Expressions & Sayings

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Sacred cow - belief, custom or institution held to be unalterable and beyond criticism
There is a powerful Hindu taboo against killing cows or eating beef: the cow is regarded as a symbol of life and a sacred animal. Use of the expression in English implies some scorn, however.
Sadder but/and wiser
In the penultimate line of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) the wedding-guest is described as 'a sadder and a wiser man' after hearing the mariner's tale. See also Albatross round one's neck.
Safe pair of hands
This is a term from cricket, in use by the middle of the 19th century, describing someone who can be relied on to hold a catch. At an unknown date it was transferred to politics and in recent years has spread to more general use, to mean someone who can be relied on not to make serious errors of judgement.
Sail close to the wind - take a risk; go to the very extremity of what is legal, decent, acceptable, etc.
Taken from nautical terminology: if a boat under sail heads directly into the wind it will be stopped by the backward pressure of the sails against the masts. Sailing 'close to' the direction from which the wind is blowing is therefore risky but makes for more rapid progress than sailing at a more oblique angle.
...To sail before the wind is to prosper, to meet with great success, just as a ship sails smoothly and rapidly with a following wind. Similarly, to sail into the wind is to attack or reprimand someone forcefully, or to tackle a task with great vigour and directness.
Sail under false colours - be hypocritical, dishonest
See With flying colours.
Salad days - time of youthful inexperience
Coined by Shakespeare, whose Cleopatra speaks of 'My salad days, When I was green in judgement...' in Antony and Cleopatra, I, 5, lines 73-4. A salad uses vegetables that are raw, and it is this characteristic that provides the metaphorical sense.
Salt away - save something (usually money) for future use
This stems from the days before refrigeration, when salt was widely used to preserve meat and fish for later consumption.
Salt of the earth, the - the best of people, especially the most dependable
The expression comes from the Bible, where Jesus describes his disciples as 'the salt of the earth [i.e. of mankind]' in Matthew, 5: 13. He meant something different, however: salt has preserving and purifying qualities (newborn babies in the east were rubbed with salt to promote health) and so the disciples were being described as the agent by which mortal souls were to be purified and preserved. The modern meaning, though related, is untheological.
Sands of time (running out) - time (passing)
An allusion to the hourglass, an old device for measuring the passage of time. It consisted of two glass vessels linked by a narrow neck, and contained a quantity of sand that took exactly an hour to pass from the upper to the lower chamber.
Save for a rainy day - to keep something (usually money) until one really needs it
Formerly most jobs, such as farm jobs, were dependent on the weather. Since they could not be carried out in rainy weather, no money was earned then.
Save one's bacon - escape from danger
Originally it meant to escape injury to one's body, especially to one's back where one was likely to be beaten. Both bacon and back are related to the same Old Teutonic word, and this is more likely to account for the expression than the burning of heretics or the preservation of meat from hungry dogs during winter in the days before refrigerators, as some have suggested.
Saved by the bell - rescued just in time
This originates in boxing slang from the 1930s. A contestant who has been knocked down might be saved from being counted out by the referee by the ringing of the bell signalling the end of the round.
Saving grace
Used literally, saving grace is a theological term, for the grace of God that allows sinning humans to reach heaven. This is recorded from the 16th century onwards, but in the 19th, the term started to be used for a redeeming quality in someone, which is felt to compensate for other faults.
Scarlet woman - sexually promiscuous woman
This rather dated term comes from the whore 'arranged in ... scarlet colour' and seated on 'a scarlet coloured beast' in St John the Divine's prophetic vision (Revelation, 17: 1-5). He was probably referring to pagan Rome, though in later theological controversy the scarlet woman became an abusive epithet for the Roman Catholic Church. In secular vocabulary, she lacks these theological dimensions.
Score a duck - fail to score
Originally a cricketing term, from the resemblance between 0 and a duck's egg, of which duck is an abbreviation. Also, break one's duck (make an initial score), from the idea of breaking the 0.
Scot-free - without penalty or loss
Nothing to do with the Scots. This scot is an old and now obsolete word for a payment and was specially used of a municipal tax and of the bill (or one's share of the bill) for entertainment at an inn. A drink on the house was therefore scot-free. The meaning has shifted over the years.
Scotch mist - rain, drizzle
The English have rain; the Scots, either from pride or to assert their hardiness, merely have mist. The expression is generally used as an impatient description of something obvious which another person has failed to recognise, find, grasp, etc.
Scrape the (bottom of the) barrel
This expression, which means to have to use someone or something of poor or inferior quality because that is all that is available, refers to the fact that people will only scrape out the bottom of an empty barrel if they have no more full ones.
Scylla and Charybdis - two equally dangerous alternatives
In Greek legend these were two redoubtable sea-monsters who lived on opposite sides of the Straits of Messina, which separate Italy and Sicily. Scylla, on the Italian side, was specially associated with a rock on to which she lured sailors who came too close. Charbydis, on the other coast, was a dangerous whirlpool. In avoiding the one, seamen were in danger of destruction by the other. The earliest reference is in Homer's Odyssey (XII).
Sea-change
A vogue expression meaning 'considerable change', though it is now used so often and unthinkingly that it is in danger of becoming no more than another word for any change. The origin is the song 'Full fathom five' sung by Ariel, a spirit in Shakespeare's The Tempest (I, 2, lines 399-407), describing the drowning of the king.
Sea-lawyer
Literally a sailor who, like his land-based counterpart the barrack-room lawyer, is disposed to raise awkward points about rights and wrongs, as lawyers are prone to do. In other words, he is an insubordinate nuisance, sometimes even more troublesome by virtue of having right on his side. Now used of both men and women.
Seal one's fate
See One's lips are sealed.
Seamy side - sordid or least pleasant aspect
In tailoring, dressmaking, etc., seams are the junctions where the edges of two pieces of material are sewn together. Like a turned-up hem, these are on the inside of a garment and are not seen when it is worn. This seamy side is sometimes rough, usually unsightly and best left unseen. Hence the seamy side of a city, etc.
Second nature
'Custom is second nature' wrote Plutarch in the 1st century AD. This had been translated into English by the 14th century, and from this idea that something you habitually do becomes so much a part of you that it is indistinguishable from nature, comes our use of second nature.
