Expressions & Sayings

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Odour of sanctity - sanctimonious manner; simulated holiness
A medieval term for the sweet odour said to have been given off by the bodies of saintly people at their death or when exhumed for appropriate reburial after official translation into sainthood. It was felt to be evidence of saintship. From being a metaphor for a reputation for holiness it has degenerated into one for hypocrisy and given rise to in bad odour (in disfavour).
Oedipus complex - male mother-fixation
This popular definition is a rough-and-ready simplification of what the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had in mind when choosing the term to describe certain features of infant sexuality. His theories had to do with the unconscious sexual desires in a way that aroused the jealousy of the other parent; this condition was held to be responsible for certain personality disorders in adults. In the Greek story, dramatised by Sophocles (496-406 BC), Oedipus was fated to kill his father, King of Thebes, and marry his mother Jocasta, both of which he unknowingly did. When he discovered his guilt, Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus put out his eyes.
Of the first water - of the highest quality, without equal
Of the first water is heard today almost exclusively in a negative, sarcastic sense, as in 'a scoundrel of the first water'. The original use of first water was, however, one of straightforward admiration verging on awe. Jewellers and gem merchants have, for hundreds of years, rated the quality of diamonds and pearls in terms of waters - first water, second water, etc. - with first water diamonds being of the highest possible quality, flawless and perfectly clear. The reason for using water as a technical term to denote clarity and brilliance is a bit of a mystery, but it may be significant that English is not the only language to do so, as similar water terms are found in all modern Romance and Germanic languages. The root of all these waters is probably the Arabic word for water, which has long been used in one sense to denote splendour or brilliance, most likely in comparison to the clarity of absolutely pure water.
Off beam - on the wrong course; inaccurate
This comes from the radio beam that is used to bring aircraft to land in poor visibility.
Off one's own bat - on one's own initiative
A reference to using one's bat to score runs in cricket. It is rather a tautologous term as there are few other methods of scoring.
Off the beaten track
See Beat a retreat.
Off the cuff - improvised, offhand
In the days when the cuffs of men's formal white shirts were made of celluloid they were sometimes used as improvised notepads by their wearers at dinner-tables, etc.
Old Adam, the
See Fall from grace.
Old bat
See Bats in the belfry.
Old Bill, the - the police
Formerly London slang for the Metropolitan Police but now, as result of a popular TV series, a widespread term for any police.
Constables of the Watch - the precursors of the police force - until late in the 18th century carried a weapon known as a bill, which earlier was an infantry weapon generally consisting of a blade or axe mounted on a wooden handle, sometimes called a halberd. From this a watchman was sometimes called a 'billman', often abbreviated to bill, and this name was transferred to their successors, sometimes with the addition of a familiar or affectionate 'old'. The modern capital letter seems to have been added through a misapprehension that bill must be a Christian name.
Old-boy network
This is the art of using one's social connections to get on in life. To arrange something on the old-boy network is to fix it through a social contact or someone from one's old school, instead of through less nepotistic channels. An old boy or old girl is a former pupil of a particular school, hence old boys' or old girls' societies through which former pupils reunite and reminisce about old times. The old-school tie worn by former pupils of the public and grammar schools is a distinguishing mark, recognised by members of the same privileged class. Nowadays, the practice of networking in order to make contacts is referred to, describing going out to meet people in a similar field who can help advance one in business; that is, meeting those more successful than oneself in the hope that some of their success might rub off.
Old chestnut - story, joke or excuse often repeated
This seems to originate in William Dimond's melodrama The Broken Sword (1816) in which a captain tells an unlikely story about a chestnut tree time and time again until he is shown to be romancing when he inadvertently changes the chestnut tree into a different type of tree.
