Expressions & Sayings

~ T ~


Tabloid journalism
The word tabloid was invented in 1884 by Burroughs, Wellcome, the pharmaceutical company, as a trademark for concentrated drugs and chemicals in tablet form. The newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe was the first to apply the word to half-size newspapers; Burroughs, Wellcome successfully applied for an injunction to prevent this use but had to give way three or four years later and accept that tabloid had become common property. At the time, the word was intended to mean no more than 'concentrated' or compressed'; if anything it was complimentary, implying that tabloid journalism (1901) was as good, handy and beneficial as tabloid medicine. In the light of experience, it has become a term of abuse meaning 'oversimplified, superficial, bigoted and nasty'.
Take a back seat - have little or only observational involvement in something
Not a motoring metaphor, this was originally a parliamentary expression derived from the relative low influence of persons and issues from the back benches (the bench-seats where members sit in the House of Commons), as opposed to the front benches, where the leaders of the government and opposition sit.
Take a dekko - to glance at, or have a quick look at
This is one of the many phrases that were brought back from India by the British Army in the colonial days in the late 19th century. In Hindi dekho is the imperative form of the verb dekhna, meaning to look at.
Take a leaf from/out of someone's book - follow someone's example
From the idea of borrowing, stealing or copying a page of someone else's work or, more likely, emulating their record (literally, written account) of achievement.
Take a rain-check
In America the meaning is clear: a rain-check is a counterfoil or ticket which, if an outdoor sporting event is rained off, gives admission to the postponed game. Metaphorically, an American who takes a rain-check on something is refusing it while promising later action, acceptance, reconsideration, etc.
...In Britain, where spectators are expected to tolerate bad weather and no such booking system exists, the expression is known from American films but not always understood. It is therefore used with differing meanings, including 'check the facts', 'take time to consider' and 'postpone a decision'. This last is the most usual, and nearest to the American original.
Take a rise out of someone - raise a laugh at someone's expense to provoke them
An adaptation of an angling term for the action of causing a fish to be attracted to a bait so that it rises to take it and gets caught.
Take aback - startle
Aback is found only with the verb take. The expression is one of many that have passed from nautical into general use. A ship was said to be taken aback if the wind pressed its sails back against its mast, preventing forward movement.
Take an early bath
This euphemism comes from the sports pitch, and means to retire early to the dressing room after being injured, or sent off by the referee, during a match of football or rugby. The phrase was popularised from the 1970s by the television sports commentator Eddie Waring in his descriptions of Rugby League matches, and is now often used to describe any situation in which someone is obliged to pull out of the action before it is over. In America, and increasingly in Britain, to take a bath means to suffer any kind of defeat or serious loss, as in 'He took a bath in the stock-market collapse.'
Take down a peg - humble someone
The peg here is the pin around which is fixed one of the strings of a musical instrument. It is turned to loosen or tighten the string, thus changing its pitch when tuning the instrument. To 'let/bring/take down a peg', thus lowering the pitch, has for several centuries been a figure of speech for lowering someone's self-importance.
Take (someone) for a ride - deceive or trick (someone)
Originally American gangsters' slang for killing someone, from the practice of killing someone in a moving vehicle so as not to attract attention.
Take one's hat off to someone - feel respect for someone
Men normally remove their hats as a sign of respect, for example when entering a house; this custom may date back to the warrior's removal of his helmet to demonstrate (e.g. in surrender) that he was undefended and thus meant no harm.
Take one's hook
See Sling one's hook.
Take pains - perform an action thoroughly and carefully
This expression dates from the 16th century and is a development of the medieval to pain yourself, meaning to make an effort. This obsolete use of pain also survives in the word painstaking.
Take pot-luck - take whatever happens to be available
The expression is still used in its original literal sense as well - to take one's chance or luck as to what may be in the pot, cooked for a meal, as distinct from what is specially cooked for a guest. There may also be an allusion to the use, in peasant cookery, of a stew-pot or stockpot to which is added each day whatever happened to be ready from the garden or market.
Take the bit between one's teeth - eagerly and unrestrainedly pursue one's course
The bit is the metal mouthpiece on a horse's bridle that enables its rider to direct it. The horse is only sensitive to the rider's direction while the bit is in the right place in its mouth. If the animal takes the bit between its teeth, it can no longer feel the pull of the reins and the rider loses control of it. The expression is very old, dating back to Ancient Greek culture. The meaning throughout has been of obstinate self-will, however, comparatively recently it has developed the sense of determinedly setting out on a task, without necessarily negative overtones.
