Expressions & Sayings

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Nail one's colours to the mast
See With flying colours.
Namby-pamby - insipidly or sentimentally childish
The nickname of the minor poet Ambrose Philips (1674-1749) which was invented by one of his fellow writers, probably the dramatist Henry Carey whose Namby Pamby (1726) ridiculed Philip's pastoral poems. The nickname is of earlier date, however, and was based on the poet's Christian name and the infantile style of some poems he had written for children. In the closely knit and backbiting literary world of early 18th century London the sobriquet would rapidly have become common knowledge; by the middle of the century it was standard English with its modern sense.
Name is mud, one's - one is unpopular, discredited, blamed, etc.
It is interesting that the doctor who in 1865 treated the assassin of Abraham Lincoln for the fractured leg he sustained in making his escape, and who was later given life imprisonment for conspiracy (even though he had reported his patient to the authorities on hearing of the murder), was named Samuel Mudd. It is also irrelevant, despite what some have said, because this expression had already been in use for several decades before the event. Mud had long been a term for anything worthless; 'one's name is...' introduced an obvious pun on the surname Mudd long before the unfortunate doctor gave it a different notoriety.
Navel gazing
In the mid-19th century the word Omphalopsychic, the name of a religious sect whose members achieved a trance state by gazing at the navels, was translated into ordinary English as navel-contemplators. From this the term navel-contemplation for complacent self-absorption, or a narrow view of things, came into use. By the early 20th century, this had been simplified to our modern navel gazing.
Near the knuckle
See Knuckle under.
Neck and neck
In horse racing a neck is a short distance (the length of a horse's head and neck) by which one horse beats another; hence neck and neck (absolutely level in competition) and neck or nothing (at any cost; literally, win by a neck or win nothing).
Neck of the woods - place where one lives
Neck can be used geographically to mean something - a stretch of land or water, for example - which is long and narrow like a neck. A neck of the woods was originally an Americanism for a stretch of woodland in which there was a small settlement.
Needle in a haystack - a near-impossible search for something
An old alternative for 'haystack', which was current in this expression from the 16th to the 18th centuries, was 'bottle of hay'. Bottle was an old word for a bundle of hay or straw, from the Old French botel, a diminutive form of bottle, meaning 'a bundle'. The expression is very evocative of the total impossibility of a search - the thin needle in amongst the long slim stalks of the haystack or bundle.
Neither rhyme nor reason - no good sense
Strictly speaking this means a lack of good expression (rhyme) as well as of good sense, but it is used invariably of lack of reason, the 'rhyme' being merely emphatic. Shakespeare coined the phrase (Comedy of Errors, II, 2, line 49), though rhyme and reason are coupled in earlier phrases in a less pithy way.
Nelson touch - capacity for inspiring leadership
The hero of Trafalgar, the battle (1805) which decided the survival of Britain and the freedom of Europe, seems to have invented this phrase himself to describe his own ability. From what he wrote, it is not clear whether he was referring to his battle-plan or to the magic of his name, but it is the latter that lies behind modern applications of the phrase.
Nest-egg
Literally an artificial egg placed in a hen's nest or nesting-box to induce laying, in the days before hens were kept in battery-cages. It is used figuratively of a sum of money hidden away or set aside, perhaps as an inducement to further saving.
New broom - newly appointed person in charge who can be expected to make changes, perhaps far-ranging or sweeping
From the old proverb 'A new broom sweeps clean'. A broom was originally made of (replaceable) twigs of broom, heather, etc. attached to a handle.
New Jerusalem - paradise on earth, especially the establishment of social justice, equality and freedom from strife
A rather literary phrase sometimes used in the vocabulary of socialist idealism, sometimes sneeringly by opponents of this. The origin is St John's vision of the Christian paradise: 'I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband' (Revelation, 21: 2). The 'old' Jerusalem had probably by this time been destroyed by the Romans (70 AD); it was of course a place of unique importance to Jews and Christians alike. For the modern use compare William Blake's Jerusalem (1804-8): 'I will not cease from mental fight, / Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, / Till we have built Jerusalem/In England's green and pleasant land'.
Nine days' wonder- sensation or scandal whose fame, or notoriety, is soon over
The earliest form of the saying appears in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (about 1374): 'For wonder last but nine night never in town'. The number nine may have been arbitrary or alliterative, or perhaps an irreverent allusion to the Roman Catholic Church's novena, a nine-day devotion.
Nineteen to the dozen - very fast
This goes back to the times of the Cornish tin and copper mines. These mines were often hit by floods. In the 18th century, coal-powered, steam-driven pumps were installed to clear the water. When working maximally the pumps could clear nineteen thousand gallons of water for every twelve bushels of coal. This, quite clearly, was very fast compared to the rate at which the earlier hand-powered pumps had cleared water, hence the expression nineteen to the dozen came to mean very fast.
Nip in the bud - destroy or slow down the growth of, usually at an early stage
From gardening: the growth of a plant can be checked by nipping off buds or shoots.
No flies on ...