Old Spanish custom, an
Also known as an old Spanish practice, this is the bargaining excuse given by workers trying to bend the rules when it comes to negotiating certain advantages, such as more pay, shorter working hours, more tea breaks, and so on. It is not clear why the Spanish are blamed for this. However, historic national rivalry between the Spanish and the British has led to many light-hearted expressions in the workplace, such as the Spanish worm, which is a nail hidden in a piece of wood against which a carpenter jars his chisel or saw. To be given the Spanish archer is to be sacked or given the 'elbow'.
Old warhorse - standard, familiar, slightly hackneyed play, piece of music, etc. that can be relied on to please; elderly person, especially military or political, in any field
A warhorse was originally a strong charger used by a knight and later a cavalryman in battle. An old warhorse was therefore an experienced one or one that had been put out to grass at the end of a distinguished career. From this the expression came to mean a veteran warrior; the modern meanings carry on these ideas of age, dependability and survivability.
Old wive's tale - superstition; traditional belief or piece of wisdom, usually foolish
Wife originally meant no more than 'woman'. The idea underlying the expression is that old people tend to live in the past, so that what they say is not always to be taken seriously. The Bible has 'refuse profane and old wives fables' (I Timothy, 4: 7), but the expression was proverbial before English translations of the Bible became popularly known.
Olive branch - offer of peace
The olive branch is a very ancient symbol of peace. In Greek mythology, for example, the olive tree is sacred to the great goddess Athene - in some legends, she is said to have created it - and one was caused to sprout on the Acropolis at the naming of Athens. In the Bible, the return of a dove bearing an olive leaf signalled to Noah the subsiding of the Flood that represented God's anger (Genesis, 8: 11).
On a shoestring - at very little cost; on a small budget
Literally, for the price of a shoestring, the old word for shoelace, one of the cheapest commodities one can buy.
On a sticky wicket - (in an) awkward position
A cricketing term for a wet batting-pitch, difficult for batsmen because of the advantage it offers to spin bowling.
On a wing and a prayer - hopeful but not likely to succeed
It is a matter of interpretation as to whether the wing referred to here is that of an aeroplane or a more celestial being. The phrase comes from a WWII song by Harold Adamson (1943), based on the actual words spoken by the pilot of a damaged aircraft who radioed the control tower as he prepared to come in to land. The song runs: 'Tho' there's one motor gone, we can still carry on / Comin' in on a wing and prayer'.
On cloud nine - ecstatically happy
Said to be from the terminology of the US Weather Bureau. Just as wind may be force five or an earthquake measure seven on the Richter scale, cloud nine is that which reaches to 30,000-40,000 feet, i.e. very high. The idea of being on a cloud comes from the traditional association of the sky with heaven, the place of supreme bliss.
...Another explanation is that the expression is merely an intensification of the earlier 'cloud seven', an Americanism for seventh heaven.
On one's beam-ends - almost penniless; destitute
On a wooden ship the beams were the horizontal transverse timbers holding it together and supporting the deck. A ship was said to be on its beam-ends if it rolled violently to one side so that these beams became almost vertical, as if the ship were lying on their ends. In that position it was of course in danger of capsizing, a desperate plight echoed in the metaphorical meaning of the expression.
...Broad in the beam refers to a ship that is particularly wide, and is now put to unflattering use to describe a woman with ample hips.
On one's high horse - stand on one's dignity; behave in an overbearing manner
A high horse used to be a strong warhorse or charger ridden by a person of rank.
On/Riding one's hobbyhorse - talking about one's favourite topic
A hobbyhorse (in which hobby is an obsolete word for a small light horse) was a covered wickerwork frame in the shape of a horse that was fastened round the waist of a comic performer in a morris-dance or on the stage so that a performer appeared to be riding it. It was also the name of a child's toy in the form of a stick with an imitation horse's head, which children could pretend to ride. From this it came to mean a favourite pursuit or pastime, by jocular reference to a child's fondness for toys. This sense of jocularity (or sometimes impatience) persists in the modern use of the term, though it is quite absent from the abbreviation hobby, now the normal word for a spare-time activity.
