Expressions & Sayings

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If the cap fits
If the cap fits, wear it has been around since at least the early 18th century, and is probably older. A work of 1600 called Pasquil's Fools-Cap with the passage 'Where you finde a head fit for this Cappe, either bestowe it upon him in charity, or send him where he may have them for his money' suggests that the expression was known then, and also reminds us that the cap to be worn is a dunce's cap. In America, this saying is more likely to be found in the form 'If the shoe fits...' or even, perhaps under the influence of the Cinderella story, 'If the slipper fits...'
Ignorance is bliss
The original is a wistful contemplation of the innocence of youth by the poet Thomas Gray in his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1747), lines 98-100: 'Thought would destroy their paradise! / No more; where ignorance is bliss / 'Tis folly to be wise'. Ignorance here does not carry, as it now often does, a sense of impoliteness; it simply means 'lack of [adult] knowledge'.
Ill-gotten gains - money gained by questionable means
This is all that is left in general use of a proverb that ran 'Ill-gotten gains never prosper'. This first appeared in English in 1519 in the form 'Evil gotten riches will never prove long', and Shakespeare has it in the form 'Didst thou never hear / That things ill got had ever bad success (Henry VI, part 3, II.ii). Ill-gotten gains had become separated from their proverb by the late 17th century, and were a cliché by the 19th.
Ill-starred - ill-fated
An allusion to the astrological belief that one's fate or fortunes are influenced by the motions and positions of the planets.
In a cleft stick - in a predicament
This expression has been current since the turn of the 20th century. It probably alludes to the trapping of snakes and the like by pinning them down behind the head with a forked stick.
In a nutshell - concisely expressed
A nutshell is small enough to be a symbol for anything brief. There is no need for further explanation, though there are curious stories of attempts to copy substantial documents, such as the entire Bible, in letters so small that the resultant document will literally fit in a nutshell. Roman literature has a reference to the writing out of the whole of Homer's Iliad (17,000 lines) in this way.
In a pickle - in a difficult situation, in a mess
This expression travelled from Holland to England in the 16th century. The Dutch version was in de pekel zitten, 'to sit in the pickle', pekel being the liquid, brine or vinegar, in which food was preserved.
In bad odour
See Odour of sanctity.
In clink - in prison
The Clink was a prison in Southwark, London dating from the 12th century, when it formed part of the Bishop of Winchester's palace and was used to house offenders against ecclesiastical codes. It was burned down in 1780 by the Gordon rioters. During its varied history, it was also a debtors' prison and the local gaol for Southwark. Its name seems to come from a Middle English word which has also given us 'clinch' and 'clench': the underlying sense is that of secure fastening. The word passed from being the name of one particular prison to being a general name for any prison, though it is now rather dated slang.
In cold blood - ruthlessly, without excitement, not in a passion
A relic of early medical theory: becoming hot with excitement or exertion was supposed to be the result of blood getting hot. The same idea persists in make one's blood boil (make angry). By the same token, something done with deliberation, without the heat of passion, was supposed to be a product of cold blood.
In extremis
In Latin this literally means 'in the furthest reaches'. In English it is used to mean 'at the point of death', or, when it qualifies as a cliché, 'in an extremely difficult situation', or 'ultimately'. This latter sense is a 20th century development.
In fine fettle - in good order or condition
Fettle is an old word meaning condition, order or shape. Nowadays, it rarely appears on its own, being usually heard in the alliterative phrase. In the past we might have heard 'good fettle' or bad fettle', and in John Barleycorn by Jack London, published in 1913: 'Those fifty-one days of fine sailing and intense sobriety had put me in splendid fettle.'
...The origin of the word fettle is somewhat obscure. It probably comes from the Old English fetel for a belt, so fettle first meant to gird oneself up, as for a heavy task. It is related to the German fessel for a chain or band, but not to the similar fetter, which actually comes from the same root as 'foot'. In English, the word was most typically used as a verb meaning to put things in order, tidy up, arrange, or prepare. In Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey (1847), in the Yorkshire dialect speech of a servant: 'But next day, afore I'd gotten fettled up - for indeed, Miss I'd no heart to sweeping an' fettling, an' washing pots; so I sat me down i' th' muck...'