Take the bull by the horns - confront a difficulty boldly
From a Spanish proverb 'Take a bull by the horn and a man at his word', known in England since the mid-17th century. The general sense, which is that one should not run away from a threat, is plain enough without resorting, as some do, to an explanation derived from bull-fighting or from American cowboys enjoying wrestling with steers.
Take the cake/biscuit - deserve honour or merit; be outrageous
It is popularly believed that the expression has its origins in a late-19th century amusement devised by black slaves in Southern US plantations in which participating couples promenaded about the room arm in arm. The pair judged as walking and turning most gracefully was given a cake as a prize. The admiring cry 'That takes the cake' meaning 'That wins the prize' gave rise not only to the expression but also to the name of the entertainment, the cakewalk.
...However further back in the 5th century BC, Aristophanes is quoted as saying 'If you surpass him in impudence, we take the cake'. A cake, a confection of toasted cereal sweetened and bound together with honey, was an award given to the most vigilant man on a night watch. The phrase became idiomatic and was then used to refer to any prize for any event.
...An anglicisation of the expression, to take the biscuit, is used in expressions of astonishment or disbelief,
Take the gilt off the gingerbread - deprive something of (some of) its attractive qualities
Gingerbread, a cake spiced with ginger, was often sold in toy shapes, especially as a flat human figure, covered or ornamented with either real or more usually imitation gilt. It was a metaphor for anything showy but insubstantial as early as Elizabethan days. The idea of taking off the gilt to reveal something less valuable developed in the 19th century, perhaps as a result of the popularity of gingerbread stalls at country fairs.
Take the mickey - make fun of
Mike Bliss, sometimes shortened to Mike, is Cockney rhyming slang for 'piss'; it is not known who he was or even if he ever existed. To take the mickey (Mickey being a variant of Mike, short for Michael) is a euphemism for 'take the piss' (jeer at, deride, deflate - perhaps from the idea of deflating the bladder). The meaning is kinder too.
Take the rap - accept blame
An Americanism. A rap here is a criminal charge, a rebuke or an adverse criticism, simply a figurative use of a literal rap- a blow or knock.
Take the wind out of one's sails - disconcert, deflate or frustrate one; deprive one of an advantage
A figure of speech derived from sailing. A boat under sail can be slowed down if the wind is prevented from reaching its sails. This can happen if another boat is positioned nearby in the direction from which the wind is blowing. This second boat is said to take the wind out of the sails of the first.
...The expression is sometimes used of frustrating someone's intentions by doing in advance what he or she has already planned to do.
Take time by the forelock - to act quickly and without delay
Refers to the fact that time was often represented by an old man with no hair except for a forelock, a length of hair over his forehead.
Take to task - reprimand someone
As might be expected, the original meaning of this, in the 16th century, was to take on something as a task. From there it came to be used for to take a person or thing in hand, and it was but a small step from there to mean tell someone off for what they had done, a change which had happened by the 18th century.
Take to the cleaners - having lost one's money; ruined
In the 19th century people were 'cleaned out' when they were stripped clean of everything of value, either through gambling or as victims of dishonest practices. This use is still current. To be taken to the cleaners is a more recent term that expresses exactly the same thing.
Take umbrage - to show that one is offended
Umbrage has a Latin root umbra meaning 'shade'. The word was specifically used in English to describe the shade given by a screen of trees, then figuratively to mean 'the shadow of doubt or suspicion'. It remains with us today chiefly in the expression to take umbrage, meaning that a person feels overshadowed by another, giving rise to offence and resentment. No one likes to live in another's shadow.
...Umbrella shares the same Latin root. Originally, umbrellas were used only as shade from the sun. Jonas Hanway is said to have introduced the umbrella as protection against the rain in about 1760, but its use in wet weather must have been recognised long before then.
Take under one's wing - give care, protection and guidance
The image is from young birds nestling under a parent's wing for warmth and security.
Take up the gauntlet
See Throw down the gauntlet.
Take with a pinch of salt
Anything which is taken with a pinch of salt, as a piece of gossip may be, is treated with caution or reservation, just as a dish is treated with salt to make sure it is to one's taste.
Taken for a ride - tricked; played a joke on
This colloquial phrase can be interpreted in one of two ways. It refers either to the victim of a light-hearted joke or prank or, in its sinister and probably original meaning - a completely genuine use of the phrase - to someone who is taken for a ride somewhere and does not come back in one piece, if at all. The rival underworld gangs of American cities in the 1920s and 1930s were virtually at war with each other, and any unfortunate who was unlucky enough to tempt the wrath of the gang leader, or Don in the case of the Mafia, would be literally taken for a ride in a limousine, ostensibly to discuss certain matters or sort out some misunderstanding. He would be very unlikely to return alive, however.
