Expressions & Sayings

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Mad as a hatter
A renowned simile ever since Lewis Carroll's (1832-98) Alice in Wonderland (1868), although it can be found in WM Thackeray's (1811-63) Pendennis (1850) and is recorded in America as early as 1836.
...The expression mad as a hatter may be related to the use of a mercury compound in the treatment of felt in hat-making; its vapour was said to cause twitching in the limbs and affect the brain. Another explanation is that hatter is a development from the obsolete 'atter', (meaning venom, especially that of reptiles), so that the expression originally had to do with the imagined effects of poisoning. But in view of the existence of many other expressions such as 'mad as a hornet/buck/wet hen/meat-axe', it is likely that hatter is equally fanciful.
...IIt is believed that Lewis Carroll based his character on Theophilus Carter, a furniture dealer who was known locally as the 'mad hatter' because he wore a top hat and devised fanciful inventions such as an alarm-clock bed which tipped the sleeper to the floor when it was time to wake up. It has also been suggested that the original mad hatter was Robert Crab, a 17th century English eccentric who gave all his belongings to the poor and only ate dock leaves and grass. See also Mad as a March hare.
Mad as a March hare
As well as making famous the madness of hatters, Lewis Carroll's (1832-98) Alice in Wonderland (1868) also popularised the same unfortunate condition in March hares.
...As in mad as a hatter, there is similar uncertainty about March hares. Some say that March was originally 'marsh', a place where various factors (damp, lack of cover, difficulty of burrowing) caused unpredictable behaviour. A better explanation is that the hare is prone to skittish behaviour in March because it is the mating season.
Maddening crowd - people, or society in general, behaving in a way that makes one angry
A common misquotation, and consequent misinterpretation, of a phrase from Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751): 'Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife, / Their sober wishes never learned to stay...' from which Thomas Hardy took the title of his novel Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). 'Madding' means 'acting madly', which is not the same as maddening (intolerable).
Made of sterner stuff - having a firm resolve; inflexible, unyielding
This expression is part of a line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. In Act III Scene ii, Mark Antony, speaking at Caesar's funeral, answers the charge that he was an ambitious man: 'Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept; Ambition should be made of sterner stuff'.
Mailed fist
This term for armed force or superior might is translated from the German. In 1897, Kaiser William II made a speech in which he said, 'But should any one essay to detract from our just rights or to injure us, then up and at him with your mailed fist'. At first mailed fist was used to describe Germany's aggressive foreign policy, then used of similar behaviour by other countries, and from there spread to general use. It is sometimes used to replace the iron in the iron fist in the velvet glove.
Make a beeline for - to go directly and quickly to
In days gone by it was thought that bees were single minded in their work and always flew in a straight line to the hive. Unfortunately, this piece of country lore has no basis in fact.
...There is a similar false snippet of country wisdom concerning crows, which are supposed to fly directly to their intended destination, hence the expression as the crow flies.
Make a hash of
A hash is a dish of meat and vegetables cut into small pieces. As it is a mixture, it is colloquially used for 'mess', so to make a hash of something is to muddle it.
...However, in settle one's hash (silence, subdue or defeat one) the hash is a dish of food and settle means to reduce to order. The whole phrase is similar to cook one's goose and other phrases in which a person who is to be dealt with is compared with a dish of food that has to be attended to in different ways.
Make a mountain out of a molehill - exaggerate something trivial out of all proportion
First recorded in Nicholas Udall's Paraphrase of Erasmus (1548-9) as 'Sophists of Greece could through their copiousness make an elephant of a fly and a mountain of a molehill'. The elephant/fly expression goes back at least as far as the Greek satirist Lucian (2nd century AD) and became proverbial in French, but the mountain/molehill improvement has the air of being original.
Make a pig's ear of - blunder; make a mess
Probably from the 16th century proverb 'You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear' (you cannot make something good out of inferior materials), in which the sow's ear is synonymous with something useless, valueless, etc.
Make assurance doubly sure - give oneself security twice over
Macbeth actually said 'double sure' (IV, 1, line 83), but the popular misquotation is well established.
Make bricks without straw - accomplish something without the proper means
During their servitude in Egypt the Israelites were punished by the Pharaoh because Moses had asked for permission for them to worship: 'Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people ... Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves' (Exodus, 5: 6-7). At the same time, he insisted that there should be no reduction in the quota of bricks being produced.
