Expressions & Sayings

~ W ~

Wages of sin
Now used of the consequences of wrongdoing or even jocularly of the results of over-indulgence, but the original is stronger: 'The wages of sin is death' (Romans, 6: 23).
Walked over one's grave, someone has just - said after an involuntary shiver
A sudden shivering sensation is often accompanied by the person declaring that someone has just walked over their grave. An old wive's tale holds that the shivering is felt when the spot where one will eventually be buried is being trampled on - a reminder of mortality.
Walls have ears, the
This is a warning to watch what you say, or what secrets you divulge, wherever you are, because someone might be listening. In the time of Catherine de Medici (1519-89), certain rooms in the Louvre Palace, Paris, were said to be constructed to conceal a network of listening tubes called auriculaires, so that what was said in one room could be clearly heard in another. This was how the suspicious queen discovered state secrets and plots. The legend of Dionysus's ear may also have been the inspiration for this audiovisual play on words. Dionysus was a tyrant of Syracuse (see Sword of Damocles) in 431-367 BC, and his so-called 'ear' was a large ear-shaped underground cave cut in a rock that was connected to another chamber in such a way that he could overhear the conversation of his prisoners.
Walter Mitty - person who lives in their own dream-world
'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' is a story by the American humorist James Thurber (1894-1961) which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1932. It tells of a docile husband who has vivid escapist fantasies in which he imagines himself in various guises, roles and exploits far removed from his humdrum existence. A successful film based on the story helped to propel the name of the central character into more general use.
Warm the cockles of one's heart - be very gratifying
The cockles of the heart are simply the heart itself and, metaphorically, one's deepest feelings. The word cockles is used either as a comparison of the shape of the heart with that of a cockleshell, or because the zoological name for cockle is 'cardium' - related to the Greek for heart, as in 'cardiac' - or because the Latin name for the ventricles of the heart is 'cochleae cordis' (the first word of which means snail-shells) because of their appearance. This last explanation sounds the most likely.
Warning shot
See Long shot.
Warp and woof - the tight interweaving of disparate elements
Warp and woof as a figure of speech is very old and is drawn from the weaving of cloth. The warp of a fabric is the threads running lengthwise that form the background or framework for the cloth. Warp in this sense comes from the Old English word wearp, meaning 'to cast a net', and is separate from our modern verb sense of warp meaning 'to twist out of shape'. The woof of a woven fabric is the threads running across the warp, and was originally oof, from the Old English owef, meaning 'to weave'. Oof became woof around 1540 simply because warp and woof is so much easier to say than warp and oof.
Warts and all - without any attempt to cover up (one's own) blemishes
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), leader of the Parliamentary side in the Civil War, had Puritan religious beliefs which gave him a rigid honesty. He is reputed to have said to the painter of his portrait, Sir Peter Lely, 'Remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it'.
Wash one's dirty linen in public - reveal something discreditable that should be kept private
Attributed to Napoleon in a speech on his return from Elba in 1815 after a period of exile: 'It is at home, not in public, that one washes one's dirty linen'.
Wash one's hands of - have nothing more to do with; (publicly) disown responsibility for
Accused of blasphemy by the chief priests, Christ was brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who was warned by his wife to have 'nothing to do with that just man' because of a dream she had had. The people demanded crucifixion: 'When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just man: see ye to it' (Matthew, 27: 24).
Weakest to the wall - the weakest are pushed aside, ignored, unable to survive, etc.
Together with go to the wall (be ruined), this expression is said to have originated in St Stephen's chapel in the Houses of Parliament. It was for centuries the meeting place of the House of Commons, but the only seating consisted of stone benches along the walls. When the chapel was crowded, the cry of 'the weakest [go] to the wall' was used so that the sick or elderly would be found somewhere to sit. The metaphorical meaning, considerably less charitable than the original, has been common since the 15th century.
