Expressions & Sayings

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Eager beaver - overly zealous person
See Beaver away.
Eagle-eyed - very keen sighted
Legend has it that the eagle has the sharpest eyesight of all birds. When its sight grows dull with age it flies up towards the sun, and, by staring at the sun, which only it can do, it burns away all the cloudiness of age. This story has been known and referred to for as long as we have written records of English, having been introduced to the Anglo-Saxons by Christian missionaries. However, eagle eye or eagle-eyed, used without reference to the legend, to mean (keeping) a sharp watch on something has only been used as an expression since the early 19th century.
Ear to the ground - aware of what is going on; alive to speculation, rumour, etc.
From the American Indian practice - though alleged by some to be an invention of Hollywood westerns - of putting one's ear to the ground in order to detect the vibration of approaching hooves before they can actually be heard.
Ears are burning, one's - one is being talked about
A tingling or burning sensation in the ears supposedly means that a person is being discussed by others. The origin of this belief goes back to Roman times when augurs (see Under the auspices of) paid particular attention to such signs. Pliny wrote: 'It is acknowledged that the absent feel a presentiment of remarks about themselves by the ringing of their ears' (Naturalis Historia, AD 77). The ancient belief that the left signifies evil and the right good applies here also. Both Plautus and Pliny held that if a person's right ear burns then he is being praised, but a burning left ear indicates that he is the subject of evil intent. English literature, from Chaucer to Dickens, abounds with references to burning ears.
...According to ancient belief, other unexpected bodily twitches and sensations also warn of events to come, among them the eye and the thumb. A flickering right eye, for instance, indicates that a friend will visit or that something longed for will soon be seen, and a pricking in one's left thumb warns of an evil event.
Eat, drink and be merry
The rich man who decided to do this, not knowing he would die that night, would have been better employed preparing his soul, according to the parable (Luke, 12: 16-21) which warns against attaching too much importance to physical things. The occasional addition '... for tomorrow we die' is not in St Luke (though imminent death is) and is borrowed from a similar quotation in Isaiah: 'let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die' (22: 13).
Eat humble pie - apologise, behave humbly
'Umbles' (occasionally 'humbles') were the edible offal of deer and other animals; 'umble' pie was therefore eaten many centuries ago, but only in the early 19th did it acquire its current metaphorical meaning. This started life as a punning joke: there is no connection between 'humble' and 'umbles/humbles' in derivation or meaning, only in sound. Some commentators disagree, suggesting a different sort of connection in that servants would eat umble pie while lordly folk had the better cuts of meat, but actually, umble pie was a perfectly respectable dish in the 17th century and its consumption was not confined to the humble.
Eat your heart out
The ancients believed that sorrow or envy were bad for the heart, and would eat away at it, each sigh draining blood from the organ. This idea made its way to England and became well established - Shakespeare often refers to it, as in, 'Might liquid tears, of heart-offending groans, / Or blood-consuming sighs recall his life, / I would be blind with weeping, sick with groans, / Look pale as primrose with blood-drinking sighs' (Henry VI, part 2, III.ii). We still describe someone as broken-hearted by grief. By the beginning of the 20th century, to eat your heart out was well-established as a term for pining; but more recently, it has also been used as a cry of triumph when someone else has cause to envy the speaker.
Egg on - incite, encourage, urge
Nothing to do with eggs. The origin is an ancient Scandinavian word from which 'edge' is also derived. One of the meanings of 'edge' is 'sharpness' or 'urgency', which links with the meaning of this expression.
Elephant never forgets, an
The original Greek proverb was Camels never forget an injury. It wasn't until the early 20th century that the elephant overtook the camel. In Saki's Reginald of Besetting Sins (1910), it was said, 'Women and elephants never forget an injury'. As elephants have a good deal of intelligence and a fairly long life span, they really do remember injury, as well as kindness.
Eleventh hour - the last minute
In the Bible, Matthew (20:1-16) tells a parable in which the doctrine of grace is explained in a story of the labourers in the lord's vineyard who were all paid the same for their work whether they had been working all day, or had only started in the eleventh hour - the last hour of the Roman working day. This biblical use means the expression has been in the language from the earliest records. It was given further resonance in the 20th century when at the end of the First World War the Armistice was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month of 1918. Nowadays it is generally used without reference to these but simply as an alternative to 'last minute' or last ditch.