...The Israelites were not in fact expected to make bricks without straw; this would have been impossible because straw was essential as a binding element. What they were required to do was collect it, instead of having it brought to them, and at the same time to keep up the same rate of brick-production. The whole incident therefore demonstrates the harshness of expecting people to do something without sufficient resources (of raw materials, time, etc.).
...In other words, the meaning of the expression is true to the biblical original, but the expression itself is a rather misleading approximation to it.
Make do and mend - manage with whatever is available
This comes from a World War II propaganda slogan, used to encourage people to conserve materials in a time of shortages by mending things rather than replacing them, or by making do with what they have (or doing without). It was based on an earlier naval term 'make and mend', a term for the half-day off-duty sailors used to have to give them time to make and mend their clothes and equipment.
Make ends meet - live within one's income
This was originally 'make both ends meet', the two ends being the extremities of the year, i.e. the beginning and the end. Meet has its old sense of agree or tally. The whole phrase therefore means 'keep one's finances, income and expenditure, in balance throughout the year'.
Make hay while the sun shines - take advantage of a favourable opportunity
To make hay is to cut grass and spread it out to dry, for later use as fodder. The proverb is very ancient, and very English in its reference to variable weather.
Make no bones about - admit without fuss; say or do openly, without hesitation or apology
An odd term: people cannot normally be said to 'make bones'. The explanation is that the phrase was originally (mid-15th century) 'to find bones in/about', meaning to find difficulty or an obstacle in something. This was a simple comparison with finding bones in food. The image was obviously so useful that people adapted it to express its opposite, i.e. not finding trouble but making it. By the mid-16th century it had therefore become 'make bones about' (make difficulty about). In its more familiar negative form, it has remained fixed in the language.
Make one's blood boil
See In cold blood.
Make one's hackles rise - make one angry or resentful
The hackle of a cock, peacock, pigeon, etc. is the long shining feathers on the neck, which are puffed out when the bird is angry. The word was later used in the plural for the hairs on the back of a dog's neck, which also rise when it prepares to fight, and metaphorically for angry feelings in people.
Make one's hair stand on end - terrify one
A reference to the effect of extreme terror on the hair of the arms, head, etc. as noted for example in Job: 'Fear came upon me, and trembling ... the hair of my flesh stood up' (4: 14-5). Hence hair-raising and its slang abbreviation hairy (dangerous, risky).
Make short shrift of - deal with or dispose of rapidly or inconsiderately
'Short shrift' was a brief time allowed by law to a condemned person to make a confession to a priest before execution. Shrift is an obsolete word now used only in this expression. It comes from the verb 'shrive', another obsolete word, which meant to hear a confession and pronounce absolution of sins. It survives in Shrove Tuesday, so called because, as the day before the Christian fast of Lent, it is an occasion for preparatory confession.
Make the fur fly - cause a disturbance (often a serious quarrel)
American slang, from fighting between cats (or other furred animals).
Make the grade - reach the required standard
An Americanism, still slightly informal, from the vocabulary of railroad construction, in which grade meant gradient. The huge task of linking the east and west coasts in the 19th century involved numerous calculations to ensure that railway engines could make or surmount the gradients being planned.
Man of straw
See Clutch at straws.
Man of the world
This expression originally meant a married man, the expected status of someone who was not a man of the church who had rejected the things of this world for those of the next. It seems to have taken on the suggestion of experience and sophistication that it has today some time in the 19th century.
Man on the Clapham omnibus, the - the man in the street
This typically ordinary person on the bus was invented by a law lord, Lord Bowen, in 1903. While summing up a case for negligence, he told the jury, 'We must ask ourselves what the man on the Clapham omnibus would think.' In those days, the omnibus was still a horse-drawn carriage and Clapham was a suburb that the judge obviously regarded as the home of common sense.
Manna from heaven - unexpected gift or source of benefit
When the Israelites complained of hunger on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, God assured Moses that he would 'rain bread from heaven' (Exodus, 16: 4). They subsequently found one morning 'a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground' (verse 14) and called it manna. 'And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat' (verse 15). It is described as being sweet like honey and the Israelites lived off it for 40 years. In the New Testament manna is referred to as a symbol of God's blessing (Revelation, 2: 17) and the modern meaning is a debased form of this.
Man's inhumanity to man
A quotation from Robert Burns' poem Man was made to Mourn (line 55): 'Man's inhumanity to man/Makes countless thousand mourn!
Mare's nest - supposedly important but actually valueless; hoax
An old country joke: horses, of course, do not nest.
Mark, learn and inwardly digest - ponder and thoroughly assimilate something
This expression comes from the Church of England's Prayer Book. 'Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them' are words from a prayer for the second Sunday in Advent.