Weapon of mass destruction
This term for a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon is older than one might believe. It actually dates from 1937, before the existence of such weapons. It was first used by the London Times of 28 December of that year, 'Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction?' The original reference is to the aerial bombing of cities, which had become a reality that year in the Spanish Civil War, as well as chemicals and other modern weaponry.
It was not until comparatively recently that the term has been brought into the public eye.
Wear one's heart on one's sleeve - be very open in showing one's feelings
From the old custom in which a young man tied to his sleeve a favour - perhaps a ribbon or handkerchief - given to him by a lady as a sign of her affection (i.e. of her heart). The expression is now used of one's own heart (i.e. feelings) on one's own sleeve.
Wearing/in sackcloth and ashes - expressing contrition
The Hebrew custom of wearing coarse and uncomfortable sackcloth and sprinkling ashes on the head, as a sign of penitence or grief or as appropriately abject attire at certain religious ceremonies, is frequently referred to in the Bible (see for example Jonah, 3: 6 and Luke, 10: 13) and is alluded to in the name of Ash Wednesday. Modern use of the expression, which became well known from scripture, is of course metaphorical.
Weasel words - evasive or intentionally misleading words, especially spoken ones
The origin, which is American, is well explained in Stewart Chaplin's short story Stained-glass Political Platform (1900), where the term made its first appearance in print: 'weasel words are words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks and leaves the shell'. The expression was popularised in 1916 in a speech by Theodore Roosevelt attacking President Wilson.
Well-heeled - rich
A 19th century Americanism, probably no more than an inversion of the earlier down at heel (slovenly, shabby, like people who do not bother or cannot afford to have the worn heels of their shoes repaired).
Welsh Rabbit - cheese on toast
Though often wrongly called Welsh Rarebit, the actual name for the dish is really rabbit. Both the dish and its name date back to the 18th century, and the name reflects the national rivalry between England and Wales. Some wag, whose name is unknown, but who was almost certainly English, christened the popular but humble dish Welsh Rabbit, much in the same nationalistic spirit as frogs were known as Dutch nightingales and condoms were called French letters. The implication, of course, was that the Welsh could not obtain or afford real rabbit and had to make do with this cheesy substitute.
...The distinguishing feature of Welsh Rabbit is that it is a joke, which begs the question of where rarebit comes from. It seems that someone, somewhere, simply didn't get the joke. Some unknown humourless grammarian must have decided that, since there clearly was no rabbit involved, rabbit must be a degenerated form of something, and determined that the missing 'proper' name must be rarebit. Why anyone would think the Welsh would tolerate rarebit over rabbit is another question, but somehow, the new name stuck. Nonetheless, thus was a very old joke immortalised.
Wet behind the ears - immature, naive
A reference to children's lack of thoroughness in sometimes not drying themselves behind the ears after washing. The expression seems to have originated in military slang, derisively applied to an incompetent young recruit or inexperienced officer who still needed his mother to check that he had dried himself properly.
Wet blanket - a less than enthusiastic person
The most likely origin of this is in the use of a blanket soaked in water for quelling the start of a fire. Someone who is unenthusiastic about an idea or proposal quells the enthusiasm of others by raising doubts about it, much as a wet blanket placed over the source of a fire will extinguish it.
What the dickens - exclamation of surprise or puzzlement
This has nothing to do with Charles Dickens, as is often assumed. Dickens actually comes from a 16th century euphemism for the Devil. It may be an altered pronunciation of devilkin, meaning related to the Devil and it was certainly in use long before Charles was born. Shakespeare's 1601 play The Merry Wives of Windsor contains the words 'I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.'
Wheel has come full circle, the - matters are back to where they started
From Shakespeare: 'The wheel is come full circle' (King Lear, V, 3, line 174). The allusion is to the wheel of Fortune, a very ancient Roman goddess much depicted in Roman art as holding either a wheel as a symbol of the turning and changing movement of life or some revolving device enabling the goddess to select random changes in human affairs. This idea was a commonplace of literature but Shakespeare seems to have been the first to introduce the notion of things coming full circle.
