Expressions & Sayings

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Damn with faint praise - express disapproval by praising inadequately
A quotation from Alexander Pope's critical portrait of Joseph Addison in lines 201-2 of Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot (1735):'Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, / And without sneering teach the rest to sneer.' A similar form of words had appeared earlier in one of the works of William Wycherley, who knew and was later edited (and plagiarised?) by Pope: 'And with faint praises one another damn.'
Dance attendance on - serve or attend obsequiously
There may be some connection with the old custom of requiring a bride to dance with everyone who attended her wedding, however tired she might be, but the more persuasive explanation is that dance her is a jocular or fanciful variant of kick one's heels, i.e. move the feet idly while enduring the tedium of waiting, like a servant standing by to be summoned.
Daniel come to judgement, a - someone who makes a wise decision about something that has puzzled others
This alludes to the biblical Daniel (Daniel 5: 14-16 and, perhaps more specifically, the devout and upright young man of the apocryphal book of Susanna), but the source of the actual quotation is Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (Act 4, Scene 1): 'A Daniel come to judgement! yea a Daniel! / O wise young judge, how I do honour thee!'
Daniel in the lion's den - person facing intimidating task or trail
Daniel was a Jew who kept his faith in God during the Jewish captivity in Babylon under successive kings (see feet of clay). He rose to eminence and attracted the jealousy of the princes of Babylon, who conspired against him by persuading King Darius to sign a restrictive decree that they accused Daniel of breaking by continuing to pray to God. Against his will, Darius had to punish Daniel by incarcerating him in a den of lions in accordance with the decree. By divine intervention, the lions left Daniel unharmed, demonstrating to the king both the innocence and faith of Daniel and the power of his God.
Darby and Joan - elderly man and wife, often of modest circumstances, who are very attached to each other
Character in a ballad by Henry Woodfall, published in 1735 and believed to refer to John Derby, to whom the writer was formerly an apprentice, and his wife. Their names became synonymous with marital affection.
Dark horse - person about whom little is known or who reveals little about themself, especially one with potential as a competitor
To 'keep dark', meaning to keep secret, is an expression going back at least 400 years, so it is possible that the related dark horse (a racehorse of unknown form but thought to have a good chance) existed in racing slang before it was first recorded in print in Disraeli's novel The Young Duke (1831). Be that as it may, it soon became a popular metaphor for a person with unknown qualities and is now standard English.
David and Goliath
The story in the Bible (I Samuel 17) tells how the shepherd boy David, using his sling and a pebble he picked up, killed the gigantic warrior-champion of the Philistines, Goliath, who until then had terrorised the kingdom. From this came the idea of the underdog, David, winning against a powerful opponent. The history of this as an expression is obscure, but it only seems to have come into regular use in the 20th century. It is very popular with sports journalists when a minor team has unexpectedly beaten a better-known one, but is also well used in other contexts.
Davy Jones's locker
The name Davy Jones dates back to at least 1751. In nautical superstition, he is the spirit of the sea; his locker is where he keeps sunken ships.
...The origin of the expression is obscure. Some suggest that Davy is a corruption of the West Indian/African duppy or duffy, meaning a spirit or ghost. Additionally, the d and v suggest a possible corruption of Devil. Another suggestion is that Jones is a corruption of Jonah, both a biblical reference and sailor's slang for bad luck. Yet another idea is that there was a pirate or drowned sailor of that name. Still another idea is that Davy Jones was originally the owner of a 16th century London public house that was popular with sailors. The pub is said to have also served as a place for press-ganging unwary citizens into service: Davy Jones was thought to store more than just ale in the lockers at the back of the pub. The victims would be drugged and transferred to a ship, to awaken only when the ship had put to sea.
...As no definitive source has been pointed at, this is one of those expressions that has to be labelled: "Origin unknown."
Day of Judgement
According to the prophetic book of Revelation in the New Testament, this is the day when God will judge humankind, pronouncing salvation for the good soul and doom for the evil, after the passing away of the world in its present form. It is also referred to as the Last Judgement and Doomsday; see crack of doom.
...The expression is now used loosely to mean end of the world and, without capital letters, any retribution for one's actions.
