Expressions & Sayings

~ P ~


Paddle one's own canoe - make one's way by one's own efforts
This saying, American in origin, was first recorded in 1828. It was a favourite expression of Abraham Lincoln, for whom it epitomised the American spirit of self-help; popularised in a poem by Sarah Bolton in Harper's Magazine (1854), it was finally brought into general currency when her words were set to a very popular song.
Paint the town red - go on a spree
Several attempts have been made to explain this. The most persuasive locates its origin in an actual piece of drunken vandalism by the Marquis of Waterford and a bunch of his chums who, as an aristocratic joke, actually painted parts of the local town red in the area of Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, in 1837. The incident created sufficient stir to be recorded in contemporary verse and engraving.
Painted Jezebel - shameless, immoral, scheming woman
Jezebel was the wife of Ahab, king of Israel, whom she introduced to the worship of Baal, the god of the Phoenicians, while persecuting the prophets of the Hebrew god, Jehovah, and drawing down upon herself the denunciation of Elijah. In II Kings, 9, she is referred to in connection with 'whoredoms' and 'witchcrafts', and her use of cosmetics (verse 30) has given rise to the expression a painted Jezebel for a woman who flaunts herself provocatively.
Palm off - get rid of (usually something unwanted or inferior) by tricking someone into buying or receiving it
From the trickery of conjuring, in which something may be concealed in the palm of the hand and apparently made to disappear, or - less likely - from cheating at cards or dice by sleight of hand. The adjective 'underhand' (not straightforward) comes from the same idea.
Pan out
In the language of American gold-prospectors to pan was to wash and agitate gravel in a pan in order to separate it from gold To pan out was to get a good result from this process; it now means to work out or result.
Pandora's box - seemingly innocuous situation but actually a profuse source of trouble to come
In Greek legend Pandora was the first mortal woman, created by Zeus to bring calamity to men. Sent as a beautiful gift to Epimetheus, but with treachery in her heart, she brought with her a great vase (popularly described as a box) filled with afflictions; when she opened the lid these escaped and spread over the earth, though Hope remained at the bottom. The original idea, therefore, was that the first woman brought misery to the earth.
Paper tiger - person (occasionally thing) outwardly powerful but in fact weak
Translation of a Chinese expression which first became generally known when it was indirectly applied to the USA as a term of abuse by the Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung in 1946.
Par for the course - what one would expect; normal; average
A misuse of a golfing term that denotes the score that a good player, not an average one, should reach when going round a particular course. It enables golfers to measure their standards against an officially recognised one.
Pardon my French - excuse my foul language
The French were the enemy of Britain on and off for a thousand years or more and are even today thought of with some suspicion by many Britishers. Perhaps because of this the British have considered the French to be vulgar and rude. To say pardon my French is to say that one is about to behave as a Frenchman is purported to do, i.e. one is about to say something vulgar.
Parkinson's law - work expands to fill the time available
A facetious law of economics formulated by the English historian C. Northcote Parkinson in an essay in The Economist (1957), a humorous but deadpan study of public and business administration based partly on his experience as a staff officer in WWII. An important corollary of this law is that 'subordinates multiply at a fixed rate regardless of the amount of work produced' and it is this notion of ever-increasing bureaucracy that is now normally in people's minds when they refer to Parkinson's law.
Part and parcel of - very much part of
Both words used to mean the same thing - an integral portion - though parcel no longer has this sense except in this expression. It was originally a legal formula used in defining ownership, the contents of estates, etc., and was merely emphatic, the second noun reinforcing the first, as is often the case in the jargon of legal documents.
Parthian shot - pointed or wounding remark made on departure, giving no time for reply
The idea of having the last word may now imply flouncing bad temper but the original phrase did not. Parthia was a non-Greek kingdom that emerged in about 238 BC in what is now northeastern Iran, west of Afghanistan. It became the object of a number of campaigns by the Romans, notably Crassus in the 1st century BC, and it was then that the Parthian horsemen became noted for their skill at discharging their missiles backwards while in real or pretended retreat.
...A Parthian shot was used in the 19th century and was still in use in the first quarter of the 20th until parting shot gained currency. This was through the similarity in pronunciation between Parthian and parting, together with an association of ideas: the Parthian shot was indeed a parting shot.
Parting of the ways - place or time at which separation occurs
Originally biblical: 'the King of Babylon stood at the parting of the way' (Ezekiel, 21: 21).
Parting shot - final word or action (usually unfriendly) before leaving, so that response is impossible
Formerly a malapropism for Parthian shot, but now an acceptable and clear idiom in its own right.
Pass muster - qualify, come up to standard
In military jargon, a muster meant an inspection, and to pass muster meant to pass the inspection. It is found figuratively from 1574.
Pass round the hat - collect money for a gift or presentation
See Hat trick.
