Expressions & Sayings

~ R ~

Rack and ruin - destruction; destitution
Rack here is a variant of the archaic 'wrack', now 'wreck'.
Rack one's brains - make great mental effort (to remember something, think of a solution, etc.)
Literally, to stretch one's brains on the rack, an instrument of torture that stretched a victim's joints when its wheels and rollers, to which the limbs were attached, were turned by the operator. Its use in England was abolished in 1640.
Rain cats and dogs - rain very heavily
Of many explanations the most popular is that cats and dogs used to drown as a result of heavy rainfall on medieval towns that had no street drainage. Some have said that superstitious folk may have assumed that the dead animals had fallen from the sky.
Apart from the fact that medieval superstition is normally not entirely witless, and that cats - if not dogs - are perfectly capable of looking after themselves in a flood, the first recorded appearance of the expression in a play of 1653 is 'It shall rain ... dogs and polecats'. The latter are hardly town animals.
...A better explanation, or at least a clue, is to be found in a quotation from Chaloner's translation of Erasmus' In Praise of Folly (1549): 'Rather should we let all the world go to wreck both with dog and cat (as they say)'. This indicates that there existed a popular expression 'with dog and cat', that it was used of a disaster, and that it meant 'completely and utterly', down to the last dog and cat (as when Noah took refuge from the disaster in the ark?). A downpour reminiscent of the Flood might thus have become known as a rain 'with dog and cat', like the end of the world.
Raise Cain
See mark/brand of Cain.
Rank and file - the main body of members of an organisation, excluding officials, leaders, etc.
Originally military: in parade-ground terminology a rank is a line of troops standing shoulder to shoulder and a file is one in which they stand one behind the other. The rank and file are therefore the whole body of ordinary troops in a formation. Officers on parade stand outside it.
Rap one's knuckles
See Knuckle under.
Rat race - competitive struggle to maintain one's position in life, especially in work
Before acquiring its current meaning this was the name, now obsolete but never much known in its day, of a low-grade form of dancing to jazz practised by American teenagers in the 1930s; the name sounds like a parody of the bizarre animal-names of earlier dances such as the turkey trot, bunny hug and fox trot. It is impossible to say whether the phrase as now used (since about 1939) took over the previous one and gave it a new meaning or whether it as an entirely separate development. What must be very likely is that there is a common source in the traditional image of rats being used in laboratory experiments e.g. placing them in mazes to test their learning ability, or on treadmills to measure their energy under certain conditions, etc. The idea of being on a treadmill is certainly part of the modern meaning.
Rats leave a sinking ship
The earliest versions of this proverb go back at least as far as Pliny (1st century AD) and have to do with mice leaving a house because they can detect, before humans can, the very first creaking noises that indicate its imminent collapse. Thus, the proverb initially was no more than a sensible injunction to be observant and look to the future. Shakespeare appears to have been the first to supply the modern twist: 'a rotten carcass of a boat ... the rats instinctively have quit it' (The Tempest, I, 2, lines 146-8). The expression continued in use with its previous meaning but it is Shakespeare's more vivid image that prevailed. The rats that leave a sinking ship are the disreputable people who desert, as soon as it runs into trouble, a cause they have previously gone along with and been sustained by.
Read between the lines
This expression, which means to understand or deduce something from a statement, situation, etc. although this has not actually been stated, refers to a method of writing secret messages by writing in invisible ink between the line of other messages.
Read the riot act - strongly reprimand, especially with a view to putting a stop to unacceptable conduct
The actual Riot Act of 1715 provided that if 12 or more people assembled unlawfully or riotously a specified portion of the Act was to be read aloud to them by a magistrate or other competent authority. If they failed to disperse within one hour, they were to be considered as felons liable to arrest.
Real McCoy, the - the genuine person or thing
Boxers, like wrestlers, actors and circus performers, have sometimes preferred more glamorous names than the ones they got from their parents. Either for this reason or simply because he felt his name lacked punch, the successful American boxer Norman Selby (1873-1940) adopted the professional name Kid McCoy, a neatly near-alliterative combination of slangy youthfulness and exotic Irishness. There is no agreement about where the 'real' came from. One story has it that Selby/McCoy, challenged by a man in a bar to prove his identity, knocked him out and was then pronounced 'the real McCoy', a term which McCoy liked so much that he retained it. Another story is that he had to start billing himself as 'the real McCoy' to distinguish himself from another boxer of that name, or from prize-fighters who styled themselves 'Kid McCoy' at fairgrounds and elsewhere to gull the public; the sport was not much regulated at the time.