See a man about a dog - said when one is unwilling to state one's true destination
This expression comes from the long forgotten 1866 play Flying Scud by a prolific Irish-born playwright of the period named Dion Boucicault. One of the characters uses the words as an excuse to get away from a tricky situation. This character, an eccentric and superannuated old jockey, says: "Excuse me Mr Quail, I can't stop; I've got to see a man about a dog." This is the only thing that seems to have survived from the play.
See the big picture - take an overview an see everything in its place
This expression is a recent one, having previously been used of the main feature in the days when more than one film was shown in a cinema programme.
See the error of one's ways - (come to understand) the state of being wrong in one's course of action, beliefs, etc.
The New Testament original is slightly different: 'he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death...' (John, 5: 20).
See the light - realise the truth
An allusion to St Paul's conversion to Christianity: see Road to Damascus.
Sell down the river - betray the faith of
Originally American, associated with the history of slavery. The river was the Mississippi, and 'down' implied the transfer of slaves from north to south: there was a slave-market near the mouth of the river at New Orleans, among others. Such transfers took place either because of increased or seasonal demand in the cotton or sugar-fields of the south, as distinct from the more northerly tobacco-plantations, or because the harsher slave-owners of the deeper-south were not choosy about accepting - and dealing with - troublesome slaves whom northern owners wished to offload, or domestic ones who could be turned into profit.
...The modern sense comes from the loss of security, often including home and family, that this traffic entailed, together with the humiliation or breach of faith it implied.
Sell one's birthright for a mess of pottage - accept a (trivial) material advantage in exchange for something of higher (moral) worth
The story of how Esau sold his birthright (his rights and privileges as the first-born) to his brother Jacob in exchange for 'bread and a pottage [soup] of lentils' is in Genesis, chapter 25. The word mess does not appear there, but it is an obsolete word meaning 'dish'; mess of pottage would once have been an everyday phrase. As such, it is found in the heading to chapter 25 of Genesis in the Bibles of 1537 and 1539, and by this route, it became part of the semi-biblical expression that has remained fixed in the language.
...At one time mess also meant a company of people eating together, a sense which survives in officer's mess, etc.
Send to Coventry - ostracise
The Earl of Clarendon's history of the Civil War, usually known as his History of the Rebellion (1702-4), states that Royalists captured at Birmingham were killed or taken prisoner and sent to Coventry. This was a Parliamentary stronghold where they could expect no help or even sympathy. Even though this incident occurred in the 1640s and the popular metaphor is not recorded until over a century later, there is general agreement that either the event itself or Clarendon's reference to it is the origin of this expression.
Separate the sheep from the goats - divide or pick out good, superior or meritorious people from the rest
An allusion to Christ's prophecy of the Last Judgement when the good are to be saved and the evil doomed: 'The Son of man shall come ... And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left' (Matthew, 25: 31-3).
Separate the wheat from the chaff - separate the good from the bad, the valuable from the worthless
The expression refers to the farming practice of threshing corn in order to separate the worthless husks from the good grain. Someone who, figuratively speaking, separates the wheat from the chaff identifies what is worthwhile in an undertaking and discards that which is a waste of time. A similar allusion is used in the Bible. This time the wheat refers to those who belong to Christ and are judged worthy and the chaff to those who have rejected him and have no place in his kingdom. Luke 3:17 reads: 'His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire'.
Sere and yellow, the - old age
An allusion to Macbeth's lament (V, 3, lines 22-3): 'I have lived long enough; my way of life/Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf...' The metaphor compares Macbeth's life with a leaf that has become dried up (sere) and withered (yellow), ready to fall in autumn.
Set off on the right/wrong foot - begin something well/badly
The left foot is the wrong foot. The Romans held that anything to do with the left had evil consequences. The gods guarded your right but evil spirits hovered on your left. The Latin for left is sinister, a word that has lost its 'leftness' in English but retains the ancient meaning of foreboding. The Romans lived in such intense dread of the powers of evil that guards were appointed to stand at the doorway to all public places to make sure that the right-foot rule was obeyed.
...The tradition of the bride being carried over the threshold is thought to have originated in this superstition. It would not do for her to start the marriage off on the wrong foot.
Set the seal on
See One's lips are sealed.
Settle a score - avenge a wrong
A score is originally a notch cut (scored) into a stick to mark an addition when keeping accounts. It therefore came to mean a bill and to settle a score was simply to pay a debt. The relationship between this and the modern meaning is clear.
...It is interesting to note that this old sense of score as a notch survives in notching up (i.e. registering) a victory, goals or runs scored in a game, etc.
Settle one's hash
See Make a hash of.
Seven years' bad luck
This supposed penalty for breaking a mirror is said to originate in a Roman superstition that if one broke a mirror one also damaged the last person who looked in it, assumed to be oneself. Seven years used to mean no more than 'a long period', seven being a mystic number as in other sayings.
Seventh heaven - state of blissful happiness
The Jewish religion recognised seven heavens of which the highest, the seventh, was the abode of God. The seven heavens of Islam - the seventh being a place of divine light and pure ecstasy - come from this. The division was of Babylonian origin, founded on astronomical theories. Despite this antiquity the expression was not used in its modern secular sense until the 19th century, probably as a result of increased British familiarity with Islam during the period of empire.
Shake a stick at
The modern use of this phrase, which seems to be originally American, always exists as part of the extended and fixed expression more ... than you can shake a stick at, meaning an abundance, plenty. The phrase without the more than element is rather older, but not by much.
...It first appeared in an issue of the Lancaster Journal of Pennsylvania dated 5 August 1818: 'We have in Lancaster as many Taverns as you can shake a stick at'. Another early example is from Davy Crockett's Tour to the North and Down East of 1835: 'This was a temperance house, and there was nothing to treat a friend that was worth shaking a stick at'. A little later, in A Book of Vagaries by James K Paulding of 1868, this appears: 'The roistering barbecue fellow swore he was equal to any man you could shake a stick at'.
...Shaking a stick at somebody is a threatening gesture or an act of defiance. So, to say that you have shaken a stick at someone is to suggest that person is a worthy opponent. The sense in the second and third quotations above seem to fit this idea: nothing worth shaking a stick at means 'nothing of value'; equal to any man you could shake a stick at means that the speaker is equal to any man of consequence. In all three examples the sense is of 'plenty'.
