Expressions & Sayings

~ C ~

Cack-handed - clumsy, inept; left-handed
The word cack is an Old English word for excrement or dung. Cachus was Old English for a privy, and both words come from the Latin cacare, to defecate. The expression cack-handed almost certainly comes from the ancient tradition, which developed among peoples who were mainly right-handed, that one reserved the left hand for cleaning oneself after defecating and used the right hand for eating. At various times this has been known in most cultures. So, to be left-handed was to use the cack hand or be cack-handed.
Cadmean victory - a victory that is secured at an almost ruinous cost
In Greek mythology Prince Cadmus killed a dragon that guarded the fountain of Dirce, in Boeotia, and planted its teeth, from which a race of armed warriors sprang up. Cadmus set the warriors fighting by throwing a precious stone among them, and only five escaped death. Cadmus, along with the five survivors, then went on to found Thebes. The allusion of the expression therefore is to the victory of the five survivors in the conflict with the multitude of other warriors.
...It is interesting to note that this story also gave rise to the expression sow the dragon's teeth. One can take a course of action that is intended to be peaceful, such as disposing of the dragon's teeth by burying them, but in reality, the course of action leads to dissension or warfare.
Caesar's wife must be above suspicion
This expression referred originally to Caesar's second wife Pompeia. According to rumours circulating in about 62BC, it seems that her name was linked with Publius Clodius, a notorious dissolute man of the time. Caesar did not believe such rumours but he made it clear, when divorcing her, that even Caesar's wife must be above suspicion. The expression like Caesar's wife also comes from this account, to refer to someone who is pure and honest in morals.
Call a spade a spade - speak one's mind, put things bluntly
The ancient Greeks had a popular proverb for plain speaking, 'to call figs figs, and a tub a tub'. Plutarch quoted the expression in an episode of Sayings of Kings and Commanders but, when the scholar Erasmus drew upon the work in 1500 for his Adagia (a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs traced back to their origins), he substituted 'spade' for 'tub'. Erasmus' version stuck and to call a spade a spade has been in popular use ever since.
Call off all bets
A summons to cancel all wagers in certain circumstances, deriving from the racetrack and the betting shop; for instance, a bookmaker may call off all bets if he suspects that a race or other contest has been rigged. In a widening of its meaning, the phrase is used to mean rejecting a complicated or disadvantageous issue. In American black slang of the 1940s, however, it meant to die - indeed, the most final way of calling off all bets.
Call one's bluff - challenge one to substantiate one's claims; reveal one's deception
In poker-playing a bluff is a display of confidence (perhaps from a Dutch word for boast) such as heavy betting on one's own weak hand to deceive opponents and cause them to throw up their own stronger hands and lose their stakes. To 'call' such a bluff is to remain in play and require the bluffer finally to show what cards are held; a call is simply a demand that a player reveal his hand because his bet has been equalled.
Camp-follower - adherent or supporter of a group, though not a member
A slightly derogatory term, sometimes meaning no more than a hanger-on. In former times, before the establishment of modern standards of organisation, discipline and self-sufficiency, armies in camp or on the move were accompanied by large numbers of vagabonds and other civilians who provided services as prostitutes, washerwomen, sellers of food and drink, etc. These were the original camp-followers.
Carry coals to Newcastle - do something foolishly superfluous
Coals is an obsolete plural. When the expression came into being, Newcastle had been an important coal port (supplying London, for instance) since the 13th century, and no one had any need to take coal there.
Carry the can - take the blame (for another's error); take responsibility
Usually said to originate from the beer-can which one soldier, probably the newest recruit, carried for all his companions. Another version of the expression is 'carry the can back', which implies the additional menial task of taking the empty can back to the quartermaster's stores.
...This explanation leaves unanswered some obvious questions about the availability of strong drink to men in military service. A better if less colourful explanation may lie in a dialect word 'cag' (bad temper), which became corrupted to 'keg' and in turn to can; 'carry (on) the cag/keg/can' (sulk) may have changed its meaning as time went by.
Carte blanche - unlimited power to act
The French for a blank piece of paper, the underlying idea behind this expression is of handing someone a blank sheet on which they can write their own terms. From this has developed the idea of giving someone a free hand to do what they want. The term first came in use in the 18th century in this sense, although it had been used since the mid-17th century in the special sense of a hand containing no court cards in the card game piquet.
Cash on the nail - pay immediately on the spot
The usual explanation of this old expression, which is often shortened to
on the nail, meaning 'now, at once', is that in medieval times, a nail was a shallow vessel mounted on a post or stand and business deals were closed by payments placed in the 'nail'. It may have been so named from the resemblance of the stand to the shape of a nail. Outside the Bristol Corn Exchange, such nails can still be seen in the form of four bronze pillars and it is said that if a buyer was satisfied with the sample of grain shown on the nail he paid on the spot.
...However, the more likely derivation for the expression comes from the world of wine tasting. Latin 'for on the nail' is supernaculum, and this word also describes the very best wine, meaning that the wine is so fine that the imbiber only leaves enough in the glass to make a bead on a nail. Also, the French say of first-class wine, faire rubis sur l' ongle - 'to make a ruby on the nail'. Thomas Nash (1567-1601) in Pierce Penilesse (1592) wrote that after a man had drunk from his glass it was customary to turn the cup upside down and let a drop fall on the thumbnail. If the drip rolled off the drinker was obliged to fill up and drink again, eventually ending up 'on the floor'.