Wheeler-dealer - entrepreneur, usually dishonest
Someone who frequents casinos or saloons wheels and deals there, at roulette and cards, constantly chancing his luck and skill and perhaps his ability to cheat. From the original context the application is now more commonly to the businessman who likes to make deals and live by his entrepreneurial acumen. The suggestion is often that the schemes he dreams up are of dubious honesty.
Wheels within wheels - unseen or little-known workings within the controlling forces of an organisation, system, etc.; complication of influences; intricately connected events
The original image is in a vision of angels described by an Old Testament prophet: 'their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel within a wheel' (Ezekiel, 1: 16). It has been suggested that the image was suggested to Ezekiel by certain striking phenomena which are sometimes seen in the western sky after sunset over the plains of Mesopotamia (in present day Iraq), but modern applications of the image have more to do with the interconnecting parts of a piece of machinery.
When one's ship comes home - when one finally makes one's fortune
This harks back to the days when an individual's investment or livelihood might well depend on the safe return of a trading-ship from a distant port.
When the chips are down
See Chip in.
Whip round - take a collection for some informal purpose, such as buying someone a present
The original term was whipper-in, a term still used in fox hunting in Britain for an assistant huntsman who stops the hounds from straying by using his whip to drive them back into the main body of the pack. By the 1840s this had been abbreviated to just whip. The term is also applied in Parliament to the officials whose job it is to make sure that MPs attend the votes.
...This use of whip became broadened to refer to any appeal for people to take part in some activity - as we still say, to whip up interest or enthusiasm. During the latter part of the 18th century, it was common in officer's messes for those attending who wanted more wine than the official issue at dinner to contribute a set amount if they wanted to continue to imbibe - an orderly went round the table with a wine glass into which sums were placed. This collection was also called a whip.
...By extension, any call for money among members of a group was also a whip. By the 1870s, this term had turned by an obvious process into our modern whip round.
Whipping boy - person punished for another's mistakes
In some European royal families a prince was educated in the company of a commoner-boy who was whipped if the prince offended. Apart from preserving the royal hide, the boy kept for whipping was perhaps intended as an encouragement to the prince to behave well and so avoid manifestly unfair consequences, but nothing is known of the success rate of this curious educational practice.
Whistle for it/for the wind
Used as a catchphrase: 'You can whistle for it' means 'I won't give it to you' or 'You won't get it'. A person who whistles for the wind is hoping for the impossible.
...The origin is an ancient superstition or saying among seamen that the wind could be brought to a becalmed sailing-ship by whistling for it, as if the wind would blow in sympathy with a mariner's 'blowing'.
White elephant - something no longer wanted by its owner; something, often property, requiring so much expenditure and care as to be an encumbrance or give little profit
The kings of Siam, now Thailand, used to give white elephants as gifts to courtiers who fell out of favour. The white elephant was not only rare but also sacred, and so could not be put to work to recoup the cost of its upkeep. Nor could it be got rid of, because like all white elephants it remained the property of the king. The gift was symbolic rather than ruinous, but the message was clear.
White Knight - person who comes to the rescue
From stock exchange slang for a company that rescues another which faces a takeover. This in turn comes from the general idea, based on popular literature, of knights in armour being on the side of the needy. White is traditionally associated with purity. See Knight in shining armour.
White lie - a lie justified by praiseworthy motives
From the traditional association of white with purity and innocence, as in 'though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow' (Isaiah, 1: 18) which dates from the 8th century BC.
Whited sepulchre - hypocrite
In denouncing the Pharisees Christ described them as 'whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones and of all uncleanness' (Matthew, 23: 27). Because of certain Jewish notions that impurity could result from contact with a tomb, the stones covering burial pits and the rocks at the mouths of burial caves were whitewashed as a warning to passers-by.
Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? - to put great effort into accomplishing a small or unimportant matter
The phrase comes from Alexander Pope's (1688-1744) poem An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot (1735): 'Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel? Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?'. The allusion is to an ancient form of torture, 'breaking on the wheel', in which the long bones of a convict are broken with an iron bar, counterpointed with the delicacy of a butterfly.