...Where it comes from is not certain. One idea is that it derives from the counting of farm animals, which one might do by pointing one's stick at each in turn. So having more animals than one can shake one's stick at, or count, would imply a large number. Another suggestion is from battle, in which one might shake a stick at a vanquished enemy. No one really knows.
Shake the dust off one's feet - leave with relief or anger
Adapted from Jesus' advice to his disciples as quoted in Matthew and other Gospels: 'whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet' (10: 14). For the Jews the dust of heathen countries was unclean; to shake it from the feet indicated separation.
Shanks's pony - on foot
Shanks is both a surname and an old word for 'legs', so the expression is a jocular punning metaphor for 'on a means of conveyance consisting of one's own legs'. It was originally Scottish, first recorded in the early 16th century and probably older even than that. The USA has retained the earlier form, Shanks's mare.
Shape of things to come, the - (usually ominous) indication of what things will be like in the future
The title of a popular work of political and scientific speculation by H. G. Wells (1933).
Sheet anchor - chief support, especially in a difficulty
A nautical term for a large anchor used only in an emergency. Sheet may once have been 'shoot' (ready to shoot out in crisis), or it may be the seafaring term for a means of attaching something, i.e. the sheet anchor was not simply a replacement anchor but an emergency one and was therefore always kept ready with its own sheet attached.
Shell out - pay
To shell something, peas for instance, is to remove the shell, pod or husk. To shell out money is to remove its casing (purse, wallet, etc.) and hand over the contents. The term has been colloquial for nearly two centuries.
Shell-shocked
Shell shock is a medical condition suffered by those traumatised by being under fire in war. By metaphorical extension, it can also be applied to any situation of shock: divorce, redundancy, death, etc.
Shilly-shally - be undecided, vacillate
The original form of the 18th century term was shill I, shall I. It was used as a noun, an adjective and an adverb but it was not until the end of the 18th century that it was used as a verb in the way we use it today. The expression is very evocative of the person who cannot make his mind up. A similar expression is willy-nilly.
Ships that pass in the night - chance acquaintances met only once
The words are from Longfellow's 'The Theologian's Tale' in Tales of a Wayside Inn: 'Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life we pass...'
Shipshape and Bristol fashion
Shipshape (in neat order) is a tribute to the traditional high standards of good order on board sailing ships, especially in the Royal Navy. The second syllable is a shortening of 'shapen', the old form of 'shaped', i.e. fashioned. Shipshape and Bristol fashion means the same: before the growth of Liverpool, Bristol was the major British west-coast trading-port with a high reputation for the standards of equipment and service needed for long voyages.
Short shrift - dealt with quickly, with minimum attention
Shrift was the act of hearing a person's confessions and giving them absolution from their sins. Someone due to be executed was given but short shrift as they were considered beyond absolution. The word shrift comes from the verb shrive meaning 'to hear confession'. The past tense of the verb is shrove, hence Shrove Tuesday, the day immediately before Lent and a holiday; people went to confession and then made merry before starting the Lenten penances.
Shot across the bows, a/in the arm/dark, a
See Long shot.
Shoot one's bolt
See Bolt from the blue.
Show a leg - (a jocular call to) wake up, get out of bed or become active
In the days when seamen were refused shore-leave in case they deserted, 'wives' were allowed on board a berthed ship and permitted to lie in longer than the men. In the morning the bosun's mates had to check whoever was still asleep and did so by requiring them to show a leg over the side of the hammock. If a leg was hairy, it was presumably male and its owner was ordered to get up and begin work.
...After the abolition of this amiable custom in 1840, the expression continued in use as a general injunction to get moving.
Show the white feather - show cowardice
A white feather in the tail of a fighting-cock was held to be a sign of inferior breeding and therefore became a metaphor for lack of fighting spirit. Hence, the practice of handing white feathers to civilians assumed to be afraid of joining the army during the first part of WWI before conscription was introduced.
Sick as a parrot
A banality to describe extreme disappointment at an unexpected failure or setback. It suggests several meanings of the word sick, among them ill, diseased or disgusted, and parrots are extremely prone to viruses such as the highly contagious disease psittacosis (parrot fever). In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a somewhat overused metaphor favoured by football managers, who often used it to describe their feelings after losing a match. Despite being mocked by the satirical magazine Private Eye, and perhaps helped by the absurdity of the 'Dead Parrot' sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus, its imagery caught the public imagination, and it is now used ironically.
Sign the pledge - give up alcoholic drink
At the height of the Temperance Movement in the 19th century, someone wishing to give up strong drink mad a public declaration of resolve by signing a pledge not to touch it again. Though the Temperance Movement long since gave way to Alcoholics Anonymous, it is still possible to hear of people signing the pledge. More widely, it may refer to any public declaration of renouncing something.
Silly Billy - foolish person
The nickname of William, Duke of Gloucester (1776-1834): he was King George III's uncle and of weak intellect.
Silly season, the - the months of August and September when Parliament is not in session
At one time newspapers did just what their name suggests - they reported the news, informing the population about political debate and decision. When Parliament rose for the months of August and September, the silly season, also known in earlier years as the Big Gooseberry Season, began. Deprived of Parliament for its steady provision of newsworthy items such as political rows, leaks to the press, errors of judgement and interference in the affairs of other countries, desperate journalists were forced to make much of giant gooseberries, the Loch Ness monster and the like, to keep the paper in print. The silly season still comes round each year but the British public is now fed a year-round diet of trivia and so hardly notices.
Sir Galahad - chivalrous and good man who comes to one's aid
In legends of King Arthur, Galahad is the purest of the Knights of the Round Table and dies in ecstasy after achieving a vision of the Holy Grail. The modern use of his name owes more to general romantic notions of a knight in shining armour than to his precise role as a model of chastity in Malory's Morte D'Arthur (1485).
Siren voices/song - attractive-sounding invitations or propositions which if accepted lead to disaster
Homer's Odyssey describes the Sirens as malevolent female sea-monsters having the head and bust of a woman and the body of a bird. They sang sweetly to attract men and then destroyed them. Odysseus had been warned about them, so when he came in sight of the rocky islet where they lived he had himself lashed to the mast of his ship, having previously stopped up the ears of his companions with wax so that they could not hear the enchanting music. He therefore escaped the danger, but the bones scattered about the island were proof of the failure of previous voyagers.