Mark/Brand of Cain
Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain, the elder, killed his brother out of jealousy that God seemed to favour him more. The two are therefore the archetype of brotherly discord, and Cain appears throughout literature as the personification of the original sin of murder. The mark/brand of Cain, though placed on him by God to protect him (Genesis, 4: 5), is now used to mean an identifying stigma. To raise Cain is to create a great disturbance, as if raising up or evoking the turbulent spirit of the first murderer.
Mata Hari - alluring, mysterious woman whose attraction brings men into danger, betrayal, compromise, etc.
This was the stage name of a striptease-dancer who became a famous First World War spy. She was of Dutch nationality and was persuaded by the Germans to spy on Allied officers by seducing them and passing back secrets. When discovered, she was tried and sentenced to death by the French in 1917, and embellished her reputation by allegedly opening her dress to reveal her naked body in a last-minute but unsuccessful attempt to unnerve the firing squad.
Matinée idol - handsome man of the kind supposed to be attractive to women attending matinée (i.e. afternoon) theatre performances
That is to say, conventionally clean-cut, correct, romantic and rather shallow. Matinée audiences used to be rather looked down on, the assumption being that they were composed of bored middle-aged women who went to the theatre as much for the tea as the cultural experience, and whose interests focused on the actor's appearance more than on their ability.
Mealy-mouthed - unwilling or afraid to speak plainly
Although this now implies insincerity or even hypocrisy, it originally meant no more than 'soft-spoken'. Mealy is the adjective from 'meal' in its sense of powdered grain, as in wholemeal. Mealy-mouthed therefore expressed a comparison between a soft voice (of diminished strength) and soft grain (reduced to powder from its original size).
Meet one's Waterloo - encounter a final challenge and defeat, often after a period of success or strife
At the battle of Waterloo, near Brussels, in 1815, Napoleon's army was defeated by Wellington's combination of British, German, Dutch and Belgian forces. It was important in that it ended the military and political career of Napoleon, during which he had conquered much of Europe.
Mend fences
The proverb 'Good fences make good neighbours' has been recorded in various forms since the 17th century. In 1879, the American Senator John Sherman made a speech in Mansfield, Ohio, saying, 'I have come home to look after my fences.' Whatever Sherman may have meant by this, it was interpreted, no doubt under the influence of the proverb, to mean that he had come to campaign. Within ten years, mend fences had become an Americanism for looking after your interests, and since then has mutated to suggest the rebuilding of good relationships. Perhaps some of this change, and certainly a greater awareness of the proverb, comes from Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall (1914) which includes the lines, 'My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."'
Mentioned in dispatches
To single out someone for particular congratulation or recommendation for carrying out a task with distinction. Dispatches are official communications sent or dispatched to the relevant government ministries from commanding officers during a military campaign. If an officer is listed or mentioned in British naval, army or air force dispatches commending their conduct in action, they are entitled to wear a small bronze oak leaf on the left breast or upon the medal ribbon for that particular campaign.
Method in one's madness - an element of good sense in otherwise senseless behaviour
An adaptation of Polonius' comment on Hamlet's madness in which there are moments of sanity: 'Though this be madness, yet there is method in't' (II, 2, line 211). Method here means 'orderliness of thought'.
Mickey mouse - inferior, cheap, shoddy
The name of the popular film-cartoon character invented by Walt Disney acquired this modern slang meaning in the USA, and later in Britain, after the 1940s as a result of the earliest examples of linking the sale of a commercial product with the name of a 'sponsoring' celebrity. Children's 'Mickey Mouse watches' were both cheap and unreliable, which is how the name (usually without capital letters) came to be applied to anything, including organisations, thought to be third-rate.
Midas touch - special knack of making money
Midas succeeded his father Gordius (see Gordian knot) as king of Phrygia. According to Greek legend, he earned the gratitude of Dionysus by showing kindness to one of the god's followers and so was granted a wish. Midas asked that everything he touched should be turned to gold, but soon came to regret this when his food was made inedible whenever he touched it. Fortunately, Dionysus took pity on him and revoked the gift.
Middle of the road - a position midway between two extremes, a safe position
The middle of the road is a dangerous place for pedestrians. It is strange, therefore, that this position should have become synonymous with safety, with steering a middle course uninfluenced by extremes. It has been suggested that the phrase originated in times when there were no pavements and gutters ran with all sorts of foul rubbish and effluent, so that the middle of the road was a cleaner and easier place to walk than the edge. It was also a safer place. There was little traffic and a pedestrian ran less risk of being run over by a horse-drawn vehicle than of being dragged into some dark alleyway and robbed. The suggestion is just about plausible. There is, however, no evidence to support it.