Pass the buck - shift responsibility to someone else
A term from poker originating in the USA. A knife with a buckhorn handle, abbreviated to buck, was put in the jackpot; some other handy object could be used but it was still called 'the buck'. It was temporarily held by the winner of the jackpot, but when the deal reached him a new jackpot had to be made and the responsibility of holding the buck was passed on. One version of poker was called pass the buck.
...In other versions the buck is placed on the table to indicate whom the dealer is or whose turn it is to put an agreed sum into the pool. In either case, the buck is then passed on clockwise.
...The earliest recorded use of the phrase is by Mark Twain (born Samuel Langhorn Clemens; 1835-1910), in 1872, in the first decade after the end of the Civil War, when poker or stud poker - the stake was probably a stud horse - were played in bars by lumberjacks, miners and hunters, those being the days before it became known as a 'gentleman's game.
...Harry S. Truman, President of the USA from 1945-53 and a keen poker-player, had a sign on his desk 'The buck stops here'. Passing the buck had by this time come to signify an evasion or denial of responsibility. Originally, it simply meant a passing on of accountability by rotation. (See also the buck stops here)
Past master - person expert or much experienced in a particular activity
This could be derived from the old expressions 'to pass master' and 'passed-master', both of which referred to graduation as Master (of Arts, etc.) from a university. A more likely explanation is that it is from the later variant 'past-master', a former master of a guild, freemasons' lodge, etc. Mastership was an office to which one was elected in recognition of one's adeptness in a particular craft.
Pastures new - change of place or activity
This is part of a line from Lycidas (1637), a poem by John Milton: 'At last he rose, and twitch'd his mantle blue; Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.' The full expression should be fresh woods and pastures new, though fresh fields and pastures new is a common misquotation. Fortunately, the shorter pastures new stands all by itself and is heard more often these days. See Fresh fields.
Patience of Job - very patient
Job's story, told in the Old Testament Book of Job, is that of a God-fearing man who is suddenly prostrated by a succession of calamities which strip him of goods, children and health. He remains steadfast throughout and these disasters are then revealed to have been God's tests of his faith. Because of his endurance, Job is blessed by God and his prosperity is made greater than before. The patience of Job thus became proverbial and is referred to as early as the New Testament (James, 5: 11).
...Job also had friends who wrongly attributed his misfortune to his sinfulness. He rejected their interpretation: 'miserable comforters are ye all' (Job, 16: 2). A Job's comforter is now a person who, in trying to offer help or advice, says something that merely adds to distress.
Pay on the nail - make a prompt cash payment
In the medieval marketplace honest dealing was encouraged by the setting up of pillar-like counters known as 'nails'. Money was literally placed on the nail in full public view as bargains were struck. As proof of this, four bronze 'nails' still stand on the pavement outside the Exchange in Bristol and there is another in Limerick, as well as a copper plate at the Liverpool Stock Exchange.
...The truth is, however, that this old phrase was in use before the nails were put there and the market pillars probably took their name from the expression, not the other way round. Nor is the term unique to England; German and Dutch share the same expression. This is another of the language's mysteries - the origin has been lost in time.
Pay through the nose - pay excessively; be overcharged
Three explanations of this expression have been offered. One traces it to a 9th century Irish poll tax imposed by the Danes, who slit the noses of non-payers. If this is the origin, it is odd that the expression did not appear in print until 1672. A second links 'rhino', slang for money, with the Greek word rhinos (nose). This is as far-fetched as the third, which connects a nosebleed with the idea of being 'bled' of one's money.
...A simpler and more plausible solution exists. There is an old and popular expression, found in 16th century English as well as in Italian, Greek and Latin, which is lead by the nose. Literally this means 'control' or 'dominate', as an animal is led by the nose, perhaps by means of a ring through it. Figuratively it means 'make a fool of': Shakespeare has 'led by the nose, as asses are' (Othello, I, 3, lines 399, 400). A development of this into pay through the nose, with the same implication of being fooled, must be a strong possibility.
Pear-shaped - something that has gone badly awry or out of control
The actual meaning behind this mainly British expression, which first started to appear in the 1960s, is not known. The common explanation is that it comes from Royal Air Force slang. However, nobody there or anywhere else seems to know why. Some say it may have been applied to the efforts of pilots to do aerobatics, such as loops. Apparently, it is notoriously difficult to get manoeuvres like this even roughly circular, and instructors might describe the resulting distorted route of the aircraft as pear-shaped. There is no firm evidence to support this theory, but until a more convincing one comes along, it will have to do!
Pearly gates - entrance to heaven
A popular adaptation of the biblical description of the Christian paradise: 'the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl' (Revelation, 21: 21).
Pecking order - hierarchy based on rank or status
This alludes to behaviour originally recognised among hens, and later among other groups of animals, in which those of high rank in the group attacked (by pecking) those of a lower rank without provoking an attack in return. The term was first used in 20th century studies of animal behaviour and was rapidly adopted as a popular metaphor for an aspect of human behaviour.