...In northern English dialects it is sometimes used in the sense of making or repairing something. In Australia, a fettler is a railway maintenance worker. It is also used in some manufacturing trades - in metal casting and pottery, it describes the process of knocking the rough edges off a piece.
In like Flynn - taking instant advantage of any chance opportunity
This phrase is commonly thought to be a reference to the ease with which film star Errol Flynn bedded women. It dates to about 1945 and is indeed a reference to the Tasmanian-born film star, Errol Flynn (1909-59). The earliest known citing equates the term to Flynn's swashbuckling cinematic feats. As an action hero, everything came easy to him on the silver screen.
...The sexual connotations did not clearly appear until the 1970, although this might be a case of editorial discretion. It would not be surprising if the original meaning was sexual in origin, but altered in published works until more recent times.
In limbo - in a state of being lost, forgotten, deserted or unwanted; not knowing what to do because of lack of information, etc.
Originally a technical term in medieval Christian (Roman Catholic) theology. It is a form of the Latin limbus (border, edge), as found in limbus infantum (the abode of children who died before baptism) and limbus patrum (the abode of the just who died before Christ, thus lacking redemption but not through their own fault). These notions were much discussed and were referred to in imaginative literature such as Dante's. From meaning a region on the border of hell, not in hell but not in heaven either, limbo came to acquire its modern meaning.
In lumber - in trouble
The Lombards, natives of Lombardy, a region of what is now northern Italy, were successful as bankers, moneylenders and pawnbrokers; 'lombard' entered the English language to denote a person engaged in any of these activities. A lombard, of which a variant was lumber, was additionally a pawnbroking establishment, and the modern expression to be in lumber stems from this association with debt.
...Another meaning of lumber is disused furniture, useless odds and ends and other things that take up space (as in lumber-room). It is possible that this sense comes from one of the meanings of lombard - a pawnshop does contain a miscellany of goods - but it is impossible to be sure. What can be said is that lumbered (left with something unwanted or unpleasant) comes from this general sense of clutter.
In one's black books - out of favour
The earliest Black Books were official documents; the adjective seems to have had no other significance than to indicate the colour of the binding. For example, there were the Black Books of the Exchequer (about 1175), listing royal revenues, and the Black Books of the Admiralty, containing rules compiled in the reign of Edward III. A Black Book of the 1530s, during the reign of Henry VIII, lists abuses in the monasteries, which were subsequently dissolved, and it is from about this time that a black book became specifically associated with censure or punishment, as it still is.
...From this sense emerged blacklist, denoting people considered disloyal, untrustworthy or deserving of punishment; bad books as a fairly modern variant of black books; and its converse, good books, meaning favour. These last two may also be related to two old expressions from at least 1509: in one's book(s) (in one's opinion) and out of one's book (mistaken).
In one's heart of heart - in one's innermost feelings
An anatomically curious but firmly established variant of the older and more sensible 'heart of heart' (i.e. very centre of the heart) coined by Shakespeare in Hamlet (III, 3, lines 69-71): 'That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him/In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart...'.
In one's true colours
See With flying colours.
In purdah - isolated from others (often by disgrace)
In the original Urdu and Persian a purdah was a curtain, especially one to screen women to prevent their being seen by men. It came to be the name for the whole custom of secluding women in some Muslim and Hindu communities, but the modern metaphorical use in English has a far more general application.
In the bag - (virtually) certain to be arranged, obtained; to succeed
The bag may be the one behind the Speaker's chair in the House of Commons for the receipt of petitions to Parliament, but is more likely to be the one in which game is carried after it has been shot: the origin of the expression seems to be in military slang, which contains a certain amount of hunting metaphor.
In the cart - in trouble
This most likely refers to the cart in which condemned people used to be taken to public execution or from which they were hanged, the noose being placed around their necks as they stood in the cart, which was then driven off.
In the doghouse - in disgrace
Doghouse is an old English word; taken to the USA by settlers it remained in use there although generally superseded by 'kennel' in British English, and finally returned to Britain in this colloquial phrase.
...One commentator has said that on slave-ships the passengers were chained in the hold and the seamen slept in rough shelters on deck, known as doghouses because they were bare and uncomfortable. Another suggests that the expression originated with Peter Pan (1904) in which Mr Darling lives in the doghouse as a penance for his poor treatment of the dog, as a result of which the children run away. The first recorded date of the expression (1932) rules out the first of these explanations (the shelters may have been called doghouses but they had nothing to do with disgrace) and the American origin of the expression makes the second likely. There is really no need to look any further than the familiar idea of banishing a dog to its kennel in the event of misbehaviour.