Talk gibberish - talk unintelligibly
A theory that convinces several etymologists says that gibberish comes from Geber, the name of an Arabian alchemist who lived in the 11th century. He invented a strange terminology of his own so that his notes would not be understood if found, and in this was he avoided any accusation of heresy, which was punishable by death.
...Other scholars feel that this is an unlikely root since the word is not spelt geberish. Instead they advance a plausible, if much less entertaining, origin that says that gibberish comes from gibber, a verb allied to jabber, meaning to speak rapidly and unintelligibly. The problem here is that gibberish came into use before gibber. This forces an investigation into the origins of gibber, which might be traced to gabber and gabble, but do these bear any resemblance to gibberish? The debate is still raging.
Talk the hind legs off a donkey - talk volubly or excessively
During the history of this expression numerous other animals have featured in it: a horse, a dog, a cow and a bird (which of course has no hind legs). It was originally an expression of admiration for a person's powers of successful persuasion - a suggestion that one could bring about the impossible by talking. Nowadays, though said of a person admiringly, it is more usually a complaint.
Talk turkey - discuss (business) bluntly and practically
The large bird which is now commonly eaten originated in the USA, where it was domesticated by the American Indians before Europeans reached the country. The settlers called it turkey from confusion with the fowl they had known in Europe; this was actually guinea-fowl (a native of Africa) but called turkey at the time because it was thought to come from Turkey. Such was the settler's taste for it (it is still the national dish on Thanksgiving Day) that serious barter with the Indians, on whatever subject, became known simply as 'talking [about] turkey'.
Tall-poppy syndrome
This expression is believed to come from Australia and means to cut an overtly superior person down to size. The phrase has been current since 1931 when Jack Lang (1876-1975), the left-wing leader of the New South Wales administration, described egalitarian policies as 'cutting the heads off the tall poppies'. It derives from the legend that Tarquin, King of Rome (534-510 BC), symbolically demonstrated his wishes for the captured city of Gabii by decapitating the tallest poppies in his garden; accordingly, the leading citizens were executed.
Tammany Hall
Now a byword for political corruption, especially municipal, this was a building on 14th Street, New York, which belonged to the Tammany society. The group was notorious for its influence on the city's politics in the 19th century. The building was leased to the Democratic party of the city, an equally corrupt and powerful force not only in New York City and State but also in the party as a whole, and its name came to epitomise the activities of its tenants.
...The Tammany societies, patriotic and anti-British, originated during the War of American Independence, taking their name from an American Indian chief who is said to have signed a treaty with William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.
Tarred with the same brush
See Spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar.
Teach one's grandmother to suck eggs - offer advice, instruction, etc. to an older or much more experienced person than oneself
Raw eggs, with or without a little seasoning, used to be a popular food and regarded as healthy. Grandmothers, especially those without teeth, would have been particularly addicted to them and therefore needed no instruction about how to drink them.
...One must regret the passing of a parallel expression 'teach one's grandam to grope ducks', i.e. use the fingers to measure the distance between a duck's pelvic bones; if these were close together the duck was not laying and could be consigned to the pot.
Teddy-bear syndrome
This describes the characteristics of someone who gets married or enters a relationship simply because they fear being alone and need the constant presence of a comforter, the function of a teddy bear for many small children. The teddy bear is thought to have been so called after American President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt (1858-1919), who enjoyed bear hunting. The toy acquired its name after a presidential bear-hunting expedition in 1903. To ensure the President made a kill, the organisers stunned a small brown bear and tied it to a tree.
Tell it to the Marines - I don't believe you!
The Marines here are not the US variety as is often assumed but the much older military unit that belonged to King Charles II of England. Samuel Pepys' Diary for 1664 supposedly reports how Charles II was once at a banquet with the diarist, who was entertaining him with anecdotes about the navy. The subject of flying fish came up in conversation and had the company laughing in disbelief, all except for an officer in the marines who claimed that he too had glimpsed these creatures. The king was convinced, saying that the marines had vast experience of the seas and customs in different lands and that should he ever again come across a strange tale he would check the truth of it by telling it to the marines.
...Unfortunately, diligent searches of Pepys' Diary came up with no such entry and the story proved to be an ingenious hoax dreamed up by one W. P. Drury who spread it abroad in a book of naval stories he had written.