Cast aspersions - spread disparaging reports about someone, defame
Originally, aspersion was the action of sprinkling somebody with something, usually water - it was commonly used of one form of Christian baptism, for example. It comes from the slightly older verbs asperse and asperge, both of which can be traced back to the Latin aspergere, to sprinkle. Around the middle of the 17th century, aspersion began to refer to the figurative idea that a person was sprinkling his neighbourhood with damaging imputations or false statements. The modern expression to cast aspersions seems to have first been used by Henry Fielding in his 1749 novel Tom Jones.
Cast pearls before swine - offer something valuable to those unable to appreciate it
Proverbial in English since the 14th century - it occurs for example in Langland's poem Piers Plowman (1362) - and popularised by its use in the Bible: 'neither cast ye your pearls before swine' (Matthew, 7: 6 in the Authorised Version of 1611 and previously in Tyndale's translation of 1526).
Cast the first stone - act self-righteously
When Christ was asked if an adulterous woman should be stoned in accordance with Mosaic law he replied, 'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her' (John, 8:7), at which the crowd of accusers melted away.
Cat among the pigeons - disturbance
Originally an expression about a cat in the dove-house and would have made better sense when dovecotes were common because of the popularity of pigeons as food. Also more explicit than its modern version was 'no more chance than a cat in hell without claws', now shortened to the more puzzling not a cat in hell's chance (no chance at all). Like a cat on hot bricks used to be '... on a hot bake-stone', the stone top of an oven. The proverb that a cat has nine lives is an obvious reference to its survivability, especially its ability always to fall on its feet, and may be related to superstitions that cats were associated with the supernatural as one of the forms taken by the devil and as witches' familiar spirits.
Cat's-paw - somebody used by another for the latter's own ends
An allusion to the fable of the clever monkey (or fox) which used the foot or paw of a cat to take roasted chestnuts out of burning coals.
Cat's pyjamas
See Bee's knees.
Cat's whiskers
See Bee's knees.
Catch red-handed - detect in the very act of wrongdoing
That is to say, before there has been time to wash off the victim's blood. Red-handed was an adaptation by Walter Scott (in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, 1805) of older Scottish expressions 'redhand' and 'with red hand', both legal terms and both now obsolete.
Catch-22 - deadlock consisting of two mutually exclusive conditions
Joseph Heller's surreal comic novel Catch-22 (1961) describes the exploits of US airmen in the Mediterranean sector during WWII. One of the rules, defined by the author as 'catches' or drawbacks, under which they operated was Catch-22, which specified that concern for one's safety in the face of real and immediate danger showed a rational mind. A pilot who was insane qualified for grounding, but if he asked to be grounded because he was insane, he was certified sane and required to fly because his request demonstrated that he had a rational mind.
Catch out - detect or expose a person in a mistake or deception
From cricket, in which a player is out if he hits a ball that is then caught by a member of the other side before it touches the ground.
Caviare to the general - not to the taste of the general public
A quotation from Shakespeare: 'the play, I remember, pleased not the million; 'twas caviare to the general' (Hamlet, II,2, line 430). Caviare was a novel delicacy at the end of the 16th century, and Hamlet implies that it was unpalatable to those who had not acquired a taste for it.
Century of the common man, the - the 20th century, the age of democracy
The phrase comes from the 1940 book of the same name by Henry A Wallace (1888-1965), New Dealer and FD Roosevelt's Vice-President, 1940-45. He subsequently used the phrase after America had joined the Allied forces in the Second World War, in an address entitled The Price of Free World Victory on 8 May 1942: 'The century in which we are entering - the century which will come out of this war - can be and must be the century of the common man.'
...The phrase speedily became popular on both sides of the Atlantic and was much favoured by Nancy, Viscountess Astor (1879-1964), outspoken Conservative and, although American born, first woman MP to sit in the House of Commons, which she did from 1919 to 1945.
...The American composer, and prominent champion of American music, Aaron Copland, appropriately born in 1900, wrote Fanfare for the Common Man.
C'est la guerre
An ironic phrase employed to accompany an excuse or an explanation for anything that has not gone quite to plan. Originally a French catchphrase from the First World War, it was used as a somewhat fatalistic excuse for any failure to perform properly. By 1915, it had been taken up by British soldiers, although after the Armistice its use declined until its revival in the next war. It was then widely used in a civilian, as well as a military, context to account for anything that had been affected as a result of the war. It is nowadays used, especially in business, to indicate acceptance of matters beyond one's control, and naturally prompts the use of the similar phrase of gritty acceptance, C'est la vie ('That's life').
Chalk and cheese (different as) - two entirely opposed articles or people
To understand this comparison you need to think of a white, young cheese rather than a mature yellow one, and freshly gathered chalk, rather than something prepared for the blackboard. They can look very similar, but their taste and value are very different. The image is an old one. In his Confessio Amantis of about 1383 John Gower criticises the Church for teaching one thing and doing another, saying, 'Lo, how they feignen chalk for cheese' ('pretend that chalk is cheese'), and again, several thousand lines on in this lengthy book, he shows us the origin of the expression when he writes of the greedy man who does not care what he sells as long as he makes money: 'And thus fulofte chalk for cheese He changeth with ful little cost' ('Thus he frequently swaps chalk for cheese at very little cost'). This sense of comparative worth has of course now been lost, but the phrase lives on, no doubt kept in use by English speakers' love of alliteration.
