatre, cinq(ue) and sice. To set (all) on cinque and sice meant literally to gamble on the highest numbers and figuratively to behave recklessly.
...In the course of time, the literal meanings of cinque and sice were forgotten: cinque (pronounced 'sink') was incorrectly anglicised as six, so sice became seven and the whole phrase gradually assumed its familiar form. From the earlier association with reckless behaviour came the idea that things in disorder were at sixes and sevens.
At the drop of a hat - immediately
Said to be from the American frontier practice of asking someone to drop a hat as a signal for a fight to begin, in the days when few other rules seem to have existed. It is also possible that informal races were begun with a sharp lowering, rather than an actual dropping, of a hat previously held high as a 'get ready' signal.
At the eleventh hour - at the very last moment
An allusion to the parable of the labourers in the vineyard who were hired literally 'at the eleventh hour' of a 12-hour working day (Matthew, 20: 1-16). This was not actually 'at the very last moment' but the point of the parable is that it was certainly later than the hour at which the other labourers were hired, and the result was a demand that those who had worked less should be paid less. The modern meaning comes from this sense of comparison between the eleventh hour and earlier ones.
At the end of one's tether - at the limit of one's endurance
A tether is a fixed rope or chain to which an animal is tied, enabling it to move or graze within a limited area but preventing it from straying. The earliest metaphorical use (16th century) has to do with living 'within one's tether', i.e. within one's resources. The sense of frustration at being restricted by a tether is a later development.
Augur well/ill - good/bad sign for the future
See Under the auspices of.
Aunt Sally - target of abuse, ridicule, criticism or opposition
From the name of an old fairground game in which sticks were thrown at the figure of an old woman, or her head, with a pipe in its mouth, the object being to break the pipe. Aunt used to be a familiar form of address to an old lady. Sally may have been chosen at random, or as a pun on sally meaning 'attack'.
Axe to grind - ulterior and selfish motive; private grievance; pet subject
The second and third meanings have developed from the first, which comes from the language of US politics, which in turn found it in Too Much for your Whistle by the self-educated writer, scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706-90). It tells how, as a young man, he had obligingly turned a heavy grindstone after a man had flattered him into doing so; in reality the man merely wished to sharpen his axe, after which his attitude changed. From this, Franklin learned to be cautious about the motives behind people's smooth talk: perhaps they merely had another axe to grind.

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