Expressions & Sayings

~ K ~


Kangaroo court - irregular court, especially one held by striking workers to punish breaches of their rules
Kangaroo courts originated in American prisons in the 19th century as secret, though sometimes condoned, gatherings of inmates to regulate the sharing of tobacco or money or to deal with breaches of the prisoners' code of behaviour. The explanation that kangaroo was used in allusion to Australia's history as a prison colony is rather far-fetched. The more likely origin is a comparison between the kangaroo's unconventional method of movement and prisoners who 'jumped over' the rules.
Keep at bay - keep someone or something at a safe distance
Several sources cite the bay tree as the origin of this expression, giving the significance the ancients held in the protective powers of this plant. It has also been said that the bay laurel was turned to as a remedy at the time of the Great Plague of London. Though these sources have some basis in fact, France is the most likely place of origin. Abai is an Old French word meaning 'barking of hounds in a pack'. The English word baying, as of hunting hounds, shares this root. There are a number of Old French idioms connected with stag hunting which come from this same source, for example rendre les abois and Ítre aux abois. They are used when a hunted stag tires in the chase and turns to face the pursuing hounds. At this point the stag is both at bay itself and also holds the dogs at bay - precisely the senses of the English phrase. The English expression has had several conventional forms under the influence of translations from the French: at abay, at a bay and today at bay.
Keep mum - remain quiet
The mum here is connected to the German mummeln, to mumble. It has long been used in this manner in English and one of the oldest examples is found in the dice game called mumchance. This had to be played in absolute silence.
Keep one's pecker up - show courage or good spirits
Pecker means 'beak'; if it is held up, so is the head. The whole phrase has therefore to do with holding one's head up and not allowing it to droop in despair or tiredness. A similar expression is 'keep one's chin up'.
Keep one's powder dry - be prepared for action, but be cautious; preserve one's resources
The phrase comes from a saying attributed to Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), and the powder is, of course, gunpowder. During his cold-blooded and savage Irish campaign of 1649 he is said to have concluded a speech to his troops, who were about to cross the River Slaney before attacking Wexford, with the rousing words, 'Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.' However, it seems likely that the phrase was coined later by the Anglo-Indian soldier Valentine Blacker (1738-1823) and gained the Cromwell attribution through being quoted in 'Oliver's Advice' in E Hayes's Ballads of Ireland (1856).
Keep posted - keep one supplied with the latest information
From the jargon of bookkeeping. To 'post' was to transfer into a formal central ledger the information provided by various employees, such as counter clerks, about their day-to-day transactions so that an official and authoritative account was kept of otherwise miscellaneous or auxiliary business. Something 'posted' was therefore transmitted to and entered in a central record.
Keep the wolf from the door
It is because of the wolf's ravenous appetite that hungry or greedy people are said to wolf their food. To keep starvation or other penury at bay is to keep the wolf (symbol of hunger) from the door (i.e. away from oneself).
Keep up with the Joneses - competing with one's neighbours, often to keep up appearances
Although often used as a disparaging description of social aspiration, this expression had a more jocular origin as the title of a cartoon strip in the New York Globe and other newspapers; it first appeared in 1913 and ran for many years. As one of the commonest of surnames, Jones was chosen by the artist, Arthur Momand, in order to indicate the common nature of social rivalry.
Keep your shirt on - don't lose your temper!
In the days when the ordinary man had but two shirts, if that, he would strip his precious shirt off as well as his jacket before getting into a fight. Thus stripping off would be a sign of being ready to fight. Thus, to keep your shirt on meant staying calm and avoiding a fight. It is first recorded in the USA in George W. Harris's 1854 book Spirit of the Times: 'I say, you durned ash cats, just keep yer shirts on, will ye?' Keep your hair on, perhaps a humorous development of this, dates from the 1880s.