Chalk up - record, register, score
Often used of success and derived from the old custom - still found in pub darts matches, for instance - of using a blackboard and chalk to keep score.
...The phrase can also mean 'charge to one's account'; in some pubs the number of drinks ordered but not paid for at the time was also recorded by chalking on a board, with a view to settlement at the end of the evening.
...The same practice has also given rise to by a long chalk or by long chalks, meaning 'by a great degree or amount'. The greater one's score - or consumption of drinks - the longer would be the line of one's chalk marks.
Chance one's arm - take a risk
Among soldiers this meant taking a chance - breaking regulations, for example - that might lead to punishment, demotion and the consequent loss of one's stripes of rank, worn on the arm; hence the phrase. It may have entered army slang from an earlier use in boxing circles, where it meant exposing oneself to risk by extending one's arm in a punch, leaving part of the body undefended.
Change/Swap horses in midstream - change (allegiance, method, etc.) at a difficult moment
In a speech in 1863 referring to the risk of replacing a candidate for political office, the US President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) quoted a Dutch farmer's remark that it was best not to swap horses when crossing a stream. The metaphor, drawn from the American experience of pioneering journeys, acquired the terser 'in midstream' nearly a century later and passed from political into more general use.
Chapter and verse - detailed information
A reference to the Bible and its authority. Verses are the numbered subdivisions of its chapters, according to the style introduced in 1551.
Charity begins at home
Charity is a difficult word. While most modern users limit it to the idea of giving money to help the needy, the Latin word it is based on had a very different meaning. Caritas meant 'dearness, love based on respect (as opposed to sexual attraction)', as well as 'expensiveness', much in the way that we use dear for both senses in English. Charity was thus the word chosen in the King James Bible for 'Christian love', and many of our sayings containing the word charity originally used it in this sense, including charity begins at home. Since one aspect of Christian love is giving alms to the poor, the two senses 'love' and 'giving' have always existed alongside each other, and it is not surprising that the two have become confused. Both these ideas are found in the Epistle to Timothy, in the instruction, 'But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel', and in the instruction that children should 'learn first to shew piety at home'. Forms of the saying are found from the 14th century, and by the early 17th were well-enough known for Beaumont and Fletcher to write, 'Charity and beating begins at home (Wit without Money, 1616).
Chattering classes, the
A wry description of journalists, political pundits and the like, members of the so-called 'classless society', who discuss current affairs and social issues. More generally, this is a slightly derogatory term for groups of would-be or pseudo-intellectuals pontificating on subjects of which they have perhaps incomplete knowledge, and certainly no control. Such types used to be called 'armchair philosophers'. The term was first coined in the 1980s, at the beginning of Margaret Thatcher's reign as British Prime Minister, as a disparaging description of the liberal middle classes who impotently raged against Thatcherite policies around the dinner tables of London.
Cheap at half the price - very inexpensive
At first sight, this seems a contradiction in terms - surely, 'cheap at twice the price' would be a better description? However, the phrase is a play on the meaning of cheap; in this instance, it is not related to price, but rather to quality. Thus, something that is of very poor quality could still be thought of as cheap, even if it were half the price. It is said that the saying first came into usage in the mid-19th century, when impecunious members of the aristocracy were forced to borrow money from high interest charging lenders, the lenders themselves being regarded as cheap individuals for so demeaning themselves by lending money at such high rates of interest that they would still be regarded as cheap even if they charged half the rate.
See Jack of all trades.
Cheek by jowl - in close intimacy, close together
At the beginning of the 14th century the idea of being close to someone was expressed cheke by cheke. It was not until the second half of the 16th century that cheek by iowle put in an appearance. Jowl means 'jaw' or 'cheek', so the phrase changed only in form, not meaning. The expression has had a number of dialectal forms over the centuries (Norfolk has jig-by-jole and Ayrshire cheek for chow) and it is likely that the ultimate origin lies in one of these regional ones. There is another school of thought that prefers a French origin, but evidence for it is scarce.
Cheesed off - bored, disgruntled, disgusted
The earlier expression 'browned off', which meant the same, was RAF slang originally used of metalwork that had become rusty; it was later applied figuratively to human degeneration. Cheesed off may be an elaboration of this, in reference to the browning of cheese when cooked, or a quite different allusion to the sourness associated with cheese going bad.
Chew the fat - chat (or grumble) at length
A comparison between using one's mouth for a long period and the action of chewing the fat of meat, which usually takes longer to masticate than lean meat does. There are other explanations but this one is the most obvious.
Chew the rag - grumble, argue
Rag, earlier 'red rag', is old slang for the tongue. Chew implies using it at length. The same meaning of rag is found in lose one's rag (lose one's temper), i.e. control of one's tongue.
Chickens will come home to roost, one's - one's (misguided) actions will recoil on oneself
This is the modern version, sometimes in the shortened form come home to roost, of the proverbial saying 'Curses, like chickens, come home to roost' - i.e. as automatically as chickens come back to the henhouse at night in order to perch, the evil you wish on somebody in a curse will come back to trouble you. The actual words are usually attributed to Robert Southey (1774-1843) who wrote in the motto to his long poem The Curse of Kehama (1810) 'Curses are like young chickens; they always come home to roost'. The idea, however, though differently expressed, occurs as early as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in about 1387.