Days are numbered, one's - one's life or existence is drawing to an end
This expression, in which numbered is used in its now rare meaning of 'reduced to a definite (small) number', has its origin in Wyclif's translation (1380) of the Old Testament book of Daniel. This contains Daniel's well-known interpretation of the writing on the wall: 'God hath numbered thy reign and finished it' (5:26).
Dead as a dodo - dead, extinct, obsolete
The dodo was a peculiar, comical-looking bird with a large, hooked bill, and short, curly tail-feathers. Heavy and clumsy, the dodo was flightless, its small wings being totally out of proportion to its bulky body. Its name comes from the Portuguese doudo, meaning 'silly, stupid'. There were two known species, one unique to each of the islands of Mauritius and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Sadly, the increase in exploration and trade in the 16th and 17th centuries brought about the extinction of the dodo. Seamen and colonists found the cumbersome creatures both tasty and easy to catch. The settlers introduced pigs to the islands, which destroyed the dodo's nests and young as they foraged. By the close of the 17th century, the luckless bird was extinct.
Dead as a doornail
Doornails were large-headed nails with which doors were studded for strength or ornamentation. There have been ingenious conjectures as to why one should be particularly 'dead', including the suggestion that a doornail would become worn out if it was used - there is no evidence that it was - as the nail on which the doorknocker was struck.
...The best explanation is from a different meaning of doornail, that of a door-fastener, a beam of wood placed across the inside of a door, held in place by brackets, and called a nail because it fastened. It was rigid and therefore invited comparison with a corpse.
Dead duck - person or thing that is useless or unsuccessful
From the American proverb 'Never waste your powder on a dead duck'.
Dead in the water
A sailing ship that is dead in the water is stationary, with no wind in its sails to make it come alive. Transferring this to everyday life, to mean 'not going anywhere, brought to a halt' was only a small step, although it can be rather confusing if not used carefully.
Dead ringer - having a strong resemblance for someone or something
A ringer was originally a counterfeit coin. The fact that a coin was false could often be determined by dropping it on a hard surface, if it made a ringing sound, it was a fake. Later, in horse racing, a ringer was a fast horse substituted by an unscrupulous owner for a similar-looking nag with a bad racing record. This horse could then be heavily bet on in the hope of gaining a dishonest profit. Dead is merely a way of emphasising the similarity, as in 'dead centre' (exactly central) or 'dead on' (exactly correct), where dead adds a sense of precision and strength to the phrase.
Dead Sea fruit
This expression, which means a thing that appears to be, or is expected to be, of great value but proves to be valueless, refers to a fruit, the apple of Sodom, that was thought to grow on trees beside the shores of the Dead Sea. It was beautiful to look at but fell to ashes when touched or tasted.
Dead to the world
The proper meaning of dead to the world is a religious one, describing the state of someone who has left worldly things to dedicate themself to God. As Wordsworth put it, 'A few Monks, a stern society, Dead to the world and scorning earth-born joys' (Cuckoo at Laverana, 1837). It can still be found in modern English used in this way: 'Henceforth, like St Paul, she was dead to the world and alive only to God' (The English Mystics of the 14th Century, 1991). However, by the late 19th century, the expression was also being used to mean 'unconscious' and from there, it was but a short step to the commonest modern sense of 'deeply asleep'.
Dear-John letter
A letter from a wife or girlfriend breaking the news that the relationship with the recipient is over. The expression originated during WWII and is thought to be American. The unfortunate objects of Dear John letters were usually members of the armed forces overseas, whose female partners had made new liaisons, proving that absence sometimes did not make the heart grow fonder.
Derring-do - great courage, especially against overwhelming odds
Derring-do, which bears a close relation to daring, is the product of a very old misunderstanding. The Old English verb durren meant 'to dare' (and later produced our modern dare), and the first trace of derring-do cropped up back in 1374 in Chaucer's use, in his Troylus, of the phrase dorring don, meaning 'daring to do'. Chaucer used the phrase in its ordinary sense with an object (i.e., daring to do 'something') but later editions of his work misprinted the phrase as derrynge do, and everyone took this spelling as a brand-new compound noun meaning 'manly courage'. Subsequent writers spread the mistake far and wide, and derring-do became a staple of adventures penned by the likes of Sir Walter Scott. After a hundred years or so of pirate novels and bodice-rippers, derring-do is now firmly entrenched in popular culture.