...Siren in the sense of warning signal is from the same source.
Sisyphean task - endless, fruitless and therefore futile task
Sisyphus, a cunning hero in Greek legend, died as a result of offending Zeus but fabricated an excuse to return temporarily to earth from the underworld. He then refused to go back, and was punished for his breach of faith by being required eternally to roll a great boulder up a mountain; the boulder slipped down again each time he got it nearly to the top.
Sixty-four-thousand-dollar-question, the - ultimate and most difficult question, nub of a problem
This widely used phrase comes from the 1940s American radio quiz show, Take It or Leave It. During the course of the show contestants were asked increasingly difficult questions for prize money, which also increased as the questions became harder. The final question was worth $64. Inflation has affected this expression over the years since it began life as the humble sixty-four dollar question, growing first to sixty-four thousand and recently to sixty-four billion. The expression is used in all English-speaking countries.
Skeleton at the feast
A skeleton at the feast is somebody or something that in the midst of pleasures acts as a reminder of life's troubles. The expression alludes to the practice among the ancient Egyptians of displaying a skeleton at a celebration to remind guests of their mortality.
Skeleton in the cupboard
This phrase means a secret personal or family disgrace, problem, discreditable fact or scandal from the past. It has been said to date from the 19th century, when corpses were much sought after for medical research or teaching but were unobtainable legally, with the result that a skeleton would have to be kept hidden. This is unlikely: a skeleton can be copied in other materials. The origin is more probably an old saying or joke comparing a person's secret with a murder they committed and hushed up.
...However, an apocryphal story has it that a person without a single care or trouble in the world had to be found. After a long search, a squeaky-clean lady was found, but to the great surprise of all, after she had proved herself on all counts she went upstairs and opened a closet that contained a human skeleton. 'I try and keep my trouble to myself, but every night my husband makes me kiss that skeleton,' she said. She then explained that the skeleton was that of her husband's rival, killed in a duel over her.
Skid Row, on - down and out
This is an American expression for the poorest part of town where vagrants, alcoholics etc. end up. In the timber industry, a skid row is a row of logs down which other logs roll, slide or skid on their way for further processing. Tacoma near Seattle flourished on its timber industry; it also had a plentiful supply of alcohol. Brothels became available for loggers working on the skid row and the dregs of society soon ended up there.
Slap up meal - a large, hearty meal
This expression originates from the time of Charles Dickens, when it was known as a slap-bang meal, derived from cheap eating houses, where one's money was slapped down as the food was banged on the table. It appears in Dickens' Sketches by Boz, 3:36 'They lived in the same street, walked to town every morning at the same hour, dined at the same slap-bang every day.'
Sleep like a top - sleep very soundly
Unlikely as it may seem, the top referred to here is the child's toy which seems not to be moving when it is spinning, though it wobbles when being set in motion or when running down. It is this period of apparent stillness (accompanied by a quiet and steady sound?) that gave rise to the simile, first used by Shakespeare or his collaborator Fletcher in Two Noble Kinsmen (1613) and common ever since.
Sleep tight - sleep well
Before box springs came into use, old bed frames used ropes pulled tightly between the frame rails to support the mattress. If the ropes became loose, the mattress would sag, making for uncomfortable sleeping. Tightening the ropes would help one get a good night's sleep. Apparently there was a tool - an iron gadget that looked like a clothes peg but larger - which was used to tighten the ropes.
Sling one's hook - go away
There are two main explanations of this, any of which may be the correct origin. One theory equates hook with a ship's anchor, so that to sling one's hook was to raise the anchor and sail away. The other says the hook is one on which a miner would hang his day clothes. When he finished his shift down the pit, he would change, collect his possessions from his hook, and leave. However, there is an earlier expression, to sling one's daniel, which had the same meaning. What a daniel was is unclear, except to suggest that it was some sort of pack.
...Hook used to be the common short name for a billhook, the heavy curved pruning knife used by farm labourers. This usage of hook could provide the explanation of this expression and its variation take one's hook meaning the same thing, since it could refer to an itinerant worker swinging his hook over his shoulder and moving on to his next job.
...A similar expression is to be on one's own hook, which refers to an angler's hook and means to act on one's own initiative - a hook is cast into the water to make a catch or, metaphorically, to achieve something useful.
Slough of despond - state of despair
In his allegorical Pilgrim's Progress (1678) John Bunyan dreams of a figure, called Christian, who journeys to the Celestial City and encounters various people and places symbolising aspects of human and spiritual life. Part of his pilgrimage takes him through the Slough of Despond (the latter is an archaic word for despondency), a place of fears, doubts and discouragements.
...Slough (pronounced 'slow') used to be a common word for a bog or stretch of muddy ground, and that is its meaning in the story, though it was already a common metaphor for a state of moral degradation.
Slush fund - fund of money that is separate and secret from other funds
Slush might seem an odd word to use in this sense until it is realised that the original source of such funds was the surplus fat or grease from fried salt pork, the standard food on 19th century ships. The slush was usually sold in port and the money raised used to buy little extras and luxuries for the crew. In 1866, the US Congress applied the term to a contingency fund it had set up from one of its operating budgets. From that time, the expression took its current meaning.
Small beer - matter(s) or person(s) of no importance
Not a reference to the size of a glass of beer but to its strength: small meant 'of low alcoholic strength' as early as 1440. The whole expression has been used in its current metaphorical sense since the 18th century.
Smart Alec - a clever, conceited know-it-all person
This dates back to mid-19th century America, most American dictionaries point to it originating from Alec Hoag, a notorious pimp and thief who operated in 1840s New York. He operated a trick called the 'Panel Game', where he would sneak into the homes of his unwary or sleeping clients via gaps in the walls and steal their valuables. He generated such a reputation for not getting caught that he earned the nickname of 'Smart Alec'.
Smell a rat - become or be suspicious
In less hygienic days, when rats were common household and urban pests and carriers of disease, dogs were prized for their ability to smell out and destroy them. A dog that began to sniff around might well have smelt a rat, and this idea was transferred to a person who had cause to feel that something was not as it should be.