Chinese fire drill - chaotic situation, especially one involving a group's incompetence in carrying out instructions or a plan
Usage of this expression now seems confined to the USA; although it is supposed to have UK origins, and various sources state it being in use on both sides of the Atlantic after World War I. The expression supposedly derives from a true navel incident in the early 1900s involving a British ship, with Chinese crew: instructions were given by the British officers to practice a fire drill where the crew members on the starboard side had to draw up water, run with it to the engine room and douse the 'fire', at which other crew members (to prevent flooding) would pump out the spent water, carry it away and throw it over the port side. After initially going to plan, fuelled by frantic enthusiasm as one side tried to keep pace with the other, the drill descended into chaos, ending with all crew members drawing up water from the starboard side, running with it across the ship, entirely bypassing the engine room, and throwing the un-used water straight over the port side. It's certainly an amusing metaphor, if these days an extremely politically incorrect one. It's akin to other images alluding to the confusion and inconsistency that Westerners historically associated with the Chinese language and culture, many dating back to the 1st World War. Other expressions exploiting the word Chinese to convey confusing or erratic qualities: Chinese whispers (confused messages), Chinese ace (inept pilot), and Chinese puzzle (a puzzle without a solution); Chinese fire drill is very much part of this genre.
Chip in - make a contribution; interrupt
From poker, where it is a request to place one's chips, representing money, in the pot or kitty during play.
Likewise, the rather dated
have one's chips (be defeated or finished) is from the idea of giving up one's chips at the end of unsuccessful play.
...When the chips are down is a time of crisis when there is no going back or room for manoeuvre and something is about to happen. In poker, it means that money has been put down on the table, decisions have been taken and the crucial part of the game has been reached.
Chip off the old block
Literally a chip from a block of wood and therefore a piece of the same kind of wood. It is said of a person having the same characteristics as one of his or her parents or, more generally, having the good old-fashioned virtues of an older generation.
Chip on one's shoulder - bears a grudge; behaves anti-socially
The reference is to a custom originating in the USA, but also known in Canada, in which a person who was looking for a fight carried a chip of wood on his shoulder and invited people to knock it off; anyone who did so agreeing to fight. Perhaps the custom made better sense in pioneering days when chips of wood were litter as common as pieces of paper today, and fighting for its own sake was equally common.
Chock-a-block/Chock full - crammed full
Chock is probably an old variant of 'choked'. Something chock-full is so full that it is as if the throat is choked or stopped up.
Chock-a-block was a nautical term for a position when two blocks of a tackle came together so that no further movement was possible - again like choking.
Chop and change - keep making alterations or changing one's mind
This has nothing to do with chopping in the sense of cutting. The expression dates from the 15th century, when chop meant barter (in its primary sense of 'trade by exchanging goods or services rather than money') and change meant 'make an exchange with'. In other words, it was a repetitive expression, the two verbs meaning roughly the same. Over the years chop has lost this sense but the whole expression has remained in use with the same basic meaning of exchanging one thing for another.
Circle the wagons
This expression, which when used of a group of people means to work together to protect against possible harm or danger, comes from the days of the American pioneers, who used to form their wagons into a circle the better to defend themselves when under attack.
Clapped out - exhausted
Hares are the origin here. When pursued by hounds or other adversaries they will stop running from time to time to catch their breath. They routinely sit up on their haunches and look around; their respiratory movements are so strong that their chests heave in and out and their front legs, which they hold up in front of them, move in time with their breathing. To the observer they appear to be clapping and, in the world of hare hunting, this is exactly what it is called. A hare that can run no more is thus clapped out.
Clean as a whistle - very clean(ly)
The whistle here is the formerly common tin or penny whistle, a simple musical instrument, which will not make notes if the holes or tube are clogged.
Clean bill of health - doctor's advice that there are no medical problems
Formerly a nautical term for a certificate (i.e. bill) given to the captain of a ship sailing from a port that was liable to infection. A 'clean' bill stated that there was no infection in the port or on the ship at the time of sailing. The certificate would be needed for presentation at the next port of call before docking would be allowed.
Clean slate
The use of slate as a writing surface on which one could chalk up scores in games or debts in a shop or pub has given rise to a number of current expressions. Something that has been put on the slate is one credit. To wipe the slate clean is to prepare for a fresh start, either by paying off debts or by expunging the score of the previous game to make room for the next. To start with a clean slate is a similar expression. The verb slate (criticism) may derive from the practice of recording debts on a slate or from a northern English dialect word meaning to use or encourage a dog to attack or to herd animals.
...The former use of slate as a writing surface in schools may have given extra currency to expressions about clean slates or may be the origin of them. It has also been suggested that slated (condemned) may have originated in a practice of writing the names of disgraced pupils on a publicly displayed slate used as a noticeboard.
Clean sweep
Adapted from the proverb 'A new broom sweeps clean', this originally meant a complete change: see new broom. Now it also means an overwhelming victory, a sense that developed from the earlier one and its implication that something unwanted was being vanquished.
Clean the Augean stables - (sweep away) a state of extreme corruption, immorality, illegality, etc.