Peeping Tom - voyeur
Leofric, Earl of Mercia and one of the most powerful men in England during the first half of the 11th century, imposed certain taxes, which his wife, Lady Godiva, patroness of Coventry, asked him to remove. He promised to do so if she would ride naked through the city, which she accordingly did in 1040. This story, first recorded in a 13th century history, was subsequently embellished. A 17th century addition was that the people of Coventry stayed indoors behind drawn curtains in order not to offend her modesty, but that an inquisitive tailor called Tom peeped out, whereupon he was struck blind or, according to another story, done to death by more upright citizens. Thus, peeping Tom became the name for a voyeur.
Peg away - work persistently
From the action of hammering away to drive a peg into the ground, etc.
Peg out - slang for die
From cribbage, where the score is kept by putting small pegs in holes on a board. It literally means to finish a game by reaching the last holes.
Pell-mell - disorderly confusion, confused haste
Pell-mell is a corruption of Pall-mall, an early form of croquet that was played in a long alley and involved striking a wooden ball with a mallet through a high iron arch at either end of the alley. The game originated in southern France as Paille maille during the 14th century, when it was played by peasants. From France, the game was introduced to Ireland, and from Ireland to England where it eventually developed into the modern game of croquet. The expression pell-mell probably arose from the disordered state the balls sometimes get into.
Penny has dropped, the - a joke, remark or point has suddenly been grasped
The phrase probably alludes to the slot machines found on piers and in penny arcades. They are motionless and unresponsive until the penny drops inside but then they come to life. Similarly, a person who does not understand a joke or remark made to him, does not react as one would expect until the penny drops.
Philosopher's stone - panacea
Before the word 'philosopher' settled down into its modern sense it meant, among other things, a practitioner of occult science, including alchemy. The alchemist's or philosopher's stone was, in medieval times, the solid or preparation reputed to be able to turn all base metals into gold. The discovery of it was a supreme objective.
Phoenix from the ashes - something that grows anew out of the destruction of its predecessor
The phoenix is a legendary bird. In Egyptian mythology, in which it may have been sacred, it resembled the eagle in shape and size and appeared in Egypt only once every 500 years, flying from its birthplace in Arabia with the body of its father, which it buried in a temple. In later Greek legend, it had gorgeous plumage, was the only one of its kind and lived for 500 or 600 years in the Arabian desert, after which it built a nest as a funeral pyre, sometimes in Egypt. From the ashes of this, it emerged with renewed growth to live through another cycle.
Picture paints a thousand words, a - a picture tells a story as well as a large amount of descriptive text can
From the quotation, 'One picture is worth ten thousand words' by Frederick R. Barnard in Printer's Ink (1921) retelling a Chinese proverb.
Pidgin English - English with the pronunciation, spelling or grammatical construction of another language
The development of trading contacts between Britain and China led to the emergence in 19th century China of a trading language consisting of basic English and some Chinese with Chinese pronunciation and some Chinese grammatical forms. The Chinese called this hybrid language 'business English', but as they had difficulty in pronouncing 'business', this came out as 'bidgin' or pidgin, which is now a standard English word.
...By a curious and misguided tidying-up process, 'that's not my pidgin' (that's not my business) entered written English as that's not my pigeon. The familiar that's your pigeon (i.e. your responsibility) is from the same error.
Pie in the sky - foolish and illusory hope of future benefit
Usually credited to the American trade union organiser Joe Hill, who wrote in The Preacher and the Slave (1906): 'You will eat, bye and bye, / In the glorious land above the sky! / Work and pray, live on hay, / You'll get pie in the sky when you die'. This bitter advice to tolerate inhuman social conditions in order to earn rewards in heaven is a parody of 'We shall meet by and by', a popular hymn in the Moody and Sankey hymnbook, Sacred Songs and Solos (see hold the fort). Contemporary evangelical or revivalist sentiment promised a better life to come, but implied resigned acceptance of one's place in society in the meantime.
...Pie in the sky was seized on and much used by the militantly radical Industrial Workers of the World, a potentially revolutionary American labour movement, who used it to taunt the conventionally minded religious and industrial establishment and idealistic socialists alike. It may even be that Hill did not invent the phrase but merely utilised an existing ironical slogan of this organisation.
Pig in a poke
See Let the cat out of the bag.
Pigeon-hole - classify; put on one side
In medieval times pigeons were kept as domestic birds, not for racing but for their meat. Pigeon holes were the openings set in a wall or a purpose-built pigeon cote in which the birds nested. By 1789, the arrangement of compartments in writing cabinets and offices used to sort and file documents had come to be known as pigeon holes because of their resemblance to the pigeon cote. By the mid 19th century, pigeon hole was being used as a verb meaning either to put a matter to one side with the intention of coming back to it later, or to classify information.