Smoking gun - incontrovertible evidence of guilt
This expression is relatively recent in origin, being first coined in the USA by Republican congressman Barber Conable during the Watergate investigation. During the hearing, a tape of a conversation on June 1973 between President Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, H R Haldeman was played: 'Haldeman: ... the FBI is not under control ... and you think the thing to do is to get them, the FBI, to stop? Nixon: Right, fine.'
...Upon hearing the tape, Conable stated that it 'looked like a smoking gun', meaning that from the tape it was evident that Nixon had approved the cover up. Conable may not have been the first to use the phrase, but he was the first to be given credit for using it.
Snake/Viper in one's bosom - treacherous and ungrateful person
The origin is Aesop's fable (6th century BC) of the farmhand who took pity on a snake frozen stiff by the cold, put it in his bosom to warm it, and received a fatal bite when it revived.
Snake in the grass - secretly treacherous person
The image was first used in writing by Virgil (70-19 BC) in his Eclogues (III, 93). The now familiar English formulation emerged only in the late 17th century but earlier approximations to it are common, the earliest being in Chaucer's 'Summoner's Tale', line 1994, in the Canterbury Tales (about 1387), the popularity of which must have been responsible for making the idea generally known.
Snug as a bug in a rug, as - comfortable and warm
A whimsical and comfortable comparison dating from the 18th century. The phrase is usually credited to Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), who was very fond of children and wrote these words to Georgina Shipley, the daughter of his friend, the Bishop of St Asaph. As a gift from Philadelphia, Franklin's wife had sent the Shipleys a grey squirrel that they called Skugg, a common name for squirrels at the time. Tragically, he escaped from his cage and was killed by a dog. Franklin wrote this epitaph in 1772: 'Here Skugg lies snug, as a bug in a rug'.
...However, there are earlier uses, as in a celebration of David Garrick's (1717-79) Shakespeare festival in 1769, seen printed in the Stratford Jubilee: 'If she [a rich widow] has the mopus's [money], I'll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug.' In 1706, Edward Ward (1667-79) wrote in The Wooden World Dissected: 'He sits as snug as a bee in a box.' And in Thomas Heywood's (c. 1574-1641) 1603 play A Woman Killed With Kindness there is: 'Let us sleep as snug as pigs in pease-straw'.
So near and yet so far
This expression first appears in English in a 1755 translation of the Latin poet Martial's Epigrams, but probably owes its own clichéd status to a line in Tennyson's poem on his dead friend, In Memoriam (1850): He seems so near and yet so far.'
Soap opera - television (or radio) serial in popular style
This name was coined in the USA in the 1930s because the earliest examples of such serials were sponsored by soap manufacturers in a form of direct financing forbidden in Britain until recently. A specific origin may have been Amos and Andy (1927), sponsored by Proctor and Gamble. The word opera is added derisively: the preoccupations of these programmes are normally well below the level of high drama associated with grand opera. Cowboy films were sometimes called 'horse-operas' at the time of the first soaps - perhaps a little earlier, in which case it is likely that soap opera was a borrowing.
Sodom and Gomorrah - places regarded as centres of vice or depravity
These two ancient cities were in the plain to the south of the Dead Sea. As told in Genesis, chapters 18 and 19, they were destroyed by God because of the great wickedness of their inhabitants. Their names recur in both the Old and New Testaments as bywords for sinfulness.
Soft pedal - treat (more) gently or cautiously
On a piano the soft pedal, operated by the left foot, is used to reduce volume either by causing the hammer to strike only one instead of the usual two or three strings, or by bringing the hammer closer to the strings to lessen the impact.
Soft soap - flatter; persuade or cajole with charming talk
An Americanism, used also as a noun, and familiar in British English since the middle of the 19th century. It is an obvious reference to the lubricant qualities of soft soap but appears to be based on the older 'soft sawder', a variant of the much earlier 'soft solder'. This was a common form of solder made from tin and lead and was used for uniting pieces of metal and, metaphorically, for uniting people. The development of 'solder' into 'sawder' is easily explained because the letter l in 'solder' is often unpronounced.
Sold a pup
See Let the cat out of the bag.
Sold for a song - sold for a small amount of money
The first printed comparison between a trifle and a song is found in 1601 in Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well (III, 2, line 9) but there is evidence that 'sold for a song' was already proverbial. Sheet-music was very popular and the stationers who printed and sold ballads employed vagabonds to peddle them up and down the country for small sums.
Son of a gun - used as an exclamation of disbelief
Early warships had very cramped quarters. Sailors were often forced to sleep between the cannons because that was the only space available. On rare occasions women were allowed on board, some ships actually carried prostitutes. Other times, a sailor's wife would be allowed on board so that he would not have to leave the ship, and potentially desert. In either case, many children were conceived between the cannons. Women who gave birth aboard ship typically also did so between the guns. The male children were thus called son of a gun.
Sour grapes - sulkiness stemming from envy, animosity, etc.
From Aesop's fable (6th century BC) of the hungry fox who, unable to reach some grapes from a vine because they were too high, comforted himself by saying that they were not ripe anyway.
Sow one's wild oats - indulge in youthful vices or excesses
The wild oat looks like the cultivated one but is actually merely a tall grass: to spend time and energy sowing it is therefore unprofitable. The expression sometimes implies sexual activity, probably as a result of the (implied) obsolete sense of 'seed' (semen).
Sow the dragon's teeth
See Cadmean victory.
Spanish Inquisition
Now used in jocular reference to any severe cross-examination, this was an infamous ecclesiastical court of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain from 1479-1834. Like Inquisitions elsewhere it was intended to prosecute heretics, was held in secret, used torture as a means of extracting evidence, and had the power to refer its findings to the secular authorities, which usually resulted in the victim's execution by burning.
Spare the rod and spoil the child
The precise words are first found in Samuel Butler's satirical poem Hudibras (1664) but different expressions of the same sentiment go back to about the year 1000 and originate in the biblical Proverbs, parts of which are earlier than the 8th century BC: 'He that spareth his rod hateth his son' (13: 24).
Speak of the devil - said when a person who has just been just referred to suddenly appears
Short for 'speak of the devil and he will appear', which refers to an old superstition by which it was thought that talking about evil gave it the power to appear or occur.