Augeus, a Greek king of mythology, owned countless herds of cattle whose foul stables were heaped with 30 years' accumulation of manure. As one of his labours, Hercules cleaned them in a single day by breaching their walls and diverting two rivers through them.
Cleanliness is next to godliness
Although often thought to be biblical, this saying comes from a sermon by John Wesley (1703-91) referring to neatness of dress: 'Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness'. In the published sermon, the words are put in inverted commas, implying an existing saying. The sentiment is certainly an old one, probably ancient Hebrew, but the familiar wording dates from Wesley.
Clear the decks (for action) - make preparations to do something
A nautical term meaning to get ready for military action by clearing from the decks everything that is in the way.
Clip one's wings - restrict one's freedom to act as one wishes
A reference to the literal cutting short of the long feathers of the wings of domesticated birds, such as ducks, to prevent them from flying away.
Cloak-and-dagger - underhand, secret; characteristic of spying and plotting
A development from the earlier 'cloak and sword', a translation of the Spanish literary term comedias de capa y espased for a type of fiction and drama of romance, intrigue and melodrama in which the main characters are from the ranks of society which formerly wore cloaks and swords.
Clockwork orange
A person who has been brainwashed to alter their personality, particularly someone whose individuality has been suppressed by conditioning. The term comes from the title of the novel A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess (1917-93), which was popularised by Stanley Kubrick's controversial and violent film of the same title (1971). The story tells of the state's attempts to punish its criminal hero, Alex, by turning him into a 'mechanical man' through sinister forms of therapy and brainwashing. In spite of its success the film was taken out of circulation by Kubrick and Warner Brothers after it was blamed for a number of copycat crimes as reported by the police and the courts; Kubrick himself also received several death threats. Following the director's death in 1999, the film was re-released in 2000. Burgess took his title from a little known Cockney expression from the 1950s, 'as queer as a clockwork orange' that is, homosexual, which may derive from the phrase 'as odd as an orange'.
Close one's eyes and think of England - advice to succumb to unwanted sexual intercourse; put up with any unpleasant action
This expression is ascribed to the 1912 Journal of Lady Hillingdon: 'I am happy now that Charles calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week and when I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England.' The original use concerns sexual intercourse but it is widely used humorously as advice to someone faced with any unpleasant task.
Cloud-cuckoo-land - impossible and foolish idealistic world; crazy, impractical scheme
The English translation of the Greek Nephelococcygia in Aristophanes' satirical comedy The Birds (414 BC). It is the name of a city built by birds in the clouds, between Athens and the heavens, under the persuasion of two Athenians who are disillusioned with city life. Classicists have complained that its comparatively recent vogue as a derogatory metaphor is ignorant misuse because the original is actually a successful and desirable place to live.
Clutch at straws - desperately resort to any inadequate remedy to get help or support
A modern reference to the old proverb 'A drowning man will catch at a straw'. Earlier versions, which go back to the 16th century if not before, refer to a stick or a twig; no doubt, these were replaced by a straw because of its even greater inadequacy as a means of support. Clutch replaced 'catch' in the 19th century.
...A number of expressions use straw to typify anything having negligible importance, substance or value. A man of straw is weak, like a straw dummy, and a straw in the wind is a small hint or fact that may indicate a more important coming event. This last is from the proverbial 'Straws show which way the wind blows': just as one may drop a straw to check the direction or strength of the wind (some rugby players about to make a place-kick still do this, using a piece of grass), so one may learn about something significant from small signs.
Coast is clear, the - there is no one about; there is no obstacle or danger in the way
Originally a military term having to do with the literal clearing away of an enemy from a coast, for example as a preliminary to a safe invasion.
Cobbler should stick to his last, the - one should do the work one is expert at and not try to do or interfere in that of others
Apelles, the great Greek painter of the 4th century BC, is reputed to have changed a detail of the painting of a shoe on one of his works when a cobbler pointed out a fault. When the cobbler then went on to criticise the painting of a leg the artist told him to stick to his trade. The proverb is found in Pliny (1st century AD) and in English from the early 16th century.
Cock-a-hoop - in very high spirits, sometimes boastfully
Most of the earliest versions of this expression occur in contexts having to do with drinking, which suggests that the original form may have been 'set the cock [i.e. tap] on the hoop [of the barrel, i.e. on top of the barrel]'. In other words, 'take the tap off and allow the contents to flow freely', which would certainly be conducive to high spirits.
...An alternative explanation, which lacks the same sense of abandon, is that the cock is the bird and hoop an old word for a measure of grain; the whole expression therefore means that the cock - proverbially exultant and cocksure - is happy at being fed.
Cock a snook at (someone) - to express one's defiance or contempt of (someone)
Originally referring to a rude gesture of contempt made by putting the end of one's thumb on the end of one's nose and spreading out and moving one's fingers.
Cock and bull story - concocted, incredible tale, especially an obviously untrue one
From an early fable, now lost, in which one of the characters appears to have been a cock and a bull metamorphosed into a single animal.
...There is also a popular explanation that claims that the origin is the village of Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire. In the village were two inns, The Cock and The Bull, which were staging posts on the London to Birmingham stagecoach route. It is said that news and anecdotes were exchanged both by passengers and coachmen seeking to impress travellers with their knowledge of current affairs. Inevitably, stories became embellished in the telling and retelling and the two establishments vied to furnish the most outlandish tales - these became known as Cock and Bull stories.