Whole caboodle, the - the whole lot
There are two similar but slightly earlier American expressions with the same meaning - 'the whole boodle' and 'the whole kit and boodle' - in which 'boodle' seems to be from a Dutch word meaning goods or possessions. The prefix 'ca-' is found in a number of American words, usually to convey the idea of impact or sound but sometimes, as here, as just a meaningless emphasis.
Whole new ball-game - completely different situation
A term used by radio commentators on American football and baseball matches, known as ball-games in that country, when a score or succession of scores transformed the fortunes of one of the teams.
Wide of the mark - wrong
Mark is an old word for anything set up to be aimed at. The whole expression is borrowed from target-shooting.
Widow's peak - a point of hair on the forehead
The use of peak in relation to the hair dates from 1833. The expression widow's peak dates from 1849. The use of peak to refer to the beak or bill of a headdress, particularly a widow's hood of mourning to which the expression refers, dates from 1530.
Widow's weeds - black mourning clothes worn by widows
There is no connection between weeds, the useless wild plant and the mournful attire worn by widows in days gone by. Weed the plant comes from the Old English word weod, which meant 'grass, herb or weed'. Weeds, meaning 'mourning clothes', comes from a very old Germanic root meaning 'clothing', and when this weed first appeared in English around A.D. 888, it was used in the singular to mean simply 'an article of clothing'. By about 1297, weed or weeds meant a style of clothing typical of an occupation or station in life. One might speak of a priest's weed or a beggar's weeds, for instance. The phrase widow's weeds, denoting the black veils and other accoutrements of deep mourning, first appeared around 1595, and is the only use of weeds in this sense still commonly heard in English.
Wild-goose chase - hopeless or foolish quest or pursuit of something unattainable or never found
A chase in the manner of a wild goose, not a wild chase after a goose (i.e. 'wild goose-chase') which the normal pronunciation implies.
...In the 16th century, wild-goose chase was the name given to a sort of cross-country horse-race; it was so called because the participants had to follow the course of the leader, as a flight of wild geese does. The basic idea is therefore that of a pursuit over an erratic course.
Will o' the wisp - elusive person or goal
This was formerly the popular name of a phosphorescent light or flicker seen over marshes which is now supposed to have been caused by the spontaneous combustion of methane gas from decaying organic matter. The name was a personification, originally 'Will with the wisp', Will being an abbreviation of the common forename and wisp meaning a bundle of twisted straw used for burning as a torch. The expression used to be metaphorical for a guiding principle, hope, ambition, etc. that would lead one astray, but the modern meaning has more to do with elusiveness than delusion.
Willy-nilly - whether one likes it or not
The term is a contraction of the words will I, nill I (similarly will he, nill he; will ye, nill ye) and means that the business will take place whether it is with the will of the person concerned or against it. A similar expression is shilly-shally.
Win at a canter - succeed easily, without much effort
An abbreviation of 'at a Canterbury pace, rate, trot, etc.', originally horse-riding terms making jocular reference to the decorous progress of mounted pilgrims on their way to the much-visited shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. The verb canter (gallop at moderate speed) has the same origin.
Win hands down - win with little or no effort
In horse-racing a jockey who is winning comfortably rides with hands held loosely down, there being no need to use them to bring pressure on the horse.
Win one's spurs
In former days a boy of noble birth might do service as a page and squire and later be raised to the (military) rank of knight by the sovereign or some other authorised person, perhaps after good service in battle. He would be presented with a pair of gilt spurs to mark this achievement. Today to win one's spurs is to gain recognition or be raised from junior to senior status as a result of one's own efforts.
Wind of change
Now a cliché but originally a striking metaphor, principally because of the circumstances in which it was first used. It occurred in a speech by Harold Macmillan when he was the British prime minister. He was referring to the strength of African national consciousness and he introduced the phrase when actually addressing the South African parliament (1960), which at the time was rigorously committed - as it was until 1991 - to the policy of apartheid: 'The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of political consciousness is a political fact'.
