Phrases, Clichés, Expressions & Sayings
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Back handed compliment
 
Meaning: A compliment that also insults or puts down at the same time.
Example: They gave me a backhanded compliment when they said I was smart for a girl.
Origin: Back-handed is synonymous with left-handed. For example in tennis, a backhand stroke is a strike by a right-handed player from the left side of the body.

The left side of the body has always been deemed sinister. The Latin word for left is sinestra. Hence, back-handed means round-about, indirect, or devious.

In America, left handed people were once considered suspect and untrustworthy. Until the 1960's many people who were naturally left handed were encouraged as children to use their right hand for tasks and were taught to be right handed.

Seven percent of the world's population is left-handed.

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Bag lady
 
Meaning: American slang term from the 1970s describing women who roam city streets, carrying shopping bags in which they keep all their worldly possessions, and picking through trash containers to find useful items.
Example: Julia did a bag lady stint on one of the train platforms last year and almost got arrested. People thought she was the real thing.
Origin: Homeless, these women tend to sleep in doorways, subway stations, or any convenient place that affords them protection from the elements. They are seldom (if ever) beggars, and have become a symbol of independence. This expression is a shortened form of "shopping bag lady."

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Baker's dozen
 
Meaning: Thirteen - one more than a dozen.
Example:
Origin: This expression goes back to the days when bread was the staple diet of the populace. It was once common that English medieval bakers would cut corners and dupe customers by making laoves that contained more air pockets than bread. By 1266, authorities enacted a law that required bakers to sell their bread - making it illegal to sell it underweight. In order to make certain that they did not incur a heavy penalty for selling underweight, many bakers started to add an extra loaf for every dozen (giving 13 loaves to the dozen), just to make sure. This extra loaf was called the “vantage” loaf.

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Balls to the wall
 
Meaning: To push to the limit, go all out, full speed.
Example: If you study balls to the wall from now on, you just might pass your calculus class.
Origin: From fighter planes. The "balls" are knobs atop the plane's throttle control. Pushing the throttle all the way forward, to the wall of the cockpit, is to apply full throttle.

Alternative: Early railroad locomotives were powered by steam engines. Those engines typically had a mechanical governor. These governors consisted of two weighted steel balls mounted at the ends of two arms, jointed and attached to the end of a vertical shaft that was connected to the interior of the engine. The entire assembly is encased in a housing.

The shafts and the weighted balls rotate at a rate driven by the engine speed. As engine speed increases, the assembly rotates at a faster speed and centrifugal force causes the weighted balls to hinge upward on the arms. At maximum engine speed - controlled by these governors - centrifugal force causes the two weighted balls to rotate with their connecting shafts parallel to the ground and thereby nearly touching the sides (walls) of their metal housing. So, an engineer driving his steam locomotive at full throttle was going "balls to the wall". The expression came to be used commonly to describe something going full speed.

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Bandy words
 
Meaning: To argue or quarrel.
Example: Union and management bargaining teams bandied for months before settling on a multi-greed contract for NHL players.
Origin: "Bandy" originated from an Old French word "Bander", which was used in an early form of tennis and meant to "hit a ball to and fro". Later, in the early 17th century, "Bandy" became the name of an Irish team game from which hockey evolved. The ball was "bandied" back and forth between players. The crooked shape of the stick with which the game was played has produced the modern expression "bandy-legged".

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Bang for the buck
 
Meaning: Value for you money.
Example: You can buy small fries, but the supersize MacBarf burger combo gives more bang for the buck.
Origin: This phrase originates in Cold War deliberations concerning funding new weapons. For example, the U.S. Air Force habitually claimed that ballistic missiles such as ICBM's could do more damage to an enemy country for a given expenditure than a Navy aircraft carrier could.

Thus, they claimed, missiles give more "bang for the buck" than ships.

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Barefaced liar
 
Meaning: Bold, audacious, impudent, or shameless.
Example: Many boys in the neighbourhood group were brought up with no parental guidance and several were barefaced liars.
Origin: Shakespeare first recorded "barefaced" in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' as "beardless, with no hair upon the face" . By 1825, the phrase became "the barefacedness of the lie", and Harriet Beecher Stowe writes of a barefaced lie in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

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Barge in
 
Meaning: When someone rudely interrupts a situation.
Example: Moroffs Bubba & Jethro barged into their boss's office and demanded longer working hours and lower wages.
Origin: The origin goes back to the awkward steering characteristics of river barges - they often banged into other boats and objects. By the late 1800s schoolboys used barge to mean "to hustle someone". To barge in came into the language in the early 1900s.