Piggy in the middle - a third party between two opposing groups
There is an old children's game called pig, or piggy, in the middle in which two or more players throw a ball to each other, trying hard to keep it out of the reach of the hapless child who has been chosen to be pig in the middle. The frustrated 'pig' shadows the other players, trying all the while to catch the ball.
...By extension, the context of use can now be rival politicians, factions in an office, etc. Someone who feels between the groups, trapped and pressured from both sides, is piggy in the middle. In the original game, children might choose to be the piggy; in the adult version, it is not an enviable situation.
Pin money - small earnings (especially from part-time job), usually of wife; pocket money
Formerly a sum of money allotted, often by legal settlement, by a man to his wife for her personal expenses. The phrase reflects an earlier period when pins, needed for dressmaking and sewing, were neither cheap nor plentiful, their manufacture being controlled by a Crown monopoly. Pin money, therefore, was something that needed to be reckoned.
Pine away - to languish; long or yearn for
The verb to pine is uncommon and only appears in this set expression and a very few other situations. Pine in this sense has nothing to do with the tree of the same name, but is actually a variation on pain; they form a closely related pair of words that come from the same source - the Latin poena, a punishment or penalty.
...The pain type of pine seems to have been brought into the Germanic languages (including early English) through Christianity, which used the word to refer to the pains of Hell. The first sense in English (which was written down by King Alfred in his translation of Orosius' Histories Against the Pagans in about 893) is that of causing someone to suffer, to torment them or inflict pain on them. Three centuries pass before we find the more modern senses, the word by then influenced by Old French after the Norman Conquest. The meaning of pine then became that of undergoing pain or enduring suffering, which then evolved into the sense we know today.
...Incidentally, our modern word pain was also at first always used in the sense of punishment, as in old legal phraseology such as 'on pain of death', meaning that that will be the punishment if the law is broken. The idea of bodily suffering came along later.
Pipe down - stop talking
In nautical language this was a command given on a bosun's pipe, last thing at night, for silence and lights-out.
Pipe dream - impossible fanciful hope or plans
Despite its comfortable modern associations this was originally a reference to the pipe-smoking of opium and to the fantasies it produces. Opium used to be a legal drug in the form of laudanum.
Piping hot - very hot (usually of food)
The sense here is of making a musical sound, as of playing the pipes. The idea is that a dish that is piping hot is one so hot it makes a sizzling or whistling sound. The expression is first recorded in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In the Miller's Tale, it says: 'Wafers piping hot out of the gleed', where a wafer is a kind of thin cake and gleed is the hot coals of a fire.
Pitched battle - fierce encounter
Literally a battle of which the plans, site, etc. are chosen in advance, as distinct from a running battle or skirmish, and therefore likely to be more murderous. Pitched means established, fixed, set up in a place.
Place in the sun
The use of this expression to mean a chance of advancement or something that is rightfully yours, comes from the period building up to the First World War. Germany wanted to expand its Empire in both the East and Africa, and in 1897, Bernard von Blow made a speech saying: 'We desire to throw no one into the shade, but we demand our own place in the sun'. The demand for a place in the sun was used on several later occasions by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II.
Plain as a pikestaff - very obvious
Originally 'plain as a packstaff', the staff to which a peddler strapped his pack. Plain meant either simple (in appearance) or smooth (of surface).
Plain sailing - unobstructed progress
Formerly plane sailing, navigation by plane charts which represented the earth's surface as plane (i.e. flat) instead of spherical. This form of navigation was simpler and left less room for errors; hence the modern sense of the term which is, roughly, 'easy'.
Play ball - cooperate
An Americanism meaning simply to play baseball. This being a team game, an invitation (e.g. in a school playground) to play ball is also an invitation to join in with others, hence the general meaning.
Play by ear - make decisions in the light of the way things develop rather than by advance planning
Not a very apt expression. In music, from which it is taken, to play by ear is to play from memory, i.e. without reading the music, not to make something up as one goes along.
Play ducks and drakes with - use (especially money) recklessly
The centuries-old game of throwing a flat stone to make it skim across water and bounce a number of times before it sinks is called ducks and drakes because the bobbing motion of the stone is like that of swimming ducks and drakes or the way they bob their heads in courtship ritual. From the throwing away of something and the idle amusement associated with the game comes the moderns sense of irresponsible behaviour.
Play fast and loose - treat carelessly; behave unreliably or deceitfully
Fast-and-loose was one of several names for a medieval cheating game or fairground confidence trick played with a skewer-like stick and a belt or piece of string. The player was invited, for a wager, to pin the folded belt or coiled string to a table with the stick so as to hold it fast. The operator, who had of course arranged the folding or coiling in the first place, then showed that it was not 'fast' but 'loose' and so won the wager. The game has been superseded by the three-card trick and other sleights of hand but its name - and its associations of shiftiness - remain familiar.