...The expression actually has its origins in the deep contempt that the sailors of the navy had for the men of the marines. The navy was jealous for their seafaring traditions and made the marines the target of ridicule, representing them as gullible idiots with no understanding of the sea. So successful was their slander campaign that the expression, tell it to the marines, the sailors won't believe it became current.
That's (just) the ticket - that is exactly what is wanted
Either an allusion to the winning ticket in a lottery or, more likely, a shortened version of 'that's the ticket for soup', a catchphrase from the second half of the 19th century referring to the tickets given to poor people to enable them to get something to eat at a soup-kitchen. The original sense was 'that's all you're going to eat', which is not what ticket means in the present saying, though it is common for expressions, especially slang ones, to change their meaning or emphasis as time goes by.
That's your pigeon
See Pidgin English.
There but for the grace of God (go I)
A comment on someone's ill fortune, meaning that it could easily have happened to oneself (or to anyone at all). It is based on a remark reputed to have been made by the much-admired clergyman John Bradford on seeing some criminals going to execution. He himself was charged with heresy during the reign of Mary I and burned at the stake in Smithfield in 1555 as part of the official persecution of Protestants.
Thereby hangs a tale - certain consequences, conclusions, etc. flow from that
A formula used to draw attention to the implications of something that has just been said. It is first found in Shakespeare, meaning simply 'about that there is a tale to tell'. The fact that he used it four times (e.g. The Taming of the Shrew, IV, 1, line 60) may indicate either that he was proud of the phrase or that it was already commonly in use in his day as a story-telling device.
There's more than one way to skin a cat - there is more than one way of achieving a goal
This refers not to felines, but to catfish. The skin of this particular fish is difficult to remove, as it sticks to the flesh. Accordingly, there are several ways to skin a catfish, some more effective than others. Apparently, the most successful method is to drop the fish quickly into boiling water. The skin is more easily separated then.
There's no place like home
From the opening lines of the hugely popular Victorian song Home Sweet Home (see Home sweet home) of 1823: ''Mid pleasures and palaces, though we may roam, Be it ever so humble there's no place like home!' These bear a suspicious resemblance to lines by the American J. K. Paulding in his poem The Backwoodsman (1818): 'Whate'er may happen, wheresoe'er we roam, However homely, still there's naught like home'. (Here 'homely' means 'simple'.)
There's no such thing as a free lunch
Around about the 1840s, American bars began advertising 'free lunches' when you bought a drink. These were usually salty snacks put out to encourage you to drink more. John Farmer's Americanisms of 1889 contains the entry: 'The free lunch fiend ... is one who makes a meal of what is really provided as a snack. He pays for a drink, but shamefacedly manages in this way to get something more than his money's worth.' So the free luncher does not really get his lunch for free - he must not only buy his drink, but if he is really to make a lunch out of it, must pay in subterfuge or embarrassment. The expression is sometimes attributed to the American economist Milton Friedman as it was much used by him and was the title of one of his books, but it antedates him. It may have been formulated by a group of economists at the University of Chicago school of economics, possibly based on some unrecorded folk saying. Robert Heinlein's 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress used a slightly different wording as a repeated motif: 'There aint no such thing as a free lunch', which could be shortened to the acronym TANSTAAFL. The expression is usually used allusively or as a formula phrase.
There's nothing new under the sun
From the Old Testament Ecclesiastes (4th century BC): 'There is no new thing under the sun' (1: 9).
There's the rub - that is the problem, obstacle, difficulty, etc.
A quotation from Hamlet's soliloquy 'To be or not to be' (III, 1, line 65), though the use of rub as a metaphor for difficulty is earlier. It comes from the game of bowls, in which a rub was any impediment that hindered a bowl or diverted it from its course.
They also serve who only stand and wait
This is the last line of John Milton's sonnet On his blindness, in which he finds comfort in the reflection that God may be served in passive as well as active ways. Milton (1608-74) began to go blind in his thirties and was totally blind by 1651.
They that live by the sword will die by the sword
This is the modern adaptation of Jesus' warning against violence: 'all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword' (St Matthew, 26: 52).
Thick as thieves - very friendly
The reference is to the closeness of association and interdependence existing in a gang of thieves. Thick is used in its sense of 'densely arranged', as in thick undergrowth, grass, hair, etc.
Thin end of the wedge - small beginning that will lead to something more significant
Although now usually thought of as a device for holding something in place, a wedge was originally a tool for splitting wood or stone: the sharp (thin) end was used to make the first crack, which was then widened by driving in the remaining and increasingly thickened part of the wedge until a complete split occurred. Thus, the thin end of the wedge is inevitably followed by something greater.