...In transferring itself to Britain, the expression may have modified an existing one, 'the real Mackay', used to promote a brand of whisky in a running dispute over leadership of the clan.
Red herring - irrelevant matter, usually one that diverts attention from the subject under discussion
A red herring is one that has been smoked, its colour having become reddish-brown in the process. It makes its first metaphorical appearance (late 19th century) in such expressions as 'draw a red herring across the trail' (introduce an irrelevance), which implies that its strong odour is capable of leading hounds away from a scent if one is drawn across the trail between them and the fox. This may be a purely fanciful picture (unrelated to hunt sabotage, which came later) or it may be because herrings were used when hunters were training hounds to follow a scent, with the result that hunts were sometimes sidetracked if hounds encountered and followed such a trail previously laid for training purposes.
Red letter day - a day to celebrate
During the 15th century it became customary to mark all feast days and saints' days in red on the calendar whilst other days were in black. These were days for rejoicing and celebration and so people began to refer to days that had particular significance for them personally as red letter days.
Red rag to a bull - infuriating
The persistent belief that bulls are maddened by anything red is part of unfathomable folklore (perhaps even Greek or Roman in origin) reinforced by the traditional use of red-lined capes by bullfighters. In fact, all the evidence suggests that what causes bulls to charge is something that moves, irrespective of its colour.
...To see red (become very angry) is a variant of the same idea.
Red tape - bureaucratic procedures causing complications, delays, etc.
Red tape (actually more pink than red) became synonymous with the complexities of bureaucracy because it was used by government officials to tie up bundles of documents. It is still used in the legal profession, but the frustrations associated with it are usually thought of in the context of officialdom, especially the civil service, rather than the law.
Rest on one's laurels
In the ancient Pythian games held at Delphi in Greece and regarded as second in importance only to the Olympics, the winner was crowned with a wreath of laurels, which has remained a symbol of victory or distinction to the present day. The adjective laureate means 'as if crowned with a laurel-wreath as a sign of special honour'. To rest on one's laurels is (ill-advisedly) to live off one's reputation or refrain from further effort because of satisfaction with what one has already achieved. To look to one's laurels is to take care that no one betters that achievement.
Revenons nos moutons
A French phrase that means literally 'Let us return to our sheep', which has been used for hundreds of years in English to mean, 'Let's get back to the subject'. It comes from the French comedy La Farce de Maistre Pierre Pathelin; or l' Avocat Pathelin (c. 1460), in which a woollen draper accuses a shepherd, Aignelet, of cruelty to his sheep. In telling his story, the draper continually digresses from the subject in order to discredit the defendant's attorney, Pierre Pathelin. The judge has to interrupt him continuously by saying, 'Mais, mon ami, revenons nos moutons'. The phrase was frequently quoted by Rabelais (c. 1495-1553) and has a facetious equivalent among some English speakers, when asking someone to keep to the subject, in 'Let's return to our muttons'.
Rich as Croesus - very wealthy
The fabulously wealthy king of Lydia, in Asia Minor, was reputed to be the world's richest man. He reigned from 560 to 546 BC, when he was overthrown by Cyrus of Persia.
Ride roughshod over - treat inconsiderately; act without regard for another's feelings, interests, etc.
A horse is said to be roughshod when it has shoes with the nail-heads projecting so that it can get a better grip, in icy weather for example. Cavalry horses could also have shoes like this, not only to prevent them slipping and disrupting a charge, but also to inflict more damage on the enemy as they rode over them. It was from this practice that the expression to ride roughshod over comes; used literally from the 17th century, and by the 19th transferred to mean to domineer, to carry on regardless, trampling down other's opinions or desires.
Rift in the lute - sign of disharmony between people, especially the first evidence of a quarrel that may become worse
A rift is a crack, a lute is a musical instrument (symbol of harmony), and the whole phrase is from Tennyson's Merlin and Vivien (1859), lines 388-90: 'It is the little rift within the lute / That by-and-by will make the music mute, / And ever widening slowly silence all'.