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Barking up the wrong tree
 
Meaning: Following a dead end path, pursuing an incorrect lead or assumption.
Example: If you think those gloves will convict OJ, you are barking up the wrong tree.
Origin: This phrase comes from the USA and originates in the practice of racoon hunting. Raccoons are partly nocturnal animals and are hunted with dogs. The raccoons often take sanctuary in trees. When the dogs spot them up a tree they stand at the base and bark - occasionally, in the dark, they get the wrong tree.

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Baron of beef
 
Meaning: A large double slice of meat not separated at the backbone.
Example:
Origin: Half a Baron is called a sirloin and it from this half that Baron gets its name. Sirloin is a an anglicised version of the French "sur" (over) and "longe" (loin). By inference and humour, since a "Sir", or Knight is lower than a "Baron" then the double version was so called.

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Bat an eyelid
 
Meaning: A blink or wink.
Example:
Origin: The word 'bat' derives from the now obsolete bate in turn from the Old French "batre" meaning "to beat the wings: to flutter". To do something off your own bat means to do something on your own initiative, without help, or even without permission. Why 'bat'? This is said to be an analogy with cricket, where a batsman scores runs 'off his own bat'.

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Battling windmills
 
Meaning: Fighting pointless battles or imaginary enemies, with conviction.
Example: She wastes her efforts battling windmills, trying to get her husband to put the cap on the toothpaste, and put the seat down.
Origin: A reference to the book "Don Quixote", in which the hero delusionally thinks that windmills are dragons that he must slay. Sometimes heard as "tilting at windmills".

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Bean feast
 
Meaning: To have a good time.
Example: "Flatulism will get you everywhere," said the Bean Feast organizers.
Origin: In times past it was customary for employers to hold an annual dinner for their employees. It is thought that a regular part of the menu was bean-goose, so called from a bean shaped mark on the beak. It is also possible that the menu also contained a dish consisting mainly of beans. Whatever the menu, such dinners were often rowdy and high-spirited, just like a modern "bean feast". A shortened version of the expression also passed into common usage. This is why we have a "Beano".

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Bear garden
 
Meaning: A state of near chaos, turmoil and confusion in a room or some other similar situation (i.e. a particularly noisy and crowded pub).
Example:
Origin: This phrase comes from the time of Henry VIII when bear baiting was popular, so much so that gardens were actually set aside for the "sport". They were, of course, very noisy and rowdy places.

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Beat around the bush
 
Meaning: Getting to the point in a round about way.
Example: Iraqis would love to beat around the Bush.
Origin: This phrase is several hundred years old and comes from hunting. The beaters beat for the hunters, often around bushes; however the beaters never catch the prey... the hunters go directly to the quarry to catch the prey.

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Beat him by a long chalk
 
Meaning: A good win over an opponent.
Example: Jethro won the 3rd grade high-jump event by a long chalk - his tenth year in a row!
Origin: This phrase comes from the days before lead pencils were common. In schools, merit marks were made with chalk; the longer the mark, the more meritorious the receiver.

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Beat the rap
 
Meaning: Avoid punishment for a wrongdoing.
Example: OJ beat the criminal rap but not the civil rap.
Origin: This phrase likely originated from another expression 'take the rap' in which rap is slang for 'punishment - as in a 'rap on the knuckles'. One who takes the rap for someone else stands in for the other's punishment. Beat the rap often carries with it the connotation that the miscreant was actually guilty, though acquitted.

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Beef about something
 
Meaning: To complain or moan.
Example: Where's the beef?
Origin: This phrase allegedly comes from the London criminal underworld, well known to be full of cockney rhyming slang. The traditional shout of "stop thief!" was mocked by being replaced by "hot beef, hot beef" in criminal circles who thought that the shouters of "stop thief" were making an unnecessary fuss. The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines Beef as: "to cry beef; to give the alarm".