...Horseplay, meaning rough or boisterous play, may well have originated in the knockabout comedy of the hobbyhorse in the first meaning given.
On one's tod - alone
Rhyming slang: on one's own = on one's Tod Sloan = on one's tod. Sloan was a famous American jockey who first rode in England in 1897 after several highly successful seasons in his homeland. He was very popular, and rode King Edward VII's horses, but faded from the public eye after being banned by the Jockey Club in 1901.
On one's uppers - very poor
The uppers here are the parts that cover the upper part of a boot or shoe. The implication is that the soles have become so worn that the person concerned is reduced to a pair that consists only of uppers - quite useless, of course- and that they are too poor to be able to replace them.
...The expression first appeared in eastern America in the 1880s. To judge from the early examples, it was originally actors' slang. The first form was 'walking on one's uppers', which gives the sense behind the expression more clearly than the later abbreviated version.
On tenterhooks - in a state of tension, anxiety or suspense
From the literal tension applied to newly woven cloth in order to stretch it evenly and allow it to dry without shrinking. The wooden framework used for this operation was called a tenter; the word 'tent' comes from the same Latin origin, tendere (stretch). The hooks to which the cloth was attached were therefore called tenterhooks.
On the ball
A football player is said to be on the ball when having control of the ball and looking for a scoring opportunity or someone to pass to. Thus on the ball has come to mean alert, efficient etc. A less common version of the same idea is have the ball at one's feet (be in control), which dates from the middle of the 16th century. To start the ball rolling (begin a process) is also from games-playing, probably football, but if the ball is in one's court (the initiative or responsibility has passed over to one) the allusion is to tennis, in which one can only strike the ball if it is in one's own half of the court. See also play ball.
On the breadline - impoverished
Line is the American word for the British 'queue'. A breadline is therefore a queue of poor people waiting for free food to be handed out.
On the cards - possible, likely to happen
The expression is from the beginning of the 19th century and refers to the practice of fortune telling with Tarot cards.
On the grapevine - by unofficial circulation of information (or rumour) from person to person
Short for 'grapevine telegraph', a cynical American Civil War term for the route by which information, much of it inaccurate (e.g. news of victories not in fact won), was received. It is thought to have originated in 1859 with the construction of an actual telegraph line slung from tree to tree; the swaying of the trees stretched the line until it sagged, reminding some soldiers of the trailing Californian grapevine after which they duly named it.
On the horns of a dilemma - having to choose between two things, courses of action, etc., each of which is equally unfavourable
Dilemma is a technical term of logic and means a form of argument forcing one's adversary into a choice between equally unacceptable alternatives. The Romans called this argumentum cornutum, an argument with horns: the image illustrated the argument's capacity to impale an opponent. Translated from the Latin, the image has remained in popular use, though often incorrectly weakened to mean no more than a mere difficulty.
On the right/wrong tack - in the right/wrong direction; following the (in)correct course of action or line of thought
From sailing, in which tack means 'direction'. More specifically, it means the direction given to a ship's course by the act of tacking, i.e. moving in a zigzag fashion by adjusting the sails so as to move into the wind but obliquely to its direction. To go (off) on another tack is from the same source and means 'to take another course of action than that previously followed'.
On the side of angels - on the side of virtue (and usually of tradition)
Coined by Benjamin Disraeli in a speech of 1864 during the bitter controversy over Darwin's theory of the origin of the species which contradicted the biblical version of how man was created: 'Is man an ape or an angel? I, my lord, am on the side of the angels'.
On the slate
The use of slate as a writing surface on which one could chalk up scores in games or debts in a shop or pub has given rise to a number of current expressions. Something that has been put on the slate is on credit. To wipe the slate clean is to prepare for a fresh start, either by paying off debts or by expunging the score of the previous game to make room for the next. To start with a clean slate is a similar expression. The verb slate (criticism) may derive from the practice of recording debts on a slate or from a northern English dialect word meaning to use or encourage a dog to attack or to herd animals.