...It is not known whether the phrase was coined by the person who wrote the speech (David Hunt, a diplomat) or by one of the revisers (who included Macmillan himself), or whether it was a conscious echo of the words used in 1934 by Stanley Baldwin (a prime minister himself, though not at the time he said them): 'There is a wind of nationalism and freedom blowing round the world, and blowing as strongly in Asia as elsewhere'.
Winter of discontent
A cliché ever since it was applied to the winter of 1978-9, a period of notorious disruption by strikes in Britain. It is still a newspaper favourite whenever a period of unrest coincides with winter. The original is the opening lines of Shakespeare's Richard III: 'Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York ...'. The winter here is the reign of Henry VI, the Lancastrian king who has just been murdered; the summer is the succession of the Yorkist Edward IV, whose device was a sun, during the civil wars in England, 1455-85 (the Wars of the Roses).
Wipe the slate clean
See Clean slate.
Wisdom/Judgement of Solomon
When Solomon, the third king of Israel (10th century BC), was offered a gift by God he asked for an understanding heart and thus became 'wiser than all men' (I Kings, 4: 31). Required to adjudicate between two harlots who claimed maternity of the same baby he called for a sword and ordered that the child be cut into two, with each woman to receive a half of the child, whereupon one of the women renounced her claim, showing herself to be the true mother. The judgement of Solomon is therefore a harsh but necessary choice between equally competing claims; the wisdom of Solomon is proverbial. See I Kings, chapter 3, for the whole story.
With a straight bat - very correctly, not loosely or wildly
A cricketing term: keeping the bat in a vertical position when playing certain strokes is held to be correct style.
With bated breath - in suspense, anxiously
Bate is a verb dating to the 14th century meaning to deprive or to lessen. It is an abbreviated form of abate, which has the same meaning. To wait with bated breath is to hold your breath while waiting for something to happen. Shakespeare was the first to use the expression bated breath in The Merchant of Venice (1596), I.iii.123.
With flying colours
Colours are the general name for a flag, banner or ensign of a regiment or ship, so called because the colours of these identified a particular fighting unit and were also extremely important in enabling men to keep together in some sort of organisation during the tumult of hand-to-hand battle in earlier days. Loss of colours to an enemy was a sign of disgrace if not defeat.
...This piece of military history has given rise to several popular expressions such as with flying colours (in triumph, with colours not captured by the enemy but still streaming in the wind) and nail one's colours to the mast (commit oneself firmly and openly to a course of action), as one might nail colours to a mast as a sign of defiance and to make it difficult to seize them. A pirate ship might sail under false colours, a sign of deception; conversely one's true colours showed to which side one really belonged. The modern expression in one's true colours (one's true nature or character) forgets that one fought under colours, not in them.
With knobs on - with embellishments
Although primarily a practical object a knob is often decorated, or may be merely an adornment, but in this expression knobs is scornful and implies vulgar or spurious adornment. This sense comes from the slang retort 'Same to you, with knobs on', meaning 'I wish the same to you, and much more', said in response to an insult and perhaps drawing some of its force from one of the slang meanings of knob, i.e. penis.
Within an ace of - very close to
From the game of dice, ace being the term for the side of a dice with one spot.
Wolf in sheep's clothing - somebody, occasionally something, hiding a hostile intention behind a friendly manner
The Bible has 'Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves' (Matthew, 7: 15). In one of Aesop's fables (6th century BC) a wolf puts on a sheepskin in order to trick the shepherd and is duly locked up with the sheep for the night, but before it can profit from its ruse it is killed by the shepherd, who thought he was killing a sheep for his supper. As Aesop predates St Matthew, either Aesop must take credit for the idea or, more likely, it was common among Mediterranean cultures. Its use in English, however, is more likely to be from the scriptural allusion.