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Bee's knees
 
Meaning: The height of excellence - of the highest quality.
Example: Christy helped someone out at work one day and the co-worker told Christy she was the Bee's Knees.
Origin: In the 18th century the singular form of this phrase was used as a synonym for smallness (Mrs. Townley Ward - Letters, June 1797 in N. & Q. "It cannot be as big as a bee's knee."), but has since disappeared from use. The Oxford English Dictionary records the singular expression ‘bee's knee’ as meaning the type of something small or insignificant from 1797.

Alternative: "b's and e's" was shorthand for "be-alls and end-alls" and a variation/revision of the term "business."

Alternative: In the 1920s it was fashionable in the U.S. to devise nonsense terms (slang) for excellence - the snake's hips, the kipper's knickers, the cat's whiskers/pyjamas, the sardine's whiskers, the flea's eyebrows, the canary's tusks. Some of these have lasted (the bee's knees and the cat's pyjamas) and some have not. The first printed reference to it is in the April 1922 Ohio newspaper 'The Newark Advocate', titled 'What Does It Mean?': "That's what you wonder when you hear a flapper chatter in typical flapper language. 'Apple Knocker,' for instance. And 'Bees Knees.' That's flapper talk." [from the Flapper Dictionary]

Alternative: Because bees carry pollen back to their hive in sacs on their legs, this phrase refers to the concentrated goodness to be found around the bee's knee.

Alternative: Ms. Bee Jackson was a New York dancer in 1920s and is credited with introducing the dance to Broadway in February, 1924, when she appeared at the Silver Slipper nightclub. She went on to become the World Champion Charleston dancer and was quite celebrated at the time. This phrase could have referred to her very active knees.

Alternative: Cartoon from the Fort Wayne Sentinel, May 5, 1914 - "Finding Food for Mr. Skygack" for an edible use of bee's knees!

Alternative: Socialites throughout the ages would frequently hold dinner parties in which they tried to 'one-up' their peers by serving a dish more unusual, exotic, and rare than anyone else; also the suspected origins of 'delicacies' such as escargot and caviar. While no record of such a dish being served can be found, one consisting of the knees of bees (however prepared) would be the most painstakingly-prepared dish conceivable.   Thanks to Shelia Clark.

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Beggars can't be choosers
 
Meaning: Relating to other people's situations, implying 'like it or lump it'.
Example:
Origin: This expression was in use by 1546 when it appeared, in a book of proverbs compiled by John Heywood, in the form 'Folk say alway, beggars should be no choosers'. Another proverb 'If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride', approaches the situation from a different angle; but is more rarely used.

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Belch smoke from the seven orifices of the head
 
Meaning: To be furious.
Example:
Origin: Chinese origin.

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Best bib and tucker
 
Meaning: Someone dressed in their Sunday best.
Example: Bubba thought that tuckered out meant to take his shirt off.
Origin: In the 17th century bibs of all sorts were worn by adults to protect their clothes. At the same time women also wore "tuckers"; these were made of lace or muslin and were tucked into the top of low cut dresses and ended in frills at the neck. On special occasions people wore their best "bib and tucker" and, over the passage of time, it has been forgotten that only women wore tuckers.

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Bet your bottom dollar
 
Meaning: It's a sure thing; to bet everything you have.
Example:
Origin: Just as they do today, 19th century poker players would keep their betting chips (dollars) in high stacks at the table, taking from the top when betting. When a hand was so good that a player wanted to wager the entire stack, they would pick up or push the stack by the bottom chip - literally betting with their bottom dollar.

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Between a rock and a hard place
 
Meaning: To have no good alternatives.
Example: He is caught between a rock and a hard place. He can stay in a bad marriage, or pay alimony.
Origin: A reference to Odysseus' dilemma of passing between Scylla and Charybdis (figuratively a rock and a hard place). Scylla was a monster on the cliffs and Charydbis was a dangerous whirlpool. Neither fate was more attractive as both were difficult to overcome.

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Between the devil and the deep blue sea
 
Meaning: A situation where a person is caught between two difficult or dangerous obstacles.
Example:
Origin: Sailors who had “the devil to pay” often worked close to the side of the ship. A sudden swell or gust of wind could easily knock them overboard. They would then find themselves literally between the devil seam and the deep blue sea.

Related phrase: "Devil to pay".