In the doldrums - depressed, in low spirits
The origin of the form of the word doldrum is thought to lie in the Old English word dol, meaning 'dull'. As for the meaning, there are two schools of thought. Early in the 19th century, and probably before, in the doldrums was used as a synonym for 'in the dumps, depressed'. Later sailors borrowed the phrase to describe the region of sultry calms and baffling winds within a few degrees of the Equator where the northeast and southeast trade winds converge. Here the progress of sailing ships would be greatly delayed for many days, their crews becoming frustrated and demoralised through inactivity. Hence, their feelings provided the name for the area. Other authorities suggest that the reverse is true: the idiom is derived from the name of the place, the doldrums. It is difficult to be sure, but the dating of the usages gives support to the first version.
In the lap of the gods - fate will decide
One very obvious suggestion for the origin of this idiom is the practice, common in many cultures since ancient times, of placing gifts on the knees of statues depicting seated gods in the hope that, in return, a prayer would be answered. Most authorities agree, however, that the phrase originated in Homer's Iliad. Patroclos, friend of Achilles, had been killed and the Trojans, having first stripped his corpse, were intending to sever the head and march with it through the city to help them gain the upper hand in the battle. It was at this point that Automedon, aware that the outcome was in the balance, said, 'These things lie on the knees of the gods.' In fact, the impending humiliation brought the sulking Achilles back into the battle and led to the rout of the Trojans and the death of Hector. The gods, it seemed, were on the side of Achilles. See Achilles heel.
In the limelight - in the centre or position of public attention
In the days before electric lighting, theatre stages were illuminated by the intense white light produced by heating lime in an oxyhydrogen flame. This was called limelight, as was the mechanism that produced it. A person who is said to be in or enjoy the limelight is therefore being compared to an actor on stage.
In the melting pot - liable to change
The metaphor is from the use of a crucible to melt pieces of metal, often scrap or damaged articles, for pouring into a mould to make something new.
In the offing - about to happen
Offing is one of a number of English words that are found only in a single expression. It means 'that part of the sea visible from (i.e. off) the shore'. A ship that was in the offing was therefore within sight.
In the pink - in good health
A pink is a popular garden flower. Shakespeare was the first to use it as a metaphor for a perfect embodiment of a particular quality: 'I am the very pink of courtesy', says Mercutio playfully (Romeo and Juliet, II, 4, line 36). The image was copied and spread, most notably in 'the pink of [good] condition', of which the current expression is a shortened version.
In the pipeline - on the way, about to happen
The phrase is from the oil trade and refers to the systems of piping which were installed from the 1880s to carry petroleum from oil wells to the refineries. Oil that is already in the pipeline is on its way to the consumer.
In the red - in debt
In the days before computerisation, the bank statements of customers included figures in red when an account was overdrawn.
In the swim - in the mainstream (especially of fashion and events)
The swim is what countryfolk and anglers call a section of river much frequented by fish. A person who is in the swim is therefore where everyone else is - i.e. doing what everyone else is doing.
In the twinkling of an eye - a short time, very quickly
This is Biblical, from a passage in the New Testament where Paul is talking about what will happen when Christ returns to earth: 'We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet' (1 Corinthians 15:52).
Indian giver - one who gives a gift only to later demand its return
This expression dates from around 1765 and the American colonial days. To the early American Indians, who had no concept of money, gifts were a form of trade goods. One did not give a gift without expecting one of equivalent value in return; if one could not offer an equivalent return gift, the original gift would be refused or returned. To the European settlers, with their money-based trade practices, this seemed insulting; to them, gifts were freely given and not for trade. Originally, the expression reflected simply the expectation of a return gift. By the late 1800s, the sense shifted to its contemporary meaning of one who demands a proffered gift back.