Right as ninepence - in good health
This has developed from an earlier expression, 'neat as ninepence', which seems to have owed more to alliteration than good sense. A ninepence was an Irish coin, actually a shilling (12 pence), which was worth nine pence in England in the early 17th century. Perhaps it was 'neat' because nine pence was the plain, honest value of the coin, as distinct from the nominal value. 'Neat as ninepence' simply meant 'very neat', which is obviously related to the modern meaning of right as ninepence.
...There may be something in the suggestion that silver ninepences used to be popularly given as love-tokens; that would fit in with the general sense of satisfaction associated with the expression.
Right-hand-man - chief assistant (of either sex), especially an indispensable and trusted one
The right hand is normally the stronger of the two. It has therefore traditionally been held out as a symbol of friendship and trust. The right-hand side is also the position of honour. These ideas come together in this old expression.
Ring a bell - remind one of something
Said of anything that awakens a response in the memory, as successful shot makes a bell ring when a marksman hits the bull's eye in a shooting-gallery. Originally American.
Ring the changes - vary the ways in which a series of actions is carried out
'Change' is a technical term in bell-ringing for the order in which a peal of bells is rung. When bell-ringers ring changes, they play a succession of tunes.
Ring true/Have the ring of truth - give the impression of being true
A counterfeit coin could be identified by letting it fall on a hard surface such as a marble counter or stone floor. A genuine silver coin would give out a ringing sound (thus ringing true); a forged one would not.
Rip van Winkle - person who is very much behind the times
This is the name of the happy-go-lucky character in a story by Washington Irving (The Sketch Book, 1820) who takes refuge from his scolding wife by taking a ramble in the Catskill Mountains north-west of New York, falls asleep after drinking too much and awakens twenty years later to find things have changed. For example, he goes to sleep as a subject of the king of England and wakes up as a citizen of the USA.
Rise to the bait - to do what someone has been trying to get one to do
Refers to fish rising to the surface to get the bait on an angler's hook.
Road to Damascus - occasion or circumstance of changing one's allegiance, belief, point of view, policy, etc.
An allusion to the conversion of St Paul. As Saul of Tarsus, an ardent persecutor of Christians, he was travelling to Damascus in Syria in 33 AD to find and capture some of them when God spoke to him in a blinding light. Taken to Damascus, he had his sight restored, was baptised and became the most notable advocate, missionary and preacher of the early church, his letters to which form an important part of the New Testament. He was martyred at Rome in 64. The Damascus story is in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 9.
...In modern use this act of divine intervention, perhaps the most dramatic and influential in the establishment of Christianity after Christ's death, is trivialised by being used in references to political U-turns or simple changes of mind.
Rob Peter to pay Paul - take away from one person in order to give to another
Not in the sense of robbing the rich to pay the poor but of behaving illogically or failing to solve a problem by merely creating another. Early appearances of the proverb (first found in about 1380) show that the reference is to St Peter and St Paul as two men of equal sainthood.
Robin Hood - champion of the poor against the rich
The legendary English outlaw has been variously identified and described but he is most commonly said to have been Robert Fitz-Ooth of Nottinghamshire, perhaps the Earl of Huntingdon, living from c.1160-1247 and dying by being bled by a treacherous nun in Yorkshire. With his supporters he lived in Sherwood Forest, robbing the rich, sparing and supporting the poor, killing only in self-defence, protecting the honour of women and displaying much daring, courage and generosity.
Rome was not built in a day
Great achievements, worthwhile tasks and the like are not accomplished without patient perseverance and a considerable passage of time. This was originally a Latin proverb and has been quoted ever since. Rome was the greatest city in the ancient world and, according to legend, was founded in 753 BC by the legendary Romulus (hence the city's name) and his twin brother Remus. However, it is most likely to have been named from the Greek rhoma meaning strength, and its other Latin name is Valentia, from valens meaning strong. As an indication of its importance in the world, Rome features in numerous sayings such as When in Rome do as the Romans do and All roads lead to Rome.
Root and branch - entirely
Specifically, the thing itself (root) and all its effects (branch). The phrase became well known from the wording of the London Petition (1640), much supported by the Puritan cause, for the total abolition of the episcopacy of the church 'root and branch', an expression borrowed from the Old Testament book Malachi: 'the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch' (4: 1).
Rope in - coerce into taking part
An Americanism, from the use of the lasso in ranching.
Roses all the way
See Bed of roses.
Originally boxing slang, but now standard English for the fairly minor inconveniences and upsets inseparable from some forms of activity.