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Beyond the pale
 
Meaning: Socially unacceptable, outside agreed standards of decency.
Example: Bush's handling of the Iraq invasion was beyond the pale for some of the American population.
Origin: The "pale" derives from Latin "palus", meaning a pole or stake. Fences (walls) are erected to define boundaries. To be "beyond the pale" implies that one is outside of defined boundaries. In the days when walled cities were common in Europe people who behaved unacceptably were sometimes exiled or banished from the community and sent to live outside the walls.

The "pale" was a fence around the English controlled part of Ireland around Dublin. Those who lived beyond the pale were outside English jurisdiction and were thought to be uncivilized.

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Big Bang Theory

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Big cheese
 
Meaning: Boss or important person.
Example: The employees waited with bated breath for the weekly diatribe session with the big cheese.
Origin: Originating around 1890, this phrase is derived from the British expression 'the cheese', meaning "the thing or the correct thing, the best." The British expression itself is a corruption of the Persian chiz (cheez) "thing" that the British brought back from India around 1840. A big cheese has nothing to do with cheese and should more properly be a "big chiz."

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Big wig
 
Meaning: Someone who is important; prominent in their field.
Example: Tony Blaire was considered a big wig in England until the English people began to question the country's involvement in the invasion of Iraq.
Origin: The phrase alludes to huge wigs that the aristocracy wore in the 17th and 18th century England and France. Such large wigs are still worn by the Lord Chancellor and, until recently, by the Speaker of the House of Commons.

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Birds of a feather flock together
 
Meaning: Individuals of like character, taste, or background tend to stay together.
Example: Managers hire people that they like, and people like people who are like them. This practice can lead to a birds of a feather culture within the team.
Origin: The idea of "like seeks like" dates from ancient Greek times, and "Birds dwell with their kind" was quoted in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus. The full saying was first recorded in 1545.

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Bite the bullet
 
Meaning: Pay a painfull price and move on.
Example: If you want to clear those 8 tickets off your driving record, you will need to bite the bullet and pay the fines.
Origin: Before the advent of ether, the first anesthetic surgery was a pretty desperate and painful affair, with the patient fully conscious and feeling the pain. These early surgeries were typically limb amputations or the removal of some object lodged into the body such as a bullet or arrowhead.

A typical amputation consisted of the "surgeon" using a saw to hack off the unwanted limb. The skin was then pulled down over the stub and sutured shut. Amazingly, some of these patients survived, but certainly the success ratio was low (poorly skilled physicians today are called "hacks").

To ease the pain the patient was given a couple of stiff belts of whiskey to numb the senses, then given a stick or lead bullet to bite down on as the surgeon went to work with knife and saw.

The bullet or stick was given to let the patient focus their energy and attention on the biting instead of the cutting and pain. It may also have helped to reduce the screaming, which probably benefited the surgeon and attendants.

Why bite on a bullet? Made of lead, bullets are malleable. Although quite strong they will actually deform somewhat when bitten hard. Hence teeth would not break as would likely happen from biting a stone for example. Bullets are also readily available in times of war, when this type of surgery is frequently called for. "Bite the bullet" may have originated in the civil war.

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Bite your tongue
 
Meaning: Be silent.
Example: When the boss says something that is less than brilliant, sometimes you need to bite your tongue.
Origin: If you bite your tongue, you cannot speak. Biting one's tongue would definitely prevent saying something that would later be regretted.

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Black ball someone
 
Meaning: A person who is not acceptable, usually as a member of a group or club.
Example:
Origin: The expression is derived from 18th century clubs. New applications for membership were examined by the ruling committee - secret votes were then cast by putting balls into a container. Red balls meant acceptance and black ones rejection. It only needed one black ball for the application to fail.

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Black Box
 
Meaning: An airplane's “black box” contains a flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR).
Example: NTSB safety investigators used a robotic arm to retrieve the black box from Alaska Airlines Flight 261.
Origin: Following any airplane accident, safety investigators immediately begin searching for the aircraft's black boxes. These recording devices, which cost between $10,000 and $15,000 each, reveal details of the events immediately preceding the accident. Although they are called “black boxes,” aviation recorders are actually painted bright orange. This distinctive colour, along with the strips of reflective tape attached to the recorders' exteriors, help investigators locate the black boxes following an accident - especially helpful when a plane lands in the water. There are two possible origins of the term “black box”. Early recorders were painted black. Instrumentation companies usually call equipment by the colour of its casing, thus black box and white box.

Alternative: The term refers to the charring that occurs in post-accident fires.