Cold as charity - extremely cold
Charity is referred to as cold since it tends to be given to the poor and disadvantaged by organisations rather than by individual people and so lacks human feeling or warmth.
Cold-blooded - calm and calculating
A cold-blooded human has nothing to do with reptiles and similar animals. Instead, it goes back to the ancient theory of the four humours, and their qualities of hot and cold, dry and wet. If your physiology was out of balance and you were too hot, you acted rashly, in the heat of the moment. If it was too cold, you were over-calm and rational. Emotions heated the blood, which cooled down with calmness. The same idea is found in French, in the expression sang-froid, which means 'cold blood'.
Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey - very cold
The popular explanation of this phrase is that it was originally nautical and nothing to do with parts of simian anatomy. The story has it that in the age of sail, cannon balls were kept on the decks of ships stacked in neat triangles on a brass rack called a monkey. When the temperature dropped, the brass monkey would contract, spilling the cannon balls all over the deck.
...Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this and the actual origin seems to point to the more vulgar anatomical reference. There is no evidence that monkey was a term used for such a rack, and the earliest appearance of the phrase is 1929 - well past the age of sail. Also, that first appearance is cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey. Note the change in anatomical parts.
Cold feet - anxiety and uncertainty about an undertaking, to the point of withdrawing
According to an old Lombard proverb known in England in the 17th century through Ben Jonson's play Volpone (1605), to have cold feet signifies 'to be without means or resources', a reference, perhaps, to the fact that the destitute cannot afford shoes and thus have cold feet. If this is the root of our modern idiom, it is not evident how the expression came to mean 'nervous and uncertain', although it has been proposed that a novel by Fritz Reuter (1862), in which a card-player pleads 'cold feet' as his excuse for backing out of a game, might have influenced this shift in meaning.
Cold shoulder - display or be shown intentional coldness, indifference or rejection
It is often said that this is from the idea of offering or being given a dish of cold shoulder of mutton left over from a previous meal, interpreted as a sign that the recipient was an unfavoured visitor.
...However, this is highly unlikely and is probably no more than a well-meant attempt to explain a puzzling expression. The actual fact is that the first recorded use of the phrase is in a novel by Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary (1816): 'The Countess's dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o' the cauld shouther'. It also appeared in another of Scott's works, St Ronan's Well (1824): 'I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally'.
...Within a decade or two, it was being used in works by the Brontës, Dickens, Trollope and Galsworthy, among others. The sudden popularity of the expression from the 1820s on, and the total absence of it in literature before Sir Walter Scott used it, strongly suggests that he either invented it or he popularised a saying that beforehand had been uncommon. Scott being the popular writer that he then was makes this seem very likely.
...It also seems likely that the expression never referred to meat. It is more probable that the cold shoulder was always a direct reference to that dismissive jerk of one side of the upper body to indicate a studied rejection or indifference. Scott's use of 'tip the cold shoulder' and 'show the cold shoulder' would suggest this is so.
Cold turkey - the state addicts are in when withdrawing from drug use, especially heroin
In the state of drug withdrawal an addict's blood is directed to the internal organs, leaving the skin white and with goose bumps and thus resembling a frozen plucked turkey. This expression goes back to the 1930s.
Come a cropper - fall over or fail at some venture
This expression comes from the world of horse riding and racing. The original phrase was neck and crop, describing a fall from a horse where the rider is thrown headlong over the horse's head. The most common occurrence of this kind of unfortunate accident is when the horse stops short of a jump, as in a steeplechase, but the rider keeps going. Neck and crop itself refers to the horse's head, crop being another word for throat. As a metaphor for failure, come a cropper graduated from the world of equestrian mishaps to general use in the mid-19th century.
Come hell or high water - persevere despite almost insuperable obstacles
An expression originating in America which seems to be a legacy of the cattle trail, when it was said that cattlemen drove their herds 'through high water at every river and continuous hell between'.
Come out of one's shell - lose one's shyness
Perhaps an allusion to the snail, which retreats into the safety of its shell when disturbed or threatened and re-emerges from it when the danger has passed. (See draw one's horns in) However, there is an old expression 'out of the shell' meaning, by analogy with young birds, 'newly born', 'immature' and 'inexperienced', and this may have developed a new sense having to do with loss of inhibition.
Come within an ace of
See Ace up one's sleeve.
Come up trumps
See Trump card.
Confusion worse confounded - confusion made even worse
A quotation from Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), Bk II, line 995.
Cook one's goose - ruin one's chances
One of several expressions drawing a comparison between a person who is done for and food that is 'done' when it is cooked. Geese used to be much more common as food than they are now. There is also the possibility that the expression comes from the same source as to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
Copper-bottomed - secure, to be trusted
Usually applied to a guarantee, assurance, etc. Below the waterline, the hulls of wooden ships used to suffer grievously from the attacks of wood-boring molluscs. After unsuccessful experiments with lead, it was found that sheathing the hull with sheets of copper prevented these attacks and the build-up of weeds and barnacles. The fixing of copper bottoms began in 1761 and later became general.