Third degree - vigorous questioning (to extort confession)
In medieval natural philosophy, degrees were the successive stages of intensity in which the elementary qualities of bodies (hot, cold, moist, dry) were described. The third degree, out of a normal total of four, was very intense; Shakespeare humorously describes one of his characters as lying 'in the third degree of drink'. The terminology survives in third degree burns (the deepest variety) and in the (originally American) idea of third degree interrogation, though this may owe something to Masonic ritual in which initiation into the third or highest degree of membership is said to be rigorous.
Third world - poor, less developed countries
Coined by the French diplomat Georges Baladier in 1956. He was referring specifically to the 29 African and Asian countries that came together at the Bandung Conference (1955) to discuss matters of common concern, though his term is now used more generally. As originally formulated it applied to those countries not belonging to the two 'worlds' or spheres of influence dominated by the superpowers, the USA and USSR, in the Cold War of that time.
Thirty pieces of silver - the price of treachery
From the betrayal of Christ by Judas. He was given this sum (literally, 30 pieces of money) by the chief priests in return for identifying Jesus so that he could be arrested (Matthew, 26: 15).
Thorn in the flesh - source of continual trouble
In a mysterious passage in his second letter to the Corinthians, St Paul says that he suffers from a certain 'thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me' (12: 7), which he has asked God to remove but which he has been told he must endure so that he never becomes too proud of the favours God has shown him. What it actually was can only be guessed at, but his metaphor has become commonplace.
Thrash out - settle by discussion, often vehement
Thrash is basically the same word as 'thresh', i.e. to separate the grains of a cereal from their husks and straw, especially by beating with a flail. The figurative use of this idea is very old: the image is one of getting at what is important (essential, true, etc.) by vigorously getting rid of what is not, through a process of argument. In the course of time thrash has come to be associated with hitting or winning, while thresh has remained a farming word, but thrash out retains the old agricultural sense.
Three Rs, the - reading, writing and arithmetic
Reputed to have been proposed, in all seriousness, as a toast by Alderman Sir William Curtis (1752-1829), an illiterate lord mayor of London, at the end of a speech in favour of elementary education for all: 'The three Rs - Riting, Reading and Rithmetic'. It has been common, as useful jocular shorthand, since 1828.
Three score and ten - normal life expectancy
The number is proverbial rather than factual. The origin is Psalm 90: 10.
Three sheets to the wind - very drunk
In nautical parlance, sheets are ropes attached to sails and are let out or pulled in to adjust the sails' positions. If they (and therefore the sails) are flapping loose, they are said to be in the wind; the result is loss of control. A drunken person, experiencing a similar disorientation, was therefore said to be 'a sheet in the wind'; if one was three sheets in the wind (now a rather dated expression) one's condition was more desperate.
Throw down the gauntlet - issue a challenge
The expression comes from the medieval custom of throwing down a glove or gauntlet when offering to fight; to take up the gauntlet was literally to pick it up, as a sign of accepting that challenge.
Throw in the towel/Throw up the sponge - surrender; give up
Boxing rules are now such that a referee must stop a fight if he thinks one of the contestants has taken enough punishment. In earlier and rougher days a boxer's second could call a similar halt by throwing into the ring the towel or sponge normally kept ready to hand to refresh his man between rounds.
Throw one's hat in the ring - announce one's intention to be a contestant
This seems to have originated in sporting circles: throwing one's hat into the (boxing) ring, in the days when men generally wore hats, was perhaps a sign of a spectator's willingness to respond to a prize-fighter's challenge, perhaps as an updated version of throwing down the gauntlet.
Throw the book at - punish or censure comprehensively
This vigorous American image of a judge, magistrate or police officer throwing the full weight of the law at someone in the form of a sizeable statute-book aimed presumably at the offender's head has passed into more general use, the book now being any book of rules, or indeed any unwritten ways of doing things, which someone has offended against.
Thumbs up/down - approval/disapproval for something
Whilst it may be stated with confidence that this expression has in some way emerged from the use of the thumb to judge combats in Roman arenas, there is considerable confusion over what the signals actually were. Those signals we can be reasonably sure of are contrary to what we would expect from our modern use of thumbs up and thumbs down.
...Although the thumbs-up sign signifies approval to us, it was not the gesture that a gladiator on the point of defeat wanted to see. He would have preferred the audience to turn down their thumbs or, better still, to close them up within their fists (pollicem comprimere), a signal that he had fought well and deserved to be spared. Other thumb positions - turned up, whirled round, turned inwards or outwards - meant disapproval: the wounded man should be shown no mercy but dispatched forthwith.