The inventor of the black box, Australian Dr. David Warren, passed away at 85 on July 19, 2010.

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Black sheep of the family
 
Meaning: Someone who doesn't conform to their family's ideals - a rogue out of step with the rest.
Example:
Origin: The expression goes back at least as far as a 1550 ballad where it states that "the blacke shepe is a perylous beast". Shepherds of those times thought that a black sheep disturbed the rest of the flock. Black wool cannot be dyed to different colours and is therefore less valuable than white wool.

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Bleed like a stuck pig
 
Meaning: To bleed heavily.
Example: Handle that straight razor carefully. If you cut yourself, you will bleed like a stuck pig.
Origin: The throat of a pig set for slaughter is cut or opened with a sharp spike or knife. Because the cut severs the jugular vein, the pig bleeds rapidly.

Related phrase: "Kick the bucket".

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Blow off some steam
 
Meaning: To enjoy oneself by relaxing normal formalities.
Example: He is a true workaholic who has misguided priorities, when he wants to blow off some steam he comes to work on Saturday wearing blue jeans.
Origin: Boilers are commonly used in steam heating systems and steam engines such as those used in a steam locomotive. The boilers contain water that is heated by burning some fuel such as oil. The heated water turns to steam, which is then sent through a system of radiators (in the case of heating systems) or harnessed by a steam engine.

The steam creates considerable pressure in the boiler. If the pressure becomes too great, there is a danger of the boiler exploding. Hence boilers are equipped with safety valves called blow off valves that open if the pressure becomes too great. "Blowing off steam" prevents explosions by relieving the pressure in a boiler by venting excess steam and pressure.

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Blow the gaff
 
Meaning: To reveal a secret.
Example:
Origin: "Gaff" is related to be a variant of the Gab described in "Gift of the gab" and has nothing to do with the use of the word to describe a spar on a sailing ship, nor does it relate to the pole of the same name, which is based on the Portuguese gafe meaning "boat-hook".

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Blow smoke up one's ass

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Blowing smoke
 
Meaning: To be boasting without being able to back it up, talking about action without intent to follow through.
Example: Do you really want to buy this car or are you just blowing smoke?
Origin: Magicians often use smoke in their performance to obscure your view and conceal a bit of trickery. A person who is "blowing smoke" is tricking you and attempting to cover it up.

Related phrase: "Smoke and mirrors".

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Blue moon
 
Meaning: Something that doesn't happen very often.
Example: Reading Microsoft user instructions once in a blue moon may be more useful than confusing to the reader.
Origin: A blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month. For a blue moon to occur, the first of the full moons must appear at or near the beginning of the month so that the second will fall within the same month (the average span between two moons is 29.5 days). July 2004 had two full moons: the first on July 2, the second on July 31 - the second full moon is called the blue moon. It's possible to have 2 blue moons in any month except February. On average, there is only one Blue Moon every 33 months. Blue Moon Dates: July 2004; May 2007; December 2009; August 2012; July 2015; January & March 2018; October 2020.

Alternative: Early issues of the Maine Farmer's Almanac described the blue moon as the third full moon in a season that has four full moons. Why would one want to identify the third full moon in a season of four full moons? The answer is complex, and has to do with the Christian ecclesiastical calendar.

Some years have an extra full moon - thirteen instead of twelve. Since the identity of the moons was important in the ecclesiastical calendar (i.e. the Paschal Moon used to be crucial for determining the date of Easter), a year with a thirteenth moon skewed the calendar, since there were names for only twelve moons. By identifying the extra (thirteenth) moon as a blue moon, the ecclesiastical calendar was able to stay on track.

Executive summary from joe-ks.com: a Blue Moon is either (A) the second full moon in a calendar month &/OR (B) the third full Moon in a season with four full moons... In any event, it's something that doesn't happen very often!

Related Phrase: Once In A Blue Moon

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Bob war

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Bob's your uncle
 
Meaning: All is fine and problem free - everything has been fixed.
Example: If Bob's your uncle, then you've got the job!
Origin: The origin goes back to the 1890s and follows the appointment of Arthur Balfour as Secretary State for Ireland. The man who gave him the job was the then Prime Minister, Robert Cecil (Lord Salisbury), who also happened to be his uncle.