Play havoc - devastate, destroy, spoil
Havoc was borrowed from the Old French havot, meaning plunder. A shout of havoc was an order, a war cry, a signal for pillage and the seizure of spoil to begin. The phrase cry havoc from the Anglo-French crier havok is especially common in 15th and 16th century texts, from its first use in 1419, recorded in Excerpta Historica.
Play one's ace
See Ace up one's sleeve.
Play one's cards close to one's chest - be secretive or non-communicative about one's plans or intentions
From holding one's cards close to one in card-playing so that one's opponents will not see them.
Play possum - lie low; dissemble; feign ignorance (sleep, etc.) to deceive someone
From the habit of the common American marsupial (properly 'opossum') of lying as if dead when under threat.
Play second fiddle - be subordinate (to another person)
In an orchestra, string quartet, etc. the second fiddle plays music which, although important, tends to have less of the melody and more of the supporting harmony than the first fiddle, which is generally more prominent. In non-musical figurative use, the expression implies a greater element of subservience and relative unimportance than is literally the case.
Play the fool - act silly, foolishly
When Saul, the king admits his guilt for following David and trying to kill him, he is obviously referring to an act of great seriousness: 'I have sinned: return, my son, David: for I will no more do thee harm, because my soul was precious in thine eyes this day. Behold, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly' (1 Samuel 26:21). Today we use the expression in relation to something unimportant and trivial.
Play to the gallery - behave, speak or write in a manner designed to attract popular favour
In a theatre the gallery is the highest part of the auditorium and the most distant from the stage. It has the cheapest seats and therefore in former times, when the possession of money was equated with merit, was thought to accommodate the least discerning spectators. A performer who 'played to the gallery' used a vulgar, exaggerated style designed to please this coarser element.
Pleased as Punch - very pleased
In the old story of Punch and Judy he is a happy character; indeed he is usually presented as unduly self-satisfied, and duly punished, though neither of these ideas is present in the modern phrase.
Ploughman's lunch - bread and a piece of cheese
Despite its agreeable rustic if not medieval feel, this expression actually belongs to 1970 when it made its first appearance in a contribution to Cheese Handbook by Richard Trehane, chairman of the English Country Cheese Council. As an astonishingly successful piece of marketing it was promptly adopted by virtually every public house in Britain. Whether any ploughman ever actually ate one - or what his language would be on contemplating one after several hours' hard labour behind the horses - is another matter.
Plumb the depths - sink as low as possible (metaphorically)
A nautical term meaning to use a mariner's plumb or plummet - a piece of lead (etc.) attached to a line - to measure the depth of water from a ship, especially when in a channel or close to shore, in order to avoid running aground. The expression was originally quite factual, without the sense of despair or baseness it now carries.
Poetic justice
Now simply good justice; it used to mean the rightness, sweetness or carefulness associated with poetry, or the sound morality of great epic poems and verse drama.
Poetic licence
A rather tongue-in-cheek expression meaning fanciful exaggeration or even harmless dishonesty in describing something or stating a case. The idea is that poets use language in an uncommon but forgivable way to make their effects.
Point-blank
Literally, from such a close range as to be sure of hitting the target. Figuratively, plain(ly) or blunt(ly).
Blank derives from the French blanc (white). The white spot in the centre of an archery target was therefore called a blank and to aim point-blank was to point the weapon straight at the blank. The modern meanings, both literal and figurative (e.g. a point-blank refusal), stem from this idea of directness.
Poisoned chalice - something apparently cordial but actually deadly
A quotation from Shakespeare (Macbeth, I, 7, line 11), where it is Macbeth's image for his murdering of the king while giving him hospitality (a chalice is a drinking cup). Shakespeare may have got the idea from the tradition that the enemies of St John once tried to kill him by offering him a poisoned cup (Acts of St John, 3rd century) and from medieval depictions of the saints holding a chalice with a serpent around it as an image of death.
Poker-faced - straight faced, expressionless
This phrase is from the gaming tables in America and has been in use since 1885. It refers to the bland expression adopted by a poker shark, determined not to betray the value of his hand.
Politically correct
This phrase goes back further than one might believe, to 1793, in fact. It was first used by the American judge Justice James Wilson in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia, and was meant to distinguish between the phrases United States and people of the United States - he believed the latter to be politically correct.
...However, it was not until 1970 that the phrase gained its current definition of a body of liberal or radical opinion, especially on social matters, characterised by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language, behaviour, etc. considered discriminatory or offensive. It was first used in this sense in Black Woman by T. Cade.
...The converse politically incorrect first appeared in 1947, in Nabokov's Bend Sinister. The expression's abbreviation PC first saw the light of day in 1986 in the New York Times.
Pontius Pilate - person who refuses to take responsibility for their own actions, especially wrong ones; person in authority who is weak, hypocritical or given to self-deception
The Roman governor in Jerusalem at the time of Christ's crucifixion. Pilate believed Jesus to be innocent of the charges brought against him but gave in to the demands of the Jews and delivered Jesus to them. He washed his hands publicly in front of the crowd, saying 'I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it' (Matthew, 27: 14). See also wash one's hands of.