Round-robin - petition passed round for signature
This has nothing to do with the bird. Robin in this expression is a corruption of the French ruban, meaning 'ribbon'. In 17th and 18th century France, there was a good deal for the average peasant to complain about, but complaining to the King in particular was not a good idea. The monarch's usual reaction to a petition from his subjects was to seize the first two or three signers and have them beheaded. Not wishing to lose their heads, but bent nonetheless on petitioning for justice, clever peasants came up with the expedient of signing their names on the petition in a circle, like a ribbon. That way, no one's name came first, and, assuming that there were hundreds of signatures on the petition, it was impractical for the King to punish all the signers. A similar method was adopted by disgruntled sailor in the 18th century British Royal Navy, another institution not known for welcoming criticism. Sailors often signed their names to a petition like the spokes of a wheel, so that no one of them could be considered the leader of a mutiny and hanged.
Round the bend - said of someone who is a little mad
The bend here is the curve always placed in the entrance drive of Victorian mental hospitals to differentiate them from the stately homes of the gentry, which usually had straight drives.
Rub up the wrong way - irritate (person) by tactless handling
As a cat arches its back, normally a sign of roused feelings, if it is stroked against the lie of its fur.
Rub salt in the wound - intentionally increase someone's pain, discomfort
It is a long-standing belief, dating back to Cicero, Horace and Livy, that wounds will not heal unless re-opened and cleaned. The application of salt was one way of doing this - at a cost of some pain. Today there is no implication of healing, just the imposition of discomfort. It is possible that the phrasal verb to rub it in is connected.
Rule of thumb - rough measure, guide or approach, often based on experience
From the use of the upper joint of the thumb to make a measurement when precise accuracy is not needed. This joint in adults measures approximately one inch, but as human dimensions vary, any measurement so taken can only be rough.
Rule the roost - be in a dominating position over others
This conjures up a picture of a cock lording it over a group of hens (a roost) but it is more likely to be a relatively modern corruption of the older 'rule the roast', a reference to the joint of meat that would be carved by the master of the house or be the principal dish at the table he presided over (ruled).
Rule with a rod of iron - rule very inflexibly and sternly
From Revelation, 2: 27, alluding to Psalm 2: 9. A rod is a staff symbolising authority, as in the name of the British parliamentary officer Black Rod, but the predominant image is that of a rod as an instrument of punishment - as in spare the rod and 'make a rod for one's own back'.
Run amok - to be frenzied, out of control
This comes from a Malayan word amoq, which describes the behaviour of tribesmen who, perhaps under the influence of opium, would work themselves into a murderous frenzy and lash out at anyone they came across. On its first introduction in the 17th century, there were various spellings. Then amuck became the accepted form until well-travelled writers of the 20th century popularised the spelling amok. They were accused of affectedly showing off their knowledge of the source language. Nowadays either spelling is acceptable.
Run for one's money (have a [good]) - be in an enjoyable contest, competition or event
From racing slang, said of a horse on which one has bet money and which runs well, though without winning.
Run of the mill - routine, ordinary, to be expected
The expression was originally a technical or jargon term in manufacturing. A 'run' is, among other things, a spell of allowing machines to operate or a period of manufacturing a product. The 'run of the mill' was the material produced (in a mill) before its inspection for quality: in a cotton or woollen mill, for example, it might include both good and inferior cloth, which then had to be sorted or trimmed. Thus anything run of the mill was average or undistinguished.
Run the gamut - go through all the possibilities
Gamut is the name of a medieval Italian mnemonic used to help remember the musical scale. Gamma was the first note followed by ut, re, mi, fa, so, la and si. Gamma and ut became combined to describe the whole range.
Run the gauntlet
This expression has nothing to do with the explanation of throw down the gauntlet. Here gauntlet comes, by confused etymology, from the earlier and now obsolete gantlope, which in turn came from the Swedish 'gata' (lane) and 'lopp' (running course), a 17th century military punishment in which a culprit was stripped to the waist and made to run between two rows of men who aimed blows at him with sticks or knotted ropes. The expression now means to be attacked, criticised or exposed to danger from two or more sides.
Run to earth - find (something or somebody hidden) after a search
A metaphor taken from foxhunting, in which the prey is chased (run) to its burrow or hiding-place (called its earth) so that it cannot escape.
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