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Bone up
 
Meaning: To read about a subject, usually for exam purposes.
Example: Not having attended any classes, Shawn thought that all he had to do was to bone up on his text book to ace the final exam.
Origin: The phrase is used mainly by students and goes back to one of the prime sources of pre examination last minute study - texts of literal versions of classic books produced by the firm of Bohn. Students had simply to "Bohn up".

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Boot camp
 
Meaning: A training program designed to provide an inexperienced person basic knowledge, usually military.
Example: At most restaurants, bussing tables acts as a sort of boot camp for would be waiters.
Origin: During the Spanish-American War sailors wore leggings called boots. The term "boot" came to mean a Navy (or Marine) recruit. These recruits trained in "boot" camps.

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Bootleg liquor
 
Meaning: Illegal liquor (not having tax paid for same).
Example:
Origin: In the days when horsemen wore long boots, their bootlegs were good places to hide things. The expression is first recorded in the U.S. (Nebraska) in 1889. By extension it came to mean any hidden goods, especially alcohol. 'Bootlegger' came into use shortly after 'bootleg'.

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Boot's on the other foot
 
Meaning: A reversal of circumstances.
Example: With perestroika in 1991 Russia, the boot was on the other foot as communism gave way to western capitalism.
Origin: In the 18th century there was a major change in the method of making footwear; for the first time right and left sides could be made. Before that they were the same for both feet and if a boot was uncomfortable on one foot, it could be tried on the other, often with success. A total change came about when the boot was on the other foot.

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Born with a silver spoon in your mouth
 
Meaning: Born into wealth, comfort or privilege.
Example:
Origin: At one time, it was customary for godparents to give their godchild a silver spoon at the christening. These people were usually well-off so the spoon came to represent the child's good fortune. The phrase was used by Cervantes, the Spanish writer, in the early 1600s in the book Don Quixote.

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Botch a job
 
Meaning: Repair badly.
Example: "Don't botch this job - you've only got one chance for your parachute to open."
Origin: In old England, bodgers were peasant chairmakers. They produced, by traditional handicraft methods, simple and serviceable objects. When chairmaking was transformed into high art, the bodger was correspondingly downgraded to 'bodge' or 'botch,' which came to mean an item or service of poor quality.

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Bottom of the barrel
 
Meaning: The least desirable; the dregs.
Example: The selection committee had trouble finding suitable candidates for the CEO position - they were settling for the bottom of the barrel.
Origin: This phrase refers to the sediment left by wine in a barrel, and was first used by Cicero to describe the lowest elements of Roman society.

Related Phrase: "Scrape the bottom of the barrel", meaning "to use the least desirable elements" (because there is no choice).

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Bought the farm
 
Meaning: To die.
Example: Ryan's bungee jumping experience came to an abrupt stop when he bought the farm on his first try.
Origin: It comes from WW1. When a U.S. soldier was killed in combat his family was given a "death benefit" that amounted to a enough money to buy a parcel of farm land in the mid west.

Some might consider this just compensation to the surviving family. Others might prefer a minor wound with the lesser compensation of "renting the farm".

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Box and Cox
 
Meaning: To chop and change.
Origin: In a farce by JM Morton (1811-1891) called Box and Cox, a deceitful lodging house lady called Mrs. Bouncer let a single room to a Mr Box; without telling him she also let the same room to a Mr Cox. Since one worked at night and the other during the day they never met but there was a great deal of scheming needed by Mrs. Bouncer in order to achieve this.

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Box your ears
 
Meaning: To physically beat someone.
Example: If you don't shut up, I'm going to box your ears.
Origin: According to Webster, "box" is defined as a punch or slap. Hence to "box your ears" is to slap someone upside the head.

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Brand spanking new
 
Meaning: New and unused.
Example: What you really need is a brand spanking new Porsche turbo.
Origin: Doctors have traditionally spanked babies immediately after delivery to start them crying, and breathing.

Alternative: 'Brand new' comes from the word "Brand", German for "fire" (i.e. something fresh from the forge fire) and thus absolutely new.

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Brass Monkeys
 
Meaning: The name of various people and things. In several cases, the people and things were named after, or as an allusion to, the colloquial expression.
Example: It was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.
Origin: The phrase “cold enough to freeze the balls off (or on) a brass monkey” is a colloquial expression used by English speakers. The reference to the testes (as the term balls is commonly understood to mean) of the brass monkey appears to be a 20th century variant on the expression, prefigured by a range of references to other body parts, especially the nose and tail.