If you have no flies on you, you are active, alert and know what is going on, like the livelier cows in a field whose twitching and tail-swishing means the flies do not settle on them but choose the dull, sluggish ones instead. The expression is recorded from the mid-19th century in both the USA and Australia (which suggests it was in use by immigrants from the UK, though it is unrecorded there). By 1900 it was so well established in the USA that there was a Salvation Army hymn entitled 'There Are No Flies on Jesus' which contained the immortal lines, 'There may be flies on you and me, / But there are no flies on Jesus'.
No great shakes - nothing very special
From gambling: if one makes no great (i.e. no very successful) shakes of the dice, one achieves no great score.
No holds barred - without any rules or constraints, especially those of fair play
From all-in wrestling of the most primitive kind, in which no hold or grip or indeed any method of dealing with an opponent was forbidden.
No love lost - dislike, hatred
A curious phrase that originally meant what it looks as if it ought still to mean, i.e. that no love is lost and that affection is mutual. This sense dates from the 16th century and was still found in the 19th. However, an opposite meaning - that no love exists - inexplicably started to appear in the 17th century and has outlived the first.
No-man's-land - area of indefinite character or ambiguous activity
This modern meaning is a metaphorical application of the military term (1908) made famous during WWI as the name of the unoccupied and dangerous strip of land between opposing trench systems. The expression is in fact recorded in 1320 as the name of a piece of unowned land (hence 'no man's') used as a place of execution outside the north wall of London. It recurs in 1349-50 as the name for a mass burial ground near Smithfield, London, designed for victims of the Black Death (bubonic plague) which is reputed to have killed a third of the population of England in 1349. This designation of the burial ground indicated that it was communal. It is curious that an expression merely signifying lack of ownership should have been closely associated with three different types of death over almost seven centuries.
No names, no pack-drill - if one mentions no names (or breaks no confidences) there can be no question of offence or punishment
Pack-drill used to be a military punishment in which an offender was forced to drill (i.e. parade, or march up and down) carrying a full and therefore very heavy pack of equipment - 64 pounds in the Crimean War, for example.
No news is good news - the absence of information to the contrary justifies continued optimism
The phrase probably dates back to the early 17th century, and can be explained by Plutarch's phrase in about 100 AD that 'Bad news travels fast'.
...The word news, now understood as a singular noun, was still plural up to the 19th century: 'The news from Austria are very sad, and make one very anxious.' (Letter from Queen Victoria to the King of the Belgians, 1861)
...The word is short for 'new stories', and the old spelling was newes, a literal translation from the French nouvelles.
No one can serve two masters
'No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon' (Matthew, 6: 24).
No respecter of persons - not someone who singles out people for unduly favourable attention (e.g. out of respect for their wealth or position)
A quotation from The Acts of the Apostles, 10: 34-5: 'God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him'.
No strings attached
A string means, among other things, a cord for leading an animal, especially a horse, and is therefore found in a number of expressions having to do with the exercise of control. They include no strings attached (without restrictions), string along (join the 'string' of horses, i.e. accompany, often reluctantly; mislead), and possibly pull strings (exercise influence), though the latter may derive from puppetry. 'String' is also short for bowstring: to have more than one string to (i.e. for) one's bow, a sensible precaution for archers, is to have more than one expedient, including a second string, s second resource in case the first should fail. Holding the purse-strings (controlling expenditure) is a reminder of the days when a purse was a small bag, the neck of which was held tight by a drawstring. See also on a shoestring.
Nod is as good as a wink, a
A catchphrase acknowledging that a hint has been understood. Oddly enough, the original sense was the opposite: 'a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse' means that whatever sort of hint one may give, whether a nod of agreement or a more secret wink of complicity, some people are unable to understand it.
Nodding acquaintance - something or someone one knows only slightly
In the days when manners were more formal, someone you had been introduced to, but did not really know, would be recognised with a nod, rather than with a more complicated form of recognition such as a bow or curtsey. Nodding acquaintance in this sense is recorded from the early 19th century, but it does not seem to have been used of things until the later part of the century or the beginning of the next.
Nose to the grindstone - keep one(self) working hard
The original meaning, some of the flavour of which survives in its current one, was to keep someone punished or oppressed. A grindstone used to be a common punishment - a revolving stone disc used for sharpening tools, knives, etc. - and the effect of this on the nose can be easily imagined.
Nosey parker - prying person
Nosey has a long history as a nickname for a person with a prominent nose and as an informal adjective applied to an inquisitive person who pokes their nose into other people's business in order to get a closer look at it. Parker seems to have been added in the 1900s with the appearance of a character on a comic postcard who was named Nosey Parker. Perhaps Parker was chosen arbitrarily as the character's surname, or perhaps it comes from the dialect word 'pawk' (be inquisitive) or from parker, an old word for park-keeper, a person better placed than most for spying on what people get up to.
...The traditional explanation that the name originated with Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury in Queen Elizabeth I's day and a zealous inquisitor, fails to take into account that there is no record of the term either in his lifetime or during more than 300 years following his death.