Pooh-Bah - person, often self-important, holding many public or private positions, not all of them necessarily important or well-discharged
Pooh-Bah was the name of the Lord-High-Everything-Else in the popular comic operetta The Mikado (1885); the librettist was Sir William Gilbert (1836-1911). The name is now applied jocularly or derisively.
Pooh-pooh - express disdain or contempt for
An exclamation resembling pooh is first recorded in Shakespeare (Hamlet, I, 3, line 101) but may well be much older. It was later doubled for emphasis and turned into a verb.
Possession is nine points of the law
This means that in any dispute over ownership the person actually in possession has an overwhelming advantage, i.e. that nine legal points (out of a supposed ten) will be determined by the fact of his or her possession. Before the 17th century, the expression referred to eleven points (out of a supposed twelve). The change from eleven to nine is unexplained.
Post-haste - very quickly
From the old direction written on letters: 'Haste, post, haste'. 'Post' here meant 'postman'; it earlier meant the horsemen stationed at intervals along post-roads, whose duty was to convey mail to the next stage.
Pot calling the kettle black, the
A catchphrase used of people who blame others for faults that they themselves are also guilty of. It goes back to the days when both pots and kettles were equally likely to be blackened by the smoke of fires used for cooking, and grew out of another homely and more vivid expression the kettle calls the pot black-brows (ugly, scowling) or burnt-arse.
Pot luck
To take pot luck is to be offered a choice from what's available and not from what one might wish. It goes back to the days when a cooking pot was always on the fire. An unexpected guest was welcome to eat but only from what was on offer in the pot.
Pound of flesh - exactly what is due
Made famous by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice (1596-8) as the forfeit demanded by the moneylender Shylock if his loan to Antonio, against whom he bears a grudge, is not repaid by the appointed day. Antonio agrees the terms but in the event is unable to repay the debt in time. In court his advocate, Portia, turns the tables on Shylock by pointing out that the agreement referred only to a pound of flesh, but not to a single drop of blood. Since it would clearly be impossible to take his exact due of flesh alone, Shylock's case collapses.
...While Shakespeare certainly popularised the term he did not actually invent it. He found it in the source he used for his play, an Italian short story from a collection written in the late 15th century and published in Milan in 1558.
Pour cold water on - discourage, quench enthusiasm
Plautus used the expression in 200BC in the sense of 'to slander', but it is only since the beginning of the 19th century that it has been current and with the changed sense of 'to discourage'. The origin of the term is unknown, but it brings to mind the dousing of brawling cats, mating dogs or even ardent suitors in cold water, thus bringing their intentions to an abrupt end.
Pour oil on troubled waters - use tact, soothing words, etc. to calm a quarrel or upset
The Roman author Pliny (1st century AD) gave an account of the practice of contemporary seamen who used oil to still turbulent waves, but the idea is more likely to have reached English from Bede's Ecclesiastical History (731). This contains the story of a priest escorting a lady on a sea journey to become the bride of a king. St Aidan gave the priest a cruse of holy oil to pour on the sea if it became rough, and the oil was used with success. The expression, however, became metaphorical only in the 19th century and this may have been because Benjamin Franklin, the American polymath, took an interest in Pliny's story and wrote about it late in the 18th.
Power corrupts, (all)
Lord Acton's famous dictum 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely' (Historical Essays and Studies, 1907) is not an original thought but his expression of it is the most frequently quoted, or rather misquoted.
Powers that be -those in authority
Now sometimes used sarcastically or with a helpless shrug. The original expression is scriptural: 'Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God' (Romans, 13: 1). St Paul's advice, condoning or even sanctifying civil authority, perhaps owes more to good contemporary politics than to good theology.
Press-gang - force to do something (especially to join in) against one's will
The press-gangs, who kidnapped civilians for service in the army or navy, usually the latter, were feared for centuries until an improvement in servicemen's pay and conditions in the 1830s made them redundant. Press has nothing to do with 'pressure' here: it is from the obsolete prest (French prt, or loan) meaning the money advanced on enlistment.
Pretty/Fine kettle of fish - awkward or muddled state of affairs
A kettle of fish used to be a Scottish term for a picnic by a river, where a kettle of fish, often freshly caught salmon cooked in boiling water, would be served. Whereas a kettle is now thought of as a vessel for heating water and nothing else, it used to be a more general name for a cooking-pot and still has that sense in fish-kettle. Why such an outing should have become proverbially associated with muddle is not known, unless it has something to do with Scottish weather.
Pride goes before a fall
The modern version of an old proverb originating in the Bible: 'Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall' (Proverbs, 16: 18). As this makes clear, 'pride' here means rash conceit, not justifiable self-respect.