Corridors of power - place(s) where governing decisions are made
Coined by C. P. Snow in his novel Homecomings (1956) to describe the ministries of Whitehall, where there are a great many corridors, but better known from the title of his later The Corridors of Power (1963) about Westminster life. It has now passed into more general use to signify, sometimes jocularly, any location where people of authority work or meet.
Cost an arm and a leg - cost a great deal, be exorbitantly expensive
Despite such fanciful stories as the one about artists who, when painting someone's picture, based their charges on the number of limbs to be included in the finished masterpiece, the origin of this expression is merely a desire by the person who coined it to stress how outrageously expensive something was. Who this person was isn't known, though the phrase is not as old as one might think. It's first recorded appearance is actually in 1956, in Billie Holiday's autobiography Lady Sings the Blues. Although Billie Holiday herself is unlikely to be the creator of the expression, she may well have popularised it with her book.
...The most likely origin is as an extension of the mid-19th century expression to give one's right arm for, meaning that the speaker is willing to sacrifice their dominant, and therefore most valuable limb, in order to obtain or do something.
Cotton on - take a liking to; also to understand or 'to catch on' to something
Cotton as a verb is directly derived from cotton the fabric. The noun cotton is a very old word, entering English around 1286 from the Old French coton, which came in turn from the Arabic qutun. To cotton meaning 'to get along with' comes from the characteristics of cotton cloth. Cotton fabric is soft and fuzzy with a rich pile, and to cotton originally meant to work cotton or some other fabric such as wool so as to raise a nap or pile. This process is an important step in the finishing of fine cloth, and by the 16th century, cotton was being used figuratively to mean 'succeed' or 'improve'. By the early 17th century, cotton was being used in a more general sense of 'get along well together' or 'work harmoniously', and a bit later to mean 'strike up a friendship'. The modern sense of 'to become attached to' first appeared around 1805.
Could sleep on a clothes line - tired enough to fall asleep anywhere
This expression has its roots in the poverty of 19th century England amongst those who slept rough. For just two pence each, poor people could buy a night's lodging on the two-penny rope. This was a bench where these unfortunates would sleep sitting up, their bodies slumped over a clothes line stretched taut before them. The morning brought a rough awakening, for the landlord would often cut the rope to wake his impoverished guests before sending them on their way.
Counsel of perfection - excellent but impracticable advice
Originally a theological term with a rather different meaning. It referred specifically to that part of scripture in which Christ gives advice to the rich young man who asked what he should do to have eternal life: 'Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me' (Matthew, 19:21). Christ's counsel and definition of perfection were not impracticable but they were beyond the young man's moral capacity.
Course of true love never did run smooth, the
From Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, I, 1, line 134.
Cover a multitude of sins
See Hide a multitude of sins.
Cover one's ass
A slang term, American in origin, meaning to make up an excuse or prepare an alibi in advance, in order to avoid being blamed if something goes wrong. The phrase originated in the 1960s among US troops in Vietnam, and later became part of colloquial American language. It travelled to Britain in the 1980s, and was probably popularised by its use in the vulgar banter of 'get-rich-quick' financial traders. It is commonly used today in the planning of business ventures or in contract, in which ass-covering clauses are often included as a means of safeguarding the signatory against the unexpected, and thus blame. The phrase originally derives from military tactics, when one soldier provides covering fire for another as the latter advances.
Crack of doom - the end of the world
Literally the crack of thunder on Doomsday, the Day of Judgement; doom is an archaic word for judgement. The phrase was coined by Shakespeare (Macbeth, IV,1, line 117). The description of the Day of Judgement in Revelation, chapter 20, actually makes no mention of thunder though there is much thunderous activity in the book as a whole, notably associated with the issuing of voices from heaven.
Credibility gap
The space between the truth and fantasy; the disparity that exists between a claim or statement on one hand, and the reality of the situation on the other. If such claims are repeated, it naturally results in a loss of confidence in those making such exaggerations. The phrase is generally attributed to Gerald Ford in 1966, while he was still a US Congressman, referring to the escalating involvement of America in the Vietnam War, an assertion that was strongly disputed by Lyndon Johnson's administration.
Criss-cross - mark(ed with intersecting lines
No other English expression contains the word criss. It was originally 'Christ's'; 'Christ's-cross' (sometimes 'Christ's-cross-row') was a term for the alphabet. One of the earliest teaching aids for children until the 18th century was the horn-book, so called because it consisted of a leaf of paper mounted on a backing of wood and protected with a sheet of translucent horn. The paper contained the alphabet, often with the Roman numerals and the Lord's Prayer. The alphabet was preceded by the sign of the cross, either to indicate that Christ was the beginning of all wisdom or as an exorcism. Children would therefore be told to study the 'Christ's-cross-row', the alphabet.
...As time went by these origins were forgotten and it was assumed that criss-cross, as the term had become, was merely a duplication - like tip-top, zig-zag and many others - meaning no more than 'cross and cross again'. Hence the modern meaning.
Crocodile tears - hypocritical show of sorrow
The old story that the crocodile lures passers-by by making a moaning or sobbing sound, then devours them while weeping, comes from the extensive literature, folklore and travellers' tales that grew up around the crocodile because of its notable place as a deity in the theology, myth and art of the ancient Egyptians, some of whom worshipped it. There is evidence that the crocodile has near its eyes some glands that secrete saliva or excess salt, and also that under water it emits a stream of small bubbles from its eyes as a result of air entering the tear-ducts.