Sphinx-like - inscrutable
There are two famous sphinxes. One is the colossal statue (c. 2620 BC) of a lion with a human head near the El-Gizeh pyramids in Egypt. The other is the monster of Greek mythology with the head and shoulders of a woman, the body of several animals and the wings of a bird, who killed those who failed to answer its riddle: 'What animal has four feet, then two, then three, but only one voice?' Oedipus answered correctly: man, who crawls as a child, then walks, then uses a stick for support in old age. Deprived of its secret, the Sphinx killed itself, and Oedipus thus saved the citizens of Thebes from its terror.
...It is the sphinx of legend that has given rise to modern uses of the word: an inscrutable person is sphinx-like in being mysterious, enigmatic and incomprehensible - something of a riddle, in fact.
Spick and span - neat and clean
Spick exists nowhere else in English, nor does span as an adjective. It was only in the mid 19th century that spick and span came to mean 'tidy, clean and orderly'. The oldest form seems to have been spann-nyr, which is Old Norse for a fresh chip of wood, one just carved from timber by the woodman's axe, so the very epitome of something new. (Nyr is our modern new, while spann is a chip, the source of our spoon, an implement that was originally always made from wood.) By about 1300, the Old Norse phrase had started to appear in English in the form span-new, a form that lasted into the 19th century.
...This evolved by the 16th century into an abbreviated form similar to the modern one: spick and span new, still with the old sense of something so new as to be pristine and unused. Spick here is a nail or spike. This form seems to have been inspired by a Dutch expression, spiksplinternieuw, which referred to a ship that was freshly built, so with all-new nails and timber. It is first found in Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives in 1579, 'They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon [upon] them, spicke, and spanne newe'.
...By the middle of the following century, it had been shortened to out modern spick and span. It had also shifted sense to our current one, for something so neat and clean that it looks new and unused. Samuel Pepys is the first recorded user, in his diary for 15 November 1665: 'My Lady Batten walking through the dirty lane with new spicke and span white shoes'.
Spike somebody's guns - thwart somebody's opposition
A metaphorical adaptation of an old military term meaning to render a (heavy) gun unserviceable (often one's own, prior to retreat) by driving a spike into the touchhole.
Spill the beans - reveal information or a secret
An Americanism that may come from bean as US slang for 'head' (spill or let slip what is in one's head). More likely it comes from know one's beans (know what's what); this is clearly related to the early 17th century English saying know how many beans make five, which has the same meaning. It is a short step from knowing one's beans to spilling them, i.e. telling what one knows.
Spin doctor
This is an American idiom that was first applied in political commentary in the mid-1980s under Ronald Reagan's presidency, describing his public-relations advisers during promotion of the 'Star Wars' Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). These so-called spin doctors were on 'spin control', their mission being to give the preferred interpretation of events to the world's media, thereby manipulating public opinion in the desired direction. The phrase comes from baseball and refers to the spin put on the ball by a pitcher to disguise its true direction or confuse the batter. The spin doctor is now a prominent feature in British politics and business in general.
Spirit is willing, the
An apology for inaction, the full quotation being 'the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak' (Matthew, 26: 41), a reproach to the disciples who fell asleep while Jesus was praying in Gethsemane shortly before his arrest and crucifixion.
Spitting image -exact likeness
There is a very old expression (c. 1400) 'as like one as if he had been spit out of his mouth' (meaning 'very alike'); Jonathan Swift, for example, wrote much later 'She as like her husband as if she were spit out of his mouth'. Later variants were 'he's the very spit of...' and 'he's the spit and image of...' and this last one developed into the modern version.
Splice the mainbrace - have a celebratory drink
In the days when sailors had a rum ration, the order to splice the main brace (two words) meant serving an additional tot as a pick-me-up after special exertion. After the introduction of steamships had made the sailor's lot less exhausting, the order was given when any special celebration was due.
...
In naval parlance, a brace is a rope and splicing it is a form of repair. The main brace was connected to the main sail; splicing it was not only obviously important but also dangerous in a storm. But there is no very clear link, except a jocular one, between an (unwelcome?) order to do this work and a welcome one to serve extra drink.
Spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar - spoil something by economising on a small detail
This was originally, from at least 1600, 'lose the sheep [often 'hog'] for a half-pennyworth of tar' - i.e. let the animal die for want of spending a trivial sum on tar to protect its sores or wounds from infection by flies.
...'Ship' was the dialect pronunciation of 'sheep' over much of England, and non-countryfolk obviously assumed that the expression referred to a ship, the assumption being reinforced by the reference to tar, which was widely used on wooden ships to coat and preserve the timbers. To complete this transformation of a rustic expression into a nautical-sounding one, the rather extravagant and unconvincing idea of 'losing' an entire ship for the sale of a small economy was changed to 'spoiling' and the now familiar version emerged in the mid-19th century.
...A person who is tarred with the same brush has the same faults as someone else being referred to. It is probable that this image also comes from the application of tar to animals, either for the purpose already described or to mark them out as members of the same flock.
Square meal - a good, solid, nutritious meal
In the days of sail, British warships did not have the best of living conditions. A sailor's breakfast and lunch were sparse meals consisting of little more than bread and water. However, the third meal of the day included meat and was served on a square tray. Eating a substantial meal aboard a ship required a tray to carry it all because of the danger of sudden violent movement and the risk of spillage. Being square, the trays were more easily stacked and stored away when not in use and took up less valuable space than more conventional round ones would.
Squeaky clean - free of all guilt or blame
Clean surfaces tend to squeak when wiped.
Stalking horse - person, occasionally thing, put forward to mislead, mask intentions, etc.
Literally, a horse specially trained to allow a hunter, especially a fowler, to hide behind it in order to stalk, i.e. to get within easy reach of game without alarming it in the way that a hunter alone on foot would.
Stamping ground - habitual place of resort
Some cloven-footed animals, sheep and deer for example, stamp the ground to express warning of an invasion of their territory. For this reason the term, originally an Americanism, was coined to mean the place where particular animals could be found, and it is now commonly applied to people.
Start from scratch
Scratch is an old sporting term for a starting-line, probably because it was originally scratched on the ground. To start from scratch is therefore to start from the beginning. To come/be up to scratch (be of the required standard) may have the same origin or be more specifically from prize-fighting: before the modern rules laid down that there should be a certain number of three-minute rounds, a round lasted until one of the contestants was knocked down; there was then a 30-second interval at the end of which he was allowed eight seconds to come unaided up to scratch, a line marked in the centre of the ring.