Indian Summer - a period of warm weather following the first frosts of autumn
Several theories have been put forward to explain this expression which originated in America. One says that the meteorological phenomenon was more prevalent in the west of the country, or Indian territory. Another says that because it is a false summer, its name reflects the same falseness as Indian giver. Supporting this latter idea and giving it some credence, is the British phrase St Martin's Summer, which refers to the same phenomenon. This term suggests something cheap and false, chiefly because dealers in cheap jewellery used to gather at the site of the Church of St Martin-de-Grand in London after it was torn down in the 16th century. Additionally, St Martin's Day is 11 November, which often coincides with a spell of warm weather.
Iron curtain
The invention of this graphic expression, which used to be applied to the boundary between western European countries and communist eastern Europe, is usually credited to the Russian philosopher Vasily Rozanov, who in 1918 wrote that 'an iron curtain is descending on Russian history' following the 1917 revolution. In 1920, in a book describing her visit to Russia, Ethel Snowden described the country as being behind an 'iron curtain'. The British wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, used the term in a telegram to President Truman of the USA in 1945, shortly after the end of the war in Europe, to illustrate his anxieties about the demarcation line between the Russian forces and those of the western Allies. It may or may not be significant that The Times had printed the expression only nine years earlier in a report translating part of a broadcast by the German Foreign Minister, who in turn may have known that Goebbels had used the same phrase three months earlier.
...There can be no doubt that what gave the phrase its widest publicity was Churchill's speech at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, when he defined what had happened in Europe and was to dominate world politics until the late 1980s: 'From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent'. Churchill must be credited with the everyday currency of the expression from then on, but not with its invention: the earliest quoted sighting is actually in the Earl of Munster's journal of 1817.
Iron fist/hand in the velvet glove
The iron hand as a symbol of powerful control is found from the early 1700s (the iron fist appears in 1740), but Thomas Carlyle attributes the coining of the expression 'the iron hand in a velvet glove', to mean autocratic rule beneath a softer exterior, to Napoleon, although it has also been attributed to other, earlier rulers. The expression is highly variable, iron fist being as common as iron hand and other variants including steel fist mailed fist and silk glove.
It takes all sorts to make a world
First recorded in this form in D. W. Jerrold's The Story of Feather (1844) though the same sentiment in different words goes back at least another two centuries.
It's all Greek to me - I don't understand it at all
The expression is well known from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: in discussion among the conspirators Casca is asked if Cicero has said anything and replies, 'Ay ... but for mine own part it was Greek to me' (II, 2 lines 277-84). However, it may have existed earlier: ''Tis Greek to me' is found in Robert Greene's play James IV of 1598. In fact, the expression is older than both: it comes from a Medieval Latin proverb 'Graecum est; non potest legi' (It is Greek; it cannot be read). Incidentally, the Spanish version of this proverb is 'hablar en griego', which is commonly thought to be the origin of gringo, so someone who is called a gringo is literally speaking Greek and is thus being unintelligible.
It's an ill wind - someone profits from every loss
Said comfortingly of misfortunes that may bring some benefits. The full saying is 'It's an ill wind that blows nobody good', the emphasis being 'it is indeed a harsh wind if it damages everybody'. It was already proverbial when recorded by Thomas Tusser in Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1580) as 'It is an ill wind turns to good' (... if it makes nobody turn to doing something worthwhile), a version that makes better sense in implying that misfortune brings out the best in people.
It's not over until the fat lady sings
The original and full phrase was: The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings. It was first used in a column by American sports writer Dan Cook in 1976. Cook's column, which appeared in the San Antonio News-Express, was about the San Antonio Spurs, a professional basketball team.
...Cook, who also worked as a broadcaster for KENS-TV in San Antonio, repeated the phrase in April 1978 when the Spurs were down three games to one in the playoffs against the Washington Bullets. It turned out that Cook was right, the fat lady had not sung for the Spurs, but she was waiting in the wings. The Spurs won the next game but lost game six and the series. Dick Motta, the Bullets' coach heard Cook's broadcast and used the phrase himself to caution against overconfidence in the Bullets upcoming series with the Philadelphia 76ers. Motta was widely quoted and the phrase entered the sporting vernacular.
Ivory tower - lifestyle or place of retreat detached from that of ordinary people
First used in English in about 1911, this is a direct translation of the French tour d'ivoire coined by the poet and critic Sainte-Beuve in his poem Penées d' Août (1837). He used it to describe his fellow poet Alfred de Vigny's seclusion in a turret room and de Vigny's preoccupation with inspiration unconnected with practical matters.
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