Cross one has to bear, the - affliction or misfortune we have to tolerate
An allusion to Christ's being required to carry the cross on which he was to be crucified (John, 19:17), an event still commemorated or re-enacted in some modern ceremonials, though the other three Gospels say that the cross was carried by someone else.
Cross the Rubicon - make a fateful decision from which there is no turning back
The Rubicon was a small river, little more than a stream, which formed part of the boundary between ancient Italy and the province of Cisalpine Gaul (now northern Italy). In 49 BC, Julius Caesar took the decision to cross this from his province of Gaul to march into Rome. In the political circumstances of his day, this precipitated war between him and Pompey and led to his dictatorship and eventual assassination.
Cry all the way to the bank - be indifferent to criticism of one's wealth; hypocritically deny or apologise for it
The flamboyant, sentimental, much-mocked but well-paid American entertainer Liberace (1919-87) once responded to a critic who had excoriated a performance by sending a telegram that read: 'What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank'. This accounts for the first of the current two meanings; the second has grown out of it.
Cry havoc - pillage and destroy
See Play havoc.
Cry wolf - raise a false alarm
From a fable by Aesop. A shepherd boy cried 'Wolf' for the fun of seeing people come running from the village to help stave off the danger; when a wolf actually did come, nobody took any notice of the boy's cry and his sheep were killed. To cry wolf once too often is thus to lose credibility after too much alarmism.
Cuckoo in the nest - misfit; a person (occasionally thing) subverting or not conforming with their group; parasite
The cuckoo removes and eats one egg from a number of nests built by other species, replacing it with an egg of her own. She then migrates, leaving an unsuspecting foster parent to hatch and rear her offspring. Shortly after hatching, the nestling cuckoo - which hatches earlier than the young of other birds - destroys all the other eggs in the nest by tipping them out. It then rapidly outgrows the entire nest, fed energetically by foster parents that may actually be four or five times smaller than it.
...Under these circumstances it is difficult to see why the cuckoo is also synonymous with idiotic behaviour, but easy to understand the origins of cuckold.
Cup that cheers, the - cup of tea
Now a cliché, originally an adaptation from William Cowper's The Task (1785): 'the cup/That cheers but not inebriate ... '
Curate's egg, like the - good in parts
An allusion to a famous cartoon in Punch in 1895 showing a bishop entertaining a curate to breakfast. The bishop apologises that the curate's egg is bad: the curate humbly replies that parts of it are excellent. As a bad egg is of course bad all through, the curate's reply owes more to courtesy than good sense, and the cartoon was making fun of over-dutiful (or self-serving) deference.
Curry favour - ingratiate oneself
A corruption of 'curry favel', originally Favel or Fauvel. He was the horse in the Roman de Fauvel (1310), a French satiric poem of the kind that was a dominating literary influence in the 14th century. In these poems, as in Aesop, animals had human attributes: Fauvel was the counterpart of the well-known Reynard the Fox, who preyed on society and was the symbol of dishonesty and cunning. To curry a horse is to comb or dress it with a metal comb, called a curry-comb; to curry Fauvel was to minister to and serve an embodiment of duplicity.
...In the course of time, as the original passed into history, 'Fauvel' became the more familiar and obvious 'favour'. In modern usage, the whole phrase has lost most, though not all, of its original associations with insincere flattery and sycophancy.
Curtain lecture - a private scolding, especially one given by a wife to a husband
From the curtains that formerly were hung round a bed.
Customer is always right, the
Original slogan of H. Gordon Selfridge (1857-1947), the founder of the Selfridge chain stores, though the idea may have been suggested by the hotelier César Ritz (1850-1918), who said in 1908, 'Le client n'a jamais tort' ('The customer is never wrong').
Cut and dried - completely decided; fixed beforehand
Now used of decisions, arrangements, opinions, etc., which are the subject of no further argument or change. Originally applied to cutting herbs in the field and then drying them, so that they could be sold cut and dried, ready for immediate use.
Cut and run - hurry off abruptly
An old nautical expression. In an emergency, it was sometimes necessary to cut the anchor cable, instead of going through the time-consuming business of winching up the anchor, in order to get away quickly ('run' before the wind, at full sail). The Armada was said to have done this off Calais on the approach of English fireships.
Cut and thrust - use of telling argument or point-scoring in debate, discussion, etc.
Two strokes used in trying to win at fencing: a cut uses the edge of the weapon, and a thrust is a forward movement of the point.
Cut no ice
See Break the ice.
Cut the mustard - come up to standard; be the best
This derives from the slang use of mustard meaning the best (flavourful, what makes something else taste good). The cut refers to harvesting the plant, If you cannot cut the mustard, you cannot supply what is best.
Cut to the chase
This phrase meaning get to the point comes from the early days of Hollywood. Originally, it literally referred to a cut from a dramatic scene to an action one (the chase). The literal sense dates to J.P. McEvoy's 1927 novel Hollywood Girl, where it is given as a script direction.
Cut to the quick - cause someone deep emotional hurt
Quick comes from the Old English word cwicu, meaning 'living', and refers to the most sensitive flesh on the human body, that protected by the fingernails and toenails. Someone who has been figuratively cut to the quick feels inner pain as intense as if the quick had been pierced.
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