Start the ball rolling
See On the ball.
Start with a clean slate
See Clean slate.
Steal a march on - gain an advantage over, usually by stealth
In military terminology a march used to be the distance that troops could cover in a day. Any war of movement entails calculations of how far or how quickly an enemy may travel. Gaining a day's advantage, for example using a skilful, daring or rapid manoeuvre to get to a place and be ready for an enemy earlier than he expected, was therefore tantamount to stealing a day (i.e. a march) from him. The expression was later applied to other sorts of military advantage.
Steal someone's thunder - reduce the effect of someone's actions or ideas by using them as one's own or before they do
John Dennis (1657-1734), best remembered as a critic but also an ineffective poet and dramatist, wrote a dismal tragedy called Appius and Virginia (1709) for which he invented a device for making stage thunder. His bitterness at the play's early demise was enhanced when he heard his own thunder-device being used in a subsequent production of someone else's play. The closely-knit and often malicious literary world of Queen Anne's London would have enjoyed his complaint that his thunder had been stolen - and was in greater demand than his play.
Sterling qualities
Sterling here is the same word found in sterling silver. The term comes from the name of the Norman English silver penny, the purity and reliability of which was recognised throughout Europe. Because of this it came, from the 17th century, to be used as a term of excellence. The word was linked as a set phrase with both qualities and worth in the first part of the 19th century. The origin of the word sterling is uncertain, but it may come from the Old English for 'little star' as many of the coins were decorated with a star design.
Stick in the mud - someone stuck in their ways
Stick in the mud is actually a short form of the verbal phrase to stick in the mud, meaning 'stick' or 'stay' in an unpleasant or demeaning situation, rather than dragging oneself out of the metaphorical mud. To stick in the mud first appeared around 1620, and was a further development of earlier metaphors such as to stick in the briers (or clay, or mire) meaning simply 'to be in difficult circumstances'. Somewhere around the early 18th century, stick in the mud arose as a contemptuous term for someone who is not only stuck in the mud, but actually seems to enjoy being there.
Stick one's neck out
To stick one's neck out, as if inviting the hangman to slip on the noose, is to take a risk. To get it in the neck (be punished or reprimanded) derives from the same idea. If, as has been suggested, both expressions originate in the USA - where a different sort of capital punishment is preferred - the basic idea is more likely to be of rural origin: that of chopping off the head of a chicken with an axe.
Stick to one's guns
See Great guns.
Stiff upper lip - courage and self-control in the face of adversity
This term has been traced back to J. Neal's Down Easters (1833) as a development from a number of earlier expressions in which control of the lips (prone to quiver with grief, anger, etc.) is equated with the repression of emotion - thought by the British to be a virtue.
Still small voice - conscience
A secular borrowing of a term that in religious contexts means the voice of God, still here signifying quiet and tranquil. The origin is scriptural, from Elijah's encounter with God on Mount Horeb (I Kings, 19: 11-12).
Sting in the tail - unexpected hurt, shock, etc. at the end of an otherwise painless process
St John's prophetic vision in Revelation includes an account of monsters who 'had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men' (9: 10). The expression acquired its modern metaphorical meaning early in the 16th century.
Stony broke - without money
Originally 'stone-broke'. There are a number of parallel expressions - clean/dead/flat-broke - and perhaps stone suggested itself by analogy with 'stone-deaf' or 'stone-cold', where stone has the force of 'very' (though originally these expressions were compressed similes: deaf as a stone, cold as a stone).
Stool pigeon - an informer
Stool here is a variant of stale or stall, meaning decoy. It appears in Shakespeare in The Tempest: 'The trumpery in my house go bring it hither. For stale to catch these thieves'. The word comes from the French estale or estal, which meant a pigeon that was used to entice a hawk into a net. The French word probably originally derives from the Germanic stall, meaning a place or standing position.
Storm in a teacup - petty disagreement, fuss about something of little importance
'Excitabat fluctus in simpulo' is a neat little metaphor used by Cicero. Translated it reads, 'He whipped up waves in a ladle.' Some authorities suggest that the storm in a teacup is a variation of this saying. Others have played with the expression, notably the Duke of Ormond's 'storm in a cream-bowl' (1678), Grand Duke Paul of Russia's 'tempest in a glass of water' (c1790) and Lord Thurlow's 'storm in a wash-hand basin' (1830). Storms in teacups do not appear to have arisen until the 19th century.
Straight and narrow - strictly correct path of behaviour, legally and morally
An alteration, probably as a result of misunderstanding or misspelling, of a section from Christ's Sermon on the Mount: 'Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction ... strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life' (Matthew, 7: 13-14). Here 'strait' means 'narrow'; it is archaic in this sense (although it survives as a noun - dire straits, Straits of Gibraltar, etc) and has often changed its spelling to straight (straightjacket, straight-laced), much as purists may object. In fact straight (not crooked) and narrow (strict) makes good sense even though its biblical origin was slightly different.
Straight from the horse's mouth
See Don't look a gift-horse in the mouth.
Straight from the shoulder - with full force; directly, frankly
From boxing: if the fist is brought to the shoulder and then punched forward, the full length and power of the arm is behind the blow.
Straight-laced - prudish
An alternative spelling of the more correct strait-laced, where 'strait' is an archaic word (see straight and narrow) for 'tight' or 'narrow' and 'laced' refers to the string that fastens a bodice or corset.
...The very tight fastening of a bodice or corset to which the word refers used to be fashionable, though it was often uncomfortable or even unhealthy. It has been metaphorical for excessive rigidity of conduct since the 16th century.
Strain at a gnat - be unduly fussy about tiny detail
Railing against the Pharisees, Christ described them as 'blind guides, which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel' (Matthew, 23: 24). He meant that their obsession with legalistic minutiae was like carefully straining gnats (mosquitoes) from their drink while being oblivious to the fact that they were eating whole camels (unclean meat to the Jews), i.e. they were missing the whole point of religious observance. Later translations of the Bible have 'strain out', which is more accurate than strain at.
Straw poll - superficial test of opinion
Straw polls were the forerunners of the public opinion polls that are an ingredient of today's general elections. They originated in America. In 1824 reporters from the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian decided to question the people of Wilmington to try to establish their preferred presidential candidate. The idea caught on. The name straw poll alludes to the custom of throwing a straw up in the air in order to determine the direction and strength of the wind. Figurative reference to this rural practice is much older than the straw poll, however. John Selden uses it in Table-Talk: Libels as early as the mid 17th century.