...The reversal of meaning is attributed to a painting by the French artist Jean Léon Gérome in 1873. He misinterpreted the signal for death, Pollice Verso (the title he gave to his painting), as 'thumbs down' rather than 'thumbs turned'.
Tie the knot - take one's marriage vows
Knots are a feature of many ancient marriage rituals throughout the world. The climax of a Hindu ceremony comes when the garments of the bride and groom are tied together and, thus bound; the couple walks round holy fire. In Sikh weddings the bride and groom both wear a scarf. During the ceremony, the bride's father knots the two scarves together and the couple honour the Sikh scriptures. Chinese Buddhist revere a certain deity Yue-laou, who unites with a silken cord all predestined couples; after which, nothing can prevent their union.
...Knots are also part of our own ceremonies. The ribbons in a bridal bouquet traditionally should be knotted. The knots are there to symbolise love and unity and the solemn bond of marriage that cannot be broken.
Tie up the loose ends
See At a loose end.
Tilt at windmills - (ludicrously) fight imaginary evils or enemies
The hero of the satirical romance Don Quixote (1605-15) by the Spanish novelist and dramatist Cervantes (1547-1616) is a poor, dignified and amiable gentleman whose wits have been so affected by too much reading of ballads and romances of chivalry that he has lost any sense of reality. He sets off, in rusty armour and on an ancient horse, in search of adventure. His attempts to right the wrongs of the world involve him in absurd escapades, and he is finally persuaded to return to his village. In one of his more absurd adventures he charges with his lance (i.e. tilts) at some windmills, imagining them to be evil giants whom it is his duty as a chivalrous knight to destroy (Part I, 8). His lance gets caught in a sail and he is carried up in the air before being brought back to earth with a bump. The expression therefore implies a rather crazy action likely to end in ridicule.
...The book, intended as a burlesque of popular tales of chivalry, is actually a rich and affectionate celebration of the common man, though it gave rise to the often pejorative adjective quixotic, meaning idealistic, optimistic, chivalrous, but in a rash, improbable or impractical way.
Time immemorial - something which has existed for as long as anyone can remember
Strictly speaking, time immemorial is any time before 1199, this being the date set in 1275 as the time before which no once could remember, and therefore no legal cases could deal with events before that date. Time out of mind, recorded from the 15th century, is just the plain English version of the same thing. Both expressions are now often used vaguely to mean little more than in the past.
Tit for tat - an equivalent given in retaliation (for an injury, etc.)
A variation of the older and slightly more comprehensible 'tip for tap' in which both words signified a light blow, though the first is now obsolete in this sense. The expression therefore meant 'blow for blow', but its modern variant owes more to onomatopoeia than to English.
Tittle-tattle
See Every jot and tittle.
To a T - exactly
Despite what some have alleged, this does not come from the draughtsman's T-square that brought precision to drawing. The expression, explained under every jot and tittle, existed before the T-square was invented.
To boot - in addition, as well
This has nothing to do with footwear. The boot on your foot comes from the Old French bote. In to boot however, it comes from the entirely different source of the Old English bot, meaning 'advantage or good', which in turn came from the Germanic root bat, meaning 'good and useful', which was also the source of our modern better and best. This sense of boot as 'something good' led to its use, at various points, to mean 'a remedy', 'a mending', 'compensation for wrongs', and even 'expiation of sins'. There was even a right of boot, meaning the custom of permitting a tenant to repair his house with lumber from his landlord's forest. And to boot was to do a good deed or render a favour to someone.
...Of all these senses, however, only our modern to boot as meaning 'in addition', which first appeared around A.D. 1000, still survives in common usage today.
To the bitter end - to the last extremity, however painful or difficult
On old ships the bitts were the strong posts or framework on the deck to which the anchor cable was attached. The bitter end of the cable was the end nearer the bitts, as distinct from the anchor-end, and if the cable was paid out to the bitter end, there was none left to go.
...
It is possible that this expression passed into general use, where this technical sense of 'bitter' was unknown and the expression was assumed to have a sense of painfulness not in the original. It is equally possible that the expression developed in an entirely different way and that the existence of an identical nautical term was an irrelevant coincidence. The expression does make sense in its own right. Moreover, bitter and end are in fact found together in Scripture: 'her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.' (Proverbs, 5: 4).