Alternative: It was necessary to keep a good supply of cannon balls near the cannon on old war ships. But how to prevent them from rolling about the deck was the problem. The storage method devised was to stack them as a square based pyramid, with one ball on top, resting on four, resting on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem - how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding/rolling from under the others. The solution was a metal plate with 16 round indentations, called, for reasons unknown, a Monkey. But if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make them of brass - hence, Brass Monkeys. Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. And all this time, folks thought that was just a vulgar expression...

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Break a leg
 
Meaning: A wish of good luck, do well - a popular wish of luck for theater performers.
Example: Break a leg in your game today.
Origin: "Break a leg" is sourced in superstition. It is a wish of good luck, but the words wish just the opposite. It was once common for people to believe in Sprites. Sprites are actually spirits or ghosts that were believed to enjoy wreaking havoc and causing trouble. If the Sprites heard you ask for something, they were reputed to try to make the opposite happen. Telling someone to "break a leg" is an attempt to outsmart the Sprites and in fact make something good happen. Sort of a medieval reverse psychology.

Alternative: The origin of the phrase “Break a Leg” came from the theater, as a wish of a good performance. The curtains would be lowered to signal the end of the show - this was the opportunity for the audience to clap. If the show was really good, the audience would want to see the actors again. This would result in the curtains being raised and lowered many times. The round wood pieces used in the bottom of the curtain were called “Legs” Hence if you performed well enough, you could “Break a Leg”.   Thanks to Ken Friedkin.

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Brew tea from dirt under another's fingernails
 
Meaning: To learn a bitter lesson.
Example:
Origin: Japanese origin.

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Brown nosing
 
Meaning: To be excessively attentive and overly nice in an attempt to ingratiate oneself with a superior.
Example: He got the promotion by driving his boss to the airport, running errands, and general brown nosing.
Origin: The term "Brown nosing" is a more highly evolved and humorous way of saying "kissing ass" or "butt kissing". Suitable for use in polite company. Someone literally kissing ass could potentially get a "brown" nose.

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Brownie points
 
Meaning: To gain approval from another, usually a superior.
Example: Bringing home flowers is a good way to win brownie points with the wife.
Origin: Browine is a house spirit in Scottish superstition. In England he is called Robin Goodfellow. His favorite abodes are farms, and at night he is said to busy himself doing little jobs for the family over which he presides. Although he was never seen, families often left offerings to show their thanks.

Brownies is club for young girls, not yet old enough to be Girl Scouts or Girl Guides in England. Brownies are awarded bonus points for good behavior and achievements.

Alternative: Also refers to the brownish coloration of the point of one's nose when they engage in 'brown nosing'.   Thanks to Shelia Clark.

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Bull in a china shop
 
Meaning: A person who is very careless in the way that they move or behave.
Example:
Origin: Although the expression in its current form came first from Frederick Marryat (1834) the idea had been around for a long time before that - but not as we know it today. James Boswell, in 1769 wrote that the “delicate and polite” Mr. Berrenger had described Dr. Johnson's behaviour in genteel company as being like that of “an ox in a china shop.” Sir Walter Scott retained the action but changed the animal in The Fortunes of Nigel (1822): A person who had a general acquaintance with all the flaws and specks in the shields of the proud, the pretending and the nouveaux riches, must have the same scope for amusement as a monkey in a china shop. Just over a decade later, Marryat's novel Jacob Faithful (1834) brought the image into line: Whatever it is that smashes, Mrs. T always swears it was the most valuable thing in the room. I'm like a bull in a china shop.
In 1936 New York, bandleader Fred Waring and actor Paul Douglas had a bet, which Waring lost. His penalty for losing the bet was to lead a full-grown bull through a real china shop and pay for any damage the bull might cause. In the event, the bull sauntered elegantly through the shop without damaging a single piece. Ironically, Waring was so nervous that he knocked over a table full of valuable ornaments. Thanks to Max Cryer.