Midsummer madness - the height of folly
Intermittent insanity used to be attributed to the changes of the moon, which is why the word 'lunacy' is derived from the Latin for moon, luna. The height of madness was supposed to coincide with the height of summer (i.e. midsummer, the period of the summer solstice, about June 21) and with the lunar month during which it falls.
Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb - if the outcome (punishment, risk, etc.) is going to be the same, one might as well do something drastic rather than trivial
Sheep-stealers used to risk capital punishment. A sheep, having a fleece and more meat, was a more saleable commodity than a lamb.
Milk and honey - abundance and ease
This first occurred in 'a land flowing with milk and honey', an image of the divine blessings available in the Promised Land (Exodus, 3: 8).
Milk of human kindness - ordinary everyday kindness
The phrase was first coined by Shakespeare in Macbeth, I, 5, lines 13-14: 'Yet I do fear thy nature/It is full o' th' milk of human kindness...' As the speaker, Lady Macbeth, regarded this as a weakness (milk being baby-food), the image did not mean quite what it now does.
Millstone round one's neck - thing or person acting as an encumbrance
'Whoso shall offend one of these little ones [children] which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea' (Matthew, 18: 6). A millstone was a large, heavy, flat circular stone with a central hole; turned by the action of a water-wheel, sails, etc. at a mill, it was used to grind or crush grains.
Mind one's p's and q's - be careful of one's behaviour
This sounds as if it is a warning to children and it probably originated as a classroom admonition in the days when children learnt to write by copying the letters of the alphabet from a model (see criss-cross and blot one's copybook): p and q were adjacent letters, both had tails and so it would have been easy to confuse the two. A teacher's catchphrase advising care and correctness in writing might readily have become generally adopted as one advocating similar virtues in behaviour.
...A more fanciful suggestion is that p's and q's were abbreviations of the pints and quarts recorded on a blackboard by a publican keeping a tally of a customer's drinking (see chalk up). The expression then becomes a customer's warning to the innkeeper to get the sums right.
Miss is as good as a mile, a
A comforting catchphrase used of a lucky escape. It would make better sense as 'near-miss...' for that is what it means. It is a modern version of a much older and more explicit expression 'An inch in a miss is as good as an ell'; an ell was originally 18 inches and later 45.
Miss the bus - lose an opportunity
This expression is said to originate in an Oxford story of the 1840s about John Henry Newman, fellow of Oriel College, vicar of the University Church and one of the foremost theologians of his time. Newman's decision to join the Roman Catholic Church - in which he later became a Cardinal - was an event of great importance in its day. One of his Oxford adherents, Mark Pattison, set off to talk to him at the time this fateful decision was being made, but missed the bus and therefore also missed a conversation that may have taken him to Rome. Unkind commentators suggested that Pattison's mishap was in fact a serious failure of nerve, and this gossip gave jocular notoriety to his excuse that he had merely missed the bus.
Moaning Minnie - person who complains a lot
This is not First World War slang, despite what some have said. 'Minnie' was: it was the name given to the devastating German trench-mortar (Minenwerfer). It was never called 'moaning', however, for it did not make a moaning sound in flight; small ones arrived silently and larger ones made a woofing sound as they turned in the air.
...The full expression made its first appearance in Second World War slang. Air-raid sirens were given several nicknames: the warning siren was variously called Wailing Winnie, Mona (existing London slang for a complaining female, a pun on 'moaner' and Moaning Minnie, a mixture of the previous two. There is evidence that after the blitz the phrase moaning Minnie was adopted by the army to designate the multi-barrelled German field-mortar and its shell, thus uniting trench slang of WWI and civilian slang of WWII.
...After the war, the expression continued in use, though 'moaning' now means 'grumbling', as it has done informally for a long time, and Minnie can be a person of either sex.
Molotov cocktail - a makeshift incendiary grenade
This was named after Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov (1890-1986), the Soviet minister for Foreign Affairs from 1939 to 1949. The name was given to the bottles filled with petrol by the Finns during the Winter War of 1939-40. Molotov was reviled in Finland as the man who engineered the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact that allowed the Russians to attack Finland. However, the credit for the invention of the device belongs to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War of a few years earlier.
Moment of truth - time when person or thing is put to the test
A literal translation of a Spanish expression for the moment in a bullfight when the bull is killed.