To the manner born - naturally suited to a particular position or activity as if accustomed to it by birth and breeding in society
The full Shakespearean quotation from which this comes is given at More honoured in the breach than the observance. When Hamlet used the expression of himself, he meant 'destined by birth to be subject to a particular custom'.
To the nth degree - to the utmost degree or extreme
In mathematics 'n' represents an indefinite number, usually the greatest in a series. To do something for the nth time is to do it yet again, after performing it innumerable times already.
Toe-rag - a mean or despicable person; a tramp
The original 19th century form of this term was toe rag. It referred to the strips of cloth that convicts or tramps wrapped around their feet as a makeshift substitute for socks. The first recorded use is by J F Mortlock in his Experiences of a Convict (1864): 'Stockings being unknown, some luxurious men wrapped round their feet a piece of old shirting, called, in language more expressive than elegant, a 'toe-rag''. It very quickly became a term of abuse, and has been so ever since.
Toe the line - conform to a defined rule or standard
Literally refers to the convention that all competitors in a race line up at the beginning, toes against the starting-line, so that no one has an advantage before the race starts.
...An alternative explanation is a line on the floor of the House of Commons that still exist today. It was put there to mark the sword distance between Government and Opposition front benches and neither side was allowed to cross it. Members were told to toe the line if, in the eyes of the Speaker, they became too excited. Obviously, in the days when swords were carried, the consequence of a Member crossing the line might be unfortunate.
Tongue in cheek - ironically humorous
This phrase dates back to 1748 when it was fashionable to signal contempt for someone by making a bulge in one's cheek with the tongue. By 1842, the phrase had acquired its modern, ironic sense.
Tooth and nail - with ferocity; using all one's means
Literally, biting and scratching.
Top brass - most important people in an organisation
An adaptation of 'brass hats', service slang for high-ranking officers, derived from the gold braid on the peaks of their hats.
Top drawer - the highest quality, first class
This term, which first appeared in its figurative sense around 1900, refers to the top drawer in a bedroom dresser, where society folks usually kept their jewels and other valuables. Top drawer as an idiom first described people of high social standing, but today is usually simply used to denote a thing or service considered the best of its kind.
Touch and go - a risky state of affairs
The original phrase was 'to touch and go', to deal with something very briefly, i.e. to touch it for a moment and then go away. As an adjectival phrase, touch-and-go therefore meant 'done quickly'. Only in the early 19th century did the expression develop its modern meaning, presumably from the idea of something so evenly balanced that even a mere touch would cause it to go crashing down.
Touch wood
A catchphrase used to avert bad luck by touching wood (jocularly one's head), especially to avoid misfortune as a result of boasting (of one's good fortune, success, etc.) or wishing for something. It is a vestige of an old superstition that certain trees had a sacred significance and would give blessing and protection if touched - a notion that may have its origins in the cult of Pan, a Greek god of nature. Alternatively, the expression may date from medieval times when relics, including pieces reputed to be from Christ's cross, were hawked around, to be bought or touched for a blessing.
Tower of Babel - scene of confusion of sounds, especially voices
An allusion to a story told in Genesis, 11: 1-9. At a time when people all spoke the same language, they set about building a city with a tower that would reach as high as heaven. To punish them for this presumption God confounded their efforts by putting different languages into their mouths so that they could not understand each other. He also scattered them all over the world. Babel is Hebrew for Babylon.
Tower of strength - dependable person offering support, comfort, etc.
Shakespeare was the first to use this expression - 'the King's name is a tower of strength' (Richard III, V, 3, line 12) - but he may have known Proverbs, 18: 10: 'The name of the Lord is a strong tower'. Both quotations mean that someone's name or status can be helpful to others; the modern meaning is a natural extension of this sense.
Trim one's sails - restrain one's activities in line with present circumstances
The full expression is to trim one's sails before the wind, but the shorter to trim one's sails is now more commonly heard. The term is obviously nautical, referring to sailing ships and alludes to the setting of the sails according to the strength of the wind. Sails would be reefed when the wind was strong and let out in gentler conditions. In the same way, someone who metaphorically trims his sails restricts his activities or expectations according to prevailing circumstances.
Trip the light fantastic - dance
A jocular adaptation of: 'Come, and trip it as ye go/On the light fantastic toe' from John Milton's L'Allegro (1631), lines 33-4.