Elvis has left the building - the show is over
This comes from the announcements at the end of Elvis Presley's concerts to encourage fans to go home. Now used to indicate that something is complete.
Elysium/ Elysian Fields - place or state of ideal happiness; paradise
Both names are given, in classical mythology, to the abode of the dead, at first reserved for the gods' children but later opened to their favourites and to the souls of the just. Homer and Virgil describe it as a place of happiness, ease and eternal sunlight.
Éminence grise - one who exercises power unofficially by influencing another person or group who appear to have authority
Éminence grise (French for 'grey eminence') was originally the nickname given to the French friar and diplomat Père Joseph (François le Clerc du Tremblay 1577-1638), private secretary and confidant to the French statesman Cardinal Richelieu. The nickname referred to the colour of Père Joseph's garments and also to the authority he wielded over the unsuspecting Richelieu.
Emperor's new clothes, the
The title of a fairy-story by the Danish writer Hans Andersen (1805-75) which first appeared in an English translation in 1846. In it, two rogues claim to be able to make beautiful cloth that is invisible to anyone who is stupid or not fit for his or her job. The vain emperor, believing that this will enable him to identify foolish or incompetent courtiers and citizens, orders a set of clothes made from this fabric. The rogues go through the motions of weaving cloth and cutting out the garments. Courtiers who are sent to check on progress are of course unable to see any cloth but are unwilling to admit it. So is the emperor when the time comes for him to put on the imaginary clothes and go out in procession. Only a child, lacking adult dishonesty, points out that the emperor is walking about with no clothes on.
...The expression is used in reference to pomposity or self-deception.
Englishman's home is his castle, an - a person has rights to property and privacy
A proverbial popular notion, previously worded 'a man's house is his castle' from the 16th to the 19th centuries, after which it assumed its present form. It is not a legal quotation but a saying that enshrines a general principle of civil liberty. Castle implies impregnability.
Enter the lion's den - undergo an extreme test, face overwhelming opposition
See Daniel in the lion's den.
Ethnic cleansing - euphemism for genocide
A translation of a Serbo-Croatian phrase. On 9 July 1991, A Serbian building supervisor used the term ethnically clean in a London Times interview in reference to Croatian firings of ethnically Serbian officials.
...The gerund form, ethnic cleansing, was first used in English on 31 July, when the Croatian Supreme Council used it to describe Serbian actions against Croatians.
...The term has existed in Russian, etnicheskoye chishcheniye, since 1988, when it was used to describe Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in the province of Nagorno-Karabakh. It may also be older in Serbo-Croatian as well.
Every cloud has a silver lining - every misfortune brings some benefit or gives way to something better
Adapted from John Milton's Comus (1634), lines 221-2: 'Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud/Turn forth her silver lining on the night?'.
Every jot and tittle - every tiny detail
From Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: 'Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets ... Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law'. (Matthew, 5: 17-18). Jot is from the Latin iota, meaning the Greek letter i, the smallest in the alphabet. A jot is therefore a little bit, as is an iota. Tittle is a rare word meaning a small mark used in printing or writing; in jot or tittle it means the dot on the letter i and therefore merely reinforces the smallness implicit in jot.
...Tittle also survives in to a t (short for tittle), meaning 'with minute exactness'. Tittle-tattle is gossip; tattle is an old word for chatter and tittle was added either to underline the insignificance of small talk or merely to reinforce the onomatopoeia.
Every man jack
See Jack of all trades.
Exception proves the rule, the
The common meaning today is that the existence of an exception is in some way evidence that the rule exists, which is somewhat illogical. The original expression actually derives from a Latin legal term from the 1600s, exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis ('in the cases not excepted') which came into common use as exceptio probat regulam ('the exception establishes the rule'), whose proper and logical meaning was that the exception provides the opportunity to test and refine more accurately the scope of the rule, (neither proving the existence or otherwise of the exception or the rule!).
Eye for an eye, an - retaliation, especially in the same form as the offence provoking it
The Old Testament law of punishment, 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot' (Exodus, 21: 24), revised in Christ's Sermon on the Mount: 'Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil ...' (Matthew, 5: 38-9).
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