Devil to pay, the - trouble as the consequence of an act
The earliest appearance of this expression has to do with paying the Devil as part of a bargain. The medieval legend of the man who sold his soul to the Devil is best known from the later Faust stories, notably the dramatised version by Marlowe (1594): his Dr Faustus enjoys 24 years during which Mephistopheles provides whatever he asks for, but he has to pay his soul to the Devil at the end of them. However, the idea of making a pact with the Devil is much older and of Jewish origin: Christ, for example, is offered such a pact in Matthew, 4:1-11).
...There is a later expression, the devil to pay and no hot pitch, which is nautical. It may be a punning extension of the earlier phrase or an entirely separate one devil is a seam for caulking; pay is an obsolete verb meaning 'cover with pitch' (tar). The process is explained in Between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Devils' advocate - person who presents, usually for the sake of argument, an opposing view which he does not himself hold
Translation from the Latin advocatus diaboli, a theological term used in the Roman Catholic church for the official given the duty of arguing against the proposed beatification of a dead person during the formal deliberation of the matter, in order to ensure that the case is examined from all sides.
Die-hard - fierce or resilient
The Die-hards were the British 57th Foot regiment, so called after their Colonel Inglis addressed them before the (victorious) battle of Albuera against Napoleon's French on 16 May in 1811, 'Die hard my lads, die hard'. Only one officer of 24 survived, and only 168 men of 584. The regiment later became the West Middlesex.
Die is cast, the - irrevocable decision or step has been taken
The die here is the little-used singular of 'dice', which is actually a plural word though usually used as a singular. In gaming, when the die/dice is thrown or cast the players must accept the consequences.
...Julius Caesar, according to the Roman historian Suetonius, his biographer, used the words iacta alea esto (let the die be cast) at the crossing of the Rubicon, which indicates the age of the metaphor. Shakespeare helped to popularise it: 'I have set my life upon a cast/And I will stand the hazard of a die' (Richard III, V, 4, lines 9-10).
Discretion is the better part of valour - carefulness is the most important feature of courage
The proverb is most famously articulated by Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I: 'The better part of valour is discretion'. He was commenting on an old maxim that discretion is as great a virtue as valour but that discretion and valour combined are greater still. His cynical misinterpretation, effectively a justification of cowardice, is probably more popular - and certainly more often quoted - than the original maxim.
Dish one's chances - ruin or spoil one's hopes, plans, etc.
The analogy is between an animal that ends up dished (served up in a dish) and eaten and a person's chances which have come to an equally ignominious end. See cook one's goose.
...The same idea lies behind 'pan' meaning criticise. A play that is panned (condemned by critics) is being compared to something that is chopped up and put in a pan.
Divide and rule
Translation of a Latin saying.
Do as you would be done by
First recorded in these precise words in a letter from the Earl of Chesterfield to his son in 1747, though less pithy versions go back at least three centuries and originate in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: 'all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets' (Mathew, 7: 12). Chesterfield's formulation, which may not have been original, was given widespread currency by Charles Kingsley (1819-75), whose Water Babies (1863), an immensely popular moral tale for the young, has among its characters Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid.
Dog-days - hot period of summer weather
Sometimes used as a general metaphor for good times in the past. The phrase is a translation from Latin; in classical times, the hottest period of the year, from the beginning of July to mid-August, was attributed to the rising of Sirius (the brightest star in the constellation called Greater Dog and thus known as the Dog-star) at the same time as the sun. This was believed to add to the sun's heat.
Dog in the manger - selfishly depriving others of something one has no use for oneself
From the Aesop's fable (6th century BC, known in western Europe since the 14th century) of the dog which lay in a manger, unable to eat the barley but refusing to allow the horse, which could eat it, to come near it. The application is to someone who holds on to things he cannot use in order to deprive someone else of having use of them.
Dog's life
An expression that reflects the times when dogs held a much less privileged domestic position than they now do. Thus a dog's life (a wretched one) and not a dog's chance (no chance at all). Someone or something going to the dogs is heading towards ruin. See also hair of the dog and give a dog a bad name.