Wooden horse
See Trojan horse.
Wooden spoon - booby prize
Traditionally presented to the candidate placed bottom in the mathematics degree examination at Cambridge University, perhaps in ironic contrast to the silver spoon, a customary and valuable baptismal gift from godparents to a child as a symbol of future plenty.
Wool-gathering - daydreaming; absent-mindedness
Literally, the collection of wool torn from the fleeces of sheep by bushes, etc. or as a result of sheep scratching or grooming themselves. It was an activity for poor people hoping to gather enough fragments to weave together, entailing a certain amount of haphazard rambling among hedgerows and fields by women and children. This rather random wandering has been a metaphor for dreaminess since the 16th century.
Work like a Trojan
See Trojan horse.
World is one's oyster, the - one has a chance to make one's fortune
Invented by Shakespeare and put into the mouth of Pistol, a comic character in The Merry Wives of Windsor, as a flamboyant boast (II, 2, lines 4-5): 'Why, then the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open'. He means that he will use his sword to extract money from an unwilling world, a sense removed from the modern one which is that the world is simply waiting to be opened up to provide good things.
...Pistol is also alluding to an old expression that drew a parallel between opening oysters with a dagger and keeping one's distance because of a smell. His proposed use of his sword to effect the opening - a comically cumbersome operation - implies an even greater degree of rottenness in the oyster/world. This colouring too is absent from the modern use of the expression.
Worth one's salt
It is interesting to note that the word salary is closely connected to salt. The Roman soldier's salarium, from the Latin sal for salt, was an allowance for the purchase of salt and passed into English as a word for 'pay'. Even today to be worth one's salt is to be worthy of one's pay and of respect.
Would not say boo to a goose - is very timid
Not boo as an expression of disapproval but as it is sometimes used when playing with a baby or in children's hide-and-seek games as an exclamation to surprise or frighten. The earliest printed version (1572) is 'say shoo to a goose', which makes better sense; 'shoo' is an exclamation used to drive away fowls or animals, and also a verb with the same meaning. Geese themselves are timid and easily shooed, as would be well known in days when they were much more commonly reared and eaten than they are now.
Would not touch with a barge-pole - have nothing to do with
This expression started life in the 17th century and originally alluded to tongs. In Wit Restor'd (1658) by an unknown author, there appears the line 'Without a payre of tongs no man will touch her'. In the mid-19th century tongs were still being referred to: 'I was so ragged and dirty that you wouldn't have touched me with a pair of tongs', wrote Charles Dickens in 1854 in Hard Times. The current expression is much more recent, originating from the turn of the 20th century. On a canal a barge-pole could be used either to propel a barge or to stave off collision with the bank. For either purpose it had to be long. To refuse to touch something even with a barge-pole is to keep well away from it.
Writing is on the wall, the - the warning (of approaching calamity) is plain for all to see
When Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon, held a great feast during which wine was drunk from the vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzer had removed from the temple at Jerusalem, the fingers of a man's hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall. As his own astrologer could not interpret the message he sent for Daniel, who had successfully explained Nebuchadnezzer's dream (see Feet of clay). Daniel read the message as foretelling Belshazzar's overthrow because of his opposition to the God of the Hebrews and his defilement of the temple vessels. That night the king was killed and his kingdom divided. This famous story, demonstrating God's intervention in favour of the Jews, is in Daniel, chapter 5.
Wrong side of the tracks - used of a poor or less desirable area of town
To be born on the wrong side of the tracks is definitely a disadvantage, for the area was that part of town which was deemed both socially and environmentally inferior. The expression originated in America and refers to the fact that, formerly, poor and industrial areas were often located to one side of the railroad tracks, not least because the prevailing wind would blow smoke and smog in that direction, leaving the better-off neighbourhoods unpolluted; in addition, industry needed to be close to the railroad, and so workers' housing was also established near those areas. The poorer districts of British cities are often east of the city centre for this reason, since the prevailing wind is usually west or south-west.
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