...The former use of slate as a writing surface in schools may have given extra currency to expressions about clean slates or may be the origin of them. It has also been suggested that slated (condemned) may have originated in a practice of writing the names of disgraced pupils on a publicly displayed slate used as a noticeboard.
On the spur of the moment
A spur is used to urge a horse forward. Figuratively, the word signifies a stimulus or incentive. Something done on the spur of the moment is done without premeditation, the moment alone acting as the spur to action.
On the stocks - in preparation
Not the device in which people used to be placed for punishment, but the wooden framework on which a ship used to be supported while under construction.
On the wagon - teetotal (having previously not been so)
Short for 'on the water-wagon' as a metaphor for the non-consumption of alcohol. In the USA, where the expression originated, water-wagons were used to spray dusty streets and to be a source of communal supply in times of drought.
On the warpath - angry, looking to take hostile action
Warpath used to be the term for the route taken by a warlike party of North American Indians.
On tick - on credit
Tick in this instance is an abbreviated form of ticket, i.e. the note that was written to record a debt.
Once in a blue moon - extremely rarely
A development of an earlier expression 'once in a moon', literally once a month but actually meaning very rarely. 'Blue' seems to have been added as a meaningless fanciful intensive in the 18th century, perhaps under the influence of the proverbial 'he thinks the moon is made of green cheese', i.e. he is a fool.
...However, there have been rare occurrences of blue moons caused by dust particles, for example, during volcanic eruptions and large forest fires, so perhaps there is a germ of fact in the expression.
One man's meat is another man's poison
Described as an 'old moth-eaten proverb' as long ago as 1604, this was first expressed in De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, the first-century BC Roman poet, as 'What is food for some is black poison to others'.
One over the eight - drunk
From a military superstition that eight beers were safe to drink.
One swallow does not make a summer - a single or isolated happy event does not mean that all one's troubles are over
The annual migration of swallows to Europe from southern climes at the end of winter was the subject of a Greek proverb recorded by Aristotle (384-22 BC) in his Nicomachean Ethics (I, 7, line 16): 'One swallow does not make a spring'. The English version has been common since the 16th century; the basic metaphor being that the end of winter is the end of hard times but that more than one piece of evidence is needed to prove that it has been reached.
Open sesame - means, opportunity or secret way of gaining access to something otherwise inaccessible or unobtainable
Originally 'Open, Sesame!' the words used by the 40 thieves to open a rock door into a cave, in the story of Ali Baba in the Arabian Nights Entertainments. Ali Baba used the same password to gain entry to the cave, which he found full of treasure. Sesame was presumably the name of a magic spirit. The story first appeared in English in the 18th century and the password became a metaphorical noun soon after.
Original sin
See Fall from grace.
Ostrich-like - refusing to face reality
Like Canute, the crocodile and the lemming, the ostrich is persistently misrepresented in popular saying. There is no evidence that when pursued it buries its head in the sand in the belief that because it cannot see its enemy it cannot itself be seen. The myth came into English in 1579 with the publication of North's widely read translation of Plutarch's Lives, but as Plutarch, the Greek biographer and moralist, was born in 50 AD it is clearly much older than that. Its origin, like that of some other traveller's tales, can only be guessed at.
Other irons in the fire
See Hammer and tongs.
Ours not to reason why - it is not our place, job or whatever to question the orders of a superior, the way things are done, etc.
An adaptation of a line from the well-known poem by Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854): 'Their's not to make reply, Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do or die: Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred'. The charge was at Balaclava, near Sebastopol; 272 of the 673 Brigade members were killed or wounded in the charge because of a misunderstood order.
Out for the count - unconscious or deeply asleep
Refers to the sport of boxing where a boxer who has been knocked down by his opponent has to get up again before the referee counts to ten in order to stay in the match.