Donkey's years - a very long time
Usually said to be an illiterate form or misunderstanding of 'as long as a donkey's ears'. There is a simpler explanation: donkeys are long-lived - 40 years has been known or alleged - and so donkey's years may mean no more than 'the number of years a donkey may live'.
Don't look a gift-horse in the mouth - do not find fault with a gift or chance benefit
Even as early as the late 4th or early 5th century St Jerome quotes this expression (in Latin) as being proverbial. In English, early versions of it refer to a 'given horse' and the now familiar version emerged in the 17th century. There are similar expressions in several other European languages.
...A young horse is a more desirable gift than an old one. A horse's teeth reveal its age, just as old people without dental care suffer from receding gums and become long in the tooth. The sense of the expression, therefore, is that if you receive a horse as a gift it is bad manners to look in its mouth to establish its value.
...If something is straight from the horse's mouth it is from a reliable source. This again has to do with looking at teeth to establish age and therefore value; this information is likely to be more accurate than any other, such as that provided by a dishonest horse-trader.
Doolally tap - mad
Near the end of the 19th century, the British army had a military sanatorium at Deolali, about 100 miles northeast of Bombay. One of its functions was to act as a transit camp for soldiers who had finished their tours of duty and were waiting for a troop ship to take them back to Britain. Ships only left Bombay between November and March, so a soldier ending his tour outside these dates might have a long wait for transport.
...The time-expired men at Deolalie had no arms or equipment; they showed kit now and then and occasionally went on route-marches, but time hung heavily on their hands and in some cases men got into serious trouble and were awarded terms of imprisonment before they were sent home. Others contracted venereal disease and had to go to hospital. Because of the inactivity and boredom, combined with the heat, many men began to act strangely and eccentrically. Such men were said to be suffering from doolally tap.
...The first part of this phrase is obviously the result of the British soldier's way of making a foreign-sounding word more English. The second part is from a Persian or Urdu word tap, a malarial fever (ultimately from the Sanskrit tapa, heat or torment).
Doss-house - rough sleeping accommodation
The term is from Elizabethan England when doss was a straw bed, from dossel meaning bundle of straw, in turn from the French dossier meaning bundle.
Dot the i's and cross the t's - make final check to add or correct detail
Probably originally a classroom catchphrase, warning children to check their handwriting for missing dots over the letter i and cross-strokes in the letter t. With the exception of j, these are the only two letters requiring a separate dot or pen-stroke, which is likely to be overlooked by children.
Double Dutch
See Dutch courage.
Double quick/At the double - very quickly
From a military command, generally given to troops required to move quickly. It originated in a more specific reference to 'double time', a number of steps per minute when marching, as compared with other marching speeds (e.g. the slow march).
Double whammy - double blow or setback
Originated with the Li'l Abner cartoon strip in the USA. At that time, it referred to an intense stare that had a withering effect on its victims. Contemporary spread of the use of this came from the UK Conservative Party's 1992 election campaign.
Doubting Thomas - person who will not believe something before obtaining proof of it
An allusion to Christ's disciple, Thomas Didymus, who was not present when Christ showed himself to other disciples after the Resurrection and who said that he would not believe their story that Jesus had appeared 'Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails ...' (John, 20: 25). Jesus subsequently appeared before Thomas; the whole story is told in verses 19-29.
Down at heel
See Well-heeled.
Down in the dumps - depressed, low, dejected
The word dumps is a borrowing from Northern European languages. Swedish has dumpin, 'melancholy'; Dutch has dompig, 'damp or hazy'; and German has dumpf, meaning 'gloomy, damp' - all depressing words. The usage is old, people have certainly been in the dumps since the early 16th century and perhaps even earlier - a ballad thought to have been composed by Richard Sheale about 1475 has the line: 'I wail, as one in doleful dumps'.
Draw a blank - get no result (usually from a search, enquiry, etc.)
From the lottery ticket which is blank and therefore not a winning one.
Draw one's horns in - become less active (e.g. in spending money)
An allusion to the snail, which when disturbed draws in its tiny horns (tentacles which bear its eyes) and retreats into the safety of its shell. See also come out of one's shell. See come out of one's shell.