Prima donna
This is Italian, as many musical terms are, for 'first lady', and applied to the principal female singer in an opera. Because such singers were popular - and sometimes rightly - thought to be prone to dramatic tantrums, sulks or other uncooperative or selfish behaviour, the term has come to mean a person, of either sex, who has a temperamental nature.
Primrose path - pleasurable way of life
Shakespeare was the first to use the attractive spring flower as a metaphor for freedom from care: Ophelia teases her brother not to tread 'the primrose path of dalliance' (Hamlet, I, 3, line 50) and the drunken porter in Macbeth sees 'the primrose way' as leading to 'th'everlasting bonfire' of hell (II, 3, line 18).
Prodigal son - lavishly wasteful (young) man
The young man in Jesus' parable (Luke, 15: 11-32) wastes his fortune until he has nothing left, whereupon he repents of his ways, returns to his father and is made welcome: see kill the fatted calf. Scripture does not actually call him 'the prodigal son' but a chapter heading in the English translation does. The prodigal returns is a jocular catchphrase of welcome from the same source.
Promised Land - place or state of affairs believed to offer final realisation of hopes
In the Old Testament this is the land of Canaan promised by God to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis, 12: 7; 13: 15, etc.) and a persistent theme of Jewish history. In Christian vocabulary, such as that of hymns, it signifies paradise.
Pros and cons - reasons or arguments for and against
Not to be confused with 'pro's' as an abbreviation for professionals. It is an adaptation of the Latin pro et contra (for and against).
Pull one's chestnuts out of the fire - do someone else's work; salvage some success from a misfortune
The first meaning is from the story described at cat's-paw. The second is more common and draws a slightly different moral from the same story.
Pull one's leg - tease one
This innocuous activity was previously less so; the origin is the Scottish 'draw [i.e. withdraw] the leg(s)' from under a person by tripping him up either literally, perhaps in order to rob him, or figuratively in the sense of putting him at a disadvantage to make him appear foolish.
Pull one's weight - do what one is capable of, especially in a group effort
From rowing; if one member of the crew does not pull the oar with a force appropriate to their weight, the rower then fails to make the contribution expected by the rest of the crew.
Pull out all the stops - put maximum effort into an activity
At an organ keyboard the knobs which a player pulls out to bring different pipes into use are called stops, though modern organs have more sophisticated control mechanisms. If all the stops are pulled out the instrument makes its loudest and fullest sound.
Pull strings
See no strings attached.
Pull the wool over one's eyes - deceive or delude one, especially by giving misleading or confusing information
Attempts have been made to interpret 'wool' as a wig, which if pulled forward over the wearer's eyes prevents them from seeing what is going on. There are two objections to this explanation: the first is that a wig is not made of wool; the other is that the earliest recorded uses of the expression (in the USA in the mid-19th century) have other verbs besides 'pull', including 'spread' - hardly appropriate to a solid object like a wig. A better explanation is that 'wool' has been jocular standard English for the hair of the head since the 17th century. Just as you can be hoodwinked if someone covers your eyes with your hood, the same effect can be achieved if someone covers them with your own hair.
Pull one's finger out - hurry up, get a move on!
An old nautical expression that comes from the times of the Men o' War. When the cannon were loaded a small amount of powder was poured into the ignition hole near the base of the weapon. In order to keep the powder secure before firing, a crewmember pushed one of his fingers into the hole. When the time came for ignition, the crewman was told to pull his finger out. Naturally, in the heat of battle, the faster he pulled his finger out, the better.
Purple patch/passage - florid, ornate piece of writing; period of ostentatiously erratic or bad behaviour
The second of these meanings derives from the first, which in turn goes back to the Latin poet Horace (65-8 BC). In his Ars Poetica, a work of literary criticism that exercised some influence on later English writers, he describes an obtrusively ornate passage of composition designed for show as a 'purple patch' sewn on a garment for display. His choice of colour showed wit: 'purple' was the synonym of the rank of the Roman emperor as well as the colour of his robe (and that of other high notables). To wear a purple patch was therefore comically pretentious.
Push the boat out
A boat-builder's term, originally (recorded from the 1930s) used to mean to pay for a round of drinks, but now extended to mean to be generous or extravagant in general. It would have originated in the custom of breaking a bottle over the bows of a ship being launched, and having a celebratory drink afterwards.
Push the envelope - go to the limit of known performance
This idiom originated in the aeroplane industry. The limits of a plane's performance were marked on a two-dimensional graph. The envelope is the area of the graph that indicates safe usage. Pushing the envelope originally meant flying an aircraft at, or beyond, its known or recommended limits. In use since the late 1940s.
Pussyfoot around - avoid committing oneself to a course of action
This meaning is an obvious development from an earlier and still current one: to proceed timidly, evasively or warily. Although this makes sense in terms of the gentleness and lightness of a cat's normal movement, it originates in an even earlier piece of American slang that had to do with sly behaviour, as of a cat creeping up on its prey - quite different from the current meaning.