Out-Herod Herod - outdo in evil, extravagance or violence
Shakespeare coined the phrase and put it into the mouth of Hamlet in the opening speech of III, 2, where he advises some strolling players not to shout and overact in the play he has written for them to perform. King Herod was commonly portrayed as a fearsomely blustering tyrant in old plays depicting biblical events, and Hamlet did not want his actors to behave as if they were trying to outdo him. Herod was also a cruel man, chiefly remembered for ordering the massacre of children in the hope of killing the infant Jesus; hence the modern adaptation of Shakespeare's term.
Out of the ark - very old
The allusion is to Noah's Ark, a large wooden structure that held Noah's family and representative animals when God flooded the earth in punishment for mankind's disregard; Noah was spared because of his goodness, and his family repopulated the earth with God's blessing. Traces of a prehistoric flood have been found in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), and stories about a great deluge appear in the literature of several ancient civilisations as well as in the Bible (Genesis, 6-8).
Out of the frying pan into the fire - leap from one bad predicament to one as bad or even worse
Most languages have an equivalent phrase, and the French have tomber de la poêle dans le feu/la braise, from which the English is probably translated. The Greeks have, 'out of the smoke into the flame'; the Italians and Portuguese, 'to fall from the frying pan into the coals'; and the Gaelic is, 'out of the cauldron into the fire'. The phrase can be traced back to about 1530 when, in the course of a religious argument, Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor and author of Utopia, accused William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English, that he 'featly conuayed himself out of the frying panne fayre into the fyre'. Sir Thomas More was hanged as a traitor in 1535 for not approving of the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and Tyndale was publicly strangled and burned as a heretic in 1536.
Out of the running
In horseracing the only horses considered 'in the running' - with a chance of winning - are the first few, and the rest are out of the running. It was being transferred to other things that had no chance of winning by the second half of the 19th century.
Out on a limb - in an exposed and precarious position
Limb has long been standard English for a main branch of a tree, though it is little used in that sense. American English has retained the use of the word, however, and has recently (about 1945, perhaps from infiltration by American servicemen's vocabulary) exported the idea of someone being out on a limb, i.e. at the end of a branch, unable to go any further or at risk of having his position collapse under him.
Over-egg the pudding - exaggerate, spoil something by going too far
To add too many eggs to a pudding, or even to add any at all to the instant cake mixes that claim none is necessary, is to go too far, to be excessive. Hence the current meaning of 'to exaggerate'.
Over the moon - ecstatically happy
Although this expression of joy, a cliché since the 1970s, is chiefly associated with footballers and their managers, its origins are very different. It was part of the special slang used by a group of aristocratic, art- and philosophy-loving Victorians and Edwardians known as 'The Souls', who used to communicate with each other in a highly precious, specialised language which effectively excluded outsiders. They used it in much the same way as the footballers, to express great pleasure, a desire to 'jump for joy', and took it from the nursery rhyme in which 'The cow jumped over the moon'. The earliest recorded use goes back as far as 1857.
Over a barrel
This expression, which means to get someone into such a position that one can get him or her to do anything that one wants, comes from an early form of inquisition which involved holding someone over a barrel of boiling oil, etc. where the alternatives for the victim are to agree to demands or be dropped in the barrel. In other words, to have no choice at all!
Over the top - excessive
Usually go over the top (behave without sufficient moderation or restraint). WWI infantry required to attack or raid enemy trenches had first to climb out of their own trenches and go forward over the top of the parapets. Going over the top - an occasion of mingled excitement and dread - became a well-known expression, or euphemism, for going into highly dangerous action. The shift to its present meaning, via show business slang for 'over-act', is an old one.
Own goal (score an) - (do or say something that causes) self-inflicted damage
In association football the object is to score by putting the ball through the opponent's goal. A player who accidentally puts the ball through their own side's goal, thus registering a score in favour of the opposition, is said to score an own goal.
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