Draw the line - fix a limit (often between what one will and will not tolerate)
From map-making, in which lines are drawn to establish boundaries, determine frontiers, etc.
Draw the short straw - (be allocated to) a disagreeable task
From an old method of drawing lots, using several pieces of straw of equal length and one that was shorter. They were held in the hand so as to conceal the length of all the straws, and whoever drew the short straw was the loser.
Dreaming spires
Literary, journalistic or ironic term for a university and especially for the happy condition of unworldly academics thought not to be burdened by hard reality. The term was coined by Matthew Arnold (1822-88), who called Oxford 'sweet city with her dreaming spires' in his poem Thyrsis (1866).
Dressed to the nines - person dressed as smartly as possible
Nine here may be mystic, denoting perfection, or it may represent a score of nine out of ten and thus imply near-perfection. It is unlikely to be a variant of an Old English expression as some have suggested, because it is unrecorded before the end of the 18th century.
Drive a coach and horses through - reveal the inadequacies of an argument or proposal, to rebut; breach
Sir Stephen Rice, Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer, is credited with coining this phrase around 1670 in his vigorous opposition to the Act of Settlement. According to Archbishop King, it was a term he employed often in this context: 'He was (to give him his due) a man of the best sense among them, well enough versed in the law, but most signal for his inveteracy against the Protestant interest and settlement of Ireland, having been often heard to say, before he was a judge, that he would "drive a coach and six horses through the act of settlement," upon which both depended.' The more familiar generalisation, 'I can drive a coach-and six through any Act of Parliament', arising from Rice's words is, however, attributed to Daniel O'Connel, another Irishman who defended the Catholic cause in the following century.
Drop a brick - blunder (especially by tactless remark or action)
Despite the attractiveness of the 1903 story of the Cambridge University Volunteers' route march along Trumpington Road, their indiscipline, the alarming voice of their sergeant-major and its effect on nearby builders, who were startled into dropping their bricks, the expression is more likely to have originated less specifically in the more humdrum accident of dropping a brick on one's own or someone else's toe.
Drum up - obtain, summon (support, interest, etc.)
From the military use of drums to send signals or orders, especially by recruiting parties sent to market squares and other public places; they advertised themselves by beating drums. One special use of the expression (to make a meal or a drink) may be from tramps' slang derived from the Romany 'drom' (highway), where tramps would normally take their refreshment.
Dunkirk spirit - courage, especially a determination to endure hardship, when facing odds, disaster, etc.
A reference to the national mood at and after the successful evacuation to England of about 350,000 Allied troops encircled at the channel port of Dunkirk during the German invasion of France in 1940. Their escape was aided by a fleet of small civilian boats from England.
...The phrase implies refusal to surrender and also alludes to the years after the Dunkirk evacuation when Britain experienced bombing attacks and faced the threat of invasion.
Dutch courage - false courage
Numerous expressions referring to the Dutch originate in Anglo-Dutch enmity during the 17th and early 18th centuries, when there were trade disputes, naval embargoes and three wars, as a result of which Dutch became a pejorative word. Generally, it indicated a lack of genuineness: Dutch courage is that induced by drinking alcohol, a Dutch uncle gives unpalatable heavy-handed advice (which is not to say bad advice), and double Dutch is gibberish or nonsense. The first of these may also allude to the Dutch fondness for gin and the second to Calvinistic sternness.
...Later expressions are less derisive and more jocular, implying the sort of quirkiness many nations attribute to their neighbours: a Dutch treat, sometimes called going Dutch, means paying one's share of expenses (i.e. no treat at all) and I'm a Dutchman is a general expression of disbelief.
Dyed-in-the-wool - uncompromising and usually extreme in beliefs, opinions, attitudes, etc.
In its original literal sense, dyed in the wool refers to the process of dying sheep wool in its "raw" state, before it is spun into thread or yarn. The colour of the resulting dyed in the wool fabric tends to be more consistent and permanent than that of fabric dyed in later stages of the cloth-making process.
...Dyed in the wool first appeared in this literal sense in the late 16th century, and within a few years the expression was being used in its modern figurative sense to describe someone who can be counted on to stick to their opinions.
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