Money is the root of all evil
This may be so, but what the Bible actually says is 'the love of money is the root of all evil' (I Timothy, 6: 10).
Moot point, a - an issue that is open to various interpretations or viewpoints, to which no satisfactory answer is ever found
The word moot can be traced back to the old Anglo-Saxon words mot and gemot, meaning 'meeting'. The political structure of Saxon society took the form of different assemblies where public matters could be debated; the wardmote was a ward meeting, the burgmote a town meeting and the witengemote a meeting of prominent wise men.
...The 16th century saw the establishment of mootings, or moot courts at the Inns of Court in London. Here young law students were given the opportunity to sharpen their powers of argument and debate by participating in hypothetical trials. The practice continues to this day.
Moot is also found as a verb. Matters are sometimes 'mooted' (brought up for general discussion) in meetings.
...In the idiom, the sense shifts away from simple debate to a contentious issue, with many valid viewpoints and no obvious or easy outcome.
More honoured in the breach than the observance
Popularly used of a desirable practice, convention, rule, belief, etc. that is more often ignored (breached) than observed. The original meant something quite different. Hamlet comments (I, 4, lines 14-16) on the king's custom of holding drunken revels: 'But to my mind - though I am native here, / And to the manner born - it is a custom/More honoured in the breach than the observance'. He means that it would be more honourable to put a stop to the custom than to go along with it.
More sinned against than sinning
Coined by Shakespeare as the king's description of himself in King Lear, III, 2, line 59.
Mountain will not come to Mohammed, if the
Mohammed (570-632 AD) was the founder of Islam, the Muslim religion. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain advises swallowing one's pride in order to take the initiative is something. The story behind the saying is that when people asked Mohammed to give miraculous proof of his teaching he ordered a mountain to move towards him; when it did not do so he used the incident as a lesson that God had spared them from destruction by the mountain, and he went to it to offer thanks for God's mercy. The story first appeared in English in Francis Bacon's Essays ('On Boldness', 1625) to illustrate boldness in an orator or leader, not with the interpretation now placed on it.
Movable feast - event whose date or time can be changed
An ecclesiastical term for a day of religious observance which does not always fall on the same date, in the way that immovable feasts such as Christmas do. Movable feasts depend on Easter, the date of which is fixed by reference to the calendar moon and therefore differs from year to year.
Mrs Grundy - person of rigid, conventional and usually censorious propriety
First heard of in Thomas Morton's successful comedy Speed the Plough (1798) in which there are several fearful references to what Mrs Grundy may say or think. She never actually appears, which makes her even more memorable, and she has remained a symbol of forbidding and tedious rectitude ever since.
Much of a muchness - very much alike
The old word muchness (size) survives only in this quotation from the opening scene of The Provok'd Husband (1728), a comedy by Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) finished by Colley Cibber.
Mum's the word - say nothing
Mum in this sense of 'silence' is a word fabricated from the inarticulate sound 'mmmm' made with closed lips and conveying no information. This use was first recorded in 1540 but may well be two centuries older than that.
Mumbo-jumbo - confusing and obscure language; meaningless ritual; involved activity
This probably originated as an anglicised approximation to a Mandingo term for a grotesque idol or god venerated by certain West African tribes. The word has a long pedigree, having been first recorded in English in the early 18th century, after which it came to mean an object of foolish veneration. The shift in meaning to the modern sense was obviously influenced by the idea of gibberish and ceremony associated with magic.
...From this emerged jumbo, originally a noun for a big and clumsy fellow by jocular reference to the imagined size and primitive shape of the mumbo-jumbo. Jumbo was thus used as the name of an African elephant acquired by London Zoo in 1865. Jumbo was an enormously popular attraction until he became too dangerous to be ridden by children. His sale in 1882 to the American impresario Phineas T. Barnum caused a public outcry. He was killed by a railway engine in 1885.
...Thus jumbo entered popular vocabulary to signify anything very big, though it has shed its original overtones of comic clumsiness.
Murphy's Law - if anything can go wrong, it will
Murphy's Law was coined in 1949. The Murphy in question is Captain Ed Murphy, a development engineer assigned to Colonel J.P. Stapp's research on the rocket sleds that tested the limits of human endurance of high acceleration at Edward's Field, California. Murphey was referring to a particular technician, whose name has been lost to history, who had wired a piece of equipment incorrectly when he remarked, "If there is any way to do things wrong, he will." A couple of weeks later in a press conference, Stapp credited his programme's safety record to planning for Murphy's Law.
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