Kick against the pricks
Surprisingly, this expression comes from the Bible, from the passage in the Acts of the Apostles (9:5) when Saul, on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians, has a vision of Jesus and converts to Christianity, becoming St Paul. In his vision, 'The Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutes: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.' The image here is of a horse that rebels when it feels the pricking of spurs, or the oxen the goad. Something very similar is also found in the second-century BC Roman playwright Terence. The expression originally meant resisting authority to your own harm, but nowadays it is used more generally, to mean to be recalcitrant, rebellious, or just plain bolshy - often with a play on the term prick as an insult.
Kick one's heels
See Dance attendance on.
Kick over the traces - behave without restraint; defy control
Traces are the leather straps, formerly ropes or chains, which connect the collar of a draught-horse to the pivoted cross-bar at the front of a plough, etc. A horse that gets a leg over these traces is able to kick out more freely and dangerously, or may be trying to loose itself from its harness.
Kick the bucket - die
In addition to the familiar meaning that it retains, a bucket was a beam from which things could be hung, including slaughtered pigs strung up by their hind legs to bleed after their throats had been cut or to facilitate butchery. In struggling vainly, they would kick the bucket and this (probably) led to the slang expression.
Kick up a shindy
A Shindy is a quarrel, row or commotion and is an adaptation of 'shinty', a rough game (which explains the present meaning) but an enjoyable one (which throws light on the meaning of shindig). It is a sort of hockey. Its name, which used to be 'shinny', is apparently from the cry 'shin ye' used in the game. Whether this meant 'use your legs', and if so what for, cannot now be determined.
...A frequent expression is kick up a shindy (make a noise or fuss); perhaps this too was once a term used in the game.
Kill the fatted calf - celebrate lavishly, usually with a meal, especially as an act of welcome
An allusion to Christ's parable of the prodigal son (Luke, 15: 11-32) who left home and wasted everything in 'riotous living' but was nevertheless welcomed back by his father. The fatted calf (verse 23) killed for the celebratory meal was presumably being kept for some special occasion; fatted is the obsolete form of 'fattened' and is now found only in this context.
Kill the goose that lays the golden egg - destroy, usually by greed or folly, one's source of profit
The metaphor is from Aesop's fable of a man who, having been given a goose that laid golden eggs, could not bear to wait for wealth to come gradually in small quantities. Hoping to get all the eggs at once, he killed the goose to get them and thus cut off the supply.
Kilroy was here
Kilroy was a mysterious World War II soldier, probably American, who travelled all over the world scrawling the immortal phrase Kilroy was here wherever a flat surface presented itself. Often, the phrase was accompanied by a simple drawing of a big-nosed man peering over a wall. Obviously, this example of graffiti was scrawled not by a single individual but by thousands of different ones. The question is: did Kilroy exist, and if so, did he start the craze?
...The New York Times of 24 December 1946 credited a James J. Kilroy of Quincy, Massachusetts as being the originator of the fad. Aparently, Kilroy was an inspector at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in that city, and used a yellow crayon to write Kilroy was here on items that he had inspected. This inscription became a common sight around the shipyard, and was imitated by many of its workers when they were drafted and sent around the world. Whether this is the true origin, is open to debate.
...The cartoon usually associated with Kilroy, however, is not of American but British origin. It was called Mr Chad, probably created by the cartoonist George Edward Chatterton and predates the Kilroy phrase by a few years. It commonly appeared with the phrase 'Wot, no --------?' under it, the blank being filled with whatever commodity happened to be in short supply at the time (e.g.: 'Wot, no sugar?'). Sometime during the war, Chad and Kilroy joined forces with, the American phrase appearing under the British drawing.
Kingdom come - the next world; life after death
A rather loose, originally (18th century) slangy use of a quotation from the Lord's Prayer (Matthew, 6: 9-13), where the sentence 'Thy kingdom come' (may thy kingdom come) refers to a present longing, not a future expectation.
Kiss of death - act or association entailing failure or ruin
An allusion to the kiss given to Christ by Judas which led to Christ's arrest, trial and execution.