Trojan horse
The ten-year war in the mid-13th century BC between Greece and Troy, an ancient city of Asia Minor near the Dardanelles, derives its significance from being the subject matter of Homer's Iliad and part of Virgil's Aeneid. According to the latter, a huge statue of a horse was built by order of Ulysses, one of the principal Greek commanders, who let it be known that it was an offering to the gods for a safe return to Greece. The Trojans dragged it into their city, but it was filled with Greek infiltrators who stole out at night and destroyed the city. A Trojan (or wooden) horse is therefore a metaphor for a concealed danger, especially one designed to subvert from within.
...The Trojans are described in literature as courageous, honest and energetic, but it is curious that the expression work like a Trojan (i.e. very hard) is not recorded before 1846.
Trump card
In card-playing a trump is the name (a corruption of 'triumph') for a suit that for the time being outranks other suits, thus putting the holder of a trump card in a winning position. A related expression is come/turn up trumps (give help). Trump is also a verb meaning 'play a trump card': to trump one's ace is to score a victory over someone who had apparently already won as a result of placing an ace.
...The last trump is quite different - the final trumpet call at the Day of Judgement: 'We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible' (I Corinthians, 15: 51-2).
Turn a blind eye - pretend not to notice
Lord Nelson was blinded in the right eye in Corsica during the war with France. During the first battle of Copenhagen (1801), when the admiral to whom Nelson was second in command signalled that he should break off the action, Nelson ignored the order (or, in one version, put his telescope to his blind eye), claiming that he had both a blind eye and the right to use it. To obey at that time would have risked disaster because of nearby shallows.
...The familiar expression came into use after his widely mourned death at Trafalgar in 1805.
Turn over a new leaf - improve one's conduct
This does not refer to the leaf of a tree, but of a book. The comparison is between a new page and a new beginning. The earlier form of the expression, which originates from the first half of the 16th century, is simply 'turn the leaf' and was rather clearer.
Turn the other cheek - respond to violence or unkindness with patience; offer no retaliation
Based on the text from the Sermon on the Mount: 'resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew, 5: 39).
Turn the tables - cause a reversal of fortunes or circumstances
The table here is the board on which certain games such as chess or backgammon are played. If the position of the board is turned (reversed), so are the relative fortunes of the two players.
Turn turtle - turn upside down
Sailors originally invented this term when they learnt to overturn the turtle or marine tortoise, which is suitable for food, in order to immobilise it. They applied the expression to the capsizing of ships or boats, but its use has now spread to other things that accidentally overturn.
Turn-up for the books, a - piece of good fortune, usually unexpected
The books are those in which bookmakers keep a record of bets. Something that happens (turns up) unexpectedly is welcome to bookmakers because few people will have bet on it and not many winnings will have to be paid out.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee - two people or groups who are practically indistinguishable
These characters are best known as two almost identical little fat men in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1872) but the names were coined by John Byrom (1692-1763), the inventor of a system of shorthand and the author of the hymn Christians, awake! In the 1720s there was a squabble in London musical circles about the rival merits of Handel and the Italian composer Bonacini, recently appointed as one of the resident composers at the newly founded Royal Academy of Music. Byrom wrote a comic jingle about this argument, rhyming 'Bonacini' with 'ninny' and ending: 'Strange! That such high dispute should be/'Twixt Tweedledum and Tweedledee!' The names, satirically based on the now obsolete verb 'tweedle' (produce a shrill sound on a musical instrument), implied that there was nothing to choose between the two composers. Actually, their musical styles were quite different, Handel is now regarded as an important composer and Bonacini has been forgotten.
Twinkling of an eye - very short time
This expression, which means 'the time taken to wink' is best known from the Bible (see the quotation under trump card) though it is first recorded much earlier, in about 1300.
Two bites at the (same) cherry - two attempts to do something; more than one's fair share of something
This meaning sometimes implies good fortune and sometimes an act of effrontery giving rise to surprise or disapproval. It is a curious development from the original meaning, which implied over-fussiness, squeamishness or even hypocrisy. A cherry is of course easily taken into the mouth and needs no bites at all; to take two bites at it was to display an excessive fastidiousness or even a false show of breeding.
Two-faced - hypocritical
Two faces under one hood was the original expression of duplicity. It was in use in this form from the end of the 14th century until well into the 19th. The earliest record is from the Romaunt of the Rose, written around 1400: 'Two hedes in one hood at ones.' A late example comes in the form of a rhyming couplet in Bohn's Handbook of Proverbs (1855): 'May the man be damned and never grow fat. Who wears two faces under one hat'. Present day usage has shortened the phrase to two-faced. See also Janus-like.
<< S

Main Index

U >>


Home ~ The Stories ~ Diversions ~ Links ~ Contact