Put a sock in it - stop talking
The most common explanation for this expression is that it dates from the early days of the gramophone when, in the absence of a volume control, a sock was stuffed into the horn of the machine to deaden the sound. This seems improbable: in the sort of household that alone could have afforded such a novelty it is unlikely that a sock would be used in the drawing room.
...In a barrack-room, however, socks would certainly be lying around at night and one can imagine a heavy snorer being shouted at and told to 'put a sock in it' (his mouth). Some such military origin is far more likely.
Put a spoke in one's wheel - thwart one's actions or plans
This has nothing to do with a wheel-spoke in its modern sense. It refers to a wooden bar, called a spoke, which used to do service as a braking-device on horse-drawn vehicles. Thrust into a specially provided hole, it acted on a wheel to prevent a vehicle going out of control down a hill.
Put on one's thinking cap - take time to consider carefully
Said to be an allusion to the official cap donned by a judge when the time came to deliver judgement or pass sentence. The cap was later worn only for the passing of the death sentence and has now passed out of use altogether.
...However, the allusion may be less specific. In the days when everyone wore headgear, caps denoted a wide range of professions, trades and status. It would have been natural for someone who was asked to think about something to be jocularly invited to 'put on your thinking cap'. Additionally, from the 16th to the 18th century the normal term was 'consideration cap', an alliteration that may imply popular metaphor rather than specific reference to a professional thinker such as a judge.
Put on the back burner - to put off or postpone
A very useful expression in business if a decision cannot be made immediately, meaning that an idea, proposition, course of action or project can be put aside and kept in reserve for use when necessary, or when circumstances are more propitious. (An almost diametrically opposed metaphor is also used, where an idea or project can also be
put on ice, to be figuratively defrosted at a later date.) The back burners, or rings, on a cooker are used for simmering, while the front burners are usually the hottest and are used for fast cooking. There is now even a verb form gaining increasing usage, with people talking of backburnering something.
Put on the slate
See Clean slate.
Put one's back up - to annoy (someone)
Comes from the action of a cat, which arches its back up when it is angry.
Put one's foot in it - blunder; get into trouble
In 1528 William Tyndale, translator of the Bible, wrote that if porridge was burnt or meat over-roasted people would say 'The bishop hath put his foot in the pot' because 'the bishops burn whom they lust and whoever displeases them'. Seven years later, he himself was strangled and burnt at the stake.
...The idea of blaming a bishop for putting his foot in something (especially milk that had boiled over) lasted many centuries and is likely to have been the origin of the modern expression.
Put one's oar in - interfere
A shortened version of an expression that can be traced back almost 500 years and may even originate in Latin or Greek: 'to have an oar in every man's boat' meant to have a hand in everybody's affairs.
Put one's shoulder to the wheel - make a major effort
No particular wheel, merely a general reference to horse-drawn transport. In the days when this was common, waggoners might literally have to put their shoulders behind a cart-wheel so as to bring to bear the full weight of their bodies to help the horses extract the cart from the mud, etc.
Put paid to - put an end to
Simply from the practice of putting the word 'paid' on a bill after it has been settled.
Put the cart before the horse - reverse the correct order of things
This can be traced back to Ayenbite of Inwit, an English devotional manual of 1340 translated from a French work of 1279, but it is found in several other European languages, including Greek and Latin, making it one of the oldest and most widespread sayings.
Put the dampers on - express a lack of enthusiasm, hinder and discourage the progress of something
The analogy is said to be with music, specifically the piano. A damper is a part of a piano which, when applied, presses on the strings and cuts and deadens their sound. The wider use of the saying is clearly related to this action.
Put the kibosh on - put a stop or end to
The etymology is dubious; it may be from Yiddish, but the most persuasive explanation derives kibosh from the Irish cie bais, pronounced kye-bosh and meaning 'cap of death', as formerly put on by a judge passing a sentence of death. This clearly relates to the modern meaning and could have been brought over by Irish immigrants as an existing colloquial or slang metaphor.
Put the screws on - exert strong and uncomfortable pressure on (person)
From the thumbscrew, sometimes called 'the screws', an instrument of torture formerly used to compress a person's thumb.
Put through the mill - suffer an ordeal
An allusion to grain being crushed by a millstone.
Pyrrhic victory - victory won at too great a cost to oneself
Between 280 and 275 BC Pyrrhus, king of Epirus in Greece, who had crossed into southern Italy to help the Greek city-states against early Rome, won a number of costly victories over the Romans. The well-known phrase derives from these, notably from the Battle of Asculum (279) after which Pyrrhus exclaimed: 'One more such victory and we are lost'. In due course, he was defeated and returned across the Adriatic.
A Pyrrhic victory is sometimes also sometimes known as a
Cadmean victory.
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