Straw in the wind
See Clutch at straws.
Straw that broke the camel's back
See Last/final straw.
Streets paved with gold - place where one may find one's fortune
The story of Dick Whittington, first published in 1605, refers to a historical figure who was a liberal benefactor and three times Lord Mayor of London in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Parts of the legend, however, especially the role of the cat that helps its owner to become wealthy, may belong to remoter times or countries. It is now a traditional feature of the story that Dick goes to London, to enter the service of a merchant, because he has been told that it is a place of such great richness that even the streets are paved with gold. See also As the bell clinks, so the fool thinks.
Strike while the iron is hot
See Hammer and tongs.
Stuffed shirt
This is generally linked to the idea of a shirt on display in a shop window, stuffed to make it look occupied, the idea being of an underlying emptiness. However, the term stuffed shirt is usually linked not just with pomposity, but also with stiffness and formality, and it may be that the image also involves the highly starched formal dress shirts worn at the turn of the century, when this expression was coined in America. These shirts were so stiff down the front that a wearer might well have about as much movement as he would were he stuffed, as well as being typically worn by those with well-stuffed bellies.
Stumbling block - impediment
At first glance this is a curious term because a block is ordinarily thought of as something which bars progress, not merely causes a stumble. The explanation is that block is also an obsolete word for a tree-stump. When William Tyndale translated the New Testament from Greek into English (1526) he was the first to use the term (as one word) in print, as a translation of a Greek word meaning 'cause of stumbling': 'that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way' (Romans, 14: 13). The word was retained in the later Authorised Version and has passed into everyday use as a metaphor.
...'Stumble at a block' (trip over a tree-stump) is found in a book of about 1450 and was probably everyday English at a time when England was predominantly rural and tree-stumps or roots were far more likely to cause a pedestrian to stumble than they are today. Stumblingblock may also have been current, or may have been coined by Tyndale.
Stump up - pay money (often reluctantly or with difficulty)
Originally, to stump (up) was to dig up tree-stumps by the roots in order to clear land for cultivation. The expression, an American one from the days of settlement, became figurative with the idea of digging deep into one's pocket to get money out.
...The same verb has given rise to stumped. Farmers were said to be stumped if they encountered hidden roots when ploughing land that had been imperfectly stumped (up), i.e. cleared. Consequently, the word came to mean 'nonplussed, puzzled, held up by a difficulty'. There is no good reason for the view that this sense comes from cricket, where being stumped means something quite different (i.e. dismissed).
Suffer fools gladly - show patience towards the foolish (i.e. the incompetent, self-important, etc.)
This phrase is usually found in the negative, as an attribute of intolerant people. It is from St Paul: 'For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise' (II Corinthians, 11: 19).
Survival of the fittest
Not coined by Charles Darwin, as is usually assumed, but by Herbert Spencer in Principles of Biology (1864-7), though Darwin later acknowledged the appropriateness of the phrase. Spencer used fittest in the sense of 'most suitable'; he was referring to animals' adaptability to an environment. In modern use, however, it is taken to mean 'most strong' and the whole expression is used of people fighting for survival or exercising strength in order to prevail over others.
Swallow the bait - to accept completely an offer, proposal, etc, that has been made purely to tempt one
Refers to a fish swallowing the bait - and thus the hook - on the end of an angler's fishing line.
Swan-song - final performance
The belief, which has no foundation in fact, that a swan sings for the only time in its life just before it dies is first recorded in Aesop (6th century BC) and is also found in Latin literature and in English from the 14th century onwards. This song is generally described as melodious, but is variously identified as a dirge and a song of joy at the prospect of death. In Greek mythology, for instance, the swan was sacred to Apollo and Aphrodite and its dying song was one of happiness at the imminence of joining them.
Sweep the board
See Above board.
Sweet Fanny Adams/Sweet FA - nothing at all
Fanny Adams was an eight-year-old girl who was raped murdered in Alton, Hampshire in 1867. Her body, cut into pieces, was found in the River Wey. A twenty-one-year-old solicitor's clerk, Frederick Baker, was tried soon after and hanged at Winchester. The adjective sweet was probably added in a popular poem or ballad of the sort that was often composed in the 19th century to memorialise drama or disaster.
...With heartless humour, sailors came to apply the unfortunate child's name to the tinned mutton issued on board ship; one authority states that the joke originated in a sailor's discovery of a button in one such tin. By natural shift, the expression transferred from mutton to monotony of diet and then to any lack of a popular or necessary item.
Sweetness and light - (unexpected) agreeableness or cooperation
Popularised by Matthew Arnold, for whom 'sweetness and light' were among the gifts of culture (Culture and Anarchy, 1869), though Swift had earlier referred to the same pair, calling them 'the two noblest of things' which the ancient writers had given to mankind (Battle of the Books, 1697). The modern use of the quotation is merely jocular.
Swing the lead - malinger, evade duty, often by inventing an excuse
Originally 20th century military slang. Despite what some authorities say, it is unlikely to be nautical; it is true that a rope weighted with lead was used to measure the depth of sea beneath a ship, but this involved no swinging and was so crucial - and so closely supervised - that it cannot have become a metaphor for malingering.
...There was, however, a nautical expression 'swing the leg', an allusion to the pretence of having a damaged leg so as to avoid work: malingerers 'swing' it when walking so as to appear crippled. This expression may have been misheard or misunderstood during its transference to more general military vocabulary.
Swings and roundabouts
A catchphrase originating in fairground language, the full expression is what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts. It is an optimistic assertion that, all things considered, matters tend to turn out satisfactorily if you take the rough with the smooth. Swings go up and down, and roundabouts go round and round, but taken both together they add up to the same thing - a way of giving amusement and making a living.
Sword of Damocles
The sword of Damocles was, according to the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero, a sword hung from the ceiling by a single hair. It was so placed at a banquet above the head of the sycophantic courtier Damocles by Dionysius the Elder, ruler of Syracuse from 404 to 367 BC, to remind Damocles of the precariousness of the power and privilege which he envied. It is still a popular metaphor for any great and threatening evil that may befall one at any time.
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