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Burn the candle at both ends
 
Meaning: To waste material wealth.
Example: Roger worked at his job so hard he seemed to be burning the candle at both ends to make ends meet.
Origin: This phrase goes back to the 17th Century in English and is much older (as it was translated then from the French Bruloient la chandelle par les deux bouts. Originally the expression meant to waste material wealth - to use the candel wastefully. Then it took on its more common modern meaning of wasting one's strength, as when someone goes from his day job to one he holds at night, or works for a worthy cause every moment of his spare time (i.e. joe-ks.com!), or even does too much partying after work.
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light! - Edna St. Vincent Millay, "First Fig" (1920)

Alternative: A historical novel, set in pre-electricity times, referred to a person working hard, burning the candle at both ends of the day. Meaning obviously up before dawn and to bed after sunset.  Thanks to Roger Brown.

Alternative: Before reliable clocks were common, duty shifts were measured by the steady and marked progression of burning candles; when the candle was completely consumed, the shift was over. When a person worked two full shifts back-to-back, they were said to have turned the candle over and burned it from the other end; in essence, performing twice the work expected.   Thanks to Shelia Clark.

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Bury the hatchet
 
Meaning: Make peace with an enemy.
Example:
Origin: Some Native American tribes declared peace by literally burying a tomahawk in the ground.

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Bust your balls
 
Meaning: To harass with the intent to break one's spirit.
Example: When I ask you if you settled that dispute with the IRS, I am not just trying to bust your balls. I am trying to help.
Origin: There is a way to castrate a calf, instead of cutting off the testicles you break them. To "bust your balls" is to turn them from a bull into a steer. Properly directed harassment can have a similar effect on humans.

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Busting your chops
 
Meaning: To say things intended to harass.
Example: Don't get mad, I am just busting your chops.
Origin: At the turn of the century, wearing very long sideburns - called mutton chops or lamb chops - was en vogue. Lamb chop side burns also made a comeback in the late 1960s. A bust in the chops was to get hit in the face. Since Mutton Chops are no longer considered high fashion, the term has come to be figurative rather than literal.

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Butt of a joe-k
 
Meaning: The person who comes out ridiculed when a story is told.
Example: Morons and moroffs bare the butts of joe-ks @ joe-ks.com.
Origin: The butt of a joe-k is the person who comes out ridiculed when a story is told (i.e. the target of the joe-k), thereby using the word in the same sense as rifle or archery Butts.

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Buy a pig in a poke
 
Meaning: Buying something sight unseen.
Example:
Origin: The poke was a small bag and the pig was a small pig. As related in Thomas Tusser's 'Five Hundredth Good Pointes of Husbandrie' (1580), the game was to put a cat in the poke and try to palm it off in the market as a pig, persuading the buyer that it would be best not to open the poke because the pig might get away.

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By George
 
Meaning: An expression used as an oath or to express surprise.
Example:
Origin: "By George" is the modern version of the old battle cry of English soldiers, most well known in Shakespeare's Henry V where the King shouts: "for Harry, England and St George!"

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By hook or by crook
 
Meaning: To accomplish something by whatever means necessary; in one way or another; by fair means or foul.
Example: Don't worry, by hook or by crook we will get to the airport on time.
Origin: Curiously Hook and Crook mean essentially the same thing.

Hook is a curved or bent device for catching, holding, or pulling. Something intended to attract and ensnare. Crook is an implement having a bent or hooked form. Hence the "hook" is used to grab whatever it is you are trying to get, "crook" is just another way of saying hook.

I am reminded of "beg, borrow, and steal" which means the same thing. Note the "steal". "Crook" is also a thief. Hence "by hook or by crook" also impies you are willing to resort to theft.

Alternative: Relating to old forest laws of England, the sole right of common people to enter the forests without permission was for the removal of dead wood from the ground or dead branches of the trees, in other words, as could be brought down by the use of the reaper's hook or a shepherd's crook. Thanks to Katie Cutie.

Alternative: John Wycliffe in 1380 was writing his criticisms of the Catholic Church and not, like other scholars, in Latin. Wycliffe wanted his comments to be available to everyone: They sillen sacramentis... and compellen men to bie alle this with hok or crok (They sell sacraments and compel men to buy all this with hook or crook). Thanks to Max Cryer.

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By the short hairs
 
Meaning: To have control over someone, an indisputable advantage.
Example: Canada Revenue definitely has you by the short hairs, you must pay your taxes.
Origin: The short hairs are, you guessed it - pubic hairs. Anyone having a good grip on your short hairs definitely has your attention.


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22-Aug-2017