Kiss the Blarney Stone
A popular term used of someone who speaks in persuasive or seductive terms; the verb to blarney, meaning to employ persuasive flattery, and the noun blarney, for flattering talk, have the same derivation. The provenance for this expression can be found, literally, at Blarney Castle, near Cork, in southwest Ireland. Set high in the south wall of the castle is an almost inaccessible triangular stone bearing the inscription, Cormac Macarthy fortis me fieri fecit. In 1602, the same Macarthy, Lord of Blarney, was defending the castle against the English, who were fighting to force him to surrender the fortress and transfer his allegiance to the English crown. However, Macarthy smooth-talked the British emissary, Sir George Carew, with flattery and sweet promises and stood his ground, much to the fury of Queen Elizabeth I; it is said that the Queen herself coined the term blarney to show the worthlessness of Macarthy's promises. The tradition of kissing the Blarney Stone to improve one's eloquence and persuasive abilities - which can only be done by hanging, with one's feet securely held, head-down from the castle's battlements - dates from the 18th century. To blarney is also a slang American term meaning to pick locks.
Kith and kin - blood relatives; members of one's own nation or race
Originally, and strictly speaking, kith are the people one knows and kin are those to whom one is related, but this distinction is not generally recognised. Kith is obsolete except in this expression, and kin is not much used except here and in 'next of kin', an official term for one's nearest blood relatives.
Knight in shining armour - person showing chivalry, especially to women, or coming to the rescue
Despite its medieval feel this is a 20th century phrase, first recorded in print in Victor Channing's Whip Hand (1965). It originates in the general romantic conception, found in old tales, fairy-stories and Victorian poetry, of the noble knight wandering on horseback in search of good deeds such as rescuing damsels in distress.
Knock into a cocked hat - easily surpass or defeat
The game of Cocked Hat was similar to ninepins except that only three pins were set up, in triangular formation. It took its name from the three-cornered hat with the brim turned up (i.e. cocked) worn in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The expression implies a comparison between something in disarray after a defeat and the way in which pins are sent flying in a game of Cocked Hat.
Knock spots off - beat or surpass easily
Perhaps from the use of playing cards as targets at shooting galleries, the spots being the pips one is required to hit.
Knock the gilt off the gingerbread - spoil the best part of something
This is a common expression of nautical origin. In the old days, gingerbread was a very popular and cheap confection. Often, when put on sale at country fairs it was traditionally splashed with gilt to make its appearance more attractive and luxurious. From this custom, the gilded and painted carvings at the bows and stern of sailing ships came to be known as 'gingerbread work'. To knock the gilt off the gingerbread not only incurred the displeasure of the ship's captain but often, owing to the age and condition of the ship, damaged the best part of the vessel.
Know how many beans make five
See Spill the beans.
Know one's beans
See Spill the beans.
Know/ learn the ropes - know or learn how to carry out a task
A nautical term from the days of sail when an understanding of the complexities of ropes, knots, rigging, etc. was essential for a seaman.
Knuckle under/down- yield
Although the word knuckle now generally signifies the finger-joint, it used to be applied to other joints such as the knee. To knuckle under therefore meant to bend the knee in respect or submission.
...To knuckle down (apply oneself diligently) is, however, a reference to the knuckle of the hand. The term is from marbles, where the knuckle has to be placed down on the ground when playing. It is an important rule of the game that the knuckle must be placed exactly at the spot where one's previous marble ended up. From this sense of strict observance of a rule comes the modern sense of earnest application.
...Near the knuckle (almost indecent) is more difficult. It may come from an old proverb expressing approval - 'The nearer the bone the sweeter the flesh [meat]' - or from the old school punishment of rapping the knuckles of a child with a ruler. The most likely explanation is that when carving a joint of meat one may get 'near the knuckle [bone]' and be unable to cut any further; thus a remark that is near the knuckle is close to the limit (of propriety). There is in fact an expression 'near the bone' that means the same.
Kowtow to -show obsequious deference
Kowtow is an approximation to a Chinese word for the custom of touching the ground with the forehead as a sign of worship, respect and submission. Variously spelt, it entered English through early 19th century travel literature, acquiring not only a non-literal meaning but also a derogatory sense because the custom was thought to demonstrate unEnglish servility.
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