Not a cat in hell's chance
See Cat among the pigeons.
Not a dog's chance
See Dog's life.
Not a patch on - nowhere near as good as
A not very intelligible variant of an older and clearer expression 'but as [i.e. no more than] a patch on', meaning 'inferior to'. The idea is that a patch is inferior in that it spoils a garment.
Not a sausage - nothing at all
This comes from Cockney rhyming slang for cash: sausage and mash = cash; not a sausage = no cash = nothing.
Not as black as one is painted - not as bad as one's reputation suggests
From the proverbial 'The devil is not as black as he is painted', which may be a literal reference to medieval painting or a more general one to his association with the traditional colour of evil, falsehood and error.
Not care/give a rap - not care in the least
The original rap was a virtually worthless counterfeit halfpenny coin in 18th century Ireland. Its name seems to have been an abbreviation of an Irish word.
Not cricket - unfair
Versions of cricket go back to the Middle Ages but the game became established in the 18th century when the first recognisably modern matches were played and rules were established. The game has always been synonymous with gentlemanly conduct and fair play because of its leisurely nature and strong amateur tradition.
Not enough room to swing a cat - insufficient space; crowded conditions
The cat here is commonly said to be the cat o' nine tails formerly used to administer corporal punishment on board ship. It had nine lengths of knotted cord, each about 18 inches long, fixed to the end of a short length of thicker rope acting as a handle. Ample space was needed if this was to be swung with maximum effect. Perhaps its name came from the scratch-like weals it left.
...However, the expression was in use a hundred years before this particularly nasty punishment was rife and an explanation no less horrific is the more likely one for its origin. It seems that it was not uncommon in the 16th century to put a cat inside a sack of some sort and then string it up as a moving target for archery practice -Shakespeare refers to the practice in Much Ado about Nothing. Not enough room to swing a cat, therefore, meant that there was not enough space available for this activity.
Not fit to hold a candle to - person much inferior to or not to be compared with another
The phrase originated at a time when holding a candle to (i.e. for) a person was the task of a servant, lighting the householder's way from one part of the residence to another, for instance. Hence the modern sense of inferiority.
Not on your nellie - not by any means
This comes from Cockney rhyming slang. Nellie is part of Nellie Duff, rhyming slang for 'puff' which, in turn is slang for 'breath'; i.e. life itself. Thus, the whole expression originally meant 'not on your life'.
Not one's pigeon
See Pidgin English.
Not set the Thames on fire - do nothing notable in life
An English version of a similar Latin tag about the Tiber. There are also French and German versions referring to the Seine and the Rhine. Some authorities offer an explanation in terms of a pun on an obsolete word 'temse'; this appears to be guesswork.
Not to be sneezed at - not to be underrated or treated lightly
Taking snuff may induce sneezing. 'Snuff' also used to be a word for anything of little value, so anything of greater value was 'not snuff', i.e. not a sneezing matter.
Not to mince matters/one's words - speak bluntly
An image from the mincing of meat to make it easier to swallow or more digestible.
Not worth a plugged nickel - completely worthless
This expression first appeared in print about 1912, although it is safe to assume plugged nickel, along with the similar plugged quarter and plugged peso, were in common usage long before this time. To plug a coin means to remove its centre, usually because the coin is made of precious metal such as gold or silver, and to replace the missing part with a cheaper metal plug. The valuable metal thus obtained can then be used as another kind of currency. The nickel, being such a low denomination coin, and made of a lowly copper-nickel alloy, is of not much worth to begin with; to plug it makes it even more worthless. Hence the expression.
Not worth a tinker's damn/cuss - worthless
Also not give a tinker's damn/cuss (not care in the slightest). Cuss is modern (mid-19th century American) for 'curse'. 'Not worth a curse/damn' is very old and means that anything so called is so worthless as not to justify even the expenditure of breath to swear at it. Tinker's was added later for emphasis: tinkers were usually itinerant menders of pots and pans whose position in society, like their language, was low.
...It has been suggested that the term comes from the tinker's custom of blocking up a hole in the article he was mending with a pellet of bread, thus making a 'dam', or plug, that would hold the molten solder. This pellet was discarded as unreusable when the job was finished. So, a tinker's dam is a useless or negligible thing. However, the present spelling of damn alludes to its meaning as a curse or oath, therefore, this is probably just another of those fanciful stories that become attached to old sayings of this type.
Notch up (a score, etc)
See Settle a score.
Nudge, nudge, wink, wink
This expression, often accompanied by appropriate actions, and used to indicate that there is some form of sexual innuendo or hidden reference in something that has been said, came into common use influenced by a sketch by Eric Idle in the TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Number is up, one's - one is doomed, ruined, finished; one is dead or about to die
Taken into general use from military slang, the number being one's personal, official military number always used with one's name and rank for identification. In military terms, one's number is virtually synonymous with one's existence; if that is up it is over (as in 'the game is up'). There is a similar military phrase 'lose one's number' (die).
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